“That’s the thing about this city, it’s like a test kitchen for the tech comps. When it works here, it works all across the country and region. You can imagine in this 15-million-citizen megapolitan everyone with money draws their claws and the next thing you know it’s a dog-eat-dog world. Sharing economy is a pipe dream, a future elitist utopia. It does work like that, sometimes, but the cutthroat battle is not for everyone. This is Jakarta, where the old meets the new, the rich get richer, and the middle is trapped even inside the two-income households.”
I don’t even get half of the sentences. When she speaks in Indonesian, there are many words that do not sound like slang, so I take they must be English, but new. Like, the modern things in the English language. I decide to brush them off and focus on the things I know. Anything that goes after the three words “future elitist utopia”.
“And the poor?” I ask Monica, my counselling officer, who is busy sorting her dividers in the binder next to me in this car. It’s not exactly a secret so I catch a glimpse of my release documents.
“The poor?” she smiles sardonically.
Her eyes stare at an elusive point atop the blurred skyscrapers in a distance that create a jagged skyline. Since when this district was inhabited with more towers than normal houses?
I wouldn’t know because the ages progressed while I was still incarcerated. Many things happened within two decades. Or exactly two and a half, the sum of my time behind bars.
“Why do the motorists wear colourful jackets?” My mouth spews words before I can think.
Perhaps I lost the capability to think, or it’s just simply the new reality that amuses me.
The last thing I remembered in the 90s and 2000s, people wearing uniform vests were of the biker gangs, notorious for robberies and harassment.
“They’re from the ride-hailing apps.”
“What is a ride-hailing app? What is an app?” I feel like a toddler who throws too many questions at his mother.
Even after many decades I spent under the sun, I still become a burden for other people. First my parents, may God rest their souls, and now this sweet lady who takes her time to onboard me back to civilisation.
It’s her job, but I can imagine her frustration in teaching me.
Instead, she answers patiently, “A program installed in your phone that runs a specific function. You can pay your bills, order foods, or shop online there.”
She adds after a beat of silence, “I’ll confuse you if I introduce everything at once. So, let’s catch up with a real device soon after we arrive.”
When our ride reaches one of the most prominent districts I'm taken aback. Something’s missing.
“Where’s the McDonald’s at Sarinah?”
I remember this Sarinah mall used to have a McDonald’s. It was the first McDonald’s restaurant in Indonesia, I think.
“They closed that down a year ago.”
So many things happened.
I understood about the face masks and the pandemic. The prison doctors gave a few socialisations. But other than basic compulsory things, I’m oblivious to the world. It’s like navigating in an uncharted territory based on an outdated map. A map based on memory. Despite preserving the best and worst things happening in your life, memory is full of betrayal. It doesn’t erase itself even when the place of my first date with an ex-girlfriend—ex, maybe she’s married with two kids or even already buried somewhere now—no longer exists.
I keep changing my weight from one buttock to another at the back seat next to Monica. Her fingers tapping on a screen with blinding light and moving images. I saw a similar model used by the guards but they never gave me one. ‘They’ could refer to my family, who never visited, or an altruist. I don’t know, I never received anything other than items to sustain my life. Smartphones, for example, are still outside this boundary. For others, it’s an essential part to participate as a productive member of society. Me? A middle-aged-slightly-over-fifty guy who spent more than half of his life veiled from the world? An absolutely outrageous idea.
I’m an anachronistic time-traveller, a time-wanderer from the past, not the future. People wouldn’t need to ask me what is going to happen in the future because it’s me who asks why the car does not have a tape deck anymore.
“They don’t sell cassettes anymore,” a clipped answer from Monica, still continuing typing on her phone. How her sight is not melted by that glaring light is beyond me.
“So how do people listen to music? No CD player, either?”
“We have streaming services.” She pops in a cable dangling from the radio deck.
Why they still have a radio but not cassettes is also beyond me.
Monica is a pleasant person but she can be bitter at times when commenting on how fast the economy moves, sometimes leaving even an old millennial like her stumbled.
Maybe she directs her anger towards herself. Or her frustration and anxiety if I could ever fit in.
I have no idea which. People do that sometimes, projecting their inner worry of someone else towards something that does not really affect them. Like my mother, she used to do that a lot. She was angry at the mob boss who ratted me out to protect his family, but actually she hated me for falling into that circle in the first place. Me, a failure of a son.
The sound of the tyres on gravel breaks me from further wallowing.
Monica says thank you to the driver and we get out of the sedan in front of my old house.
“You don’t pay him?” I’m curious since there was no money handed after we used the service.
“No worries, it’s paid already using this digital wallet,” she assures me.
Seeing a blank expression on me, Monica adds quickly, “We’ll get there. One step at a time, okay? Now let’s get in and unwrap your present.”
She produces a house key from her purse. It was handed to the officer a long time ago as a part of my possession. After my parents departed this world, someone at the office must have kept it secure for me to use it later. To use it now.
The musty smell attacks my nostrils. Tables, cupboards, and chairs kept the same, left at the precision of the angle my father and mother used to place them. Situated not in the heart of the city, only my second cousin uses the guest room occasionally when he’s doing business in the area. At least that keeps this home from looking like a shipwreck. But today, this special day, we’re alone.
We sit down next to each other around the old dining table. A rectangular package lays on it, bearing the official stamp of the institution that oversees my getting back to society.
“So, this is your phone now. It’s in the benefit of parting gift that you’re eligible for. Let’s turn it on, yeah?”
She teaches me what button to press to turn it on or off. I watch her manipulating that phone with ease. Is this how the majority of young people live nowadays? With gadgets attached at their hips? It fascinates me.
I always thought my first step back at the society—if I made it— would be a teary one. Someone from my old life hugged me, we reunited with wet faces, and a feast was held to celebrate the return of the prodigal son. But now it’s only the coldness of the warm old home and a foreign unbeing that welcome me.
A long button etched on one side of the device. I press it and something pops up on the screen. Its glinting bell icon tells me what it is. The sound of the ticking clock soon swallowed by various ringtones we try.
I’m parched but no water gallons. I make a mental note to ask around about where to buy the sustenance. Probably I will boil water for the first few days. Speaking about that, “How can I pay for water and electricity? I’m afraid the old Sumarjo won’t be visiting here anymore.”
Old Sumarjo is, or was, a low-level employee who made rounds of electricity metre check at our house. A different guy visited my parents’ house for the water metre check but I can’t recall his name.
I’ve got a feeling Monica will explain about the apps.
She prepares a pen and sheet of paper.
“First things first, we need to write down your phone number here so you will not miss it. Then, let’s create an email address for you.”
I notice moisture building up at the corners of her eyes. I don’t know why.
Monica sticks around until five in the afternoon. She orders a ride from the same app—she already taught me how to, but I need to be considerate since I don’t have a fixed income yet. About that, she explained something about collecting my benefit in my bank account. When her grey blazer is out of sight after she closed the car door, I feel total loneliness creeping in.
I had been alone for most of my time since the mid-90s. I knew that twenty-five-year sentence was gonna be a long time, and when I’d be back the world would have changed.
But this city keeps surprising me. The speed of development, the way high-tech gadgets become inseparable from our lives, I didn’t factor it in.
I don’t have the luxury of growing with time. I'm an old ghost whose heart stopped beating when the clock ceased ticking.
My neighbourhood is not the same. Well, the majority of the houses are still the same. But now there are three or five odd houses that stick out in this neck of the woods. The design with glass windows or cubic facade. They might not have popped into existence years ago. The family that moved from Bandung in the 70s? Their house had been renovated. No more the unique half-cobblestone wall and green colonial windows.
When earlier this afternoon we passed the U-turn before turning to the road to my house, two competing minimarket brands stood side by side. Apparently, one of them is a lovely addition to the housing complex now. It seems that Miss Laeli’s old mom-and-pops had gone. The remaining space of her outlet is boarded up with numbered planks. Maybe she’s moved. But maybe tomorrow she’ll open, I can't tell.
The point is, I’m not sure about everything.
I’m a coin tossed into the bottom of the pond. My soul is a spirit floating in the city of the towered skyline. I’m the crumbs left when the pages of history flipped.
But one thing I know about Jakarta is it’s always in the pursuit; of the next best thing, of the glittering mornings and boisterous nights. Of the colours of the world and an array of engrossing trends. As for now, the theme is technology.
I know I will weather it out, just like how everyone else toughens it up to win and prosper.
That’s the thing about this city.