Would you take advice on success from a homeless man?

Themba Jay

Part of the reason I pose this question is because of our culture of respecting and at other times, pandering unnecessarily to what looks good on the surface. We are told to shy away from people who attempt to tell us about success or building something of value whereas they’re failures and have never succeeded at building anything.

But life isn’t that simple and clearcut. You can find millionaires who can’t help you navigate the treacherous ways of life. And you can bump into a mentally disturbed man roaming the streets, rummaging through dirt bins; while you don’t know him, then have him tell you precisely what you need to do to cut through the obstacles you face in your life.

Of course, this isn’t to declare that we should follow any piece of advice we get from anyone we meet. But it is to say that if we are to win some battles, we need to be mindful of factors that are not in the rule book. Be open-minded.

And to some degree, this a plea for us to look at, interact with and respect other people not for how much money or power they have, but be considerate toward them because of a simple reason. That they’re human beings (and they share the same oxygen as us).

At other times, we occupy the same taxi rank even.

So, on a rainy morning in October of 2016 in Johannesburg CBD, I am standing at Noord Taxi Rank, minding my own business (bopping my head to Jay-Z’s The Black Album. I love this album!), when a man, clearly drunk out of his senses, walks up to me. I realise that I’ve never seen him before. Then he starts making conversation with me about this and that. He tells me about him being homeless for five years now, his daily struggles just to get food and other stuff. Nothing about how he got to where he is, and then asks about my life, albeit indirectly.

If it were you, how might you feel about this exchange? (Say, you’re running late to an important meeting at work and now you have to make pretend with this filthy man.) Would you dismiss him and continue on your way, or, would you be respectful of his time?

So, I tell this guy, who has introduced himself as Jeff, some nonessential stuff about my life. That I am trying to survive a few difficult circumstances in my life, my obsession with stories, Writing and public speaking and are chasing success in those pursuits. He then talks about his life and pursuit of happiness. He does it carefully though, so as not to reveal too much. All the while he leans in and listens attentively when it’s my turn to speak.

Just as when I start to relax into our conversation, a strong stench assails my nostrils. I then realise for the first time that he is covered in grime. To be polite, I don’t show that he smells. Half of his feet — all ten toes! — are exposed through his torn Nike shoes. “Ntwana, I know. Askies boy.” Before I could even make sense of what he’s talking about, he continues his thought, “I know that I smell horrible and I must be… cancelling out your cologne. It smells great, its finish reminds me of Tom Ford Noir.” He declares as he prepares a joint of marijuana.

At this point I am shuffling about uncomfortably, worried about what other people in the long queues think of me and this man. As I slowly look their way I find them staring at us with eyes filled with negative judgment and thoughts. Jeff notices this.

After about four minutes of what seems to be senseless chatter, Jeff has picked up crucial information about me by piecing together what I’ve said and what I’ve chosen to omit. Quite a perceptive guy he is and beyond the grime and smelly clothes, quite an intelligent guy, too.

“Look man, before I leave you to get in the cab to work, allow me to say this: success or happiness for that matter, often isn’t want we make it out to be. So what do we do? We focus on dumb shit. And because we prioritise it, we see it as important. A case in point is the amount of time we waste worrying about what others think of us. Think about it, we potentially spend half of our lives worrying about that stuff. It’s sad. And because this has been spoken about at length, it’s become cliché. So let me bring the point home for you: when I started rolling my joint moments ago, you fidgeted and then looked at the people around us, reading their faces to guage their thoughts. You were uncomfortable.”

I notice something else now, this guy is eloquent.
He has a scintillating command of language.

“Do I care that they’re looking at me disapprovingly? First, for the rags I am wearing, my toes peeking out of my shoes, the smell and then for the marijuana. No. So, here’s a punchline: I am freer than you are!” I’ve even stopped listening to music and are attentive now — getting to Sandton in the next hour has fallen down the pecking order. He proceeds, “Immaterial of your iPhone, cologne and beautiful clothes and perhaps next year you’ll get yourself a car. But, where does it stop? When is it enough? Even more importantly, do these things matter as much as we think they do?”

He pulls and inhales from the white roll of paper in his hand and then sends rings of smoke flying in the air. Nonchalant all the while.

“Let’s talk brielfy about losing and failure. I learnt something profound from a guy called Gary Vaynerchuk, was watching his video on YouTube three weeks ago and he says that a lot of people worry not so much about losing but about what other people think about their losses. And it’s true. I also know you want a few puffs from what I’m smoking, you just won’t allow yourself the pleasure because someone else is watching you. It’s the same thing. And this is some good stuff by the way.”

He smokes away. A little relaxed now knowing he has my full attention.

“You seem like a driven young person, talented. Smart, kind and I bet the world will be such a better place if you become yourself, fully.” He pauses, so as to let the words sink in.

“You actually remind me of myself in some ways, you know. Anyway, start thinking about yourself when you’re 80 years old. Will the things you’re chasing now prove to be of value then? Or will you regret wasting time on them? I suggest you get away from yourself a little, pull yourself away from the rat race and figure out what matters to you. When you know yourself well it is easier to figure out that you don’t need a big house, a boat and expensive watches, parties every other weekend. Your hustle and work, your Writing and Public Speaking work, might be what you need to be happy. Even when you become friends with esteemed people, don’t be easily persuaded to fit in and look the part of a multi millionaire that you’ll become. Dictate your own cool”

I am leaning into Jeff now.
The smell? What smell?

“I suppose in not so many words, what I am really talking about is authenticity and the need to audit yourself and then using every minute you are granted to live living in that state.”

This guy mentioned being a millionaire. What does he know?
I have a conversation with myself while looking at him.

He notices that and abruptly says, “So, two things you need to remember: audit yourself and find yourself, that way you find your happiness. And I cannot stress enough how crucial it is. Happiness drives everything. Audit yourself. Happiness.” The last words he says faintly as if he’s telling them to himself; as if he desperately wants to be convinced of them. He has a far off and dreamy look in his eyes, it’s as if he’s imagining how his life could have turned out had he known what he knows now. What he is telling me.

Why is this guy telling me all this?
I am dumbfounded.

I am then quickly woken up from my stupor when Jeffrey taps me on the shoulder to signal his departure. “It’s been a great ten minutes talking to you kid… uhm, what is your name again, funny I didn’t ask when I told you mine. Anyway, it’s not a problem, we might meet again. I haven’t had breakfast yet, so let me go fend for something to eat.” And just like that, he dashes off in between the numerous taxi buses lining up to transport people to work.

Breakfast? Oh, shit, I should have at least given him some cash for food. Bhut’ Jeff! I yell out, look over the taxis, he’s nowhere to be seen. I am now oblivious to fellow passengers and passers by. My mind is on overdrive trying to make sense of the conversation I’ve had with this mysterious person. In the midst of that, I remember the job interview I need to rush to and my mind clears.

“Uyakuphi wendoda yama headphones? Sandton? Benmore? Kushoda umuntu oyedwa la!” The queue marshall’s booming voice pierces through my ears and I recall I am at Noord Taxi Rank.

Yebo, Sandton. I reply.

He says back, “Musa ukumangala ke. Woza sambe sharmer boy — bakulindile abelungu. Futhi i’traffic ixakile lapha ku M1 mfwethu.”

I jump into the last seat available and he slams the door shut. I am still not sure what has just happened.

I turn to my right and see a young woman, gently tap her shoulder. “Hello. It’s been a while since I took a taxi to Sandton; how much is the fare?” I beam at her expectedly. She returns the smile, exposing her perfect teeth. She is strikingly beautiful. “Hi. The fare’s R12.50.”

Ok. Thanks. I say.

I slip on my headphones and play 99 Problems.

My mind swells with thoughts…

I do have 99 problems but I wish a mysterious man wasn’t one. However, in the way it happened, this must be a good thing, right? A message of sorts. Okay, let me not question it and rather shift to nailing this job interview lined up.