Not to humiliate an extremely responsible, respectable, humane, dedicated husband and father who spends the daylight being an important human-rights activist, but the first time I met Graeme was his birthday, and he was unutterably drunk. “Shooollmeetyouflunch,” he said, which, roughly translated, was “Sure, I’ll meet you for lunch.” Thankfully, at the time I was speaking the same language.
It didn't stop our first meeting from getting canceled. Graeme, mysteriously, was under quarantine for smallpox. It was such an improbable excuse that I believed it—how could anyone ever get away with making that up? Happily, he never succumbed, and we met, finally, at a tavern on Wall Street that’s supposedly existed since 1656. It looked like what the interior decorator of Cheesecake Factory would come up with, given a snifter of brandy and a bottle of Valium: damask banquettes, a plaster ceiling meant to simulate pressed tin, and a plastified menu offering Maryland crab cakes, Cuban sandwiches, penne pomodoro, and tuna melts. The service was straight Cheesecake: a big glass of ice water, ridged for easy stacking, arrived immediately and never went empty. The table of suits lunching at the next table was having a spirited discussion about immigration. From one particularly eloquent fatass: “I’m thinking about crossing Mexico and coming back illegal so that I can collect checks too.”
Graeme showed up, the color of metal. He wore a lucent white cambric shirt with a flat, Nehru-style collar, close-cropped curls colored pepper with a hint of salt, a plain, flat silver men’s watch and a wedding ring. Even his face had a hint of silver to it, like salmon skin.
Graeme grew up in pre-apartheid South Africa, where steel insides came in handy. His parents were Lithuanian Jews, bookkeepers, whose parents came to South Africa to flee the pogroms. The original family name has been lost. “I tell my son it was Sumsonovabitch,” he grins. He speaks with the funny flatness of Afrikaans, the linguistic love-child you'd expect from cr0ss-breeding an Aussie and a German.
“I was a small, unconfident child,” remembers Graeme. “Intimidated. I was writing poetry while my mates were carving notches in their belts.” His father, an “armchair commie,” counterbalanced his mother, a nurturer. They sent him to a racially integrated high school, an extraordinary thing in those days, where Graeme was the president of the student body. “Instead of organizing proms, we were fund-raising to rebuild black staff quarters.”
He graduated in 1976, “the year of fire and ash,” when legions of black students were killed for throwing stones at the military. In those days, there were sixteen colors to South Africa: Black, White, Indian, Coloured, and sub-groups of these. It wasn’t just the Lithuanians that lost their family names—bureaucrats translated “Kwokomoko Satchme” into the likes of “Donald.”
All white South African men were commandeered into the military at the age of sixteen, but Graeme was determined to flout the draft. He tried to legally amend his color; when that didn’t work, he sought refuge in academia, heading to London for a PhD when things became desperate. “South Africa didn’t invent racism; we perfected it,” says Graeme, his words deliberate and his eyes direct. “We classified people according to myopic minutiae. It was the most banal form of evil, a seismic way to control lives.” He's read his Franz Fanon.
The phase of life in which one is angry at the government, shakes one’s fist at rallies, and has sex with inappropriate people lasted over ten years for Graeme, except that it in South Africa these things weren’t funny or fun. He spent three years working with trade unionists and women’s organizations on a grassroots level. He lived in black townships, a self-described “exercise in racial suicide.” Before marrying, he fell in love with an Asian woman from a Muslim family; the woman who ended up as his wife was involved with a leading black activist. He walked holding banners down hot dusty streets as blistering clouds of teargas rained down. When his wife was thrown into solitary confinement and didn’t emerge for months, Graeme and a friend drove their car as close as they dared to her window and blasted her favorite songs. His deskmate Stanza Bopape, with whom he ate rotisserie chicken and maizemeal grits every day, became one of the most high-profile “disappearances” of the resistance movement.
Finally, Graeme ran out of time, space and patience. “I quit two years before the peace came,” he says. “I had no idea. I didn’t see the change coming.”
Graeme talks in sound bites, measured, like a man doing a voiceover in the documentary of his own life. His über-precise phrasing, intense eye contact, and the controlled contours and stripes of his narrative reveal the redoubtable Marxist student leader he must once have been; few traces of the unconfident child remain other than an agreeable, mild manner. His words pearlesce together, forming sentences that course through the restaurant's muddy air like a brightly colored kite. Amidst the rollercoastering roar of conversation, it feels like the two of us are alone, sitting on a small planet in Cheesecake Factoryland. The restaurant has been totally emasculated.
By the time he left South Africa, the nonviolence organization Graeme started had grown to encompass eighty-five people, but we barely talk about it; our conversation takes place entirely in the past. “You want to know where I come from?” he thunders. “You’re asking me about my indignant days. But all these things are still alive in my present. My work is living memory.” I envision Graeme swelling up, Violet Beauregard-like, until his body becomes too large for the Stone Street Tavern, and explodes the roof off. Peeling skyscrapers apart as if they were bananas with over-brittle skin, his giant fingers would pluck offenders out of their overstuffed office chairs, and toss them into the harbor. “That takes care of Somsunovabitch,” he’d say, grinning wider than the sun.
His work is living memory. In 2001, after decades of patiently explaining violence to his countrymen, Graeme became the object of his subject. From behind his kitchen window, numbly pounding on the panic button that equips all South African homes, Graeme watched a group of masked men steal his car, shoot his desperate, baby-clutching wife, and on their way out—because fortune has an acute sense of irony—snatch a Tupperware of chicken soup from the hands of his bewildered mother. Graeme has two things to say about this: “What came with political peace was a redistribution of patterns of violence,” and “I’m still in therapy.”
So Graeme, his wife and their bad-ass baby moved to New York. Recently, they watched a South African movie called Tsotsi, in which a central scene involves the hijacking of a car inconveniently equipped with a baby. Graeme’s wife wept through the whole thing. Mainly, though, what moved her was not the trauma recalled but a throbbing longing for home: the size of the sky there, its incomparable color. “It’s such a contradiction,” puzzles Graeme. “The ache for the motherland is so much stronger when living there was a struggle.”
These days, Graeme’s son plays baseball in Prospect Park. "He's a sout piel," says Graeme. "It means salty penis; he's got one foot in Africa, one in America, and his dick dangles in between." His laugh is wry, his face satisfied. Peace becomes him.