by Richard Sterling
In which we explore the effects of altruism.

I stepped into Regional HQ the other day and Alfalfa told me he had just seen Heidi walk by in tears. Suzi Q had drawn my beer as per the usual telephonic ritual, but I laid the price on the bar and told her she could have it. Unlike most Vietnamese women she likes a cold one now and then, despite the fact it’s seen as unfeminine. I went looking for Heidi. Anything that could reduce that girl to tears had to be something serious. She is undefeatable and indefatigable. She’s Bluejacket’s alter-ego; the “good witch.” I figured it must be a death in the family. I found her sitting on the pavement talking to Crawling Lady. She was still sniffling a little so I held back. A little girl who can “beat you at anything fun” doesn’t want me to see her crying. In a moment she got up and walked away, still wiping her eyes. I approached and knelt down next to Crawling Lady. “Hello, Mr. Hat,” she says. “You buy postcard?”
“Hello my friend. No post card today thank you. You tell me, why does Thuy (her real name) cry?”

“Her bicycle.” She need say nothing more. I knew this day would come. And I knew it would come soon. I knew it instantly I saw the bike.

It was a festive night, as so many are here in the neighborhood. I had just turned into the alley on my way home for a shower and shave before dinner. There stood Heidi, proudly gripping the handlebars of a brand new bicycle. It was a girl’s bike, natch, painted sky blue and dotted with white daisies. It had a white wicker-work basket hanging from the handlebars and it was full of fresh flowers. The rear fender sported a carrier for either cargo or passenger. Fat new tires on the rims of white-spoked wheels promised miles and miles of pedaling pleasure. One of those shiny, hemispherical, ringy-dingy bells was bolted to the right handle. No girl of twelve ever had a more beautiful bike.

Totally confused, I asked her, “Where did this come from?” She grinned and pointed behind her to a middle-aged man from somewhere in the USA. He didn’t look a bad sort. And he didn’t seem overly pleased with himself. I’m sure his primary motivation was a simple idea that every kid ought to have a bike. It was his last night in Vietnam, having come for a two-week vacation. Heidi had put the touch on him his first day in town.

Of course he was charmed by her. She’s a “good witch.” She has a pouch that she carries by a strap over her shoulder. It holds photos and postcards and dedications in her writing book by people she has charmed. They are from all over the world. Some of these people have become her pen-pals. That’s the more remarkable for the fact that she must have everything she writes and receives translated, as her English is quite limited. But her kind of charm overcomes language.

So her kind benefactor, in a fit of fatherly type love, or brotherly type love, or maybe something less savory, gave her this rich parting gift. Rich indeed. A rich gift to a poor girl in a poor country. The tuition for primary and secondary education is provided by the state here, but parents must pay for books, materials, uniforms, etc. Families are large, and it’s not uncommon that they send only one or two of their kids to school. The oldest boy and the smartest girl are the priorities. This is why Heidi is free every day to work the streets and the foreigners. Her family must be poor, indeed, if they have to keep a girl like her out of school.

Heidi was over the moon with the bike. The fact that she didn’t know how to ride a bike was irrelevant. She walked it everywhere. She put stuff in the basket, piled cargo on the rear carrier, rang the little bell as she approached anyone she knew. Virtually every adult with the means rides a motorbike here. People park them on the sidewalk and then sit on them as at Loving Park. Or they sit on them and just chat with others sitting on their bikes, or just watch the world go by. Heidi would walk her bike to a parking area, drop the kick-stand and then sit on her bike like any adult on a motor. I’d walk by her, perched proudly on that most beautiful bicycle, and she’d ring her bell at me and grin. It lasted longer than I thought it would. About two weeks.

I don’t know where she hid the bike at night when she went home. But somehow her parents found out. Or maybe she just copped to it out of filial piety. That’s a strong inducement here. I hope that was it. I hate to think that she was caught out hoarding such a valuable, easily convertible resource.

So I left Crawling Lady and caught up with Heidi when I figured her tears had stopped. I pulled her over into a sidewalk café, the kind here that are furnished with beach chairs. I sat her down and ordered her a coke, and I had a coke, too. “Sorry about your bike,” I said. There wasn’t much point in my saying more. She wouldn’t understand most of it anyway. But she knew my sentiments. And so we just watched the traffic go by for a while, and sipped our cokes.

Of course at a time like that you want to do more than just buy a kid a coke. I wanted to buy her a bike, of course. So would you. Where we come from every kid ought to have a bike. Where we come from. And I could have bought her one. I could have bought her two bikes. But they would have gone the way of the first. And Heidi would suffer three losses instead of one. I learned many years ago, when I loved a poor prostitute named Fatima, that mucking about with other people’s lives is a bad and impossible business. It doesn’t work. The law of unintended consequences always applies.

It is said that no good deed goes unpunished. Tonight an altruist in Sweetapple, Ohio or maybe Armpit, Texas or Bumfuck, Nevada sleeps soundly. He is secure in his generosity to a poor girl in a poor country. He is no doubt happy for the chance to practice charity, to be the Great White Benefactor. His investment pays dividends. He reaps the reward. He isn’t the one punished.

We were finishing our cokes. And as we were across the street from the 24/7 bar with its pool table, I suggested a game. Heidi does love to shoot stick. And as you know, she can usually beat me at it. I figured a little victory in life was just what she needed. She noisily slurped the last of her coke through the straw, stood up and wiped her last tear away, and we headed to the table. She was a bit off her game. I mean, hey, that bike was a beauty. But you know what? She still beat me. And it was worth every missed shot. I never lost a better game.

And that’s the news from Pagoda Alley, where all the beer is cold most of the time, many of the pool cues are reasonably straight, and you can be charmed out of your socks any day of the week.



Richard Sterling is the author of The Fire Never Dies, How to Eat Around the World, and several titles in Lonely Planet’s World Food series. His anthology, Food: A Taste of the Road, won a Lowell Thomas Award for Best Travel Book, and he is also the editor of The Adventure of Food and coeditor of The Ultimate Journey.

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