Nearly 60 years ago a friend, Dale White, tried to explain to me how urban society imposes different kinds of relationships on peope. In small towns and villages, there are people you know — friends and family — and people you don’t know. In urban living, you have many more relationships with people you don’t know. How do you describe them? They are not people completely unknown to you, but you usually only interact with them in one context.
Do you call them acquaintances? Not really, because even acquaintances you might meet in other contexts. These relationships are primarily functional, you meet them solely because they perform a particular function. They are impersonal relationships, rather than personal relationships. Family and friends are personal relationships, and even acquaintances. I call acquaintances people I met at a conference once, perhaps chatted to them over a meal, heard them deliver a paper. Such a relationship is personal rather than functional.
But the cashier at the supermarket till?
That is surely a functional relationship?
In a small village you might meet them in other contexts, at church, or at the hairdressers, or at a sports club, in a pub, or even in another shop where they are also customers. But in the big city, chances are the only time you ever meet them is when they tally your purchases, swipe your card, or take your cash. You are unlikely to meet them in any other context. Sometimes they have a label with their name on it, but I have the uncomfortable feeling that that is mainly there so that dissatisfied customers can complain. And usually it is only their first name so that you don’t even know their surname.
But we have recently learned that two of our neighbourhood supermarkets are to close within the next week or so. The Spar is to become a Pick ‘n Pay, and one of the worries is that we may no longer be able to get fresh bread.
But when we moved here at the end of 1984 there was a branch of Checkers at the Queenswood shopping centre. It was later renovated and became Shoprite, but Shoprite and Checkers are owned by the same company, so it just meant a change in the decor. But now the site is to be redeveloped, and it will close. It will reopen as Checkers again, some time. But then we realised that some of the people who worked there had been there ever since we moved here over 30 years ago. What will happen to them in the mean time?
These are people whom we have seen once a month or more often for the last 30 years and more. Can one really speak of an impersonal, purely functional relationship? We have got used to seeing them, but as a a part of the landscape, but in more than 30 years they should surely be more than merely nameless functionaries. Surely we will miss them?
Samuel Mailula, worked at ShopRite/Checkers in Queenswood for 39 years
So when we went shopping this morning I took my camera along, and we asked where they were going when the shop- closes its doors tomorrow. It turns out that they will be moving to other branches. Two will be going to the Silverton branch, and the third to the Mamelodi branch, which is closer to where he lives, but he only has a couple of years to go until retirement. He is Samuel Mailula, and he has been working for Shoprite/Checkers for 39 years, so practically his entire working life.
Another one is Louisa Molobi. Val remembers her being pregnant several times, and now she is grey-haired, and perhaps one of those babies has now made her a grandmother, and that is how long we have known her. Now she no longer mans the till, but rather goes round to the other cashiers, sorting out their problems.
The third was Wendy Sheshabela, still sitting at the till, and somewhat apprehensive about the changes. The last time the shop was renovated, and made the change from Checkers to Shoprite, it did not close completely, they just closed sections of the store while they were working on it. But this time round the shop will close, and they will all be moved.
Wendy Sheshabela and Louisa Molobi, long-time workers at Shoprite/Checkers in Queenswood, Pretoria
There was a time when I was on the other end of such relationships, when I was a bus conductor in Johannesburg. That was about the time when I had the discussion with Dale White about personal and impersonal relationships, and as a new bus conductor I was a casual, so filled in for other conductors on leave or off sick, so rarely worked the same route twice, or at the same time of day. So I took fares and issued tickets, and passengers were just a sea of faces.
After I’d been there a while we could pick a regular shift in order of seniority, and so I had a regular route, four trips from the Joburg business district to the Turffontein Racecourse early in the morning. The first trip carried few passengers out of town, most were coming in to work, and so I remembered some of the regulars. There was an old night watchman, presumably going home after guarding one of the big dark deserted office blocks. He rather incongruously wore a badge proclaiming him a member of the Pepsodent Youth Club. On the next trip there were a couple of pretty Indian school girls. I only worked on that route for about a year, I only saw them in that context, and I never saw them again. But I still remember them.
It was one of those urban functional relationships, but it was not, surely, entirely impersonal. And when, as in the case of the people at our local supermarket, we have been seeing them regularly for more than 30 years, we probably know them better than our next-door neighbours, whom we hardly see at all, except occasionally driving past in a car, darkly waving behind a window reflecting the sun.
I use a genealogy program called Legacy Family Tree. I’ve been using it since 2002, and in entering information about a person one could tick a box labelled “This individual never married and had no children”. This would then appear on certain reports, so that you could, know that there was no point in looking for possible descendants. I so marked my uncle Willie Growdon, who died in a motorbike accident at the age of 25.
But the newer version of Legacy Family Tree that I am now using has changed the wording, so that it now says that Uncle Willie had “no relationships and no children”. And that looks so very sad. Abandoned by his parents at birth, never knew his siblings, had, no friends, never had a girlfriend, had no acquaintances, no human contact at all. So is our language, and our social networking, devalued.
No, Legacy, you got it wrong. We are most of us in all sorts of relationships, personal and impersona, to varying degrees, but it is only when we are about to lose them that we begin to appreciate them, as we do the staff of the local supermarket, and realise that human relationships are important.