About halfway through the reception after my dad’s funeral, my mom sidled up to me outside her kitchen with an odd request.
“Do I have $40,000 to give the caterer to help him start a restaurant?”
The exchange that followed between mother and son (the latter having been instructed by his father to mind the familial financial store with great care in his absence) is not germane to this post, but suffice to say the caterer went on to open (and, with a couple years, close) his restaurant without the forty grand from mom.
I’d thought she was nuts, of course, mostly on principle but also because of the timing. (And there is the little matter of the opportunistic caterer who subtly let his financial needs slip before dessert had been served at the post-funeral party he was being paid to serve.) So I coaxed her away from the idea, at the same time wondering what kind of a mind would conceptualize such a bizarre although genuinely altruistic notion.
Now, years and many, many miles later, I think I’ve found the answer to that question: Mine.
It occurred – not to me, but to my alert and adoring wife – that the apple seems to have fallen directly from the familial tree in terms of willingness to fork over dough whenever the heart hurts. Which is every day.
Here, there are countless needs put forth by poor, well-intended Cambodians that I have come to know and love, want to help, and find myself intrigued by. Witness lunch the other day with our friend and tuk tuk driver Som On and our new friend Reth, a 24-year-old single mom, cocktail waitress and sole source of financial support for extended family in the provinces.
The three of us were having lunch while Gabi spirited around Cambodia, making desserts out of frog’s butts and buffalo dung or whatever so she could write a book about the noxious stuff. I decided to get Som On and Reth together, since they both hail from Preyveng Province and they’re both wonderful, caring, poor and good people. They’d like each other, I thought, and it would be a chance for me to buy them lunch, work on speaking Khmer with a couple of natives and see what might transpire.
Som On, whose English is better than Reth’s, let on that he’s looking to find a storefront near the guest house that his brother manages so he can start a laundry service and hopefully include a restaurant.
“Mebbe next year,” he said. “I have no money.”
My ears perked up. Reth’s lost her job due to prolonged illness and she’s in desperate need of a way to make money. Som On’s family is dear to us, living in the house we raised money to help him build and positioning himself for the next surge of financial need from his extended family.
“How much would you need?” I asked.
“Oh, expensive. Mebbe $300 or $400 each month.”
I thought, that’s chump change to me. Oh, what the hell.
“Tell you want,” I blurted out. “You find the location and let’s look at it. You can run the laundry and the business side of the restaurant, I’ll find a cook and will help cook and Reth can “root tork” (run table, or waitress).”
They beamed. Oh, man. Once again, leading with my mouth instead of my brain, I’ve stepped in a fresh pile of buffalo dung on this one, having raised the hopes of this pair, their soup spoons paused mid air with Tom Yum soup dripping on the metal table at the streetside “hang bai” where we were eating.
One of the interesting things about Cambodians is how literally they interpret things. Talk randomly about having them come to dinner some night and they’ll ask you what time they should show up that night. Tell them you’d like to visit their hometown one day and they make plans to pick you up the next morning.
Som On and Reth seemed ready to leave the restaurant and start looking for a storefront, Som On no doubt thinking he’d need capital to buy cooking and laundry tools and Reth wondering what kind of apron she’d need.
They’re wired to act, probably because opportunity rarely knocks on Cambodian doors and when it does, you’d best have your flip flops on and be ready to hustle. There’s also my personal wiring – thanks, Mom and Dad – to give what I can. Whenever I can.
This sort of stuff happens all the time. The security guard at the gym we frequent is a smiling, friendly wisp of a kid who can barely fill out his khaki uniform and is often nearly backed over by drivers who can’t see him behind their SUVs. He’s incredibly friendly to us, so we gave him a tip on the way out of the gym last night. Shock and a smile for $1.
Our cleaner, Nara, has three kids whom she supports, along with her mom and probably a handful of other relatives. She let on that her kids had to stop school because her mom’s sick and Nara can’t clean as much as she normally does. Cash is tight. Could we help? We said yes, of course.
Our friend Tony says his wife is sick but he has no money for medicine. Here’s $20.
Here, needs oustrip ability to give, no matter how much you have, or how big-hearted you may be (Angelina Jolie notwithstanding). But I feel it’s only fair and right to do what I can..not every time, but most of the time.
I don’t argue with tuk tuk drivers over $1. I’ll often haggle with vendors in a market for sport and after driving their price down pay them what they’d originally asked for. I try to make sure I have small bills when I’m headed near a pagoda so I can fork over 1,000 riel (25 cents) to the throngs of beggars who tend to congregate there.
After enduring one of my bleeding heart liberal tirades recently, my friend John paid me one of the biggest compliments I’ve ever received when he called me a communist.
If that means I’m prone to over committing to those who need, to reaching into my pocket to give money to a legless man, a woman doubled at the waist from a life of working in the rice fields or a loan to a friend who has an idea and hope but no capital to make his dreams a reality, then I’m Red to the core.
Anyway, I’d love to write more, but I’m heading out soon to walk along Street 113. I hear there’s an empty storefront for lease that would be perfect for a laundry and a restaurant.