Thursday, May 15, 2003

The Strolling Minstrel

The man strolls with an electric guitar. His various side kick street urchins hold his hand-held amp, a straw hat and a bucket of misery. If ever a man in history needed a hug it is this pitiful wandering minstrel of Hanoi. I try to be kind. I see him for what he is. A pain in everyone’s arse. So I approach him with the benign intent of giving him a reassuring hug. There-there, I'll say, life ain’t so bad, come on, put a brave face on it, chin up and please stop singing. Just for a minute while a drink my coffee.

But as I go to open my mouth the youngest street urchin, in charge of finances, appears at my hip and pokes me in the mid-rift. I take a step back. From the stare on his face, his blackened eyes and hollow cheeks it would make you think the plague itself had sprung upon us. He mutters incomprehensibly. My ear strains to grasp his mumble: “Money, money, money.”

ABBA, at the time didn't come to mind. Life isn’t so simple. I pushed him gently aside, claiming impecunity, and point out that my clothes are as tatty as his, and my motorbike belongs in a museum.

But my curiosity is roused, who is this straw-hatted man? I wondered where he lived, for if heroin, whisky and Janis Joplin got Leonard Cohen down, then this fellow must live in a brothel, drink from a barrel in a gutter and shoot up mouldy brown on the hour. So as they dawdle down the road like a group of drunk blind men I decide to follow.

As I walk with them I watch the effect he has on the city, which is not merely unique; it’s breathtaking. This is the city that only lunch time can cause a lull. Only the Police can stop the hub-bub. But the minstrel is a natural.

The music, the most excurciatingly painful kind you can imagine, like a lovesick cat crooning on a torture rack, turns every corner before him. Couples who hear it duck into alleys. People at food stalls stare into their noodles as if they dropped their keys in the bowl. Normally silent men dig deep for conversation. Trendy girls search their phones, read texts or make calls. No one looks him in the eye.

Down the street I see men engage lampposts in conversation; others pretend their bikes are in need of attention. Some stare at their watches as if there is somewhere else to be. Flowers wilt. Babes in arm bawl. Cats wince. Milk curdles. Old Ba’s, who've lived through a generation of war, pour the tra da with trembling hands. There’s no escape. No one is safe from this abject misery.

One wonders what is this man’s intention? Does he think men will drink deeply, women will stop their gossip and one and all will pause to reflect and dwell upon past heartache, half-love or good-old-downright utter sorrow? Does he expcet people to slow dance in the street then chip in a nice crisp note for the privilege?

I followed him all the way to his home as he passed down desserted streets, doing the Police's work by clearing the streets for the dreaded SEA Games.

And then out of the dusk, like a miscalculated sunset, his wife appeared. Her off white dep, fat calves, orangey pyjamas and sour face, altogether the opposite of a reason to come home early from work.

He stood outside as he paid off his urchins, outcasts of a Dickensian school production. Then he sheepishly passed by the missus, avoiding her glare, down the tunnel, like a player sinbinned, heading off for an early shower, anticipating flying crockery in the changing room.

She didn’t look anywhere. Just straight ahead; then I appeared in her vision with a stupid grin and foreign manners, too polite for her to ignore, too dumb to insult.

“So that’s your husband, isn’t it? He’s quite a talent”
I didn’t know how to say ‘Albeit misunderstood’
“Huh! Doi Moi,” she said, “Tourists and money to be made, get out there and make it, I said, buy a Honda Dream or an Angel and work as a Xe Om, or a Bao Ve in the Bun Cha restaurant, but oh no! What does he do? He goes and buys a six string and an amp!”

I said I wished Jon Bon Jovi had bought a motorbike too, but she didn't understand. We sat for tea. We spoke openly. She told me of his shoegazing era and how he spent days in his bedroom reading the poetry of Nguyen Du, eating nothing but coffee beans and smoking cigarettes, until enough was enough, get out she said, get out and stay out. And so he did. And still he does. From dawn to dusk. Everyday like a bad dose of changeable weather that’ll be there when you least want it to be.

So next time you seem him with his bucket of misery and his sidekick street urchins remember that he’s just plying his trade. Poor chap doesn’t have another string to his bow, why he doesn’t even have a motorbike and all he needs in my humble opinion is a hug.

At the very least police should thank him. As he walks through the streets, prices stay low; brawls peter out, traffic moves soberly. The man would be considered a messiah in more old testament, gullible or whimisical times. An unsung hero in our very midst. Just like Jesus once was.