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Saturday, February 26, 2011

My guy on Phayathai

I just finished the book Such a Long Journey by Rohintin Mistry. A long time ago and a world away I read his book A Fine Balance, which was almost 1,000 pages of misery that taught me a lot about the world I was living in at the time. Bombay, which is where the former novel is set is not Bangkok but they have many things in common; compounds with apartment buildings surrounded by piss soaked walls for one.

In Bangkok I both lived in such compounds and had friends that lived in such compounds where the guard opened the metal gate leading to the street for any vehicles. Foot traffic in and out of the compound came and went through a small door cut into the larger gate.

There were rats and street vendors, old ladies with shorn heads, blood red lips and black teeth squat down in the busy centre of Siam Square selling betel nut, a throw back to the previous century. The lips and teeth were a result of chewing the betel nut they sold; not a great advertisement for the product in this modern age.

And there were street people. Beggars and those too far gone to beg populated almost every footbridge and could be found under overpasses, sitting in the shelter of the shade afforded by the high walls around a construction site or gated housing community.

In my neighborhood, just off from the popular hustle and bustle of soi Ari, sitting in front of the corporate headquarters for one of the major Thai banks, was my guy.

I called him my guy because over the course of several months we became friends of a sort. We never exchanged a word; I am not sure if he could talk, but we exchanged smiles and small gifts.

When I first met my guy he was sitting on the cement next to the frequently extinguished fountain at the bank on Phayathai road. I walked past him on my way to and from the skytrain station everyday. I was nine months pregnant.

My guy had a backpack and in this backpack he had some small things that he would lay out on the side walk to sell to passersby. He typically had key chains, single serving packets of nescafe and other small light wares. He, unlike other street people, was always impeccably dressed with a nice silk shirt and clean black pants. His hair was combed and he was clean shaven. He never approached people or harassed them to buy things just sat there and smiled at everyone.

My guy was young, I would guess early 20s. He had a physical affliction which twisted one leg, and his facial expression while always pleasant and friendly was a little off-center.

Over time I came to look forward to this friendly face that I knew I would encounter just outside my door and although I had no need for instant coffee or key chains I would stop and give him 20 baht just for the smile. I didn't give it to him every day and he never seemed to expect it from me and was always gracious when I did have something for him.

Our relationship went along like this for almost a year. Then he stopped coming to the bank sidewalk. I have to say that I was worried about him, wondered where he had gone. Of course there was no way I would ever be able to find out the answers to these questions. Street people may have addresses but they aren't known to people like me, not usually. I mentioned my concern to my partner at the time and he, living and walking on the same street as I did, had no idea who I was talking about and furthermore felt my concern was misplaced.

Eventually he came back and it was as if my worst fears had been justified.

One morning he was back sitting in his usual spot but he was not his usual self. First, he had no bag, he had no things to sell. His clothes were rough and dirty. He hadn't shaved. And worst of all was his face; there was no smile there just a look of despair. I felt so bad when I saw him. As I approached I saw all the people, who like me had known him in his previous incarnation, just walk by him ignoring the fact that he was there. I must have seen 30 people pass by him like this before I got to his spot.

I stopped and got out my wallet and made a point of showing others that I was giving him money. He gave me a wan smile and sat back down on the cement. As I had hoped after I continued on down the road to the skytrain and on towards work other people started to stop and give him money too. I hoped that whatever had befallen him, some quick cash would remedy. It wasn't so.

The next few days that I saw him he continued in a disheveled state. I was heading home one hot afternoon and saw him sitting dejected in front of the silent fountain. I stopped and through some mime convinced him to come with me to the nearby market. He was shy of me; still not sure of my intentions. I took him to a noodle stand and we had lunch. He watched me as we ate and he watched others in the busy market as if he expected someone to throw him out at any minute.

I bought him a new shirt and gave him some money; more than I usually gave him but still not much of any amount to a foreigner like me.

My guy was gone from his spot for the next few days after our little market outing. I was hoping that the money I had given him was not taken from him by whoever he might live with. I was hoping that this small gesture would make a difference.

After a week he was back, and he was smiling, clean and toting a canvas backpack with smiley face key chains for sale. I bought two.

I have been gone for almost four years and I still wonder about my guy and hope he is doing well.

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