People tend not to believe me when I pass on this piece of information, but it is true: I once had a neighbour who owned a car with a bumper sticker that said “MY OTHER CAR IS UP MY NOSE.” It was a dark blue Jetta in pretty rough shape, all rusty and dented and defeated looking. The material on the roof was sagging, held up in the back by some strategically placed sticks. There were always a lot of empty energy drinks rolling round on the floor, and a collection of trance-party fliers on the dashboard. I generally do not care about cars and would never have noticed any of this were it not for the large bumper sticker that said, again, “MY OTHER CAR IS UP MY NOSE.”
I lived on that street for a year, and the car was parked outside almost every day, and I did not once walk past it without being utterly thrown. I thought about it all the time, and spent many hours working through the issue with my flatmate. Was there another interpretation beside the obvious one? Was it possible that the neighbour was unaware of what was being communicated by the bumper sticker, and just stuck it on there because she thought it was funny to imagine having a car living inside her own nose? No! Impossible! We knew that she understood what she was telling the world: “My car sucks because I spent that money on coke lolol.” Who was the message’s intended recipient? Other cocaine enthusiasts who might derive a sense of solidarity from it? Other cocaine enthusiasts who needed to be warned off making the same mistake? Rich people likely to demand an explanation for why the car was so shitty, and who would be mollified by the answer “It would have been better but I spent all that money on coke.” Rich people likely to demand an explanation for why the car was so shitty, and who would be shamed into contemplation of their own conspicuous displays of wealth when they learned that here was an individual who COULD have had a fancy car of her own but instead chose to live life on her own cocaine-loving terms? What kind of person would do such a thing, and why? What kind of thought process and who are you and what else do you want to tell the world? Where are you now?
I’ve been thinking about that extremely fun sticker more often than usual, lately. My neighbour was an enigma—all I really knew about her was that she absolutely did not give a shit about the disapproval or judgment of her peers. I am not saying that this is an admirable quality, or that it is a good idea to build your personality around the fact that you love drugs too much. I am just saying that “proudly having fun” is not an attitude I see being flaunted very often in Cape Town these days. Another unanticipated effect of the water crisis is how pious it has made many people, including me. Those of us who have always had running water in our homes are learning for the first time what it is to live with water scarcity, and it has made us dreary with worry, and very judgmental. The dam levels are rising, and the immediate threat of Day Zero has passed, but we have been strongly advised to keep saving water, and so that is what we are doing.
This is all to the good, obviously. Obviously. This is of the most critical importance, and there is absolutely no other way to respond. It does tend to bring out the sanctimonious side of a person, however. You can’t just install a borehole in your garden in order to ease the demand on the municipal supply. You must also put a sign on your wall outside informing your neighbours of this fact. The sign serves at least two functions: it answers any potentially tricky questions about why the garden is still so green, or why the swimming pool remains full, and it makes the neighbours who can afford to install boreholes but have not yet done so feel very guilty. You have a lot of loud public conversations about greywater-management devices: how easy it is to make the change, how terrible it is to think we used to just flush litres of drinking water down the toilet, how implausible the thought of a long bath is. You think all these things, but you also say them, loudly, a lot.
Part of saving water involves being seen to be saving water. We judge each other like mad, and put on scandalised faces when the woman in the public bathroom takes ages washing her hands, and we drone on at length about how guilty we feel when we do laundry, and we shame each other into being more careful. There seems to be no way around it; this is how the thing gets done. Probably the woman whose other car is up her nose is right now explaining to her friend that she will never be able to have a long bath without guilt ever again in her life. Probably she has installed a composting toilet in her back garden. Probably she peeled her cocaine sticker off the back of that Jetta, and replaced it with one that says EVERY DROP COUNTS with a picture of a water droplet doing a thumbs up. We all know that she needed to make the change. We are all trying our best and will continue to do so, but we know that we are basically boring now, and that there is just no getting around it.