The regulars start crowding the wooden benches at Babe's food stall in the cool of daybreak, when the jackfruit tree out front casts a shadow the length of the city block and the plates in the glass display case are still piled high with fried fish, chicken hearts and cow lung.
In a city with countless roadside food stalls, called warungs, each offering the delicacies of a particular Indonesian island or province, Babe's place is noticeably unmarked. Thirty-seven years after he opened it, there's still no sign.
But there's no missing Babe, perched for hours a day on a curbside bench. Babe, whose name is pronounced bah-bay and means "dad" in the Betawi dialect of native Jakartans, is the silver-haired, broad-faced fellow with the large jug ears and even larger personality that has kept cabbies, cops, office grunts and politicians coming back for more than a generation.
"Hoodlums to generals," Babe quipped, describing the clientele for his simple Betawi fare and gentle but steady teasing.
Inside the stall, which is barely 10 feet across and partly shaded from the street by a soiled beige sheet hoisted between two rusting poles, customers find relief from the relentless roar of Jakarta traffic, the clatter of nearby auto-repair shops and the struggle to make ends meet in a country still getting on its feet after the 1997 financial crisis. The repartee, which caps the meals as surely as coconut, cinnamon and nutmeg top Babe's signature rice dish, offers a glimpse into the concerns of life outside, prosaic and profound.
"I think I've gotten fat because of your warung," complained Djuneidi, a portly man in the tan uniform of a local government official who, like many Indonesians, uses one name. "I went on pilgrimage to Mecca and I dropped a lot of weight, but because of you, I put it back on."
"That's your fault because you never stop eating," Babe retorted with a smile that etched creases at the corners of his eyes. He counseled, "I lost weight by doing acupuncture. Let me know when you want to go and I'll take you."
Another regular, Munir, wearing a denim jacket, wrapped an arm around Babe's shoulders and slipped him an invitation to a Muslim circumcision ceremony to mark his son's 13th birthday.
A third, Andaru Shamsuria, a regular since he was a high school student, paused to update Babe on his recent retirement as a military doctor. "He used to be poor," Babe announced. "He used to borrow my money. Now look at him. He's so rich he even drives a Mercedes."
Babe, 64, whose formal name is Hamdani bin Ali, opened his food stall after he lost his construction job during riots that convulsed Indonesia in 1965 and 1966. In the early days, he prepared barely eight pounds of rice a day. Today, he said, he goes through more than 10 times that amount at his stall. His earnings have put his five daughters through college.
One of his twin sons, Amransyah, 32, now works in the warung. A dark-haired version of his father, Amransyah has taken over most of the responsibility for serving up the food and the wisecracks.
"You again? You again?" he greeted customers from behind the display case.
Edi Supriyono looked up from his plate of fried egg and beef, and the two began to gossip about another regular, who worked with Supriyono at a cigarette company.
"Next week, he's getting married," Amransyah reported.
"Oh really?" Supriyono responded. "He's from my village."
They quickly worked out that their acquaintance was wedding an additional wife, allowed in Islam, and turned to the practicalities of polygamy.
"What's your company's policy if someone has a second wife?" Amransyah asked. "Does she get retirement benefits? Does she get to take out loans from the company?
"I don't know," Supriyono said. "I'll have to check."
Suddenly, there was a ruckus in the street. Heads spun around. Three ragged boys scrambled past, pursued by a pair of uniformed guards. The three were road jockeys, youngsters who help commuters evade car-pool regulations, charging 40 cents or more to ride in their vehicles so they can meet the three-occupant rule.
"What do you think of these jockeys?" Amransyah queried his customers when the din had died down.
"The police try to stop them because the boys don't share their money with them," scoffed a woman, Dewi, who works for the United Nations.
"No," Amransyah corrected her. "The police try to catch them to try to get some share of their money."
"I was stopped by the police once because I broke the three-occupant rule," interjected Hariono, a salesman. "I was alone. I should have been fined 1 million rupiah." But instead of paying the equivalent of $110, he boasted that he did what many Jakartans do: He bribed the officer. "I made a good deal and he let me go."
Much of the banter ultimately comes to money: the price of a motorbike or new leather shoes; the cost of apartments in a nearby building; the burden of paying school fees.
Amransyah said many customers are dining on credit at the moment because of these fees. "Maaany," he repeated for emphasis. They gripe that times were easier before longtime dictator Suharto was forced from office in 1998.
"Customers who come here say that living under Suharto was better because school was cheaper," he said.
"Yes, during Suharto, school was much cheaper," echoed Rusli, a used-car salesman who has three children, staring up from his bowl of rice.
"And rice was cheaper," Amransyah added.
Yet the regulars keep cramming in, pulling up in cars and motorbikes at the curbside where Babe awaits, some traveling an hour from new homes to visit the warung in the downtown neighborhood where they were raised.
"How's the food?" Babe asked Ibu Haji, a matron in a lavender headscarf, as she returned to her van. She used to frequent the warung with her husband and has continued to make the trip since he died a few years ago.
"Mediocre, like always," she replied.
"No problem," he said as they both laughed. "In any case, you still always come here."