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The Town Crier

Drawing by Vicky Villanueva Firestone

Drawing by Vicky Villanueva Firestone

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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