By the time I reached high school, my family’s previous restaurant fortunes were like an ancient crumbling prawn smelling lighthouse on some forgotten coastline.
After the failure of our fast food chain, Bunnycow, itself secured financially by the sale of our last restaurant, we descended into a bit of a funk. I – or rather my mother – had been applying to high schools for about a year and I finally secured a place at KES, a premier high school in South Africa, provided that we fulfilled the zoning requirements.
And so it was that my Dad overextended himself to secure a house in the exclusive suburb of Upper Houghton, directly opposite from the school. There was something about us that did not fit in with the neighbourhood. My father, bless his soul, did not even consider trying to get a job. He was after all, an entrepreneur.
The first business he started was a type of pool cleaning device called ‘aquanaut’. Joburg is a city with a lot of pools. If Joburg were a massive piece of human skin, the swimming pools would be like pores, dimples of liquid fighting a war of attrition against the dry heat and alarming lack of nearby oceans. In such a market, how could you fail? As my father fought to build our future pool empire, I was starting to struggle in social situations.
– So what does your father do?
– He is in the pool cleaning game. Yours?
– He’s a government minister.
– Oh. That sucks right?
– No your dads aquanaut sucks
Aquanaut folded eventually and my dad decided to start a fudge making business. Fudge is the business! We bought a little self contained franchise called ‘Mr. Fudge’, named in a moment of cavalier lateral thinking. The interesting thing about this change in direction was that the guys who had previously been gunning for me at school started hanging around the house as I became the local fudge dealer. I had my own business, a little sideline I liked to call friendship.
Mr. Fudge collapsed and my dad concluded that a soft serve ice cream franchise was the way forward. Soft Serve is the business! He still had the fudge making equipment which he kept in the garage along with the new equipment and so our garage became a kind of American Diner serving ice cream and fudge, a road-stop for boys spilling out of the school grounds. Instead of a cute waitress with roller skates however, there was only me, a young man using candy to lure acceptance.
With the inevitable failure of the great soft serve empire, my dad found a dazzling side line in a new miracle food called SOYA. It was like pretend mince meat and it was decided that we were going to solve the food problem in South Africa by providing this Chinese Voodoo Mince to the masses.
I remember my sister and I – how cute are kids? – made up a batch of this stuff with a tray of little toast pieces and walked around the neighborhood trying to sell them for a buck a piece to the passing migrant workers. We were trying to help my dad but it was not a good look when we were passed by a carload of the cool school kids. We were like Hansel and Gretel stumbling out of the woods onto the 51 Interstate.
I decided to apply my mind once more and – using the plastic sealing machine from the Soya operation – started making little packets of sherbet and fudge and flogging them at school. At every step I had been walking in the bold shadow of my questing father, creating a little enterprise from his scraps, like a jackal poaching kills from a rogue lion.
A few weeks later my entire grade went on our annual veldt school trip, a sort of mixture of scouts and a stint in the military.
A great entrepreneurial opportunity arose when I realized that many of the boys would need to smuggle in some kind of contraband to make the boring trip bearable. One or two boys smoked pot and drank spirits and there were several who wanted to take cigarettes with them.
My idea was to make little sealed plastic bags of whisky and smuggle them in the interior of a large camping torch that I bought for the operation. I managed to get about thirty of them in there, thirty little packets of bush veldt spirit that would fetch a handsome profit.
It was the first day of Veldt School. A hundred nervous boys sat on the grass being addressed by the Neolithic Afrikaans Instructor giving us our orientation.
– I know you boys think you but too clever, he boomed.
– Every year we have boys who think you can smokkel in some cigarettes. We view this as a very, very serious crime and it will be met with severe corporal punishment and possible expulsion!
He looked like Hitler practicing for Nuremberg.
Christ I thought, if they think cigs are a massive crime, how are they going to handle a sophisticated whiskey bootlegging operation?
– We will however show some mercy if you come clean right now. You have ten minutes to decide whether you are going to own up like real men, with pride, or wait for us to catch you like lying little Jackals.
I’ll take the Jackal option, I smirked. They will never crack my flawless plan. I heard a boy whimper behind me in fright and shuffle up to the front of the crowd, visibly shaking hands clutching a half smoked cigarette.
– This boy has taken the only safe option and he will be exempt from punishment. For those of you who mos think you are too clever for us, we know all the tricks, starting with your torches.
I suddenly felt the cold dead grip of farmer fear twist my guts. Torches, you say? You’ve thought of this? Really?
I waited the full nine minutes before I eventually stood up, rigid with fear. A collective murmur swept through the boys. Killeen, what could he possibly have brought along? Isn’t that the poor, skinny boy with the courage of a crippled Maltese poodle?
I handed the man my torch and he grinned in immense dumb satisfaction, opening the back of the torch and emptying out the contents. What should have been a couple loose cigarettes or a torn porno page emerged as a fistful of sealed packets. From a distance they could have been Angel Dust or plastic explosives and the crowd was utterly stunned into silence.
And so, you know, I was in trouble again. How could I possibly convince them that I was acting in the spirit of the free market; that my actions were – contrary to the biblical disdain surrounding me – kind of cute really.
Like their own sons following them around the cow farm or whatever and learning the tricks of the cow tit squeezing trade, I was applying the keen opportunistic eye that had been learned from my own father. I was being a good boy.
I looked into the future after the terrible fall-out of that day and decided that I would have to refine my entrepreneurial discernment. Either I would have to devote my life to the study of science and art or start a global drug operation.
It was simply too early to tell, but the spirit was there.