“Jerry, have you tried the BTS Meal?” Kak Aishah asked.
“BTS Meal?” I repeated, confused. “Bandar Tasik Selatan meal? Some food is served there?”
“No silly! BTS, the BangTen Boys! The hottest boy band in Kpop! McDonald’s is currently offering a special 10 piece McNugget meal, with fries and a drink, and two special sauces. McDonald’s is calling it the BTS meal, and the BTS boy-band are the ambassadors for this new set meal,” Kak Aishah explained.
“How much does this BTS meal cost?” I asked.
“Fifteen Ringgit and seventy sen,” Kak Aishah replied.
“Oh. I can’t afford it. I can hardly afford a six Ringgit plate of fried rice at the local coffee shop, let alone an expensive McDonald’s meal. Anyway, the only BTS I ever heard of is Bandar Tasik Selatan. The transportation hub in Cheras is twenty-five minutes south of Kuala Lumpur for all the south-bound buses. To Melaka City, Johor Baru, Muar, etc. I had many passengers traveling there in the past. Sorry, I don’t listen to Kpop boy bands, much less this err… this BTS,” I said.
“Haha! You’re a young man! I am an old lady. You should know about Kpop more than me! Anyway, what kind of music do you listen to then?” Kak Aishah persisted. She was obviously bored, as I was driving her to her hairdressing appointment, so she was engaging me in some friendly conversation.
“I don’t really listen to music. They give me a headache. It’s part of my condition,” I explained.
“What condition is that?”
“I have some sort of learning disability, so I can’t work in a normal office environment. My brain is unable to produce serotonin and dopamine, you see. I can only drive Grab,” I told Kak Aishah, in a rather sad voice.
“Nobody is perfect, Jerry. We are all human. What matters is you have a good heart, and you have an honest job to pay the bills. At least you are not a lying, scheming politician, bleeding our beautiful country dry!” Kak Aishah said kindly.
“Thanks very much, Kak Aishah,” I said gratefully.
“So have you found a girlfriend yet?” she asked, the perpetual question she never got tired of. Every time she got into my Grab vehicle, that thorny topic would materialize without fail. I sighed and replied. For what was like the two hundredth time.
“No, not yet.”
“Hurry up! Work on it! Having that special someone means you have someone to look after you. Of course, you have to look after her too, but you’ll find it all worthwhile. It’s a terrible waste if a handsome young man such as yourself remains single!” Kak Aishah said. She was not the only one. My mother, my aunts, and any person with an opinion on the matter all said the same thing
“Ok, ok. I’ll work on that. Well, here we are, your favorite hairdressing saloon,” I said. I stopped in front of a Muslimah-only hair-dressing saloon, Au-Reva, located just across the street from the massive Aeon Big Hypermarket, in the middle-class neighborhood of Bukit Rimau, in Shah Alam.
“Thank you very much, Jerry! Please come back in 2 hours to take me home,” Kak Aishah instructed as she exited my Grab vehicle.
“Sure thing. Enjoy your hairdressing appointment. See you later!”
Sadly, that fateful day would be the last time in a long while that I would be seeing Kak Aishah.
On the very same night, on May 29th, 2021, the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, would declare another nationwide lockdown to begin on the 1st of June 2021, due to the surge of new Covid-19 cases. All non-essential businesses and services were to be closed yet again, and he strongly encouraged all Malaysians to ‘just stay at home’.
“Oh, dear. Not again. How are we going to survive? ” My mother, asked, biting her lip with worry.
“Don’t worry Mum! We are both in our 20s! We can work. I received a letter from my college as well, telling me all classes are canceled during this latest Covid lockdown, so during this period I’ll work,” Joel said.
“If these were normal times, you can work part-time at a cinema or something. Or at a shopping mall. But now everything is closed, what are you going to do?” My dad asked in a dejected voice.
“Don’t worry Dad. Do you know Kelly has been giving yoga classes online, via Zoom? Soon, she will be getting her Aerobics instructor license, so she will be able to give aerobics classes online as well!” Joel told my dad proudly, referring to his girlfriend, whom he met at college.
“I think Kelly’s parents would prefer her to focus on her college studies, instead of mucking around with yoga and aerobics classes on this… this what? Zoom? What is Zoom?” My dad asked, confused.
“Something that allows you to make online conference calls with. Anyway, don’t worry. Like Joel said. We’ll handle it,” I told my dad.
“How will you handle it? You can’t drive your Grab vehicle around. Oh… how are we going to survive!” My mum wailed.
“Don’t worry. We got this.” I repeated.
It took quite a bit of effort, but I managed to transfer my blue Perodua Bezza Sedan over to my brother Joel, so he could earn some income as a Grab Driver by driving wheel-chair-bound old folks to their medical appointments at the hospitals and clinics during the Covid lockdown period.
He further supplemented his income by doing freelance coding work, since he was studying IT at the Multi-Media University in Cyberjaya, found over ads on the e-Lance and Fiverr websites.
As for myself, I approached old Mr. Wang, the owner of the Chinese Medicine Shop in my neighbourhood, to see if he needed some part-time help.
“Good Morning, Mr. Wang,” I greeted old Mr. Wang one morning.
He was, as I always remembered, short and stocky, with thick black glasses that made him look like a stern school principal. He was dressed in a simple yellow cotton shirt and beige khaki shorts to reflect his thrifty nature.
His shop was exactly how I remembered it since young: The sour smell of Chinese Medicine hung heavily in the air, amidst heavy wooden cabinets that were varnished, dark with age.
Outside, there was a rack of Gardenia bread products, and inside, there was a newspaper rack with regular broadsheet newspapers in English, Malay, Tamil, and Chinese.
There was also the glass cabinet behind the shop counter and cash registrar, that kept everything from cigarette products to Pipagao, a sweet honey syrup used to treat cough, and also, high-quality Chinese distilled spirits such as Mao Tai and Nuerhong.
What was new, was the thermometer stand set up at the entrance of the shop, next to a table with the full works to collect the customer data, along with a bottle of hand sanitizer. Along with the large decal, for customers to scan the My Sejahathera Mobile App for registration purposes.
After I had taken my temperature, scanned the My Sejahathera decal, and sanitized my hands, I stepped inside the shop and addressed Mr. Wang.
“It’s the Taufu-Fa zai (Beancurd Milk Boy). How’s your mother. Tell your mom I miss her Taufu-Fa. (Beancurd Milk). This latest Covid-19 lockdown is really annoying,” Mr. Wang said, peering at me over his glasses, as he weighed what looked like sea cucumber on a set of brass weighing scales.
“I will pass your message along. By the way, Mr. Wang, are you still looking for a part-time driver?” I asked hopefully.
“Yes of course! There’s a 10 km rule in place now. My current driver lives in Setia Alam, so he can’t come to my shop. Hmmm. Yes hahaha! You have such an honest face, the police officers at the checkpoints will simply wave you through without bothering to stop you! Yes, all right. You got the job!”
“Just like that?” I assumed Mr. Wang would give me some sort of test, or interview, but he just took one glance at me and deemed me fit for the job.
“Yes. Just like that. Now, follow me,” Mr. Wang said, leading me outside his shop.
“Can you drive manual?” Mr. Wang asked, walking me towards a white Nissan NV200 van parked some distance in the open car park in front of his shop. The van was small and compact and looked innocent enough. But when Mr. Wang opened the back of the van, there were bits of dried grass scattered all over the floor of the cargo space of the van.
“Yes, I can. Why are you showing me the back of this van?”I asked.
“Any idea what this is? Ever encountered a smell like this before?” Mr. Wang asked, pointing to the dried grass on the cargo space floor, and wrinkling his nose, and gesturing to the empty cargo space in front of him. The smell was rather sweet, almost like raisins. It did not smell like traditional Chinese medicine at all, which often smelt very sour. Additionally, the dried grass scattered over the cargo floor of the van looked very suspicious indeed.
“No, and no,” I said, my heart sinking. But to my surprise, Mr. Wang simply laughed at my ignorance and brushed it off.
“Good. Best you don’t know. Keeps your innocent, trustworthy vibe. Ok! You start tomorrow!” Mr. Wang said, closing the back of the van, and leading me back to the shop.
“Err… ok. Do I need to give you my income tax number, SOCSO, and all that?”
“My dear boy, I will be paying you in cash. Twenty Ringgit for each delivery. Whether you choose to declare your income, that’s your business.” Mr. Wang laughed.
Mr. Wang was a man of his word and paid me twenty Ringgit for each delivery, and there were 4 to 5 deliveries a day, meaning on a good day I could earn a hundred Ringgit. I was the only rider he employed, as he deemed me trustworthy and reliable enough to complete the deliveries all on my own.
“Where are you going?” the stern police officer asked, his sunglasses glinting in the harsh afternoon sunlight.
“Good afternoon, sir. I’m driving to Subang Jaya. Just to deliver some medicine,” I said, winding down my window, so the officer could bend with ease and inspect the interior of my van. I produced the letter Mr. Wang wrote for me, stating that I was his driver, and I was transporting shipments of Chinese herbal medicine that were critical for the health of his customers.
The police officer scanned the letter quickly, then nodded in approval.
“Return home immediately,” The officer instructed, handing the letter back to me
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir! Have a good day, sir!” I said, keeping the letter, then driving off.
I noticed many riders of motorcycles and drivers of lorries who had been stopped by the police. I could only guess, why the police had singled them out. As per Mr. Wang’s instructions, I treated the police officers on duty with respect, as normal human beings who were just doing their job. After a few trips, the police officers on duty recognized me, and simply waved me through.
What I liked about the job, was that due to the 10 km travel rule, I could only deliver to customers within a limited area. That meant all my customers were located in a certain part of Subang Jaya, so I did not have to travel too far. I then realized there was ‘a common thread’ amongst the customers I delivered to.
“Yo bro! What’s up bro!” the tall skinny Indian guy greeted me, emerging from the door, and staggering to the gate.
He looked to be about nineteen or twenty, probably in college and was dressed in a dark purple t-shirt, and black shorts. He wore an earring in one ear. His eyes looked dazed, and his speech was slurred.
He walked over to the gate and tried to give me a high five, but staggered, and almost tripped. To my distaste, he smelled exactly of the same fruity tang of the ‘Chinese herbal medicine’ I was delivering, and he was unusually happy for some mysterious reason.
When the Indian guy tried to sign off on the delivery, he would stagger and almost trip and fall once more.
“All right thanks. Take care, friend,” I said, taking the touchpad from the skinny Indian fellow after he had scrawled his signature on it.
“Take care, bro! Bye-bye, bro!” The Indian fellow waved enthusiastically at me as if he was eight or nine years old.
I rolled my eyes and left. He was not the only strange customer I would encounter. Most of my customers, I would say about 70% behaved like that Indian fellow. The remaining 30% would accept the package, and wink cheekily at me, and I would have no idea why. I simply got their signatures and left promptly. I was nothing if not professional.
I continued on this delivery job for Mr. Wang for several months, earning quite a bit of money that helped paid the rent and some of my parents’ medical bills. It would be three months later when lock-down restrictions were eased, that one evening Mr. Wang called me into his office after my last delivery of the day.
“Hello, Mr. Wang. What can I do for you?” I asked stepping into his private office at the back of his Chinese medicine shop.
Unlike the front of his shop, which was dark, moldy, and filled with brown wood, his office was bright with white light, and there were diplomas on the walls showing what a dedicated man to traditional Chinese medicine he was. It was very Spartan and minimalist, with just a desk with an old HP desktop computer on it, and there was a second table across the side where a printer cum fax and scanning machine was set up, beside a Maxis modem that was blinking with green lights.
“That’s for you,” Mr. Wang said, looking up from the HP desktop computer, and pointed to a brown envelope on the desk in front of him
“Wow, thanks!” I said, opening the envelop and finding a wad of fifty Ringgit bills inside. I counted it and found it to be five hundred Ringgit. A bonus of five hundred Ringgit, on top of my usual wages. I was a lucky man indeed.
“Taufu-fa zai. (Beancurd Milk Boy). The lock-down restrictions have been eased. My driver can get back to work. So I have to let you go now,” Mr. Wang said in an apologetic voice.
“That’s no problem at all Mr. Wang. I’ll find another job,” I said, putting the envelope securely in the messenger sling bag I carried everywhere I went.
“You were so trustworthy and reliable I don’t know what I would have done without you,” Mr. Wang admitted.
“I am grateful to have a job. My parents were barred from opening their Taufu-Fa (Beancurd Milk) truck, so my brother and I had to work hard to make some money and pay the bills,” I said.
“Times are hard for everyone. When I have time, I shall definitely stop by your mum’s Taufu-fa truck,” Mr. Wang promised, directing a rare smile at me. Most times, he was taciturn and brooding, so this was a nice change.
“Thank you very much. Take care, Mr. Wang,” I left the keys to the van on the table in front of him, and bid him farewell.
After my stint as a delivery driver with Mr. Wang, I did not go back to driving my Grab vehicle.
My brother continued driving old folks to their medical appointments with my Grab vehicle, and I presently work at the Dominoes Pizza outlet just outside Main Place Shopping mall in USJ 21, delivering pizza and sides to customers within the USJ 21 area.
I am very happy about this job. The money is not so good as my previous delivery job with Mr. Wang, but there is plenty of work, and I am kept busy most days, especially Saturdays and Sundays.
Although there is no telling when the Covid-19 will be over, I still keep in contact with my old Grab customers over Signal and Telegram. Chatting with them, and asking them how they are, etc.
I believe, one day, a year or two from now, the Covid-19 pandemic will be over, and on that day, I can resume driving my Grab vehicle, and my younger brother can resume college, eventually finding a good job that would let him escape the poverty our family is trapped in.
I do sincerely believe in that, and I pray that day will come soon. Hopefully.