Thursday, August 25, 2005

Loose change in tight pockets

Teddy de Burca Jnr. praises the glory of his morning cigarette and a cup of coffee, purchased for a paltry VND6,000 ($0.40), the only problem is he never has the exact change

Every day I stop for a coffee and a single cigarette in the same café. It is a highlight of my day, being an absolute skinflint, but for the cantankerous looking uncle who serves me, it often seems to be the opposite. The problem is, you see, no one has invented a note to the tune of VND6,000.

He is a troubled old soul at the best of times, I suspect. People – known in cafés as customers – are never very warmly received with their orders, requests and complaints.

His gripe with me is I never have tien le (small change). Like yesterday, when I went to pay, first, he stood aside and grumbled to the doorway, as though calculating an equation that would confound professors. Then, when I pulled out a fresh washable pink VND50,000 note, his eyes rolled back into his head. “Who on earth,” I imagined him thinking, “pays for a coffee and a single cigarette with that?”

He stared at the note, as if it were the note’s fault, shook his head, looked at me again with a pained expression, and then begrudgingly rooted around his money-basket for change.

To exact revenge, he plucked out the most God forsaken notes: VND1,000 or VND2,000 ones of the 1984 vintage (frayed at the edges, browned with age, and scented with mildew), a VND5,000 note sellotaped together with a phone number and em yeu anh mai mai (I love you forever) hand written in the corner, and a reassembled VND10,000 with a bit of a VND500 taped conspicuously in the corner.

I spent the rest of the day trying to off-load these notes. Paying bills, debts and tipping delivery boys. Without fail, I rid my pockets of old cantankerous’ notes, which meant this morning I arrived, once again, ordering my usual, only when I stepped up to pay I only had a crisp lime green VND100,000 ($6.6) bill. I might as well have stabbed him in the heart. He stumbled out of the café, put his hands on his hips and gazed at the unmerciful heavens. Then, he walked back in muttering to his chest. He was thinking long and hard. The world turned but we felt nothing, standing man to man, waiting for the other to make the first move. It felt like a Wild West sort of moment. He would tell me to leave town, or cough up the small notes I was hiding in my cowboy boots.
“Okay,” he said, squaring me up, planting the note back in my hand. “You can pay for it tomorrow.”

Of course, my bill would then be VND12,000, and there is no such note, so he’ll have to face my VND100,000 once again. The only other option is I turn up with all the coins left over from a visit to the Hilton Hotel (Why is it the only place that uses them?) – would he be happy with that kind of tien le?

There’s only one way to find out. I’ll be wearing spurs and whistling as I walk into the café tomorrow. It’s a showdown – skinflints at high-noon.


pittstop designer said...

Although taken from cafe-moments all over town, this piece is based mostly on the crabby uncle/ auntie combo in Cafe 252 on Hang Bong. The man always complained at my lack of "small" money, while the woman, in fact, was the one off-loading the shitty notes, some of which were so old and transparent they were very nearly dust

Anonymous said...

I call them both "Uncle Aunty Double Cross Eye" becose they cross the eyes and double each other.