The Paper Man and the Story of His Life

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned something about working on an assignment that took up my Saturdays and I promised I would talk about it in a post by itself. Well, here is that post.

The assignment was to interview and get to know a person making a living from jobs that people look down upon. This assignment was never meant to be just an assignment – it was meant to be a learning experience. Our group was assigned to interview a paper man. First thoughts about that : how the hell are we going to do this?

We were told that this assignment was divided into five stages:

  1. Observation – observing the potential subject without approaching them to know their habits in discreet
  2. Interview – approaching the subject and asking questions to them
  3. Visitation – paying a visit to their house to further understand their lives
  4. Simulation – doing the job that our subject does in order to experience life in their shoes
  5. Paper assembly – writing everything down in paper

We spent two weeks stuck in stage one, scouting multiple potential subjects without any clue how to approach. We would have been stuck forever if we’d never met Mr. Hendri.


A newspaper seller who could memorize his customer’s favorite newspapers just through one transaction, he was an interesting potential subject from the beginning. We set up an appointment for one Saturday and we blew it because we were late. But thankfully, he was incredibly nice to give us another shot at it. So we met him one Saturday on a sidewalk near where he sells his newspapers and we got to know the story of his life.

Mr. Hendri, 32, never wanted to spend his life selling newspapers at traffic lights in the first place. His dream was to be an artist, a craftsman. However, circumstances forced him to do just that. When his parents died when he was 13, he had to grow up faster than other kids back then and start making a living.

His daily life starts at 4.30 AM, when most of us are still asleep. He takes the public transport or borrows his brother’s motorcycle to pick up the newspaper bundle for the day. Upon arriving at the traffic light, he would sit down at the curb and read the newspapers first in order to improve his knowledge. The rush hour in Jakarta which is cue for an annoying traffic jam everywhere is a gold mine for him because that’s when people would mostly buy his newspapers. At 11 AM, he finishes the day and heads back home. He would return some of the papers he failed to sell that day if the publishers accept them, but he would have to sell the rest of the paper he couldn’t sell nor return to tempeh makers at a cheaper price.

When we asked him about his customers, he said that a lot of them were kind. One of his customers drove him up to the hospital when he got hit by a motorcycle once. A lot of them gave him extra money nearing Eid. He even got to watch some customers grow up from being students to being successful yet compassionate men.

Nevertheless, not everyone in this world is kind. Some customers, he said, drove in luxurious and polished cars and yet they didn’t pay him. They said they would pay later each time they bought a newspaper, but they eventually never did. Mr. Hendri would also be devastated every time it rains because the newspapers would be wet and he would have nothing to sell. On rainy days, he said he would just sit on the curb and stare blankly because there is nothing he could do. He had also been chased by harsh government officials and sent to court, gotten yelled at by them just because he didn’t abide the law.

Regarding competition, he said that there’s no such thing as unhealthy competition between fellow paper man. He and his friend at the traffic light would be pissed at each other at times with one selling paper to another’s customer, but then they’d brush it off and get something to eat together again – something people with steady jobs are often unable to do.

When asked about his income, he said that he makes a maximum of Rp50.000 each day (approx. US$5) from his selling newspapers. However, he used his craftsmanship to earn some extra money by making celebratory coconut leaf arrangements for weddings – from which he can get Rp100.000 (approx. US$ 10) per two arrangements – as well as wedding decorations worth Rp2.000.000 (approx. US$ 200) per project. With this income, Mr. Hendri says he doesn’t have to worry about what his family is going to eat each day, although he’s always worried about whether he can continue sending his children to school as the government of his province doesn’t provide free education.

We asked him why he doesn’t apply for a steady job instead of selling newspaper. Mr. Hendri answered that he wanted to at times, but he’s not sure whether the job would be nice, the boss would be kind, nor the money worth all the struggle. He says it doesn’t matter if he’s selling  newspapers as long as his job is legal and not trespassing any moral values.

The following week, we visited his house which was a long way away from ours. After battling through traffic, we finally made it to his house, getting looks from his neighbors because we don’t look like the locals there. We met his family and his wife repeated apologized for the size of their house and how uncomfortable it must be and how they had to borrow a rug from their neighbor. But to be honest, I was the one who felt ashamed to have more than this family and still being ignorant to my surroundings and not being as warm as them.

Mr. Hendri’s children were educated well. They were – contrary to my expectations – polite, not rude at all. We’re the ones who receive better education than them yet we’re the ones with less manners.

The entire assignment felt like getting slapped over and over again with the reality that there are less fortunate people than me, but they have more manners, more heart, more kindness, more optimism than me. It was an experience worth all the hard work.

I would not lay out the moral values I learned from them in your face here. But I do hope this story makes you stop for one second, think, and be grateful. I hope this story is one that doesn’t go pass you by after reading it just like that. I hope this story moves you because his story sure moved me.


“If you’re already a successful person, never forget about those who makes a living on the streets”  — Mr. Hendri


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