People

Hidden Coffee

The man next to me spread his legs, thrust his forearm down and grabbed the thickest part with his other hand. “Javanese men are like this.”

I could guess what he meant, but I asked for clarification anyway.

“Our cocks.” I looked at the other coffee-drinker behind him. He nodded.

Ah I see. Kucir, I had just learned, had five wives. I had a lot of questions. The Quran permits men to have four, but common culture in this country held it at one. We had already sat through a few calls to prayer. It was midday and my fourth time at his coffee stall.

His crudeness escalated as we got to know each other, so it was only on this last meeting that he felt the need to profess his masculinity. I had pried far enough into his marital life at that point that it wasn’t quite surprising.

He said he had several children, six in total, but his math didn’t seem sharp. He held up his hand, the one which was to become a phallic symbol a few minutes later. His thumb, first wife, had three children. His second, on his index finger, had two. His middle finger had six, his ring finger…

I stopped him. He held up his hand again. One wife too many, already five children too many – I already knew Kucir to bend the truth to show off, but this man of numbers didn’t seem to expect to have to explain his math.

From what I understood, the six children he had spoken of before – one a musician, one in technical school, one with a family… – were “official”. The others, while he still called them his children, were less visited, less known. How did he choose?

On this visit to the stall, he wore a skullcap and a thick lock of gray hair drooped from the back that must have escaped my view the first three meetings. Yet as he sat next to me, his hand emerged from behind him with the clump of hair, a piece of black tape adorning the top. Kucir, ponytail, received this name after I forgot his real one.

I met him and his most frequent customer within an hour of arriving in his city. A friend and I headed down a side street in search of coffee. Down a hill and up another, flanked by motorcycles and banked by food stalls, we heard a “Hello!” in an attempted English accent.

Two men sat under a metal roof on lopsided wooden benches. “Drink some coffee!”

Warkop Jenggot became our hangout spot over that day and our last day. Its name stood out above dark windows on a banner that feigned esteem. Named for beards that didn’t exist on the men who visited, it consisted of two benches, a shaky table and a stove to heat hot water. Men came and went, women sporadically emerged from behind the blackened windows, and at least one regular was mentally disabled.

We got coffee the first time, both without sugar or milk. We answered their introductory questions, including why our coffee had to be bitter. Their curiosity was quickly exhausted, and it was our turn.

Cigarette smoke collected under the roof and our bodies sweat from our hot drinks. Kucir stood, propped against the table when he wasn’t limping from coffee to water and back. A second man, whose name became saved in my phone as Pak Polisi, sat next to me. It was a Saturday and they had nowhere business to attend to save their coffee and cigarettes.

His hand on my knee, Pak Polisi told me his profession I would later use to find a nickname for him. He often raided residences like hotels and restaurants to check marriage certificates and search for drugs. Foreigners were often exempt from these kind of raids, he said.

Occasionally as his arm draped over me, he gave my shoulders a firm squeeze. Sometimes it evolved into a complete massage. I didn’t argue.

We returned two hours after we left the first time. We rounded the corner and there sat Pak Polisi on his scooter. “I’ll drive you to the coffee stall.” We did say we would be back for more coffee, but I guess he decided it would be that same afternoon.

On this second meeting, a man exited the house behind us for the second time. On the fourth visit, he came out a third time. He was always without a shirt, always in a towel, always seemed to urgently return to something inside. Our two new friends pointed to their homes in the other direction, so I never learned what lay inside this one.

Visiting this coffee stand was not an event to be scheduled. The benches were more a chance to socialize than order coffee. It seemed we were the only ones ordering anything. Regulars showed up, no greeting necessary, and they entered the topic seamlessly. Men came and went, but they would return just as readily.

Pak Polisi was one of these men. He left and returned twice within our first meeting. But each journey between his coffee seat and his scooter was a struggle. His leg muscles were far weaker than his hands. He leaned against the table and wall as he walked to his scooter. Once he had sat and turned on the motorbike, he glided smoothly. Both men had trouble walking.

Kucir was in his 70s, Pak Polisi in his 50s. Pak Polisi also had a wife and children, but that was the extent of their caricature.

Our second meeting at Warkop Jenggot was invitation to dinner. Pak Polisi extended the invitation several times earlier in the day: Meet at the coffee stall and I’ll drive to my home nearby.

We arrived at the stall that night and Kucir made us each a coffee. Pak Polisi hadn’t arrived yet, and after 15 minutes we called him to make sure he was on his way. Kucir tried, I tried, but no answer. A Saturday night, Kucir said he may still be with his mosque group. We called 10 minutes later, and again several times. Already an hour after we said to meet and three after the sun went down. We left, making sure to clarify there were not hurt feelings. Perhaps they hadn’t expected us to come.

Pak Polisi called the next morning. He had suggested we go see a part of the city together, but without the previous night to plan with him, we departed on our own. We told him as much, and I asked where he was last night. “Sick” he said.

“When are you coming back?”

I told him we would visit them that night. But when night came, our schedule filled up, and I had to be the one to cancel.

Our last visit to the coffee stall was also our last visit in the city. We had skipped a day at the stall, and it was now Monday.

As Pak Polisi explained that his sickness was diabetes, Kucir pointed to a woman who had surfaced from behind the house and carried a young child. “Wife four.” She looked to be in her thirties. Later he said he didn’t have a wife in this city. He referred to the woman by the wife who gave birth to her.

Kucir said he wanted to marry again, but he didn’t have money. In his marriage tradition, a new wife comes with a price paid to the woman’s family. If you have many wives, you are a rich man.

He owned a coffee stall. He was from Java. He had been here fifteen years. He had no other work. Could he really “afford” his wives? Was his faulty math simply a poorly constructed cover story? Why had Pak Polisi laughed when Kucir pointed at the woman?

For Kucir and Pak Polisi, their family background was as murky as the windows that looked onto the benches, as modifiable as Kucir’s hair. Their stories could be created and recreated as they like.

Pak Polisi calls me occasionally. He only really says one thing: “When are you coming back?”

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