1973, on my way back from the States, I fly to New York on a Monday in December and ask for a flight to Johannesburg via London.
‘Sorry you can’t. Your ticket is non-transferable, and the next SAA flight is via Rio on Friday’. The old man had paid for my ticket on his shiny new Barclaycard and had put it over 12 months, so one last payment was still outstanding.
Ooh shit, four days in NY with no money. Well, about $25. I got $25 a month ‘allowance’ in Apache from the Rotary club. Seventeen South African Diederiks Ront it was back then. And sixty cents. (R1 = $1.42)
I put my suitcase in a locker, put a quarter in the slot and take the key. Hop on a bus to Grand Central Station ($2) in Manhattan to look for the SAA offices. ‘Sorry, can’t help’. Hey asseblief man! ‘OK, we’ll try’.
Back to JFK airport and sleep on the floor (damn benches spitefully have armrests for each seat so you can’t lie down on them). Fitful sleep broken by a huge sit-on vacuum and polish machine that roars up to me at 3am. ‘Move along there’, says the cleaner.
Tuesday I do the same locker-bus-SAA office run, but now I’m rather peckish so I stroll around Manhattan looking for something cheap to eat. I find a burger for $3. Not cheap in ’73, but includes as much beer as you can drink, so I think OK. Big glasses, though, so I could only drink two. Wander the Manhattan streets with a nice beer buzz going.
Wednesday I do the same locker-bus-SAA-hamburger-with-beers run but this time when I go into SAA at the end of the day they tell me Good News, you’re free to go! To celebrate I book into the YMCA without my suitcase so I can have a shower. $11 for the smallest room I have ever slept in.
Thursday I’m squeaky clean on the bus back to JFK and I take the first plane to London: Air India. I grab a discarded newspaper lying on a bench as I board. Settling into my seat I read: – “Air India has just been voted ‘Worst Airline in the World’. Again”. Their cabin crew is on strike so admin staff are ‘standing in for them’ – by doing nothing. A much older lass I meet on the plane (she was probably only thirty) feels sorry for me so buys me a cold pork pie on the way out of Heathrow. Tastiest pie ever.
I’m on my way to meet an acquaintance Don who once lived in Harrismith and is now in London for a year, so he knows the place. Turns out he has a rugby match (playing for some Saffer team against the London Irish) so we scurry around Buck House circle and somewhere else where someone lived or died or married someone, and head off to (I think) Wimbledon for the game in his little Austin something – with five rugby okes squeezed into it. At the ground the players huddle in a cold shed to change and notice they’re a couple of boerkies short can I play? Sure, I say, but only half the first half, then I have to catch a tube to Heathrow. Thank goodness (it’s sleeting outside) Don says rather don’t risk missing your flight. So they run out onto the mud with one blade of grass every ten yards without me and start puffing out steam and shoving some fat Irish blokes around. Between scrums Don shouts out which tubes and busses I should catch and I leave before the halftime whistle to head South after a year in foreign climes. I’m very much looking forward to getting home now.
Once in the air the SAA koffie poppie gives me lip when I order a third beer so I’m feeling at home while still thousands of kays away.
Diederiks Ront – South African currency; Finance minister’s name was Diederiks
asseblief – please!
Saffer – South Africa
boerkies – South Africans
koffie poppie – SAA air hostess