I wasn't going to put this piece of writing on the blog. It's ponderous and dark. Probably too much so for this medium. But today I read this piece by Pankaj Mishra (my restaurant gets a shout-out, which is nice!) and I thought, what the hell. I'll give you a slice of my Bangkok pie. It's of a different flavor.
The prosaic sort of poem below was colored by two events that happened outside my house. And those things that happen within the confines of the restaurant. Bangkok has a sinister side, but most writers don't get it right. I'm not sure I do either, but this is, I guess, an attempt.
I read this piece at the Bangkok Literary Festival held at the Neilson Hays Library a few months back. The topic of the readings was the city in which I live. And so, here we go...
After the wild-eyed tuk-tuk driver nearly ran me down,
In front of a festering canal beside my house,
He scowled, then spilled out of his machine.
He came at me with an amphetamine tick and a beer-perfumed hiss,
And I wondered what the hell I was doing here.
Then I began to run.
Once, when my best cook disappeared, I wandered to the bank through the back streets of Sukhumvit.
Morlam chirped from cheap speakers, as I made my way to the teller, and I thought about him.
I cared about him.
And looking down at the cracked pavement, trying not to trip, beside the bus stop,
I spotted my chef.
He was sitting on the sidewalk, on a straw mat, a block from the restaurant.
Beside him, an ancient-looking fortune teller, sipping an energy drink, whispered in his ear.
My eyes met the chef’s, and then they didn’t, as if guiltily we shared the same secret.
The chef came back to work the next day.
I had dreamt of a restaurant, and then I had one, and so I stopped writing stories about others and tried to make one about myself, under this backdrop of Bangkok.
And it was through the eyes of others, like the Burmese furniture maker who swam across a river to become a waiter, that I began to understand this place.
And the chef from Yasothorn, with a sharp stutter from a motorbike accident, who pages through catalogs of amulets, looking for one that might bring him something better.
Then there’s the dishwasher whom I once watched kill a rat with his hands. “I wouldn’t dream of cooking,” he said, when I tried to promote him. “There’s just too much noise in my head.”
We are guests, 13 of us, sitting at the same table, waiting for what comes. The one thing we know is that Bangkok does not belong to us.
After a long night at work, we sometimes go to Rama 9 Road, to eat Isaan food and drink beer.
The restaurants there bear the names of places and dishes from upcountry – Larb Phet Sisaket, for instance – which must make customers feel closer, or farther, from home.
The massage parlor girls spill in, with the bartenders and the taxi drivers, and in the fluorescent light, their hard lives seem less so.
And after many drinks we sometimes talk about our dreams, and often, my staff talk of going home.
This Thursday, after midnight, I returned home from work.
And on the same street where I was almost run down, beside the brown canal, there were piles of blood-stained cotton.
Pairs of surgical gloves were ripped inside-out and left to lie beside the empty wrappers of life-saving things, syringes and bandages and the shattered plastic from a broken bike.
I sat and stared at it in dim light from my own motorbike, as it idled, alive.
The next day, as I began to write this piece, I thought about dreams, and how they drift into our lives, changing our perception of a place.
This city we live in invites cliché, as we catalog the strange sensory experiences here that come to define Bangkok.
But they don’t, really. They’re just smells and sounds and sights that we cling to, for safety, on our way home.
They’re our handlebars.