Thursday, September 20 2018


The line of a thief

Update: February, 21/2012 - 10:16


Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
by Nguyen Van Tho

He was in Germany for more than a year before the Agreement on Co-operation in Labour Export between the German Democratic Republic and Viet Nam was revoked. There was huge political upheaval in Germany in the advance towards its renunciation. His factory job was not as heavy as what he had gone through for over ten years on the battle field, even though it was hot, sweaty labour. The factory's machines had always given off a great deal of heat in spite of the air-conditioners.

But now that baking hot factory was no more. The factory was closed down, so his only option was to sell produce on the street. Next to his stall was a large stall with vegetables and fruit heaped in boxes as high as a mountain, making his basket of goods look like an ant beside an elephant. The owner of the stall was Joschi. He was from Lebanon and had studied to be a cameraman before opening his stall. He married a German woman and stayed in Germany. Before opening his stall in the open air market, he had done a lot of jobs. Joschi was two years his junior, but 10 centimetres taller than him and weighed 87 kilos, making him as fat as a ball. The Lebanese had a beard, but his wife had asked him to shave because she hated the smell of cigarette smoke that got caught in the whiskers. Joschi was a chain-smoker. A cigarette seemed to be hanging from his mouth at all times, as he puffed away like a roving chimney. But Joschi was friendly and ready to smile, poles apart from the serious-looking Germans.

As they were sitting over cups of coffee two months after he had enterd the produce-selling business Joschi started a conversation.

"You don't seem to be faring well these days," Joschi said

"It's true. If I had a car to get to the wholesaler, it would be better," he said.

The next day, Joschi suddenly asked:

"Maybe you could work with me?"

"How much would you pay each day? he asked with wide open eyes.

"80 Deutschmarks per day," Joschi said at once.

He mulled it over, thinking he only earned 100 Deutschmarks each day of work on his own, but had to deduct the cost of the stall rental and train fares when he went to buy the goods, so it was less than what he could earn working for Joschi.

"Okay, done!" he agreed.

Working as an assistant for a grocer didn't require any special knowledge, but it was heavy work. He had to wait for Joschi early in the morning at the entrance to the market before beginning a heavy workload of carrying the boxes full of vegetables, flowers and fruit from the car and arranging them in an orderly manner for Joschi's convenience at the stall. Then he set up the tent and a large umbrella. As the day passed, he helped Joschi sell the goods and sometimes he had to go and buy coffee or cigarettes for Joschi because Joschi was his master.

He had been Joschi's servant for two months now. Now 40, he was once a soldier and had gone through years of fighting and used to be the head of a labour team with over 200 guest workers. Now he was working as a helping hand, which hurt at times. But he could not do otherwise. He needed money and stood firm in this foreign land. Be patient, he told himself!

Joschi's work life became ever easier. Life in East Germany had improved after renunciation when they changed one Ostmark for one Deutschmark. Joschi grabbed the opportunity to sell them bananas and other tropical fruits, which had been rare delights in East Germany. This helped Joschi to make a lot of money.

He had adapted to his new job and consolidated his relations with the master. Joschi trusted him so much that sometimes he left him alone at the stall to go off and drink beer. This made him happy, because before that, Joschi had always stood by the counter and never left the cash box. After two months, he had saved some money and spent 300 Deutschmarks to buy a Trabant, a car manufactured in East Germany, to make travelling easier on cold, snowy days.

Germany had changed. Markets of all kinds opened like mushrooms in East Germany so Joschi decided to open three more stalls. Management of the first stall was handed over to him.

"Will my salary change too?" he asked.

"Of course. 120 Deutschmarks per day," Joschi said, smiling.

He got down to business with new responsibility.

At the end of the day, it turned out that working as an assistant was less laborious than the man in charge of the store! Every morning, he started his journey to the wholesaler, which was about 50 kilometres away from his home, at 4 o'clock in his Trabant. There, he picked up a huge quantity of goods which he loaded into the car and then drove back to the market. It was cold, but unloading all the goods was a sweaty business. On the other hand, Joschi had entrusted him with all the money. Now he had to work like a cart-horse from 12 hours to 14 hours a day. He worked hard to sell mountains of fruit and vegetables, weighing from one tonne to even seven tonnes every day. Customers crowded the market to buy things and to simply enjoy the market atmosphere. He had to attend to all of his customers, making him dead tired when he got home. It was an endless circle. No theatre, no television, life was so dull. He didn't even have time for love!

Day in and day out, he collected up to 5,000 Deutschmarks per day. During local festivals, like the one to commemorate Napoleon Bonaparte's triumph in Grossberen, hundreds of thousands of Germans and French converged onto the market and he collected 10,000 Deutschmarks each day. When he learned the wholesale price of their products, he realised that Joschi earned from 1,500 to 3,000 Deutschmarks per day. Yet, he was paid only 120 per day.

One day, while handing the day's money over to Joschi, an idea flickered in his mind: why don't I steal money from him! It wouldn't really be stealing at all. It would only be the money owed to him for his sweat and hard labour. It would be so easy for him to take 100 Deutschmarks a day, he thought. It was difficult to count the exact amount of produce that could be sold because some rotten fruit had to be thrown away. He figured he could take the money at noon, when Joschi wouldn't be around. Joschi turned toward the sun to pray at that time.

He thought about it constantly, but delayed any action time and again. He told himself to leave it till the next day, and then the next day after that. After more than a week had passed, he found himself hovering over an imaginary line, deciding on whether to jump to the other side or stay where he was. What would he be, an assistant or a thief? It seemed so simple, and yet it was such a difficult decision. One Sunday, he went home early with a fever. He turned to the wall and counted all the money he had earned that week. That night, he asked himself who he was? He thought and thought. He fought with himself, thinking he was all alone in a foreign land with no family around. Sometimes in his dreams, he found himself crossing the firing line of the enemy, through streams full of jungle leeches, and a road extending as far as the eye could see and then he himself was sitting in the dark, counting the crumpled money Joschi paid him at the end of each week.

No, I can't, he thought, I could never be so vile! I'd rather work as a helping hand than be a thief! He jumped up from the dream, mumbling incoherent sounds.

Day in and day out, he worked for Joschi and tried not to look into the beautiful box full of money. Then his car suddenly broke down. He took two days off to repair the oil pump. When the car was repaired, he took it on a test drive along a road lined with a sea of daisies on both sides. He and Joschi stopped at a roadside beer house to enjoy some beer and some Doenegebap lamb. After a few glasses of beer, they lost their inhibitions and began to talk. Joschi talked about his home country, with its vast fields of corn and wheat, and flocks of sheep. In return, he told Joschi about his home city of Ha Noi, about his poverty there as the father of a handicapped child and the years he spent under the rain of enemy bombs and shells. He talked about his father, a talented artist. Joschi listened to him attentively, showing his sympathy.

"You must work hard and learn until one day you can own your own market stall and earn a lot of money. All your worries will disappear once you have money. Although being the boss is not without its worries, you know!"

A bit buzzed, he talked squarely with Joschi:

"Joschi, you now have three stalls but you don't have to do anything except drink beer and smoke while I do all the heavy work. If I were to steal 100 Deutschmarks per day, you would never know it. You must raise my pay. You know I am a good man, so don't turn me into a thief, okay?"

Joschi listened to him attentively with his glass in a hand. It was impossible to read Joschi's mind so he ended his plea with a sigh. Out of the blue, Joschi threw his cigarette butt into the ashtray and said:

"You won't steal from me?"

"Of course not," he replied.

Joschi slammed his glass on the table, making the beer splash out onto their clothes. They both stood up and looked each other in the eyes. He stood his ground in case Joschi decided to attack him. But Joschi did nothing of the kind. Instead, he held out a hand, grasped his hand and gently pressed him back down into the chair.

They sat in silence and continued to drink beer. He knew he should speak his mind in order to relieve the weight on his shoulders. He believed it was important for him to do that. He decided that if Joschi did not raise his pay, he would quit immediately.

"Dad, I cannot bear it," he had written to his father in Viet Nam in his last letter.

He did not quit.

The next day, Joschi raised his pay to 150 Deutschmarks a day with a bonus of 100 to 150 Deutschmarks depending on each day's earnings. Joschi smiled and held up a stack of money, saying:

"This is the money for my friend who does not want to be a thief."

While winter passed into spring he saved quite a bit of money so he decided to quit his job with Joschi to open a stall of his own selling clothes. On his last day, Joschi invited him to a Lebanese restaurant in the centre of Berlin. After a few drinks made them tipsy, Joschi turned to him with a serious face:

"I'll keep you informed about good market days, as only the Turkish and those of us from the Middle East could know about. If you have any difficulties with taxes, don't hesitate to tell me. I have a lot of experience with that. You're the master now, and you know, it's not simple to be a master while doing business on the streets. It's better to have a plan for your business, you know?"

A few months later, an old artist in Ha Noi received a bundle of cash from his son in Germany. In the middle of the stack of money, he found a note: "I'm doing great, dad. Don't worry about me! There is nothing to worry about here. Even if life has challenges, I'll overcome them… like the days in the battle fields, I'll be back with you safe and sound soon, dad…

Ha Noi – Berlin".

Translated by Manh Chuong

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