2nd Avenue in Blue Hill in Cape Town


canneryrowThe “Cannery Row Assignment” is a legendary writing exercise in Mr. Reed’s Advanced Composition and World Literature (Senior English) class. Here’s the prompt:

“After a careful examination of the opening pages of Cannery Row, choose a place you know well and describe it using the opening of the novel as a model. You should try for a sentence-by-sentence parallel to Steinbeck’s style. For example, when he writes, “Cannery Row in Monterey in California” you could write “Northwood School in Lake Placid in New York.” The idea is to carefully mimic Steinbeck. Find similar characters in your place to those Steinbeck mentions in Cannery Row.”

Every year he gets some outstanding work and one of the best pieces is published in The Mirror. This year, we loved senior Alex van Schalkwyk’s response, an intimate look at his hometown of Cape Town, South Africa.

2nd Avenue in Blue Hill in Cape Town is a novel, a war, a wreck, a stench, a prison, a playground, a reflection, a home. Lavender Hill is the old and dirty, glass and tin and plastic and broken concrete, cracked road and bottle caps and soggy cigarettes, crates of beer bottles with chipped edges, corner stores, game shops, and drug labs, and small busy markets, and burger stands and portable toilets. Its people are, as the boy exclaims, “gangsters, rapists, thieves and bastards,” for whom he meant everyone. Had the boy looked through a different lens he might have said “Mothers and fathers and teachers and honest people,” and would have meant the same thing.

lavender hill

Lavender Hill in Cape Town, South Africa.

In the afternoon when the merchants give their orders, the drug dealers expand rapidly to street corners while whistling. Dirty hands drop off bags 10 meters away from where regular customers secretly pick them up. The process is strategically chosen, for if they were passed from hand to hand the bags, at least the ones sold to regular customers, would appear more obviously. Then gangsters’ whistles screech and all over town teenagers and children run home to safety. Then the brave make the corrupt thieves weary: police officers, vigilante, neighborhood watch who come disperse into the streets.

Then from town pour prostitutes and tramps and drug addicts, men, and women in ragged t-shirts and torn pants. They come running to steal and buy and sell the drugs. The whole street cries and grumbles and coughs and shakes while the bullets of their guns race out of chambers and the chambers empty as more bullets are released. The guns cry and grumble and cough until the last enemy is grazed and wounded and shattered and killed and then the whistles screech again and the dirty, vile, putrid prostitutes and tramps and drug addicts, men and women, stumble out and drag over the bridge into the town and 2nd Avenue becomes itself again – peaceful and safe. Its normal life returns. The young who hid away in fear in their small homes come out to play in the polluted playground in the common park. The boys from Cozy Corner come out for a bit of sun if there is any. The professor walks from the state university and crosses the street to Blue Bottles Pub for a few drinks. Chris the handyman scans like an eagle through his chaotic garage for a screw or a nail that he can use to put up a window. Then the sun starts to disappear and the street-lights turn on in front of Cozy Corner – the bulb which makes beams of luminous light in 2nd Avenue. Students arrive at the state university to see Professor, and he walks across the street for a few more drinks.

How can the novel and war and the wreck – the stench, the prison, the playground, and the reflection – be set down alive? When you catch insects there are certain spiders that are so alert that they are almost impossible to catch, for they scatter and spring at the sight of movement. You must let them creep and crawl of their own into your trap. And maybe that could be the way to write this novel – to open each passage by letting words crawl in by themselves.

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