A Xe Om Tale
It’s called a xe om. Say “say awm.”
You’ve always got to have “small money” in your pocket. In Vietnam or any other “Third World” country, any poor country, you need small money. There are too many people who simply can’t or won’t break a five. Or a six, as the case may be. Here in Vietnam, for example, we have the 50,000-dong note. A laughably big number for a sum that amounts to a three-dollar bill. Years ago I asked a beggar here, when he pressed me for alms, for change of a 50,000-dong note. More the fool I. The poor old sod had maybe one one-hundredth of that in his krinkly, wrinkled hands. Then there was the time in Mexico when I was pulled over by a traffic cop. I earnestly tried to convince him that the stop sign was hidden by the tree (so providently placed), and so I couldn’t see it. He politely responded, “It’s not much money, señor.” The smallest I had was a tenner. I asked him if he had change. He might have had a pocket full of ones and fives, but the answer was, of course, a smiling “Sorry, señor.” I ponied up the ten-spot. Lesson learned. Carry small money. Always, carry small money. taxi
I need small money every day. Even at home in apartment 608 in “suburban” Saigon. I tip the beer delivery guy sixty cents. Bills don’t come in the mail; somebody rings your doorbell and collects. Water, electricity, and internet are not big but not small. But the guy who sweeps the halls collects twenty-five cents per apartment per month. The elevators operate as a concession: buck and a quarter per head per month. In the event of a power outage (which happens about once a month) we are dunned a few pennies for the emergency generator that keeps the elevator concession operating. That’s another ring of the bell and the need for small money. Processing the receipts I require can cost more than the fees collected, so they write them out by hand on scraps of note paper that has already been used on the other side.
Out on the town it’s the beggars, the street vendors who offer sandwiches at thirty cents apiece, candy money for neighborhood kids, a dime’s worth of dong for the newspaper girl, an errand run by someone with no other useful labor to perform, and the motorbike taxi drivers. They are known as xe om drivers and they usually drive a small 100cc bike. I need these guys every day. They are quicker than a taxi, as they can split lanes, and they tend to know the streets better. You often have to wait for a taxi, but on any busy intersection a clutch of xe om drivers are sitting astride (or sometimes napping on) their idle bikes waiting patiently (or resignedly) for a fare. And they are cheaper than a taxi. They zip me across town for 20,000 dong, about a dollar and a dime. Small money.
Most of the xe om drivers are poor men driving secondhand bikes. Many are sixty-year-old veterans of the losing side of the war. Others might be farmers from the delta who went bust. Still others might be skilled or unskilled laborers when the work is available. On a good day the xe om might net five dollars. He’ll put in ten hours a day, but gas isn’t cheap. His local Vietnamese patrons pay less than I do. And he has to render unto Caesar in the forms of both local police and local mafia. Whether he makes any money or not. If he wants to keep his bike, which may be a loaner or a rental. And on his meager income he must support himself and maybe a family.
Of course not all are poor. Some are “middle class” young men trying to while away their free time and earn a little folding money. The poor guys hate them, for obvious reasons. But, hey, everyone’s out for a buck. Right? Some, like my regular daytime guy “Joe,” are entrepreneurs. He gathers a posse of less enterprising drivers, and then establishes a relationship with guys like me. His drivers have the prospect of a few fares a day and I have a driver waiting at the door who already knows where I want to go and how to get there. I don’t know what cut of the small money Joe gets or how many guys he has, but he’s doing well by the local measure. His bike is one of the better models. Joe protects his turf, too. One time a threadbare outsider in need of a shave and a haircut tried to pick me up at the front door on a beat-up old bike. Joe came at him screaming like a banshee and threatening to bean the guy with his brand new fancy helmet. A loud discussion ensued. Joe grabbed me by the arm and tried to drag me to his side. I threw off his grip and told the both of them to go to hell. I stomped off and found a neutral set of wheels to get me to where I was going. I punished Joe with a boycott for considering me his personal resource. But I relented after two days. He’s just too handy. And small money, too!
Well, I had a tiff with the landlady the other day, and it was about money somewhat bigger than small. A simple mix-up with the internet bill. “Make trouble for MEEEEEEE!” she wailed, and looked daggers at me. Hells bells, it wasn’t even my fault. It was the one-eyed internet bill collector who mixed up the mix-up. But her highness had only one person’s troubles in mind: MEEEEEE! “Now I have to talk to the man,” she complained. Which meant she would have to put on a pair of her Imelda Marcos shoes and walk across the street. And then who would be left to sit idly on the stoop and collect the rents of a dozen or more properties while sipping tea and munching melon seeds? One thing for sure, it wasn’t going to be MEEEEEEE!
In order to sort out the mess I had to zip across town to the internet people to make sure they know that it is I, the foreigner, who lives at 608 and not some local guy with a similar address. Joe’s posse were all out on various runs. But before a nefarious interloper with patched pants and broken teeth could scoop me up on a battered old bike, Joe roared up between us and I hopped on his ride. I was in a hurry. I had no patience for the competition. If the competition isn’t Johnny on the spot, then it’s Joey on the spot for me, thought I. I’m willing to help a poor guy out now and then, but dammit, he’s got to be quick.
We caromed across town at top speed until I was deposited at the requisite offices of the august operators of the www. I told Joe not to wait, not knowing how long this would take. Turns out it wasn’t long. They had got their money from the other guy. Having got theirs, they were satisfied. So I came out of the office and saw that I had a choice of half a dozen drivers all vying for my custom. I recognized a broken-down old guy I call Sam. I’d used him a couple of times before. He knew the way home. Joe gives him the stink-eye when he comes around, but I don’t like to get involved in their disputes. I summoned him. He putted up to me on what must have been at least a ten-year-old bike. Doesn’t even have an electric starter like virtually all the newer ones have nowadays. And it needs a bit of upkeep. So does he.
So when he pulled up he lifted a piece of white terry cloth from the rear seat of his bike. Keeps the tropical sun off the black leatherette, making it much cooler for sitting on. Nice touch, Sam. On the way home we had to stop at traffic lights. He made a point of pulling up short in order to pause under the trees that line the main roads of the city, for a bit of cooling shade. Nice touches, I think. Too bad he doesn’t have a posse. I figured maybe I’d talk to Joe about him. Give the old guy a break.
And then we arrived back at 608, Chung Cu, Ngo Tat To Street. I dismounted. I removed the helmet that he is legally required to provide for my safety. I reached into my pocket for the dollar and a dime that he had earned. And all I had was big money. It is my habit, whenever going out the door, to check the contents of my money pocket for both the total amount as well as the presence of small money. But I had been in such a hurry, and been distracted. And now I was going to pay the price. I could just hear that Mexican traffic cop snickering and saying, “It’s not much money, señor.” Well that’s not the point, is it? I don’t like being taken for a ride after being taken for a ride. And if they know you’ve paid too much once, they’ll make up reasons for you to pay too much in the future.
Knowing the answer, I handed him the smallest I had, a “three-dollar bill,” and asked if he had change. “No,” he said, with eyes downcast in acceptable humility. I shoved it toward him in a gesture that said, “Well then take it, you son-of-a-bitch.” With a certain delicacy he accepted the 50,000-dong note, switched off his bike and dismounted. Without saying anything, his little half helmet still on his head, he padded over to a nearby sidewalk café and asked for change of the big money. They shooed him away for a barefoot beggar. I figured they would. They usually do. Two more cafés yielded him one dismissive gesture and one shout to go away. He was standing in the street with the big money in his hand and nowhere to go. He looked my way and saw that I was standing in the midday tropic sun and sweating bullets, my patience wearing thin. I was about to give him the finger and retreat into the air-con comfort of 608 where a cold beer and a hot female companion were waiting for me. Lunch, too.
He padded back to where I stood. He handed me back the big money. Using one of about a dozen words in his English lexicon he said, “Tomorrow.” In my hot and distracted state I didn’t quite grasp the import of what he was saying. I was even a little irritated, as I wouldn’t be in town tomorrow. “Tomorrow no good,” I said. It was Monday, but he didn’t know how to say Wednesday, so he said, “Next tomorrow.” Then it sank in, that this man who probably lived in a single room and dined on broken rice and tasted beer or whiskey only on feast days was going to lend me the not insignificant sum of a dollar and a dime.
Consider: I could easily stiff this guy for a dollar and a dime, and he knew it. What could be his remedy, after all? Call a cop? People here gladly pay money not to deal with the cops. And who would the cop believe? The one who could pay him to believe. Yell at me when he sees me and badmouth me to his fellows? I could just avoid his corner. Come to 608 and try something bold? I could sic Joe on him. Or maybe take me to court? Yeah, right. Small claims court, right? It doesn’t even exist here. Even though, for him, it’s no small claim. A dollar and a dime is a meal his family doesn’t eat. It’s half a tank of gas he can’t buy. It’s tribute he can’t render unto Caesar, whether he makes a buck or not.
What he could do is rightfully claim that he couldn’t make change, and that it was my fault for not carrying small money like any other resident of the city. But he didn’t. Instead, he decided to trust me. Man to man he was going to trust me for two days for 20 to 25 percent of his daily bread.
He nodded to me and once again said, “Next tomorrow.” And then the little shoeless man who had the heart to lend me a dollar and a dime mounted his rusty steed and rode away. I tell you, a lesson in humility can be a bitter pill to swallow. But under this day’s mad-dog noonday sun, it came with one cool, sweet drink of water.
And that’s the news from 608 No Tattoo Street.
NB Every year the U.S. publishers of Travelers’ Tales gather together the best travel writing from all points abroad, published in the previous year, and republish them in a collection called The Best Travel Writing, Volume … http://www.amazon.com/The-Best-Travel-Writing-Volume/dp/1609520572 It is widely considered the gold standard of travel writing. Not only is it highly regarded by critics and readers, it is used in universities to teach the narrative art. The story you have just read was first published in the 2011 edition.