Down the rabbit-hole with Papa Smurf in Cape Town

2014-05-26 13:45

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If joining the circus fails, there’s always local politics.

And if that doesn’t work out, how about a career in the local film industry?

Am I wrong in thinking that the contemporary movie scene somehow resembles a big circus minus the tent with marginally more glamour?

Movie industry people are the modern carnie folk of Cape Town; nomads always chasing “the magic hour” between far-flung film sets in mysteriously unmarked vans: elaborately costumed extras, effortlessly pretty crew girls in cargo pants, cameramen with stringy ponytails (and some without), directors pumped up on caffeine, and the odd scattering of Hollywood stars shacked up in jealously guarded trailers, next to tables groaning with catered delicacies.

The whole business is shrouded in near-Masonic secrecy.

One of the legends of this razzle-dazzle realm is Papa Smurf (74), who also goes by the name of Phillip Hotz. For years, Papa has worked as an actor and extra in the Mother City, where roles in popular music videos have earned him a cult hipster following.

He is a regular sight at nightclubs in the city centre, where he is known to sway – hands aloft in a semi-permanent state of high-five dispersal – until the break of dawn.

I bumped into Papa on a street corner about a year ago. At the time, he handed me his handcrafted (i.e. photocopied) business card with a cellphone number and the words, “If interested ... only ten digits away!”

Little did I know that setting up a meeting with him would be no simple matter.

After a week of SMS ping-pong and carefully worded chats with his agent, Papa finally agrees to meet me at Zula Bar on lower Long Street at 6pm this past Tuesday.

Dodging the tail-end of rush hour, I pull up next to Papa, who is waiting for me on the kerb outside the club. He’s wearing a green sweater top, unzipped to reveal a yellow tie knotted around his neck. I remark on his smart attire and he replies: “Well, I wanted to make a good impression, man.”

He takes me inside to view a wall adorned with his art works; bright animals and landscapes painted on wood.

A Cape Town legend, 74-year-old Papa Smurf.

“I sell my work. But these here are for my children when I die, their inheritance,” he says proudly, pointing at a self-portrait.

We exit the club and drive five blocks to the backpacker lodge where he shares a dorm with travellers.

He leads me to a large door in an ornate Victorian building, where he speaks into an intercom. The door clicks open to reveal an old wooden staircase. It’s pretty dark.

Ascending the creaking steps I felt a bit like Alice following the white rabbit into a strange urban fairytale.

Papa tells me: “This used to be a whorehouse, you know.”

“Oh,” I say. “When?”

“Back in the 1700s,” he replies.

He cackles. Papa Smurf is a well of information. “Now travellers and ghosts live here.”

At the reception, Papa announces that I am a journalist there to interview him. We walk on past exposed red bricks up more stairs to his high-ceilinged room with four bunk beds.

One wall is covered in newspaper cuttings detailing his colourful exploits; on a small table rest paint paraphernalia, books and an ashtray with one Pall Mall cigarette butt.

He points to a copy of An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth lying face down on his bed.

“An excellent book, you must read it,” he says earnestly, before whisking me through a small door onto a balcony outside.

Across the road twinkled Fiction nightclub; behind that, Lions Head was etched against the cold twilight.

If Long Street is in the business of hedonism and beer, this is the business end. Around us sprawled Cape Town’s party nerve centre.

Two guys in their mid-twenties saunter over, hugging Papa.

“We came back here especially to see you!” Turns out they’re from Perth and cut a trip around Southern Africa short to return to Cape Town. One of the Australians takes a picture of Papa and I.

Papa leads me back into the dorm, where his roommate appears to have slept through the racket. I follow him down a staircase to a bar, flanked by a veranda full of people.

We take a seat, the scent of dagga thick in the air.

Between sips of coffee and chicken soup, Papa speaks of his life, dodging most questions with polite finesse.

He grew up in a Jewish orphanage up the road in Oranjezicht, where he started smoking weed at the tender age of ten. But he stopped taking drugs and he doesn’t drink anymore, these days sticking strictly to his preferred vices of caffeine and cigarettes.

“No thanks. Drugs get you into trouble, that stuff makes you wake up in strange places, man!”

Papa’s been married three times and has five children, he tells me.

“Nothing worse than a woman’s scorn,” he says. “All they want is money. Fame without fortune sucks. Whenever they see me on TV or whatever, they call me for money. But I’ll leave them the paintings.”

He lives in the backpackers during off-season. In summer, well, he makes a plan.

Mostly, he is philosophical, his words punctuated with snorts of laughter and trademark high-fives. His biggest concern is for the exhausted planet.

“There are a lot of clever people who are f**king stupid out there, man.”

As we get up to leave, a guy from the Caribbean who resembles Chris Brown waves: “Hi Papa, love you, dude!”

I was beginning to wonder whether old Popsicle had paid people to say nice things about him? He denies this with a loud guffaw.

Papa Smurf walks me back to my car, a gentlemanly gesture, which I appreciate. Outside The Dubliner, previously known as Kennedy’s Cigar Bar, a man dressed in blue overalls calls out a greeting to him too. Papa replies with a nod and a wave. I’m beginning to realise that his fan club extends well beyond hipsterville.

Driving home, I recall a line from some poem (I can never remember who it is by): “Who was this, this prince of men, and where had he learned such kindness?”

Papa Smurf; short of stature but big of heart. Okay, sure, no one is perfect. But hey, life threw him lemons. Papa Smurf chose to make lemonade.

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