I didn’t have much to do with the Lebanese boys at school until about 1958 when I was 12.
I was riding on my bicycle down Raleigh Street in Yeoville. My favourite sport was, just as I was passing the Post Office, to wedge my back tyre into the tramlines. When it was in the groove, I would speed up, and then wedge my front tyre into the same line. This meant I had to go faster if I needed to keep balance.
The Duckies used to loll about outside the Apollo Café, which was opposite the municipal swimming pool.
We called them Duckies, short for Ducktails. So called because of the sideburns, and long forelock they would pull forward with a comb. It stayed there. It had to with all the Brylcreem smeared on it. ”A little dab’ll do ya” went the Springbok Radio ad. The hair swept straight out over their forehead, back and into a little curl up the back – just like a duck’s tail.
Duckie haute couture also included white socks and black winkle-picker shoes. Buffed up with Nugget Shoe Polish. “When here’s a shine on your shoes, there’s a melody in your heart. What a wonderful way to start the day.”
They also worshipped Jimmy Dean. “Rebel without a Cause” was the cause celebre of 1956, and we only watched the scenes with James Dean in when we sat through the long boring hours of “Giant” with Elizabeth Taylor, who, in the film, grew old with lots of silver dust in her hair, and nothing else. The pseudo-Western musical theme by Dimitri Tiomkin dominated the radio, for a short while, until it was ousted by Paul Anka singing “Diana”.
Duckies also had fun swirling bicycle chains in the hands, like drum majorettes and their long drum sticks.
This day, one of them let his chain fly through my spokes.
My back wheel jammed and I fell onto the road, tearing my blazer arm and scraping my elbow. As they said at the time, “Arse over tea-kettle”. The fork of the bike was buckled. As I limped away, I heard them cackling, like old witches in the play the older guys had told us about.
I bent the fork of the bike straight and “wobbling” rode back to school. The Lebs were leaning against the stone gateposts.
“Nah. Duckies got me.”
I told them.
Morrie got down on his haunches in front of me. “Listen Kiddo, you don’t have to do this you know.”
I didn’t realise it then, but they all sounded like Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney or Edward G Robinson. There sort of films were run and rerun in Fietas and Sophiatown. This was the fifties when if you hung out with some of the coloured guys, you would go to the movies at the Star Cinema in Fietas. We didn’t call the suburbs Vrededorp or Pageview. You didn’t smoke tobacco in the back row there.
Years later I tried to found out where the name “Fietas” came from. Never could.
Morrie unfurled untold stories of the outside world. I would pay them a tickey a week, and they would see I wouldn’t be hurt, or nothing.
Seemed sensible, although where I would find a tickey a week was beyond me. When we went decimal in 1960, a tickey would become 2½ cents. Nothing today, but a rich boy’s weekly pocket money then.
“Where do I get a tickey a week? I don’t even get pocket money.”
“Lexies are 1 shilling and a penny for 10. That means three ciggies will be worth a tickey.”
Where do I get ciggies?”
“From the shop.”
If I haven’t got pocket money, how do I buy your ciggies?”
They then told me how I could get ciggies in bulk from the back of the Tobacconist shop “after hours”. And the currency was flexible – you could trade anything. That’s where I learned economic re-distribution.
I would get the ciggies, bury them in a tin the garden, and dig it up once a week to retrieve three to pay my protection money.
The next day I was little nervous of cycling up past the Apollo café. The Lebs had told me not to worry, but then the Chinese had always warned me never to trust a Leb.
That day I learned that when you pay protection money, you trust your protector. When someone rubbishes your protector, you don’t believe them.
The Duckies were still there. But this time there were no bicycle chains. Cigarettes dripping out of their lips, they looked sullen, with their arms in slings, and heads bandaged.
No chain this time. They didn’t even see me. Maybe they didn’t know why they had been beaten up.
You don’t ask questions. Especially when you are being protected. You pay. You have no trouble. You don’t ask questions, because you didn’t see anything. You learned quickly to watch, but never to see.
There was honour on the streets. A guy’s hand was his bond. Not like our parents. They had to have contracts and things. That tickey was the lowest insurance premium I ever paid.