My family has always been pathologically entrepreneurial. My father is at the root of this tradition. By contrast, his own father and the family before him (who hide in my father’s memory like a dirty secret) were working-class chumps who would not have been able to spell the word ‘entrepreneur’.
My father had an unstable relationship with the word ‘boss’. As kids, we were never allowed to use it. At times we had temporary managers, or overseers, but they were never our bosses. We were, and always would be, masters of our own destiny. He also refused to wear a tie or anything else that might brand him as a worker, and this general unspoken attitude made him difficult to employ. Entrepreneurship was his only real option.
From his early twenties he owned and operated a host of businesses, many of which were doomed to failure: speckled amongst these were spectacular successes. Most notable, of course, was his string of restaurants, prawn houses that fed a family of crustacean consumers for almost thirty years.
Given this inspiration, my brother and sisters would spend the rest of their lives attempting to build up their own empires. As for me, being little more than a grasshopper gangster, my own road to wealth had barely begun.
Our family friends and neighbours at the time were Derora and Abey Berkovik. They were both, each in their own ways, equally vulgar but strangely entertaining.
Derora was a Jewish princess without compare, with a shameless love of money and stunning bad taste, both of which qualities manifested in loud sequined woollen jerseys worn over luminous purple leggings and leg warmers.
She also had this horrible little poodle called Gabibi that she spoke to in broken Yiddish. One of her other dogs, an incompetent St Bernard, had tried to bite its head off one day but managed only to mangle it and remove one eye, leaving a suppurating wound. It would have been acceptable if the creature had remained in the garden but she insisted on feeding it on the dining room table and the smell of dog pellets and rotten eye socket made me want to eat my lunch in reverse.
Abey was jovial enough in a drunken, lecherous way but, like many practising psychologists, he was pretty self obsessed. I liked him best because he was interested in all matters metaphysical and he had a huge library of arcane books on every spiritual subject under the sun. He also recognized in me, from an early age, a talent and propensity for these sensitive subjects and encouraged my pursuit of the other-worldly, in the process expanding my curious little intellect until it overflowed with noble notions of angels and channelled spirits.
One sunny afternoon, during which my family had gathered at his house for one of our feasts, I made a stunning discovery while accidentally looking through his bedside cupboard. He had a huge collection of pornographic books! At the time, for a South African, not least an underage one, this was like finding a stash of radioactive plutonium, so wonderful and exotic was it.
This sort of smut was ultra-banned by our neo-Nazi government, although they had reluctantly allowed the publication of an embarrassing magazine called Scope, which was peopled by dumb, busty blonds with stars on their nipples. What I had now discovered was the mother lode.
What followed was a series of lightning forays over a period of weeks. I would wait in the dining room while everyone made merry around the Sunday lunch and then, when I was absolutely sure they would not be moving for several minutes, I would dart down the passage, dive-roll over the bed, whip open the cabinet, retrieve a random book, carefully tear out a single page, dive-roll back over the bed and down the passage to the dining room, all in the time it took to type this sentence. Mission accomplished.
Earlier in the year at school, my own entrepreneurial inheritance had begun to rear its crafty head. I siphoned jelly powder into straws to be sealed at both ends, or baked cookies and fudge to sell to my classmates. Going to class was like going to work, and through the duration of the lesson, coins and sweet things would move beneath tables as if through a tunnel network operated by smugglers.
I was on my way to a promising future in small-time trade. However everything changed the day that I first brought, to school, a sample of my wares from Abe’s cabinet. Instantly I was a celebrity, literally mobbed by boys at break time. This was good enough for me until Kenny Gillman asked me how much I was prepared to accept in cash for a single page. I jokingly named, what was, at the time, a fantastic amount – twenty rand I believe – and he instantly agreed.
Within weeks, I had amassed a small fortune and the stack inside Abe Berkovik’s bedside cabinet began to dwindle like polar ice during a heat age. Of course, he couldn’t really have publicly complained, because nobody knew he had been amassing porn, but there would eventually come a day when the cabinet would be evacuated and the raided treasure trove moved to a more secure location.
I had begun my life as an entrepreneur, but, in a sad twist of irony, I could never reveal this achievement it to the one man who would have been the most proud of his protégé’s success.