Lunch #27: Chicken Schnitzel with The Starman at Pollsmoor Prison
Despite the fact that I am officially retired (for as long as I can make the money last) I do actually, occasionally, sort of, kind of do a little bit of work.
It’s all the fault of my famous author former colleague, The Man Who Won’t Stop Writing Books. TMWWSWB has written about 53 already, but somehow that’s not enough for him, even though JM Coetzee himself wrote the blurb for the back cover of his last but one book, using words like ‘magnificent’, if I recall correctly.
If JM Coetzee called something I’d written ‘magnificent’, I’d never write another word again for fear of cocking it all up. But nooooo, TMWWSWB is out there right now launching his next book and busy writing at least three more. And he’s roped me into writing one of them with him.
Unusually for a book, this one already has a publisher, and a contract, and a deadline, and we are even going to be paid some money for it (which TMWWSWB assures me is a situation in the book world somewhat rarer than dragons returning to Westeros). Which means I actually, really have to do this work.
The writing part is admittedly difficult. Since it can take me years to write a random blog post, you can imagine how impressively I am procrastinating over writing something more substantial. But the research part is pretty darned cool, because it involves snooping around Cape Town finding awesome secret things and places. So far I’ve found extinct trees, and hidden caves, and ghosts, and hippos, and pickled Barons. But I hadn’t had any lunches, because restaurants aren’t really allowed in the book.
However, TMWWSWB and I thought we’d make an exception for Pollsmoor Prison, which, as a few adventurous Capetonians (such as The Man Who Catches Many Planes) know, has a restaurant that’s open to the public. It’s staffed almost entirely by prisoners who are almost due for release, as part of a rehabilitation program.
I thought it would be amusing to be driven to Pollsmoor in a Porsche, so I invited The Starman to lunch.
The Starman has been previously alluded to in this blog as the world-famous artist who taught me Photoshop and as one of two ex-boyfriends who still desire the dubious pleasure of my company. He therefore needs no further introduction. Except that I can’t resist telling you that, for about a year, when he was still a struggling artist, he had blue hair and wore blue Crocs. (Please note, this was AFTER I dated him.)
As a world-famous artist, The Starman now wears Campers and drives a Boxster convertible, which does interesting things to his hair when the top is down.
On our way to Pollsmoor, we discussed the matter of his pseudonym.
“I was thinking Porscheman,” I said. “The guy I dated before you used to call you GTI-boy, but you don’t drive a GTI anymore and you’re too old to be a boy.” (I am seldom accused of flattery.)
“That’s gross,” said The Starman.
“What about The Dotman?” I said, referring to his peculiar painting style.
“Ugh,” said The Starman, revving through a tight corner and making me shut up very fast.
The entrance of Pollsmoor Prison looks exactly the way you’d expect a maximum security prison entrance to look: High walls, razor wire, tyre puncturing spikes, and lots of guards in brown.
“Um, we’re going to the restaurant?” said The Starman doubtfully.
Even though I’d been there before, I wasn’t entirely sure I’d got it right. But the guard gave us a friendly smile and waved us through. The Starman inched over the retracted spikes and followed the directions the guard had given us to the Pollsmoor Recreation Centre, going very slowly so that he could gawp at the size of the place. (Like the Tardis, it’s bigger on the inside.)
The restaurant featured atmospheric fluorescent strip lighting, a large number of guards in brown waiting for their takeaways, and plenty of empty tables. A smiling waiter in an apron and inmate’s overalls (fashionably tucked into his socks) brought us a menu.
“What do you recommend?” I asked him.
“The schnitzel,” came his prompt reply. So we ordered two.
It took a while for our food to arrive, so The Starman decided this was the appropriate occasion to tell me all about his plan to rob a bank. According to him, it would take just six months of part-time tunnelling and hopping in and out of man-holes on Long Street.
“Err, that sounds like a lot of hard work,” I said, glancing nervously at the gaggle of guards. “And, anyway, I’m retired, and you don’t need the money.”
Fortunately, our schnitzels were served before The Starman could convince me to play Dortmunder to his Kelp. They were a worthy distraction: huge and golden, covered in a creamy cheese sauce, and accompanied by fries and salad garnish. If JM Coetzee had been there, I feel sure he would have pronounced them ‘magnificent’ too.
We polished them off and went to the front counter to pay. It was then that I realised that, as usual, I hadn’t brought any cash.
“Err, do you take credit card?” I asked the guard, looking around uneasily for a card machine.
“No, sorry ma’am. Just cash.”
“Hahah,” I said to The Starman. “I know I invited you to lunch, but I’ll pay you back later. You DO have cash, don’t you?”
“Ummm, I think so. Let me just check…”
“Yeah, no, I don’t. Sorry.”
“Hahahah,” I said to the guard. “Is there an ATM anywhere nearby?”
“Yes, just up the road at the shopping centre, ma’am.”
“Err, would you mind going and drawing some cash?” I asked The Starman. “I’ll just stay here in the mean time.”
“Sure,” said The Starman.
“You WILL come back for me, right?”
“Sure,” he said again, winking.
But he was gone.
“Hahah,” I said to the guard, simpering inanely. “I don’t suppose I could interview the restaurant manager while I wait?”
The guard obligingly went to fetch him.
“If you come back for me, I’ll call you anything you like,” I whatsapped The Starman furtively. There was no answer.
The restaurant supervisor, a lovely CO1 called Mr Philander, kindly came and chatted to me, while fielding a ridiculous order from the finance department for 14 hot meals to be delivered in five minutes’ time.
He explained his establishment’s passion for producing quality, fresh food at very affordable prices, and said that, because they want the food to be good, they don’t rush things.
“We want people to come back,” he told me. I assured him that I would come back.
If, in fact, I ever managed to leave.
But The Starman did return, grinning.
“I just got whistled at by about 20 women in blue,” he said, looking pleased with himself.
“Those would be the female prisoners,” said Mr Philander. Apparently the Porsche had been a good idea after all.
The Starman paid for our meals with cash that he had presumably not stolen from the bank up the road. You’re not allowed to tip, so we gave our waiter a big thumbs up instead.
As we drove slowly back out of the prison, The Starman pointed at two of the street signs: Procyon and Castor. (Yes, Pollsmoor has enough streets to need signs for them.)
“Notice the street names?” he said.
“What about them?” I said.
“Well, what are they?” he said.
“Err, moons of Jupiter?” I guessed. The Starman has always had a thing about space, and he’s currently studying some complicated space course at UCT, just for fun.
“No,” he said, pointing at another two: Rigel and Aldebaran. “Try again.”
“Ahah!” I said triumphantly. “Craters on the moon!”
“Okay, this next one will make it easy, although it’s not technically the same thing.”
“Ooooh right. Stars. Well, at least I knew it was something astronomical,” I said, feeling very much like Bridget Jones trying to locate Germany.
“Yes, but why do you think they’ve named the streets after stars?” he continued, while I harrumphed to myself.
“I dunno. Why?”
“Well, what do you do when you look at the stars?”
“No, you look up.”
“Yes, and?” I still didn’t see what he was getting at.
“Well, when you look up, that gives you hope, doesn’t it?”
“U-huh.” Someone was clearly feeling profound after their schnitzel.
“So have you decided what you want me to call you yet?” I asked, returning to more earthly matters.
And I think we all know the answer to that.
In case you’re wondering, I did think fairly long and hard about mentioning the doubtful conditions at Pollsmoor Prison, the Numbers Gangs situation, and the work being done to rehabilitate prisoners there. I even read several verses of Oscar Wilde’s immensely long and depressing poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”, with the linesthat little tent of blue Which prisoners call the sky
which Nelson Mandela wrote he’d seen the truth of at Pollsmoor. But then I decided that serious issues have as much place in this blog as decent astronomical knowledge and good food photography.