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My mom never gave me an inch. Anytime I got in trouble it was tough love, lectures, punishment, and hidings. Every time. For every infraction. You get that with a lot of black parents. They’re trying to discipline you before the system does. “I need to do this to you before the police do it to you.” Because that’s all black parents are thinking from the day you’re old enough to walk out into the street, where the law is waiting.

In Alex, getting arrested was a fact of life. It was so common that out on the corner we had a sign for it, a shorthand, clapping your wrists together like you were being put in handcuffs. Everyone knew what that meant.

“Where’s Bongani?”

Wrist clap.

“Oh, shit. When?”

“Friday night.”


My mom hated the hood. She didn’t like my friends there. If I brought them back to the house, she didn’t even want them coming inside. “I don’t like those boys,” she’d say. She didn’t hate them personally; she hated what they represented. “You and those boys get into so much shit,” she’d say. “You must be careful who you surround yourself with because where you are can determine who you are.” She said the thing she hated most about the hood was that it didn’t pressure me to become better. She wanted me to hang out with my cousin at his university.

“What’s the difference if I’m at university or I’m in the hood?” I’d say. “It’s not like I’m going to university.”

“Yes, but the pressure of the university is going to get you. I know you. You won’t sit by and watch these guys become better than you. If you’re in an environment that is positive and progressive, you too will become that. I keep telling you to change your life, and you don’t. One day you’re going to get arrested, and when you do, don’t call me. I’ll tell the police to lock you up just to teach you a lesson.” Because there were some black parents who’d actually do that, not pay their kid’s bail, not hire their kid a lawyer—the ultimate tough love. But it doesn’t always work, because you’re giving the kid tough love when maybe he just needs love. You’re trying to teach him a lesson, and now that lesson is the rest of his life.

One morning I saw an ad in the paper. Some shop was having a clearance sale on mobile phones, and they were selling them at such a ridiculous price I knew Bongani and I could flip them in the hood for a profit. This shop was out in the suburbs, too far to walk and too out-of-the-way to take a minibus. Fortunately my stepfather’s workshop and a bunch of old cars were in our backyard.

I’d been stealing Abel’s junkers to get around since I was fourteen. I would say I was test driving them to make sure they’d been repaired correctly. Abel didn’t think that was funny. I’d been caught many times, caught and subjected to my mother’s wrath. But that had never stopped me from doing anything.

Most of these junkers weren’t street legal. They didn’t have proper registrations or proper number plates. Luckily, Abel also had a stack of old number plates in the back of the garage. I quickly learned I could just put one on an old car and hit the road. I was nineteen, maybe twenty, not thinking about any of the ramifications of this. I stopped by Abel’s garage when no one was around, picked up one of the cars, the red Mazda I’d taken to the matric dance, slapped some old plates on it, and set off in search of discounted cell phones.

I got pulled over in Hillbrow. Cops in South Africa don’t give you a reason when they pull you over. Cops pull you over because they’re cops and they have the power to pull you over; it’s as simple as that. I used to watch American movies where cops would pull people over and say, “You didn’t signal” or “Your taillight’s out.” I’d always wonder, Why do American cops bother lying? One thing I appreciate about South Africa is that we have not yet refined the system to the point where we feel the need to lie.

“Do you know why I pulled you over?”

“Because you’re a policeman and I’m a black person?”

“That’s correct. License and registration, please.”

When the cop pulled me over, it was one of those situations where I wanted to say, “Hey, I know you guys are racially profiling me!” But I couldn’t argue the case because I was, at that moment, actually breaking the law. The cop walked up to my window, asked me the standard cop questions. Where are you going? Is this your car? Whose car is this? I couldn’t answer. I completely froze.

Being young, funnily enough, I was more worried about getting in trouble with my parents than with the law. I’d had run-ins with the cops in Alexandra, in Soweto, but it was always more about the circumstance: a party getting shut down, a raid on a minibus. The law was all around me, but it had never come down on me, Trevor, specifically. And when you haven’t had much experience with the law, the law appears rational—cops are dicks for the most part, but you also recognize that they’re doing a job.

Your parents, on the other hand, are not rational at all. They have served as judge, jury, and executioner for your entire childhood, and it feels like they give you a life sentence for every misdemeanor. In that moment, when I should have been scared of the cop, all I was thinking was Shit shit shit; I’m in so much trouble when I get home.

The cop called in the number-plate registration and discovered that it didn’t match the car. Now he was really on my case. “This car is not in your name! What’s going on with these plates?! Step out of the vehicle!” It was only then that I realized: Ohhhhh, shit. Now I’m in real trouble. I stepped out of the car, and he put the cuffs on me and told me I was being arrested on suspicion of driving a stolen vehicle. He took me in, and the car was impounded.

The Hillbrow police station looks exactly like every other police station in South Africa. They were all built by the same contractor at the height of apartheid—separate nodes in the central nervous system of a police state. If you were blindfolded and taken from one to the other, you probably wouldn’t even know that you’d changed locations. They’re sterile, institutional, with fluorescent lights and cheap floor tile, like a hospital. My cop walked me in and sat me down at the front booking desk. I was charged and fingerprinted.

In the meantime, they’d been checking out the car, which wasn’t going well for me, either. Whenever I borrowed cars from Abel’s workshop, I tried to take the junkers rather than a real client’s car; I thought I’d get in less trouble that way. That was a mistake. The Mazda, being one of Abel’s junkers, didn’t have a clear title of ownership. If it had had an owner, the cops would have called the owner, the owner would have explained that the car had been dropped off for repairs, and the whole thing would have been sorted out. Since the car didn’t have an owner, I couldn’t prove I hadn’t stolen it.

Carjackings were common in South Africa at the time, too. So common you weren’t even surprised when they happened. You’d have a friend coming over for a dinner party and you’d get a call.

“Sorry. Got carjacked. Gonna be late.”

“Ah, that sucks. Hey, guys! Dave got carjacked.”

“Sorry, Dave!”

And the party would continue. And that’s if the person survived the carjacking. Often they didn’t. People were getting shot for their cars all the time. Not only could I not prove I hadn’t stolen the car, I couldn’t prove I hadn’t murdered someone for it, either. The cops were grilling me. “You kill anyone to get that car, boy? Eh? You a killer?” I was in deep, deep trouble. I had only one lifeline: my parents. One call would have fixed everything. “This is my stepfather. He’s a mechanic. I borrowed his car when I shouldn’t have.” Done. At worst I’d get a slap on the wrist for driving a car that wasn’t registered. But what would I be getting at home?

I sat there in the police station—arrested for suspicion of grand theft auto, a plausible suspect for carjacking or murder—and debated whether I should call my parents or go to jail. With my stepfather I was thinking, He might actually kill me. In my mind that was an entirely realistic scenario. With my mother I was thinking, She’s going to make this worse. She’s not the character witness I want right now. She won’t help me. Because she’d told me she wouldn’t. “If you ever get arrested, don’t call me.” I needed someone sympathetic to my plight, and I didn’t believe she was that person. So I didn’t call my parents. I decided I didn’t need them. I was a man. I could go it alone. I used my call to phone my cousin and told him not to tell anyone what had happened while I figured out what to do—now I just had to figure out what to do.

I’d been picked up late in the afternoon, so by the time I was processed it was close to lights-out. I was spending the night in jail, like it or not. It was at that point that a cop pulled me aside and told me what I was in for.

The way the system works in South Africa is that you’re arrested and held in a cell at the police station until your bail hearing. At the hearing, the judge looks at your case, hears arguments from the opposing sides, and then he either dismisses the charges or sets bail and a trial date. If you can make bail, you pay and go home. But there are all sorts of ways your bail hearing can go wrong: You get some court-appointed lawyer who hasn’t read your case and doesn’t know what’s going on. Your family can’t pay your bail. It could even be that the court’s backed up. “Sorry, we’re too busy. No more hearings today.” It doesn’t matter the reason. Once you leave jail, you can’t go back to jail. If your situation isn’t resolved that day, you go to prison to await trial. In prison you’re housed with the people awaiting trial, not with the general population, but even the awaiting-trial section is incredibly dangerous because you have people picked up for traffic violations all the way up to proper hardened criminals. You’re stuck there together, and you can be there for days, weeks, maybe months. It’s the same way in America. If you’re poor, if you don’t know how the system works, you can slip through the cracks, and the next thing you know you’re in this weird purgatory where you’re not in prison but you’re not not in prison. You haven’t been convicted of any crime, but you’re still locked up and can’t get out.

This cop pulled me aside and said, “Listen, you don’t want to go to your bail hearing. They’ll give you a state attorney who won’t know what’s going on. He’ll have no time for you. He’ll ask the judge for a postponement, and then maybe you’ll go free or maybe you won’t. Trust me, you don’t want to do that. You have the right to stay here for as long as you like. You want to meet with a lawyer and set yourself up before you go anywhere near a court or a judge.” He wasn’t giving me this advice out of the goodness of his heart. He had a deal with a defense attorney, sending him clients in exchange for a kickback. He handed me the attorney’s business card, I called him, and he agreed to take my case. He told me to stay put while he handled everything.

Now I needed money, because lawyers, as nice as they are, don’t do anything for free. I called a friend and asked him if he could ask his dad to borrow some money. He said he’d handle it. He talked to his dad, and the lawyer got his retainer the next day.

With the lawyer taken care of, I felt like I had things under control. I was feeling pretty slick. I’d handled the situation, and, most important, Mom and Abel were none the wiser.

When the time came for lights-out a cop came and took my stuff. My belt, my wallet, my shoelaces.

“Why do you need my shoelaces?”

“So you don’t hang yourself.”


Even when he said that, the gravity of my situation still wasn’t sinking in. Walking to the station’s holding cell, looking around at the other six guys in there, I was thinking, This is no big deal. Everything’s gonna be cool. I’m gonna get out of this. I thought that right up until the moment the cell door clanged shut behind me and the guard yelled, “Lights out!” That’s when I thought, Oh, shit. This is real.

The guards had given me a mat and a scratchy blanket. I rolled them out on the concrete floor and tried to get comfortable. Every bad prison movie I’d ever seen was racing through my head. I was thinking, I’m gonna get raped. I’m gonna get raped. I’m gonna get raped. But of course I didn’t get raped, because this wasn’t prison. It was jail, and there’s a big difference, as I would soon come to understand.

I woke up the next morning with that fleeting sensation where you think something has all been a dream. Then I looked around and remembered that it wasn’t. Breakfast came, and I settled in to wait.

A day in jail is mostly silence punctuated by passing guards shouting profanities at you, doing roll call. Inside the holding cell nobody says anything. Nobody walks into a jail cell and says, “Hi, guys! I’m Brian!” Because everyone is afraid, and no one wants to appear vulnerable. Nobody wants to be the bitch. Nobody wants to be the guy getting killed. I didn’t want anyone to know that I was just a kid in for a traffic charge, so I reached back in my mind for all the stereotypes of what I imagined people act like in prison, and then I tried to act like that.

In South Africa, everyone knows that colored gangsters are the most ruthless, the most savage. It’s a stereotype that’s fed to you your whole life. The most notorious colored gangs are the Numbers Gangs: the 26s, the 27s, the 28s. They control the prisons. They’re known for being brutally violent—maiming, torturing, raping, cutting off people’s heads—not for the sake of making money but just to prove how ruthless and savage they are, like Mexican drug cartels. In fact a lot of these gangs base their thing on those Mexican gangs. They have the same look: the Converse All Stars with the Dickies pants and the open shirt buttoned only at the top.

By the time I was a teenager, anytime I was profiled by cops or security guards, it usually wasn’t because I was black but because I looked colored. I went to a club once with my cousin and his friend. The bouncer searched Mlungisi, waved him in. He searched our friend, waved him in. Then he searched me and got up in my face.

“Where’s your knife?”

“I don’t have a knife.”

“I know you have a knife somewhere. Where is it?”

He searched and searched and finally gave up and let me in, looking me over like I was trouble.

“No shit from you! Okay?”

I figured that if I was in jail people were going to assume I was the kind of colored person who ends up in jail, a violent criminal. So I played it up. I put on this character; I played the stereotype. Anytime the cops asked me questions I started speaking in broken Afrikaans with a thick colored accent. Imagine a white guy in America, just dark enough to pass for Latino, walking around jail doing bad Mexican-gangster dialogue from the movies. “Shit’s about to get loco, ese.” That’s basically what I was doing—the South African version of that. This was my brilliant plan to survive incarceration. But it worked. The guys in the cell with me, they were there for drunk driving, for domestic abuse, for petty theft. They had no idea what real colored gangsters were like. Everyone left me alone.

We were all playing a game, only nobody knew we were playing it. When I walked in that first night, everyone was giving me this look: “I’m dangerous. Don’t fuck with me.” So I went, “Shit, these people are hardened criminals. I shouldn’t be here, because I am not a criminal.” Then the next day everything turned over quickly. One by one, guys left to go to their hearings, I stayed to wait for my lawyer, and new people started to pitch up. Now I was the veteran, doing my colored-gangster routine, giving the new guys the same look: “I’m dangerous. Don’t fuck with me.” And they looked at me and went, “Shit, he’s a hardened criminal. I shouldn’t be here, because I am not like him.” And round and round we went.

At a certain point it occurred to me that every single person in that cell might be faking it. We were all decent guys from nice neighborhoods and good families, picked up for unpaid parking tickets and other infractions. We could have been having a great time sharing meals, playing cards, and talking about women and soccer. But that didn’t happen, because everyone had adopted this dangerous pose and nobody talked because everyone was afraid of who the other guys were pretending to be. Now those guys were going to get out and go home to their families and say, “Oh, honey, that was rough. Those were some real criminals in there. There was this one colored guy. Man, he was a killer.” Once I had the game sorted out, I was good again. I relaxed. I was back to thinking, I got this. This is no big deal. The food was actually decent. For breakfast they brought you these peanut butter sandwiches on thick slices of bread. Lunch was chicken and rice. The tea was too hot, and it was more water than tea, but it was drinkable. There were older, hard-time prisoners close to parole, and their detail was to come and clean the cells and circulate books and magazines for you to read. It was quite relaxing.

There was one point when I remember eating a meal and saying to myself, This isn’t so bad. I hang around with a bunch of dudes. There’s no chores. No bills to pay. No one constantly nagging me and telling me what to do. Peanut butter sandwiches? Shit, I eat peanut butter sandwiches all the time. This is pretty sweet. I could do this. I was so afraid of the ass-whooping waiting for me at home that I genuinely considered going to prison. For a brief moment I thought I had a plan. “I’ll go away for a couple of years, come back, and say I was kidnapped, and mom will never know and she’ll just be happy to see me.” —

On the third day, the cops brought in the largest man I’d ever seen. This guy was huge. Giant muscles. Dark skin. Hardened face. He looked like he could kill all of us. Me and the other prisoners who’d been acting tough with one another—the second he walked in our tough-guy routines were over. Everyone was terrified. We all stared at him. “Oh, fuck…” For whatever reason this guy was half naked when the cops picked him up. He was wearing clothes the police had scrounged up for him at the station, this torn-up wifebeater that was way too small, pants so short on him they looked like capris. He looked like a black version of the Incredible Hulk.

This guy went and sat alone in the corner. Nobody said a word. Everyone watched and waited, nervously, to see what he would do. Then one of the cops came back and called the Hulk over; they needed information from him. The cop started asking him a bunch of questions, but the guy kept shaking his head and saying he didn’t understand. The cop was speaking Zulu. The Hulk was speaking Tsonga. Black person to black person, and neither could understand the other—the Tower of Babel. Few people in South Africa speak Tsonga, but since my stepfather was Tsonga I had picked it up along the way. I overheard the cop and the other guy going back and forth with nothing getting across, so I stepped in and translated for them and sorted everything out.

Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” He was so right. When you make the effort to speak someone else’s language, even if it’s just basic phrases here and there, you are saying to them, “I understand that you have a culture and identity that exists beyond me. I see you as a human being.” That is exactly what happened with the Hulk. The second I spoke to him, this face that had seemed so threatening and mean lit up with gratitude. “Ah, na khensa, na khensa, na khensa. Hi wena mani? Mufana wa mukhaladi u xitiela kwini xiTsonga? U huma kwini?” “Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you. Who are you? How does a colored guy know Tsonga? Where are you from?” Once we started talking I realized he wasn’t the Hulk at all. He was the sweetest man, a gentle giant, the biggest teddy bear in the world. He was simple, not educated. I’d assumed he was in for murder, for squashing a family to death with his bare hands, but it wasn’t anything like that. He’d been arrested for shoplifting PlayStation games. He was out of work and needed money to send to his family back home, and when he saw how much these games sold for he thought he could steal a few and sell them to white kids and make a lot of money. As soon as he told me that, I knew he wasn’t some hardened criminal. I know the world of pirated things—stolen videogames have no value because it’s cheaper and less risky to copy them, like Bolo’s parents did.

I tried to help him out a bit. I told him my trick of putting off your bail hearing to get your defense together, so he stayed in the cell, too, biding his time, and we hit it off and hung out for a few days, having a good time, getting to know each other. No one else in the cell knew what to make of us, the ruthless colored gangster and his menacing, Hulk-like friend. He told me his story, a South African story that was all too familiar to me: The man grows up under apartheid, working on a farm, part of what’s essentially a slave labor force. It’s a living hell but it’s at least something. He’s paid a pittance but at least he’s paid. He’s told where to be and what to do every waking minute of his day. Then apartheid ends and he doesn’t even have that anymore. He finds his way to Johannesburg, looking for work, trying to feed his children back home. But he’s lost. He has no education. He has no skills. He doesn’t know what to do, doesn’t know where to be. The world has been taught to be scared of him, but the reality is that he is scared of the world because he has none of the tools necessary to cope with it. So what does he do? He takes shit. He becomes a petty thief. He’s in and out of jail. He gets lucky and finds some construction work, but then he gets laid off from that, and a few days later he’s in a shop and he sees some PlayStation games and he grabs them, but he doesn’t even know enough to know that he’s stolen something of no value.

I felt terrible for him. The more time I spent in jail, the more I realized that the law isn’t rational at all. It’s a lottery. What color is your skin? How much money do you have? Who’s your lawyer? Who’s the judge? Shoplifting PlayStation games was less of an offense than driving with bad number plates. He had committed a crime, but he was no more a criminal than I was. The difference was that he didn’t have any friends or family to help him out. He couldn’t afford anything but a state attorney. He was going to go stand in the dock, unable to speak or understand English, and everyone in the courtroom was going to assume the worst of him. He was going to go to prison for a while and then be set free with the same nothing he had going in. If I had to guess, he was around thirty-five, forty years old, staring down another thirty-five, forty years of the same.

The day of my hearing came. I said goodbye to my new friend and wished him the best. Then I was handcuffed and put in the back of a police van and driven to the courthouse to meet my fate. In South African courts, to minimize your exposure and your opportunities for escape, the holding cell where you await your hearing is a massive pen below the courtroom; you walk up a set of stairs into the dock rather than being escorted through the corridors. What happens in the holding cell is you’re mixed in with the people who’ve been in prison awaiting trial for weeks and months. It’s a weird mix, everything from white-collar criminals to guys picked up on traffic stops to real, hardcore criminals covered with prison tattoos. It’s like the cantina scene from Star Wars, where the band’s playing music and Han Solo’s in the corner and all of the bad guys and bounty hunters from all over the universe are hanging out—a wretched hive of scum and villainy, only there’s no music and there’s no Han Solo.

I was with these people for only a brief window of time, but in that moment I saw the difference between prison and jail. I saw the difference between criminals and people who’ve committed crimes. I saw the hardness in people’s faces. I thought back on how naive I’d been just hours before, thinking jail wasn’t so bad and I could handle it. I was now truly afraid of what might happen to me.

When I walked into that holding pen, I was a smooth-skinned, fresh-faced young man. At the time, I had a giant Afro, and the only way to control it was to have it tied back in this ponytail thing that looked really girly. I looked like Maxwell. The guards closed the door behind me, and this creepy old dude yelled out in Zulu from the back, “Ha, ha, ha! Hhe madoda! Angikaze ngibone indoda enhle kangaka! Sizoba nobusuku obuhle!” “Yo, yo, yo! Damn, guys. I’ve never seen a man this beautiful before. It’s gonna be a good night tonight!” Fuuuuuuuuuck.

Right next to me as I walked in was a young man having a complete meltdown, talking to himself, bawling his eyes out. He looked up and locked eyes with me, and I guess he thought I looked like a kindred soul he could talk to. He came straight at me and started crying about how he’d been arrested and thrown in jail and the gangs had stolen his clothes and his shoes and raped him and beat him every day. He wasn’t some ruffian. He was well-spoken, educated. He’d been waiting for a year for his case to be heard; he wanted to kill himself. That guy put the fear of God in me.

I looked around the holding cell. There were easily a hundred guys in there, all of them spread out and huddled into their clearly and unmistakably defined racial groups: a whole bunch of black people in one corner, the colored people in a different corner, a couple of Indians off to themselves, and a handful of white guys off to one side. The guys who’d been with me in the police van, the second we walked in, they instinctively, automatically, walked off to join the groups they belonged to. I froze.

I didn’t know where to go.

I looked over at the colored corner. I was staring at the most notorious, most violent prison gang in South Africa. I looked like them, but I wasn’t them. I couldn’t go over there doing my fake gangster shit and have them discover I was a fraud. No, no, no. That game was over, my friend. The last thing I needed was colored gangsters up against me.

But then what if I went to the black corner? I know that I’m black and I identify as black, but I’m not a black person on the face of it, so would the black guys understand why I was walking over? And what kind of shit would I start by going there? Because going to the black corner as a perceived colored person might piss off the colored gangs even more than going to the colored corner as a fake colored person. Because that’s what had happened to me my entire life. Colored people would see me hanging out with blacks, and they’d confront me, want to fight me. I saw myself starting a race war in the holding cell.

“Hey! Why are you hanging out with the blacks?”

“Because I am black.”

“No, you’re not. You’re colored.”

“Ah, yes. I know it looks that way, friend, but let me explain. It’s a funny story, actually. My father is white and my mother is black and race is a social construct, so…”

That wasn’t going to work. Not here.

All of this was happening in my head in an instant, on the fly. I was doing crazy calculations, looking at people, scanning the room, assessing the variables. If I go here, then this. If I go there, then that. My whole life was flashing before me—the playground at school, the spaza shops in Soweto, the streets of Eden Park—every time and every place I ever had to be a chameleon, navigate between groups, explain who I was. It was like the high school cafeteria, only it was the high school cafeteria from hell because if I picked the wrong table I might get beaten or stabbed or raped. I’d never been more scared in my life. But I still had to pick. Because racism exists, and you have to pick a side. You can say that you don’t pick sides, but eventually life will force you to pick a side.

That day I picked white. They just didn’t look like they could hurt me. It was a handful of average, middle-aged white dudes. I walked over to them. We hung out for a while, chatted a bit. They were mostly in for white-collar crimes, money schemes, fraud and racketeering. They’d be useless if anyone came over looking to start trouble; they’d get their asses kicked as well. But they weren’t going to do anything to me. I was safe.

Luckily the time went by fairly quickly. I was in there for only an hour before I was called up to court, where a judge would either let me go or send me to prison to await trial. As I was leaving, one of the white guys reached over to me. “Make sure you don’t come back down here,” he said. “Cry in front of the judge; do whatever you have to do. If you go up and get sent back down here, your life will never be the same.” Up in the courtroom, I found my lawyer waiting. My cousin Mlungisi was there, too, in the gallery, ready to post my bail if things went my way.

The bailiff read out my case number, and the judge looked up at me.

“How are you?” he said.

I broke down. I’d been putting on this tough-guy facade for nearly a week, and I just couldn’t do it anymore.

“I-I’m not fine, Your Honor. I’m not fine.”

He looked confused. “What?!”

I said, “I’m not fine, sir. I’m really suffering.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Because you asked how I was.”

“Who asked you?”

“You did. You just asked me.”

“I didn’t say, ‘How are you?’ I said, ‘Who are you?’ Why would I waste time asking ‘How are you?’! This is jail. I know everyone is suffering down there. If I asked everyone ‘How are you?’ we’d be here all day. I said, ‘Who are you?’ State your name for the record.” “Trevor Noah.”

“Okay. Now we can carry on.”

The whole courtroom started laughing, so then I started laughing, too. But now I was even more petrified because I didn’t want the judge to think I wasn’t taking him seriously because I was laughing.

It turned out that I needn’t have been worried. Everything that happened next took only a few minutes. My lawyer had talked to the prosecutor and everything had been arranged beforehand. He presented my case. I had no priors. I wasn’t dangerous. There were no objections from the opposing side. The judge assigned my trial date and set my bail, and I was free to go.

I walked out of court and the light of day hit my face and I said, “Sweet Jesus, I am never going back there again.” It had been only a week, in a cell that wasn’t terribly uncomfortable with food that wasn’t half bad, but a week in jail is a long, long time. A week without shoelaces is a long, long time. A week with no clocks, with no sun, can feel like an eternity. The thought of anything worse, the thought of doing real time in a real prison, I couldn’t even imagine.

I drove with Mlungisi to his place, took a shower, and slept there. The next day he dropped me back at my mom’s house. I strolled up the driveway acting real casual. My plan was to say I’d been crashing with Mlungisi for a few days. I walked into the house like nothing had happened. “Hey, Mom! What’s up?” Mom didn’t say anything, didn’t ask me any questions. I was like, Okay. Cool. We’re good.

I stayed for most of the day. Later in the afternoon we were sitting at the kitchen table, talking. I was telling all these stories, going on about everything Mlungisi and I had been up to that week, and I caught my mom giving me this look, slowly shaking her head. It was a different look than I had ever seen her give before. It wasn’t “One day, I’m going to catch you.” It wasn’t anger or disapproval. It was disappointment. She was hurt.

“What?” I said. “What is it?”

She said, “Boy, who do you think paid your bail? Hmm? Who do you think paid your lawyer? Do you think I’m an idiot? Did you think no one would tell me?”

The truth came spilling out. Of course she’d known: the car. It had been missing the whole time. I’d been so wrapped up in dealing with jail and covering my tracks I’d forgotten that the proof of my crime was right there in the yard, the red Mazda missing from the driveway. And of course when I called my friend and he’d asked his dad for the money for the lawyer, the dad had pressed him on what the money was for and, being a parent himself, had called my mother immediately. She’d given my friend the money to pay the lawyer. She’d given my cousin the money to pay my bail. I’d spent the whole week in jail thinking I was so slick. But she’d known everything the whole time.

“I know you see me as some crazy old bitch nagging at you,” she said, “but you forget the reason I ride you so hard and give you so much shit is because I love you. Everything I have ever done I’ve done from a place of love. If I don’t punish you, the world will punish you even worse. The world doesn’t love you. If the police get you, the police don’t love you. When I beat you, I’m trying to save you. When they beat you, they’re trying to kill you.” My favorite thing to eat as a kid, and still my favorite dessert of all time, was custard and jelly, what Americans would call Jell-O. One Saturday my mom was planning for a big family celebration and she made a huge bowl of custard and jelly and put it in the fridge. It had every flavor: red, green, and yellow. I couldn’t resist it. That whole day, every time I walked past the fridge I’d pop my head in with a spoon and sneak a bite. This was a giant bowl, meant to last for a week for the whole family. I finished it in one day by myself.

That night I went to bed and I got absolutely butchered by mosquitoes. Mosquitoes love to feast on me, and when I was a kid it was bad. They would destroy me at night. I would wake up covered with bites and feel ill to my stomach and itchy all over. Which was exactly what happened this particular Sunday morning. Covered with mosquito bites, my stomach bloated with custard and jelly, I could barely get out of bed. I felt like I was going to vomit. Then my mom walked in.

“Get dressed,” she said. “We’re going to church.”

“I don’t feel well.”

“That’s why we’re going to church. That’s where Jesus is going to heal you.”

“Eh, I’m not sure that’s how it works.”

My mom and I had different ideas about how Jesus worked. She believed that you pray to Jesus and then Jesus pitches up and does the thing that you need. My views on Jesus were more reality-based.

“Why don’t I take medicine,” I said, “and then pray to Jesus to thank him for giving us the doctors who invented medicine, because medicine is what makes you feel better, not Jesus.”

“You don’t need medicine if you have Jesus. Jesus will heal you. Pray to Jesus.”

“But is medicine not a blessing from Jesus? And if Jesus gives us medicine and we do not take the medicine, are we not denying the grace that he has given us?”

Like all of our debates about Jesus, this conversation went nowhere.

“Trevor,” she said, “if you don’t go to church you’re going to get worse. You’re lucky you got sick on Sunday, because now we’re going to church and you can pray to Jesus and Jesus is going to heal you.”

“That sounds nice, but why don’t I just stay home?”

“No. Get dressed. We’re going to church.”

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