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What's a Sweet Boy Like You Doing in a Sleazy Place Like This?

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So there I was, killing my after-office hours on a Friday night. Standing across a pool table in Sportsman bar down in Blok M - feeling absolutely bored to death after watching my male buddies rejoice around the sacred green table for more than two hours. I'm not good with any games involving balls - don't really know why. Maybe I feel intimidated by their bald, shiny appearance - promising nothing but uncalculated, unsystematic and unpredictable bouncing movement, which only increases the possibility of my becoming a loser in the game.

I glanced around to discover the small face of a teenager carrying a wooden box full of shoeshine tools peeking behind the club's main entrance door. I vividly remembered him. His name is Ocil - the sports bar's shoeshine boy. Ray, a good friend of mine, had made him one of his charity projects. Every time Ray visited this place he gave a generous amount of money in exchange for the boy's services (polishing his shoes - that is). "I just want to help him out," Ray used to say. While my other friend, Jenny is a bit cynical about it. "Right, give him more money so he can use it to gamble or to buy drugs and God knows what else he has in his tiny mind," Jenny frequently bickered.

I nodded when the boy approached - asking if I wanted him to polish my leather boots. Curious, I told him to give me some on-the-spot service. "Let's talk here while you're cleaning them," I said, offering him my beef nachos at the same time.

"No Miss, I have found western food to be rather ticklish in my stomach," he replied while suspiciously staring at my plate.

The fourteen-year-old shoeshine boy has been working in that bar for almost a year, so he explained. He left school and his hometown when he was only eight. Armed with a scant broom he started his career as a train sweeper.

"I used to ask the passengers if they wanted me to clean the floor between their seats. You know, in economy class trains, people sleep on the floor so they can stretch out. They usually gave me about a hundred Rupiah (about one US cent) in return. It wasn't a lot - but enough to survive on. I used to sleep in the toilet cabin and the train's waiters gave me some water and leftover food. I basically lived on a train that went between Surabaya and Jakarta back and forth," mumbled Ocil, as his hand vigorously brushed the tip of my boots. Geez - talk about frequent flyer!

His story gave me a shiver. There's no way in the world that I would send my children to face such a harsh life so young. Money was definitely the issue in this case. Ocil's mother was a housewife. She stayed back home in Kerawang with her husband who worked as a seasonal construction worker. Then that made me think - what's going on with this country? Shouldn't the government be the one who's responsible to take care of the country's children? Isn't that why we pay our taxes? Maybe - in the real world!

Ocil also said that he could earn up to one million Rupiah a month. This was surprising, not bad for a boy his age. He made far more money than a government officers' basic salary.

"What do you do with your money?" I asked.

"To buy clothes and food. I send some money to my mother at home too. The food stall owner at the front has been very kind to keep my money for me. But mostly I use it to buy clothes. Living in a cardboard box hardly big enough for an adult, with no locks whatsoever - my clothes get stolen very often. Like now, I only have two sets left," he shrugged. He was telling his story in a tone, as a 'normal' boy would use when describing his football game. No pain - no grief. It's his life!

Living and working in a dangerous area like that particular street in Blok M - which seethes with prostitution, drugs and alcoholics made me feel concerned about his safety. But he said it had never been a problem for him. His so-called 'protector' - the street hooligan Ocil met whilst working on the train gave him his recent job - was also the person who always made sure he came to no harm.

"Reno, my protector, he's the head of all the gangsters in Blok M Plaza. He's in charge of that area - the Plaza itself is as large as 50 hectares of paddy field," Ocil said proudly.

He works as a shoeshine boy from two in the afternoon until sometimes three o'clock in the morning. With those extended working hours, the kid knew all kind of weird stories about what happened in his neighbourhood after dark. From how to find safe taxis in no time for his frequent customers; to how many times a week Mr. X visited certain places, which are occupied by many night butterflies - or even how much those light-skirted girls charge their customers. Can you imagine how devastating it would be for some people if his knowledge were printed in some newspaper's gossip column?

"Not a lot of foreigners give me enough money for my service though. Some of them don't even have the heart to give more than 500 Rupiah after I worked so hard for half an hour to clean their muddy shoes. But my worst experience was when I mistakenly used black polish on a customer's brown shoes. I apologised of course, but he still threw his shoes at me and call me stupid I don't know how many thousand times," he explained.

"So, what do you want to do when you grow up?" I asked again, carefully checking my boots - hoping he didn't make the same mistake.

"I want to work for this sport's bar one day. Nothing fancy - because of my lack of education. I want to earn decent money from a decent job. Not like some lost kids on the street I know who spend their whole day stealing stuff and sniffing glue," he was staring blankly to the floor; carefully he put my shiny boots back in front of my feet and smiled. It was the smile of a young boy who tries to make an honest living within this harsh city. Well, Jenny - you owe me one - I thought and returned the boy's childish grin.

My attention was back to the half cut - cheering mates. Tonight, instead of chalk-caked hands and a hangover, somehow I knew that I would go home with a slightly different perspective on life.

First published in The Jakarta Post on Sunday, February 18th 2001.

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