“I had the blues because I had no shoes until upon the street, I met a man who had no feet.”
We’ve all had rough times in our lives. One of mine happened when I freshly graduated from college (at the age of 29). It was barely a few months after my mom’s passing, I was broke, wrestled with relationship turbulence, and had a hard time making sense of my career change after fifty unanswered job applications.
Perhaps that’s why I jumped at that first job offer. It paid RM1,500 a month (that’s USD400 for you international readers), but as an inexperienced salaryman, I figured I had to grind through entry-level as a rite of passage.
In my zeal to make up for lost time, I might’ve overlooked a few drawbacks. Between the petrol costs for a fifty-kilometre commute, toll fares, and the exorbitant parking rates, I pretty much set myself up for failure. In retrospect, it was a miracle that I didn’t lose more money than I was earning.
It became apparent early on that I had drifted into a soul-sucking career (no offense to auditors out there). During the first weeks of work, I realised that I never got to see the sun. I might’ve caught a glimpse once during lunch, but that was when I wasn’t eating in the backroom of a dingy timber company. Still, I tried to make things work.
That’s not to say I didn’t stop sending applications. I reached the maximum job-application quota on Jobstreet. I reconnected with my ex-classmates. Heck, I even mailed my lecturers. While the vacancies in accounting were plentiful, I felt like I was another faceless number, overlooked by the hiring departments, lost among the sea of other hopeless hopefuls.
We’ve all heard the overused trope of the guy that left his miserable high-paying job to start over in a happier career. Yeah, that wasn’t me. I never had a high-paying job, and my new tenure was far from joyful (read: shitty work life). I was also plunging through a mean drop in the rollercoaster of life (read: sad personal life).
My sole refuge at the time was breakfast. It was the only time of the day when I didn’t need to wear a mask. There were no arguments with the girlfriend or hours of flipping through dog-eared receipts and ledgers. Breakfast became my escape, and lor mai kai – the most bang for the buck – became my sustenance.
“Wow, that’s rough bro. RM1,500 is peasant pay. You should actually come work here. They pay twice that.”
That was a text from my ex-classmate, Kent. For once, I felt glimmer of hope. Double the money and half the commute? Hell yeah.
“I just talked to HR,” Kent typed. “There are some fees for medical checkups and filing. But he’ll move you to the top of the queue, because of my referral. He said to expect a call within a few days.”
To say I was excited would be an understatement. So I’ve thesaurus-ed the word to add some spice to the expression: delighted, enthusiastic, hysterical, aroused, stimulated, passionate, thrilled, eager, thrilled, definitely thrilled.
I met him the very next day and passed him the cash. This was on top of another RM100 he wanted to borrow. No problem. Anything for my new buddy. On the way home, I stopped to buy myself a bottle of beer. I couldn’t really afford it, but I sure as hell deserved it. Nothing tasted half as good as a beer served with a roiling heap of joy.
A week passed, and it was only the middle of the month. I forget who said it, but there was definitely too much month at the end of my money.
“Is the guy going to call soon?” I texted Kent.
“He just talked to me today. No worries, just be on standby for the call.”
I put my phone in my pocket and continued sitting on the toilet. I was fully clothed, sitting with my chin on my hands. Like breakfast, this daily break was something I needed to keep me sane. I flushed the toilet and turned on the sink for effect, but all I was doing was enjoying the ten minutes of solitude.
Just a little while more, I told myself, and I’ll be out of this dump.
A few days later, Kent called. Expecting good news, I answered.
“Shit man,” he began. Not good. “I just got into an accident. I need to settle a debt with this guy, and I’ll need to borrow RM200. Will pay you back tomorrow, I promise.”
Perhaps it was denial, or the fact that the misfortune didn’t involve my job opportunity. I met him that night and lent him the money. I couldn’t afford to, but figured that it didn’t matter, because he was going to pay me back soon, right?
Tomorrow passed. So did the day after. And the day after that.
“Hey man, I’m pretty tight,” I texted him. “Is the money coming in anytime soon?”
“Yeah, was going to ask you for your bank number. Will bank it in during lunch break.”
I checked my bank account after work, and the sum didn’t budge past my savings. All RM200 of it.
Three days later, Kent called again. He asked for more money. It was then that I realised I wasn’t going to get my money back. The vacancy was probably a sham as well. That dick move was only a few notches below telling someone they won the lottery, then disclosing the fact that the ticket was fake. That’s how I felt.
I also felt a thousand different negative emotions, all congealing into one big maelstrom of anger. It doesn’t even cover what I felt, so I’ll synonimise: aggravated, displeased, embittered, outraged, provoked, infuriated, umbrage. I don’t even know what the last word meant, but yeah I probably felt that.
I told him—as politely as I could—to go fuck himself before I checked into the office toilet for the third time that day.
Romantically, things were rough. One day, after a heated argument about money, I found myself at the coffeeshop, head groggy from sleep debt. I counted out my coins for breakfast. Yeah, I was living off my coin box. Thank you past me. I only had a few days left before I’d get some respite.
Everything was tight down to the cents. Lunch was mixed rice with one dish (I favoured Chinese stalls because they calculated by number of dishes instead of quantity of food), and dinner involved asking for “whatever is worth RM4.” I’ve taken to raiding the office pantry for everything in between.
So I was stacking my coins into neat pillars when a figure shambled alongside my table, waving a bundle of bookmarks in my face. I started to wave him off, but as I looked up, I noticed that the man had his armpits resting on crutches, swaying slightly one leg—the only one he had.
Being brought up in a country rife with beggar syndicates, I was always wary of handing out sidewalk alms. But my callousness didn’t change the fact that he was legless. I thought back to the shitty month I was having, looked at his leg, and figured, why the fuck not. Being another two bucks short wasn’t going to make my month that much worse anyway. What’s funny is that I probably could’ve afforded breakfast if I didn’t have that beer earlier that month.
I scooped the coins and gave it to him as a waiter asked if I was going to have my regular order. I waved the waiter away before getting up to leave. The legless man tapped me on my shoulder and handed me a bookmark.
On the walk back to the office, I took a look at it. With Hallmark tact, the bookmark read, ‘The best way out of difficulty is through it.’ Perhaps it was. Now all I needed to do was to rummage the office for a cardboard cracker breakfast and I’ll be crushing through my first inconvenience of the day. Oddly enough, I went through the day with higher spirits than before.
Of course, the experience didn’t bestow me with magical enlightenment, and I would soon face the climax of this chapter in my life. Whenever I’m going through a slump however, I break out the bookmark and remind myself how lucky I am. Hey, at least I still got my legs, and that seems to soften whatever troubles I happen to be mulling over at the time.
Except money though. That’s always a bitch of a problem.