The Town Crier
He cruises the dark streets during the deepest hours of the night. Slung over his forearm are his “little bundles of joy,” which are attentively placed inside a wicker basket, and kept warm with a carefully wrapped blanket. Sometimes you see him, but most of the time you just hear him, shouting into the night, his forlorn wail piercing the still of the darkness, arous- ing the restless and the hungry, probing the sleep of everyone in the neighborhood, especially the young, who surely must grow up with that haunting cry em- blazoned in their slumbering subconscious.
“Baluuuuuuuuuut!!” Out of the distance comes the drawn-out, faint cry, the sing-song call of a warm voice in the night. And then several seconds later yet an- other, louder “Baluuuuuuuut!,” a timeless sound, one that has filled the warm, tropical nights for a thousand years, without letup to this day. If the “Town Crier” still exists, he lives in the Philippines and he is known as the Balut Man.
I have always thought balut, and thus the balut man, to be a very mysterious part of Filipino culture. Since I came to the Philippines in the early 90’s, balut has always seemed like the strangest food in the whole world. I love boiled eggs. But the idea of peeling an egg shell and biting into a dead, aborted duck has not exactly been on my list of culinary delights.
“But it’s good for the knees,” everyone says, meaning that balut will somehow make me a stud in bed. “Hmmm,” I ponder. “Sexual powers heretofore un-
known? Maybe I should try this balut everyone’s talk- ing about.” But I haven’t been able to get up the nerve. I’ve always declined the offer of a balut, even turning my eyes when I see other people peeling the shell and sucking out that poor bird who never had a chance. Besides, I have never quite understood what strong knees and sex have in common.
For years, however, the concept of balut has fasci- nated me. The mixture of a strange type of egg believed to have the power of a magical aphrodisiac, and sold mainly at night by men who carry them in cute wicker baskets, wrapping them in a blanket like babies to keep them warm, and who walk the dark streets howling into the night, has made me think that to sell balut must be a special calling in Philippine culture. I wonder if Filipinos revere the balut man?
But try balut? Well I’ve insisted that if I went to my grave tomorrow without having tasted one, I wouldn’t have missed anything. Then I met Boy, the balut man.
I first met Boy when I used to stay regularly in the Ermita section of Manila. Boy always walks by Tadel’s Pension House on Arquiza Street several times a night on his regular route. Ermita is a busy place with a lot of guys walking the streets selling balut and you tend to hear as good a selection of balut vendors as one can imagine. Boy’s balut call is one-of-a-kind and is easily recognizable from down the block. He doesn’t just yell the word balut, but, rather, he sings it. In fact I’ve noticed he doesn’t even say the word balut. If I were to spell it for you it would look something like this:
“Haaloooooooahh!!” It is a long, drawn-out and loud cry, leaping forth from the depth of his soul. Boy is the Pavarotti of balut vendors.
From my second floor room I could always hear him clearly and when I did, I bought penoy from him. Penoy is more up my alley as it’s the same as a boiled chicken egg except it comes from a duck. I rather like penoy because it has a richer taste and texture.
Besides Boy’s great balut call, I like to buy from Boy because he’s a great guy. He’s always so upbeat and so into selling balut. He promotes it and gets excited about it.
“Come on Joe,” he always says, “tonight you try balut.”
“Balut?” I yell back. “I don’t eat duck abortions!” Boy gets a laugh out of that line. One night as I sat on the steps peeling the shell off my penoy, Boy put his basket down and lit up a cigarette. I had a chance to ask him about himself.
He said he was 47 years old (he looked 35) and has been selling balut since 1974, always in the Ermita area. He starts the night with 60 balut and 15 penoy, which he buys daily from a middleman who gets them from the province of Bulacan. He starts at two in the afternoon and finishes at midnight, or until his basket is nearly empty. He works Monday through Friday and lives in Tondo during the week. On the weekends he takes a bus to Nueva Ecija, where his wife and ten year old daughter live. I never asked Boy how much he makes because, well, I knew it wasn’t a lot. At the time, he was selling balut for six pesos. It doesn’t take a math whiz to realize he’s living from day to day.
“It’s a job for a poor man like me,” Boy said with his characteristic smile.
“How many times in a night do you yell, ‘baluuuut’?” I asked.
“Ohhh, many times!”
“Well, how about from the corner of Mabini St. to the corner of M. H. del Pilar. One block.”
“Ten times,” he said.
“Let me hear your style. I know you’re good at it.” “Haaloooooooooahh!!,” he wailed. Like a sergeant calling his troops to attention. “You don’t say ‘balut!!?’”
“No,” and he cried out again, “haalooooooooahh!!!” loud enough for all Ermita to hear.
“You have the best balut call in Ermita,” I said. “It’s different.”
“Well, I have to call you, right? You don’t know I’m here. Maybe you are sleeping.”
“That’s true,” I said. “I came from my room when I heard you.”
“See. You heard me. I have many customers like that. They are sleeping when I come to the door and I shout‘Haalooooooooahh!!’ They wake up and buy two balut. Every night.”
“How come the balut man always works at night,” I asked.
“Because people make boom-boom at night,” he answered.
“You know I’ve never eaten a balut. I only eat penoy.”
“But it’s good!!,” he said excitedly. “You eat one now Joe.” Then he pulled a balut out of his basket.
*To be Continued……
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