Subcity
by Maureen

music & lyrics by Tracy Chapman. Standard disclaimers apply.

***

People say it doesn't exist
'Cause no one would like to admit
That there is a city underground
Where people live everyday
Off the waste and decay
Off the discards of their fellow man

Kimah scrubbed dirt off the floors that the children had tracked in after they came home from football practice and cheerleading. They weren't here children and the floor she cleaned wasn't in her house. She was the maid, cleaning and scrubbing all day long so the Lukens family so she could get out of South Africa and perhaps make a better life for herself.

Sighing, she stopped to rest for a minute, resting her hand on her enlarging abdomen. "Soon, little one," she whispered in Afrikaans, "Soon we'll be in America."

She had an uncle who had managed to get to America and was going to help get her smuggled out in the next few months before she had her baby. Kimah knew if she didn't leave soon, she would never be able to. Being Bantu, or black african, in South Africa was not a fate she'd wish on anybody except the white people of South Africa. Then they'd see how a life of forced poverty, illiteracy and menial labor was only slightly better than death.

"Are you working or talking to yourself in there, Bantu?" Adriana Lukens called from the kitchen. She was their oldest daughter, only a few years younger than Kimah. She also felt the need to insult her families workers every chance she got.

"I'm working, Miss," Kimah replied, scrubbing with a renewed vigor.

Here in subcity life is hard
We can't receive any government relief
I'd like to please give Mr. President my honest regards
For disregarding me

A few weeks later, Kimah sat outside the small room she shared with another family reading her uncle's letter. He had managed to get her papers to the nearby city of Cape Town and a ticket would be waiting for her to fly to America under the pretense of her becoming a maid to a family Alabama, staunch supporters of apartheid. In reality she would be met by her uncle and he would help her become an American citizen.

She could not stop smiling. In a week she would be gone forever. Even if she ended up scrubbing floors in America, at least she would have a chance to improve her life, and know that she would not die scrubbing floors for rich white brats.

"Why you so 'appy?" Tobuyho asked, sitting down next to her. He smelled of sweat and tabbacco, like most of the people in the Bantu town outside of Cape Town.

"Just thinking about the sunset," she replied, not wanting anyone to know that she was about to leave. The more people that knew, the greater her chances of getting caught and stopped. She would never have a second chance if she was caught. She'd be thrown in jail like her husband.

"You think too much, Kimah," he told her gruffly. "You should be worrying about your man in jail, hoping they let him live."

Kimah shook her head, "He's not. 'Better to die fighting than live behind bars', that's what he said, ya." She had known months earlier, when he had been arrested that he was dead. That was when she written to her uncle.

They say there's too much crime in these city streets
My sentiments exactly
Government and big business hold the purse strings
When I worked I worked in the factories
I'm at the mercy of the world
I guess I'm lucky to be alive

Kimah woke early, bathing quickly in the darkness, trying not to wake the other nine people asleep in the room. She dressed in her best clothes before heading out the door with her most prize possessions in a small bag. All of her money, the picture of her husband and the green and blue head scarf he had given her when they had married. She only wore it on special occassions and would put it on once she got to America.

The guards glanced at her papers, bored with their job and her. What was another Bantu woman going to work to them? She continued walking down the street, wishing she had enough money for a taxi. Not that she would have been allowed to take a taxi, but she still dreamed.

Finally she reached the airport, the sun already high in the sky. By now the Lukens would have realized she was not coming and had either called the police or had assumed she was deathly ill and would give her a few days before calling the police. Mrs. Lukens usually waited a day before calling to give her servants a chance to send word and apoligize. A day was more than enough time for Kimah to leave.

Getting in the airport was more difficult and the guards scrutinized her papers carefully. "Alright, Bantu," the soldier agreed opening the gate for her. It was obvious from his expression that he didn't want to let her through but couldn't think of a reason to stop her.

They say we've fallen through the cracks
They say the system works
But we won't let it
Help
I guess they never stop to think
We might not just want handouts
But a way to make an honest living
Living this ain't living

She was able to get to the boarding gate quickly, her story believed. Especially since a white lawyer was waiting for her at the terminal, to 'escort' her to America with him. Her uncle had said that he would be there.

"Michael Crowley," he said, introducing himself. He held his hand out to her.

She stared at it for a minute before replying, "You best not shake my hand, Mr. Crowley. I'm your servant."

He lowered his hand, unsure. "Sorry..." he said, suddenly self-concious.

"Just act like you don't care whether I live or die, Mr. Crowley," she advised. Although he looked like any other white man in South Africa, he certainly didn't act like one! America was going to be wonderful.

What did I do deserve this
Had my trust in god
Worked everyday of my life
Thought I had some guarantees
That's what I thought
At least that's what I thought

The trip was uneventful, although Kimah had butterflies in her stomach the entire time. She had never flown before and the idea of being free was almost too much to hope for. She sat next to the window, amazed at how high up they were the entire plane ride. Just before they landed she excused herself and changed from her faded, dull gray headscarf and put on her special one. Just for America.

Getting through customs was no problem since Crowley had her passport and work visa with him. Kimah hadn't even considered things like a passport or visa. Thankfully her uncle had.

"Kimah!" a voice boomed out once she had gotten through customs.

"Uncle David?" she asked, heading towards the large black man with a huge smile.

"How are you!"

"I'm fine...now," she replied softly, suddenly unsure what to do. She had never met her uncle before since he had left for America before she was born.

"Thanks, Mike," Uncle David said, shaking the lawyers hand.

"No problem, Mr. Beecham," Crowley replied, smiling.

Last night I had another restless sleep
Wondering what tomorrow might bring
Last night I dreamed
A cold blue light was shining down on me
I screamed myself awake
Thought I must be dying
Thought I must be dying

A month later Kimah had a baby boy.

"What are you going to name him?" Uncle David asked.

"I was thinking...Henry. Henry Beecham."