by Richard Sterling
It isn’t quite Lake Wobegon, but…
What is it about a Panama hat? Other than the fact that mine is probably the only one in the country. You all know that the local Vietnamese call me Mr. Hat, for the ol’ Panama. Well, the expat community is relatively small here, especially among the writers, photographers and artsyt-fartsy types. Even people who have never met you eventually hear of you. So I’m now “the guy in the Panama hat,” to the expats. I have walked past clutches of expats sitting at their beer, and one of them will look at me knowingly, maybe she’ll nod. I’ll pass one in the street and he’ll do a double-take. A guy across the street will wave at me and point to his head to indicate his awareness of The Hat.
So, okay, I’m “the guy in the Panama hat,” to the foreigners. At least they know it’s a Panama. The locals, universally, call it a cowboy hat. And I have failed at every attempt to educate them otherwise. They simply do not have a place in their consciousness for the idea of “Panama hat.” It’s a concept foreign to them. And when I tell them that a Panama comes from Ecuador, two countries most of them have never heard of, it only makes things more confusing. They simply nod politely and tell each other it’s a cowboy hat. So it’s official. Mr. Hat is a cowboy, pilgrims. Whoopey tay aye ay. I don’t know how they square that with my English desert boots and khaki trousers. And I shall not delve into it. But yeeha, nonetheless.
The soaks here in Pagoda Alley have had a bit of high drama in their otherwise steady and predictable lives. The well-known Crumpet, Miss Argument, has been banished, at least temporarily, from the peaceful byway. Her offence? Causing an argument, of course! She arrived at the Phuong (Phoenix) Restaurant with Mr. Boots (He wears those old style jungle boots we had during the war. One wonders why a Swede wants to wear them, but life needs mystery.). All was going swimmingly when Mr. Bob arrived. (They call him Mr. Bob because his name is Bob. How lame is that? You got nothing about you that the locals can’t pick up on, or pick on you about? Poor Mr. Bob!)
Turns out Mr. Bob was the Main Squeeze for Miss Argument. Or at least the Main Paycheck. At least this month. When he saw her cavorting with Mr. Boots, there was Hell to pay. Invectives flew! Accusations were hurled! The peace was disrupted! Anglo Saxon verbiage of the coarsest kind (new to some Vietnamese ears) was liberally applied. Beer bottles and blows were on the verge of being hurled. Curiously, of the three malefactors, the one in most high dudgeon was Miss Argument herself. She was furious at being caught out, in such a public forum, in front of Buddha and everyone. She kicked over a chair, threw a drink, and I think she spat at somebody. It was all about face and stuff.
Two ladies restrained her. A couple of guys interposed themselves between Mr. Boots and the hapless Mr. Bob. I was sitting on the other side of the alley, which means about five feet away, cheering on Mr. Bob, when somebody told me to shut up, I was being a butt-inski, or words to that effect. The two ladies delivered Miss Argument into the hands of Mr. Boots. He dragged her away, kicking and screaming. I guess it’s like that old Texas saying, “Ya dance with who brung ya.”
Suzi Q, the bartender who calls me Daddy, is disconsolate this week. She has lost her cell phone, known here as a “hand phone.” There are two things one absolutely must possess here in order to be cool, hip, with it, fab, choose your superlative. One is a shiny new motor scooter, and the other is a hand phone. Walk down the street and see that anyone wearing trousers has a rectangular bulge in a front pocket announcing the required hipster’s accoutrement.
Suzi Q had both, and she was on top of the world. Scooting about on her scooter, yammering away to all and sundry on the precious hand phone, slinging drinks for exotic foreigners, wearing those tight jeans that scandalize the elders. Life was fine. Then one day last week she was tooling down the avenue on her bright red bike, hand phone proudly to the left ear, when a motor-mounted thief (known as a cowboy, but not the Mr. Hat kind) swooped down on her and absconded with the prized instrument. She came wailing to Daddy, so I called her number on my own coolness counter, hoping to get a trace on hers. But the wily thief had already cancelled her number. Now Suzi Q is Suzi Incommunicado.
She says it will take three months for her to save up for a new one. I think she’s suffering withdrawal. She looks like I did when I quit smoking. I sit at the bar of an afternoon nursing my beer (okay, I’m guzzling it, who the hell am I kidding?) and she’ll come up to me with her puppy dog eyes and say, only half jokingly, “Daddy, you buy me hand phone. I can’t call you, talk to you. Can’t call anybody.”
You haven’t seen those puppy dog eyes. Nor have you heard the way she says “Daddy.” Pity me, a helpless male of the species, alone in the faraway city. I’m suffering as much as she. I’ve actually been tempted. After all, hand phones are cheap here. Mine cost less than a round of drinks at Thirsty Bear brewpub in San Francisco (unless owner Ron Silberstein is there to pick up the tab. Go, Ron!). But Suzi Q must have one of those expensive phones with all the bells and whistles. She needs all those functions she’ll never use, but be able to boast that she has them. Of course she would use the camera, to send grainy photos of herself to people who already know what she looks like. But fortunately for me, her lust for extra functionality keeps me from giving in.
Heidi is about ten years old, and more grown up than most people I know. Hmmm, that may be why I like most people I know. Anyway, I first met her as I took an afternoon tea at Madame’s Tea Terrace here in Pagoda Alley. She wore jeans, a plain cotton shirt and a baseball cap. Her hair hung down to mid back in a ponytail. Slender but not skinny, like most females here. She had a hand stretched out for money. But she also had a look on her face that said, “I bet I could beat you at anything fun.” It was a playful yet dareful look. I waved her away, and she stuck her hand closer to my face, and her expression said, “Run a race, play pool, long jump?”
We repeated this same encounter three days in a row. No way would I give her money. But I finally invited her to a coke, which she accepted. We speak only a few words of each other’s languages, so we sipped tea and coke in silence. But we locked eyes most of the time. We took each other’s measure. I’m sure she looked for weak spots in my frame in the event of a fight. I wondered what might scare her. I gave her my business card. She took it to an English speaker and had that person write the word “souvenir” across the top. Heidi has become like Miss Chatter. She knows she can sit at my table, no matter who else might be with me, and I’ll stand her to a coke. She never asks for more. Not even when she cleaned my clock at a game of pool a few days ago. Oh, yes. The 24-hour bar at the end of the alley has a pool table. Unbeknownst to me, Heidi has been there a few times. I’ll leave the details to your imaginations.
I finally bought a postcard from Crawling Lady. Curiously, it was the same day that the Saint Vitus Dancer made his reappearance after a three-week absence. Saint Vitus’s Dance is a genetic nervous disorder that causes its sufferers to walk in crazy postures, with pained expressions, arms akimbo, tongue sticking out, eyes bulging. I don’t mean this unkindly, but it’s a bit like a Monty Python silly walk. Our dancer had reached the middle of the alley and paused, frozen in his pose, statue-like. Because of the position of one of his hands, a passerby thought he was begging and tried to press a small note into his hand. It fluttered to the pavement, and the would-be good Samaritan fled in confusion.
Crawling Lady crawled up to my table and said hello as usual. “Hello, my friend,” said I. “I’m happy to see you.” I long ago found that Vietnamese people love that phrase, “I’m happy to see you.” I’m the only foreigner I know that uses it. And I use it sincerely. And it always brings a smile, even a blush.
Crawling Lady grinned, nodded and said “Happy see you, too. You buy postcard?”
She always asks, but never presses. The most remarkable thing about Crawling Lady is that she speaks more English than most people in the alley. She’s a simple soul and doesn’t have a lot to say, but she can say a lot.
I remembered that I needed to send a birthday greeting, so I said, “Yes. Postcard.” She took the flip-flops off her hands. Her feet have no use for them. Her legs are permanently bent at the knees, at an angle greater than 90 degrees. She never needs shoes. I’m always astonished at how clean and well scrubbed she is, given her life on the pavement. And unlike other paraplegics here, she wears no scraps of inner tube to pad her knees. Yet I’ve never noticed a hole in her trousers.
I looked at her wares. I selected the card. I paid her the $0.20. We chatted for a while. And then Heidi appeared. She took her seat, greeted Crawling Lady, and looked at me askance, as if to say, “Why I’m just a girl. I can’t play pool.” I signaled the waiter, who brought her a coke without being told. Upon receiving it, Heidi first offered Crawling Lady a drink. She took a perfunctory sip, smiled and said “thanks.”
The three of us sat there for a while, me drinking tea, Heidi and Crawling Lady sharing a coke, now and then speaking, but not too often. Then a guy at the next table (and the tables are very close together) decided that he must show charity to Crawling Lady. He stood up, and with a grand gesture, offered my lowly friend a bank note worth about a dollar. A tidy sum here. She politely refused. Crawling Lady has never taken charity, and she is sincerely embarrassed when it’s offered.
The man urged her to accept, and yet she politely refused, turning her face away. He insisted, and she began to show her ire. He tried to force it on her, and she batted his hand away with her flip-flop. He stuffed the bill into her bag of post cards, sat down in a huff, and told her not to be a fool, take the money while you can! She took it out of her bag, crumpled it into a ball and threw it at him. I could see from her tired expression that she has been this route many times. The man was speechless, almost apoplectic, that his largess could be so easily dismissed. That so humble a person could so steadfastly refuse him, from so low a posture.
Flustered at the unpleasantness, Crawling Lady turned to go. She pulled her flip-flops onto her hands. She tucked up her bag of postcards. She looked back and thanked me for buying one. “See you later, Mr. Hat,” she said.
At that moment, Heidi abandoned her coke and without a word dropped down onto the pavement, on all fours, next to Crawling Lady. Just before they began to crawl away together, shoulder to shoulder, like a team of mules, they burst into a fit of giggles. They nudged each other, nuzzled each other, giggled some more, looked back at me and stuck out their tongues playfully, looked at the man and stuck out their tongues not so playfully, then giggling like school girls, crawled together to the very end of my alley.
How can you not love this place?
And that’s the news from Pagoda Alley, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average. Take that, Garrison Keillor!
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.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.