In search of the common 'man'
An ambiguous night in Penang

from : room 25, Han Chow hotel. Georgetown, Malaysia

I wanted to pose our ten questions to someone different. One of the less fortunate who have no work and no reason to bump into tourists. It turned out that meeting the man on the street is not always a difficult thing, especially if you take 'man on the street' in its literal sense and go looking for the down and outs of a city with only a pack of cigarettes in hand.

I went down to the corner store late one night and picked up a pack of Pall Mall and though I had my lighter with me, stopped the first person I met to ask for a light. Actually I didn't have to stop him because this middle-aged Chinese man was sitting on the curb.. He lit my cigarette and I sat down next to him.

"You know, I have been drinking from this afternoon until now. . ." It was almost one in the morning and the poor fellow looked exhausted.

"So you're not feeling too well huh?"

"I'm waiting for my niece to pick me up. The taxi wanted twenty Ringitt" he said in an exasperated way, "they are sharks" he swooped of his hands in a tigerlike claw. "Where are you from?"

I was remembering the warning I had recently received from the US state department and this fellow had been drinking heavily. The street was dark and quiet. "I'm from England."

"I've been there! To Liverpool. I was in Merchant Marine and I've been to Bremen and Liverpool and Hamburg and Rotterdam. My favorite was Rotterdam and I even almost stayed there once. I about jumped ship in Rotterdam. I had met some Hong Kong shopkeepers there and they said they would find work for me and my two friends who were with me. I almost jumped ship but my friends backed out at the last minute, so what could I do?" he shrugged. He said it was many years ago but he still seemed to regret not staying in Holland.

"So what do you do now, here in Penang?"

"I have my own business." He said this with a conspiratorial sideways glance that made me wonder if he was about to offer me human organs, but his niece arrived instead and I was soon alone again.

A group of Malay men were sitting at a table drinking and I stopped to ask for a light. One handed his lighter over silently. For those of you wishing to try this approach to anthropological investigation, know this. If someone flicks the wheel and aids you in lighting your smoke, you have an invitation to talk. If someone simply hands you their lighter, take care of business and move on. I moved on.

I spied a little bald Indian man sitting on the doorstep of a shuttered business next to a sleeping figure. I already had a lit cigarette so I asked him if he wanted one. He accepted, he spoke English, I asked if I could sit with him, he patted the ground next to him. "What are you doing out here?"

"I have no work."

"When was the last time you had work"

"I had a job as a security guard last night." He was about seventy years old with the remnants of white hair whisping about his ears. He had snow white stubble on his little round face, bright in the darkness against his dark brown skin.

"Is it safe for you out here, to sleep?"

He waggled his head in that peculiarly Indian manner and made a noncommittal sound. "Where are you from?"

"America." He seemed as threatening as my grandpa, only much smaller.

"How much you pay for your hotel?"

"Oh, about 16 Ringitt"

"Oh, mm, very cheap," most Indians, even those born and raised outside India, roll the 'r' in delightful way, "and how much to fly here?"

"I flew from LA to Beijing. It cost about 2000 Ringitt." At this he puffed up his cheeks and stuck out his tongue, another strong contrast against his dark skin, this time bright pink, "but I think you could find one for 1000." He stuck out his tongue again. I don't know if he was shocked or disgusted.

"Well, easy come easy go I suppose. If had that money I would hold on to it tight. Are you married?"

"Yes, and you?"

"No, never married"

"So no children then?" Doh! Why did I ask that? Why didn't I just say 'is that because you're unemployed and that ingrown toe nail is just disgusting.' I felt terrible but he just chuckled and said he had none. I tried to make him feel better, even though he might not have been feeling bad,

"No, me neither. In America children are very expensive and it is so dangerous that you worry for their safety all the time."

"Mmm, I know, I know."

It was clear he hadn't understood a word so I went on. "Yes it is a very strange world we live in these days, though I am probably too young to say things like that." He laughed and I felt a little foolish.

I had tried talking to prostitutes before, in Vietnam, but gave up because they were all hands. My small success with the sailor and the mumbling Indian sometime security guard made me think I would try it again with the ladies I had seen on a previous night. So, fortified with Dutch courage and emboldened with my canny 'cigarette plan', I sauntered off in the direction of the corner where I knew my quarry plied their trade. On the way I started thinking - Am I really going to ask a hooker looking for a John on a dark corner for a light? And I am supposed to expect that she won't think I am looking for something more than to talk? It was a stupid idea. The plan fell apart and I retreated to an all night tea bar to observe them and formulate another approach but as no-one went near them they remained in the shadows.

Only one thing for it. On my first reconnoitering pass only one of the four asked me 'where are you going?' This sort of hurt my pride. Only one? What, do I not look rich and single and desperate enough to this motley crew? Am I too ugly even for them? I doubled back and passed again. This time they pretended to be too busy talking to notice me but before my ego could be further assaulted I noticed something odd. They were certainly curvaceous and dressed to kill but they were a little too . . too strong looking. In fact they had a beefy look that said 'I may look like a lady but piss me off and I'll snap you in two!' Their biceps betrayed their penchant for steroid washed down with hormones and a keenness for pumping iron after painting their nails and shaving their backs.

I was just mulling over how interesting it would be to pose our "ten questions" to one of these she-males (#2. What is your occupation? Why? #3. Do you enjoy it, or would you rather do something else?) when from the blackness further back emerged a true horror. It was like a Malaysian Sumo wrestler in a one piece dress like a sausage casing. Pendulous breasts, love handles and lumpy butt all as visible as the 5 o'clock shadow on it's jowls. And it was wearing lipstick!

Egads! I span around and teetered off as fast as my buckling knees would carry me. The things I go through to gather interesting stories!

~ Nigel






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