Authors: Trevor Noah
I saw my father less and less. Not long after, he moved down to Cape Town.
Abel wanted a traditional marriage with a traditional wife. For a long time I wondered why he ever married a woman like my mom in the first place, as she was the opposite of that in every way. If he wanted a woman to bow to him, there were plenty of girls back in Tzaneen being raised solely for that purpose. The way my mother always explained it, the traditional man wants a woman to be subservient, but he never falls in love with subservient women. He’s attracted to independent women. “He’s like an exotic bird collector,” she said. “He only wants a woman who is free because his dream is to put her in a cage.”
When we first met Abel, he smoked a lot of weed. He drank, too, but it was mostly weed. Looking back, I almost miss his pothead days because the weed mellowed him out. He’d smoke, chill, watch TV, and fall asleep. I think subconsciously it was something he knew he needed to do to take the edge off his anger. He stopped smoking after he and my mom got married. She made him stop for religious reasons—the body is a temple and so on. But what none of us saw coming was that when he stopped smoking weed he just replaced it with alcohol. He started drinking more and more. He never came home from work sober. An average day was a six-pack of beer after work. Weeknights he’d have a buzz on. Some Fridays and Saturdays he just didn’t come home.
When Abel drank, his eyes would go red, bloodshot. That was the clue I learned to read. I always thought of Abel as a cobra: calm, perfectly still, then explosive. There was no ranting and raving, no clenched fists. He’d be very quiet, and then out of nowhere the violence would come. The eyes were my only clue to stay away. His eyes were everything. They were the eyes of the Devil.
Late one night we woke up to a house filled with smoke. Abel hadn’t come home by the time we’d gone to bed, and I’d fallen asleep in my mother’s room with her and Andrew, who was still a baby. I jerked awake to her shaking me and screaming.
There was smoke everywhere. We thought the house was burning down.
My mom ran down the hallway to the kitchen, where she discovered the kitchen on fire. Abel had driven home drunk, blind drunk, drunker than we’d ever seen him before. He’d been hungry, tried to heat up some food on the stove, and passed out on the couch while it was cooking. The pot had burned itself out and burned up the kitchen wall behind the stove, and smoke was billowing everywhere. She turned off the stove and opened the doors and the windows to try to air the place out. Then she went over to the couch and woke him up and started berating him for nearly burning the house down. He was too drunk to care.
She came back into the bedroom, picked up the phone, and called my grandmother. She started going on and on about Abel and his drinking. “This man, he’s going to kill us one day. He almost burnt the house down…”
Abel walked into the bedroom, very calm, very quiet. His eyes were blood red, his eyelids heavy. He put his finger on the cradle and hung up the call. My mom lost it.
“How dare you! Don’t you hang up my phone call! What do you think you’re doing?!”
“You don’t tell people what’s happening in this house,” he said.
“Oh, please! You’re worried about what the world is thinking? Worry about this world! Worry about what your family is thinking!”
Abel towered over my mother. He didn’t raise his voice, didn’t get angry.
“Mbuyi,” he said softly, “you don’t respect me.”
“Respect?! You almost burned down our house. Respect? Oh, please! Earn your respect! You want me to respect you as a man, then act like a man! Drinking your money in the streets, and where are your child’s diapers?! Respect?! Earn your respect—”
“You’re not a man; you’re a child—”
“I can’t have a child for a husband—”
“I’ve got my own children to raise—”
“Mbuyi, shut up—”
“A man who comes home drunk—”
“Mbuyi, shut up—”
“And burns down the house with his children—”
“Mbuyi, shut up—”
“And you call yourself a father—”
Then out of nowhere, like a clap of thunder when there were no clouds,
he smacked her across the face. She ricocheted off the wall and collapsed like a ton of bricks. I’d never seen anything like it. She went down and stayed down for a good thirty seconds. Andrew started screaming. I don’t remember going to pick him up, but I clearly remember holding him at some point. My mom pulled herself up and struggled back to her feet and launched right back into him. She’d clearly been knocked for a loop, but she was trying to act more with-it than she was. I could see the disbelief in her face. This had never happened to her before in her life. She got right back in his face and started shouting at him.
“Did you just hit me?”
The whole time, in my head, I kept thinking the same thing Abel was saying.
Shut up, Mom. Shut up. You’re going to make it worse.
Because I knew, as the receiver of many beatings, the one thing that doesn’t help is talking back. But she wouldn’t stay quiet.
“Did you just hit me?”
“Mbuyi, I told you—”
“No man has ever! Don’t think you can control me when you can’t even control—”
He hit her again. She stumbled back but this time didn’t fall. She scrambled, grabbed me, and grabbed Andrew.
“Let’s go. We’re leaving.”
We ran out of the house and up the road. It was the dead of night, cold outside. I was wearing nothing but a T-shirt and sweatpants. We walked to the Eden Park police station, over a kilometer away. My mom marched us in, and there were two cops on duty at the front desk.
“I’m here to lay a charge,” she said.
“What are you here to lay a charge about?”
“I’m here to lay a charge against the man who hit me.”
To this day I’ll never forget the patronizing, condescending way they spoke to her.
“Calm down, lady. Calm down. Who hit you?”
“Your husband? What did you do? Did you make him angry?”
“Did I…what? No. He hit me. I’m here to lay a charge against—”
“No, no. Ma’am. Why do you wanna make a case, eh? You sure you want to do this? Go home and talk to your husband. You do know once you lay charges you can’t take them back? He’ll have a criminal record. His life will never be the same. Do you really want your husband going to jail?”
My mom kept insisting that they take a statement and open a case, and they actually refused—they refused to write up a charge sheet.
“This is a family thing,” they said. “You don’t want to involve the police. Maybe you want to think it over and come back in the morning.”
Mom started yelling at them, demanding to see the station commander, and right then Abel walked into the station. He’d driven down. He’d sobered up a bit, but he was still drunk, driving into a police station. That didn’t matter. He walked over to the cops, and the station turned into a boys’ club. Like they were a bunch of old pals.
“Hey, guys,” he said. “You know how it is. You know how women can be. I just got a little angry, that’s all.”
“It’s okay, man. We know. It happens. Don’t worry.”
I had never seen anything like it. I was nine years old, and I still thought of the police as the good guys. You get in trouble, you call the police, and those flashing red-and-blue lights are going to come and save you. But I remember standing there watching my mom, flabbergasted, horrified that these cops wouldn’t help her. That’s when I realized the police were not who I thought they were. They were men first, and police second.
We left the station. My mother took me and Andrew, and we went out to stay with my grandmother in Soweto for a while. A few weeks later, Abel drove over and apologized. Abel was always sincere and heartfelt with his apologies: He didn’t mean it. He knows he was wrong. He’ll never do it again. My grandmother convinced my mom that she should give Abel a second chance. Her argument was basically, “All men do it.” My grandfather, Temperance, had hit her. Leaving Abel was no guarantee it wouldn’t happen again, and at least Abel was willing to apologize. So my mom decided to give him another chance. We drove back to Eden Park together, and for years, nothing—for
Abel didn’t lay a finger on her. Or me. Everything went back to the way it was.
Abel was an amazing mechanic, probably one of the best around at the time. He’d been to technical college, graduated first in his class. He’d had job offers from BMW and Mercedes. His business thrived on referrals. People would bring their cars from all over the city for him to fix because he could work miracles on them. My mom truly believed in him. She thought she could raise him up, help him make good on his potential, not merely as a mechanic but as the owner of his own workshop.
As headstrong and independent as my mom is, she remains the woman who gives back. She gives and gives and gives; that is her nature. She refused to be subservient to Abel at home, but she did want him to succeed as a man. If she could make their marriage a true marriage of equals, she was willing to pour herself into it completely, the same way she poured herself into her children. At some point, Abel’s boss decided to sell Mighty Mechanics and retire. My mom had some money saved, and she helped Abel buy it. They moved the workshop from Yeoville to the industrial area of Wynberg, just west of Alex, and Mighty Mechanics became the new family business.
When you first go into business there are so many things nobody tells you. That’s especially true when you’re two young black people, a secretary and a mechanic, coming out of a time when blacks had never been allowed to own businesses at all. One of the things nobody tells you is that when you buy a business you buy its debt. After my mom and Abel opened up the books on Mighty Mechanics and came to a full realization of what they’d bought, they saw how much trouble the company was already in.
The garage gradually took over our lives. I’d get out of school and walk the five kilometers from Maryvale to the workshop. I’d sit for hours and try to do my homework with the machines and repairs going on around me. Inevitably Abel would get behind schedule on a car, and since he was our ride, we’d have to wait for him to finish before we could go home. It started out as “We’re running late. Go nap in a car, and we’ll tell you when we’re leaving.” I’d crawl in the backseat of some sedan, they’d wake me up at midnight, and we’d drive all the way back out to Eden Park and crash. Then pretty soon it was “We’re running late. Go sleep in a car, and we’ll wake you for school in the morning.” We started sleeping at the garage. At first it was one or two nights a week, then three or four. Then my mom sold the house and put that money into the business as well. She went all in. She gave up everything for him.
From that point on we lived in the garage. It was a warehouse, basically, and not the fancy, romantic sort of warehouse hipsters might one day turn into lofts. No, no. It was a cold, empty space. Gray concrete floors stained with oil and grease, old junk cars and car parts everywhere. Near the front, next to the roller door that opened onto the street, there was a tiny office built out of drywall for doing paperwork and such. In the back was a kitchenette, just a sink, a portable hot plate, and some cabinets. To bathe, there was only an open wash basin, like a janitor’s sink, with a showerhead rigged up above.
Abel and my mom slept with Andrew in the office on a thin mattress they’d roll out on the floor. I slept in the cars. I got really good at sleeping in cars. I know all the best cars to sleep in. The worst were the cheap ones, Volkswagens, low-end Japanese sedans. The seats barely reclined, no headrests, cheap fake-leather upholstery. I’d spend half the night trying not to slide off the seat. I’d wake up with sore knees because I couldn’t stretch out and extend my legs. German cars were wonderful, especially Mercedes. Big, plush leather seats, like couches. They were cold when you first climbed in, but they were well insulated and warmed up nicely. All I needed was my school blazer to curl up under, and I could get really cozy inside a Mercedes. But the best, hands-down, were American cars. I used to pray for a customer to come in with a big Buick with bench seats. If I saw one of those, I’d be like,
It was rare for American cars to come in, but when they did, boy, was I in heaven.
Since Mighty Mechanics was now a family business, and I was family, I also had to work. There was no more time for play. There wasn’t even time for homework. I’d walk home, the school uniform would come off, the overalls would go on, and I’d get under the hood of some sedan. I got to a point where I could do a basic service on a car by myself, and often I did. Abel would say, “That Honda. Minor service.” And I’d get under the hood. Day in and day out. Points, plugs, condensers, oil filters, air filters. Install new seats, change tires, swap headlights, fix taillights. Go to the parts shop, buy the parts, back to the workshop. Eleven years old, and that was my life. I was falling behind in school. I wasn’t getting anything done. My teachers used to come down on me.
“Why aren’t you doing your homework?”
“I can’t do my homework. I have work, at home.”
We worked and worked and worked, but no matter how many hours we put in, the business kept losing money. We lost everything. We couldn’t even afford real food. There was one month I’ll never forget, the worst month of my life. We were so broke that for weeks we ate nothing but bowls of
a kind of wild spinach, cooked with caterpillars. Mopane worms, they’re called. Mopane worms are literally the cheapest thing that only the poorest of poor people eat. I grew up poor, but there’s poor and then there’s “Wait, I’m eating worms.” Mopane worms are the sort of thing where even people in Soweto would be like, “Eh…no.” They’re these spiny, brightly colored caterpillars the size of your finger. They’re nothing like escargot, where someone took a snail and gave it a fancy name. They’re fucking worms. They have black spines that prick the roof of your mouth as you’re eating them. When you bite into a mopane worm, it’s not uncommon for its yellow-green excrement to squirt into your mouth.