Sometimes, it just doesn’t pay to be a nice guy. The ‘Mafia kids’ here prowl the street, selling counterfeit books and trying to charm a dollar or two out of the tourists. I made the mistake of buying a book from one of them and soon found myself to be the sworn enemy of a half dozen others.
“Hello, you buy book?” she asked. About six or seven years old and wearing a dirty t-shirt, she carried the standard-issue, red plastic basket slung over her shoulder, packed full of the same plastic-wrapped knock-off books that you see all over Cambodia. I actually did need a Lonely Planet Guide for my upcoming Vietnam trip, so I looked briefly at the titles. She didn’t have one, so I said “No thanks” and went about my business.
The next kid, a boy of about five, did have a Vietnam edition and I bought it from him for $5, knowing that I could get it cheaper elsewhere but feeling unwilling to barter hard with a 5-year-old. That’s when things turned ugly.
He took the money and left quickly, but the young girl saw the transaction and rushed to my table — she was pissed. “Why you buy from him and not me?!”
I explained that she simply didn’t have the book I wanted, but she wasn’t having it. Apparently, I was supposed to have described the book I was searching for and she would have gone to pick up a copy for me. I said I was sorry, but she retorted with “Sorry no feed me!” After a little back-and-forth banter of this nature, I shrugged and apologized again, then started ignoring her.
This didn’t have the usual effect. Instead of getting bored and leaving, she sat down on the curb next to me and proceeded to say “fuckyoufuckyoufuckyou…” nonstop for the next ten minutes.
Eventually, she did get bored and leave, but would return every 10-15 minutes to pepper me with a few more fuckyou’s as she passed by. My relaxing afternoon of watching the river from a cool, shady spot was turning out to be much less relaxing than planned.
She must have told all of the other street kids about the situation as well, because I soon had two more young boys crowded by my table, asking why I bought from “him” but wouldn’t buy from them. No answer I gave was satisfactory and they began to hassle me for money “for food”, money that would –of course– go directly to their handler. In a move that I can only think of now as “misguided” at best, I offered to buy them lunch.
I agreed to buy them a pizza that they could share with a couple of friends. Within seconds, they had pulled an extra chair to the table and their friends appeared — one of whom was my former acquaintance, Princess FU herself. The waitress was glaring hard at me for this, but I promised I’d keep them in line. “Don’t let them stand on the table — they’ll break the glass,” she warned.
I ordered a veggie pizza and a couple of Cokes but this, they assured me, wasn’t enough: I should order at least two pizzas and eight cokes. I told them it would have to do. The next half hour or so was, to say the least, an interesting experience. They took large handfuls of napkins and carefully wiped down their plates and glasses, and chattered back and forth in Khmer, while showing each other poorly-executed slight-of-hand tricks.
I tried asking questions and learning a little about their lives, but they really had no interest in me — I was just a meal ticket. When the pizza arrived, they each snatched up their portion and dug in with gusto. One boy scraped everything from his slices but the crust, while two others carefully picked off the mushrooms. They ate quickly and sipped their cokes, while scattering mushrooms, napkins, and broken toothpicks all over the table.
When they were done, I said “Okay, we need to clean up our mess,” and the girl quickly stacked the plates while the boys climbed out of the chairs. She at least said “thank you” as she left, while the boys insisted I link pinky fingers with them as a handshake of sorts. They scattered like monkeys as I was cleaning up. I left the waitress a good tip.
The next day, I stopped at the same place to check my email. Princess walked by and looked my way, but just stared and kept going. One of the younger boys showed up soon and explained that by doing the “pinky shake” with him the day before, I had promised to buy a book from him. My patience was just about spent at this point.
I had regretted not taking a photo of the whole group while we were eating, so I told him I’d give him a dollar if he’d pose for a photo and leave me alone — thus proving that I’m a really slow learner. As I was paying him, another four or five street kids appeared and all started clamoring for “their” dollar. Princess was there and she was the most indignant of them all.
“Sorry, but I can’t give you all a dollar. I bought you dinner yesterday. Doesn’t that count for anything?” I asked. Princess stared back at me, her eyebrows bunched up in disgust.
“You no give me dollar?” she spat. “Then, fuck you.”