Authors: Trevor Noah
n every nice neighborhood there’s one white family that Does Not Give a Fuck. You know the family I’m talking about. They don’t do their lawn, don’t paint the fence, don’t fix the roof. Their house is shit. My mom found that house and bought it, which is how she snuck a black family into a place as white as Highlands North.
Most black people integrating into white suburbs were moving to places like Bramley and Lombardy East. But for some reason my mom chose Highlands North. It was a suburban area, lots of shopping. Working people, mostly. Not wealthy but stable and middle-class. Older houses, but still a nice place to live. In Soweto I was the only white kid in the black township. In Eden Park I was the only mixed kid in the colored area. In Highlands North I was the only black kid in the white suburb—and by “only” I mean only. In Highlands North the white never took flight. It was a largely Jewish neighborhood, and Jewish people don’t flee. They’re done fleeing. They’ve already fled. They get to a place, build their shul, and hold it down. Since the white people around us weren’t leaving, there weren’t a lot of families like ours moving in behind us.
I didn’t make any friends in Highlands North for the longest time. I had an easier time making friends in Eden Park, to be honest. In the suburbs, everyone lived behind walls. The white neighborhoods of Johannesburg were built on white fear—fear of black crime, fear of black uprisings and reprisals—and as a result virtually every house sits behind a six-foot wall, and on top of that wall is electric wire. Everyone lives in a plush, fancy maximum-security prison. There is no sitting on the front porch, no saying hi to the neighbors, no kids running back and forth between houses. I’d ride my bike around the neighborhood for hours without seeing a single kid. I’d hear them, though. They were all meeting up behind brick walls for playdates I wasn’t invited to. I’d hear people laughing and playing and I’d get off my bike and creep up and peek over the wall and see a bunch of white kids splashing around in someone’s swimming pool. I was like a Peeping Tom, but for friendship.
It was only after a year or so that I figured out the key to making black friends in the suburbs: the children of domestics. Many domestic workers in South Africa, when they get pregnant they get fired. Or, if they’re lucky, the family they work for lets them stay on and they can have the baby, but then the baby goes to live with relatives in the homelands. Then the black mother raises the white children, seeing her own child only once a year at the holidays. But a handful of families would let their domestics keep their children with them, living in little maids’ quarters or flatlets in the backyard.
For a long time, those kids were my only friends.
At Sandringham I got to know this one kid, Teddy. Funny guy, charming as hell. My mom used to call him Bugs Bunny; he had a cheeky smile with two big teeth that stuck out the front of his mouth. Teddy and I got along like a house on fire, one of those friends where you start hanging out and from that day forward you’re never apart. We were both naughty as shit, too. With Teddy, I’d finally met someone who made me feel normal. I was the terror in my family. He was the terror in his family. When you put us together it was mayhem. Walking home from school we’d throw rocks through windows, just to see them shatter, and then we’d run away. We got detention together all the time. The teachers, the pupils, the principal, everyone at school knew: Teddy and Trevor, thick as thieves.
Teddy’s mom worked as a domestic for a family in Linksfield, a wealthy suburb near school. Linksfield was a long walk from my house, nearly forty minutes, but still doable. Walking around was pretty much all I did back then, anyway. I couldn’t afford to do anything else, and I couldn’t afford to get around any other way. If you liked walking, you were my friend. Teddy and I walked all over Johannesburg together. I’d walk to Teddy’s house and we’d hang out there. Then we’d walk back to my house and hang out there. We’d walk from my house down to the city center, which was like a three-hour hike, just to hang out, and then we’d walk all the way back.
Friday and Saturday nights we’d walk to the mall and hang out. The Balfour Park Shopping Mall was a few blocks from my house. It’s not a big mall, but it has everything—an arcade, a cinema, restaurants, South Africa’s version of Target, South Africa’s version of the Gap. Then, once we were at the mall, since we never had any money to shop or watch movies or buy food, we’d just wander around inside.
One night we were at the mall and most of the shops were closed, but the cinema was still showing movies so the building was still open. There was this stationery shop that sold greeting cards and magazines, and it didn’t have a door, so when it closed at night there was only a metal gate, like a trellis, that was pulled across the entrance and padlocked. Walking past this shop, Teddy and I realized that if we put our arms through the trellis we could reach this rack of chocolates just inside. And these weren’t just any chocolates—they were alcohol-filled chocolates. I loved alcohol. Loved loved loved it. My whole life I’d steal sips of grown-ups’ drinks whenever I could.
We reached in, grabbed a few, drank the liquor inside, and then gobbled down the chocolates. We’d hit the jackpot. We started going back again and again to steal more. We’d wait for the shops to start to close, then we’d go and sit against the gate, acting like we were just hanging out. We’d check to make sure the coast was clear, and then one of us would reach in, grab a chocolate, and drink the whiskey. Reach in, grab a chocolate, drink the rum. Reach in, grab a chocolate, drink the brandy. We did this every weekend for at least a month, having the best time. Then we pushed our luck too far.
It was a Saturday night. We were hanging out at the entrance to the stationery shop, leaning up against the gate. I reached in to grab a chocolate, and at that exact moment a mall cop came around the corner and saw me with my arm in up to my shoulder. I brought my hand out with a bunch of chocolates in it. It was almost like a movie. I saw him. He saw me. His eyes went wide. I tried to walk away, acting natural. Then he shouted out, “
And the chase was on. We bolted, heading for the doors. I knew if a guard cut us off at the exit we’d be trapped, so we were hauling ass as fast as we could. We cleared the exit. The second we hit the parking lot, mall cops were coming at us from every direction, a dozen of them at least. I was running with my head down. These guards knew me. I was in that mall all the time. The guards knew my mom, too. She did her banking at that mall. If they even caught a glimpse of who I was, I was dead.
We ran straight across the parking lot, ducking and weaving between parked cars, the guards right behind us, yelling. We made it to the petrol station out at the road, ran through there, and hooked left up the main road. They chased and chased and we ran and ran, and it was
. The risk of getting caught was half the fun of being naughty, and now the chase was on. I was loving it. I was shitting myself, but also loving it. This was my turf. This was my neighborhood. You couldn’t catch me in my neighborhood. I knew every alley and every street, every back wall to climb over, every fence with a gap big enough to slip through. I knew every shortcut you could possibly imagine. As a kid, wherever I went, whatever building I was in, I was always plotting my escape. You know, in case shit went down. In reality I was a nerdy kid with almost no friends, but in my mind I was an important and dangerous man who needed to know where every camera was and where all the exit points were.
I knew we couldn’t run forever. We needed a plan. As Teddy and I booked past the fire station there was a road off to the left, a dead end that ran into a metal fence. I knew that there was a hole in the fence to squeeze through and on the far side was an empty field behind the mall that took you back to the main road and back to my house. A grown-up couldn’t fit through the hole, but a kid could. All my years of imagining the life of a secret agent for myself finally paid off. Now that I needed an escape, I had one.
“Teddy, this way!” I yelled.
“No, it’s a dead end!”
“We can get through! Follow me!”
He didn’t. I turned and ran into the dead end. Teddy broke the other way. Half the mall cops followed him, half followed me. I got to the fence and knew exactly how to squirm through. Head, then shoulder, one leg, then twist, then the other leg—done. I was through. The guards hit the fence behind me and couldn’t follow. I ran across the field to a fence on the far side, popped through there, and then I was right on the road, three blocks from my house. I slipped my hands into my pockets and casually walked home, another harmless pedestrian out for a stroll.
Once I got back to my house I waited for Teddy. He didn’t show up. I waited thirty minutes, forty minutes, an hour. No Teddy.
I ran to Teddy’s house in Linksfield. No Teddy. Monday morning I went to school. Still no Teddy.
Now I was worried. After school I went home and checked at my house again, nothing. Teddy’s house again, nothing. Then I ran back home.
An hour later Teddy’s parents showed up. My mom greeted them at the door.
“Teddy’s been arrested for shoplifting,” they said.
I eavesdropped on their whole conversation from the other room. From the start my mom was certain I was involved.
“Well, where was Trevor?” she asked.
“Teddy said he wasn’t with Trevor,” they said.
My mom was skeptical. “Hmm. Are you
Trevor wasn’t involved?”
“No, apparently not. The cops said there was another kid, but he got away.”
“No, we asked Teddy, and he said it wasn’t Trevor. He said it was some other kid.”
“Huh…okay.” My mom called me in. “Do you know about this thing?”
“Teddy was caught shoplifting.”
I played dumb. “Noooo. That’s crazy. I can’t believe it.
“Where were you?” my mom asked.
“I was at home.”
“But you’re always with Teddy.”
I shrugged. “Not on this occasion, I suppose.”
For a moment my mom thought she’d caught me red-handed, but Teddy’d given me a solid alibi. I went back to my room, thinking I was in the clear.
The next day I was in class and my name was called over the PA system. “Trevor Noah, report to the principal’s office.” All the kids were like, “Ooooohhh.” The announcements could be heard in every classroom, so now, collectively, the whole school knew I was in trouble. I got up and walked to the office and waited anxiously on an uncomfortable wooden bench outside the door.
Finally the principal, Mr. Friedman, walked out. “Trevor, come in.” Waiting inside his office was the head of mall security, two uniformed police officers, and my and Teddy’s homeroom teacher, Mrs. Vorster. A roomful of silent, stone-faced white authority figures stood over me, the guilty young black man. My heart was pounding. I took a seat.
“Trevor, I don’t know if you know this,” Mr. Friedman said, “but Teddy was arrested the other day.”
I played the whole thing again. “Teddy? Oh, no. What for?”
“For shoplifting. He’s been expelled, and he won’t be coming back to school. We know there was another boy involved, and these officers are going around to the schools in the area to investigate. We called you here because Mrs. Vorster tells us you’re Teddy’s best friend, and we want to know: Do you know anything about this?”
I shook my head. “No, I don’t know anything.”
“Do you know who Teddy was with?”
“Okay.” He stood up and walked over to a television in the corner of the room. “Trevor, the police have video footage of the whole thing. We’d like you to take a look at it.”
My heart was pounding in my chest.
Well, life, it’s been fun,
I’m going to get expelled. I’m going to go to jail. This is it
Mr. Friedman pressed Play on the VCR. The tape started. It was grainy, black-and-white security-camera footage, but you could see what was happening plain as day. They even had it from multiple angles: Me and Teddy reaching through the gate. Me and Teddy racing for the door. They had the whole thing. After a few seconds, Mr. Friedman reached up and paused it with me, from a few meters out, freeze-framed in the middle of the screen. In my mind, this was when he was going to turn to me and say, “Now would you like to confess?” He didn’t.
“Trevor,” he said, “do you know of any white kids that Teddy hangs out with?”
I nearly shat myself.
I looked at the screen and I realized: Teddy was dark. I am light; I have olive skin. But the camera can’t expose for light and dark at the same time. So when you put me on a black-and-white screen next to a black person, the camera doesn’t know what to do. If the camera has to pick, it picks me as white. My color gets blown out. In this video, there was a black person and a white person. But still: It was me. The picture wasn’t great, and my facial features were a bit blurry, but if you looked closely: It was me. I was Teddy’s best friend. I was Teddy’s only friend. I was the
single most likely accomplice
. You had to at least
that it was me. They didn’t. They grilled me for a good ten minutes, but only because they were so sure that I had to know who this white kid was.
“Trevor, you’re Teddy’s best friend. Tell us the truth. Who is this kid?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t recognize him at all?”
“Teddy never mentioned him to you?”
At a certain point Mrs. Vorster just started running through a list of all the white kids she thought it could be.
“Is it David?”
I kept waiting for it to be a trick, for them to turn and say, “It’s
!” They didn’t. At a certain point, I felt so invisible I almost wanted to take credit. I wanted to jump up and point at the TV and say, “Are you people blind?! That’s me! Can you not see that that’s me?!” But of course I didn’t. And they couldn’t. These people had been so fucked by their own construct of race that they could not see that the white person they were looking for was sitting right in front of them.
Eventually they sent me back to class. I spent the rest of the day and the next couple of weeks waiting for the other shoe to drop, waiting for my mom to get the call. “We’ve got him! We figured it out!” But the call never came.