Thursday, April 7, 2016

Bangkok Is Not Thailand

This is Mukdahan, on its walkway by the Mekong. When I first went there, the walkway was empty; the last time I was on it, it was crowded with vendors. The view is still exhilarating and two years ago, I could still buy coffee from this truck and watch the river as I drank it.

Across the river is Savannakhet, another favorite spot, where Laos people are separated from their Thai relatives only by the border formed by the Mekong. The language, the food, the friendliness is the same as it is across the Friendship Bridge that takes me over the river into another country.

Along the river, a short van ride away is Nakhon Phanom, I still miss that lovely, peaceful place.

And there's Korat, where I always stop and spend a day or two before going on to the Mekong cities.

Then there are the people and places I see from a bus window as I travel through Isaan. They haunt me as much as the places I've spent time in.

I think of the small towns that the buses pull into at dusk, where I think briefly of getting off, finding a room, and staying for a while. Someday I will.

But for now, I'm grateful for the knowledge that Bangkok is only a pale reflection of the rest of the country. All that is being erased there is still thriving and vital in smaller cities, tiny towns. Next time I'll skip the capital and go to Thailand.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Cemetery of Splendor, Graveyard of Hope

“Developing country” is a description that is almost completely owned by Thailand. The development is raw: tall buildings of striking design tower over tin shacks that house construction workers, their families, and their dogs; ramshackle buses stand still, paralyzed by traffic under the elevated tracks of the Skytrain; children wearing the uniforms of prestigious private schools have after- school snacks in shopping malls of regal splendor while their less fortunate counterparts sell flowers on the streets outside. It’s become a photo gallery of traveler’s clich├ęs: barefooted monks strolling past Tiffany’s, a Mercedes pulling up to buy food from a street vendor’s cart, the homeowners selling their recyclable papers and cans for what amounts to pennies to a man in tattered clothing who drives from house to house on a motor-scooter with a wooden platform tacked onto the back where he places his gleanings.

Development is less stark but always present in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest film about his home country, Cemetery of Splendor. He has set it in Khon Kaen, the major city in Thailand’s Northeast and one of the country’s largest, but the movie’s setting is rural. An improvised hospital that has been put in an abandoned school building sits beside a lake, surrounded by trees and near a small temple. Across the water, the shadows of modern buildings break the dome of open sky that features heavily in the film; in a setting this placidly bucolic, days are given drama only from the storms that might break from the puffy-cotton clouds.

The silence is broken by the daily noise of construction equipment that excavate a large piece of ground near the hospital. Nobody knows why, nobody seems to care. It’s a government secret, one person speculates, so secret that there’s no need to hide what’s being done. In the hospital are beds filled with soldiers, spellbound men who spend most of their time in sleep that resembles a coma. Body functions take place without interrupting their slumber; catheters drain urine, and erections caused by dreams are noted with amusement by the hospital staff. The men awaken long enough to eat something and often collapse facedown into their plates midmeal.

Like all of Apichatpong’s movies, this is one is surreal and demands more than one viewing to appreciate. The film’s pace mirrors the lassitude of a Thai afternoon, its unending hours punctuated by meals and snacks and random snatches of chatter. The conversations, though brief, are telling ones. Beautiful ghosts, figures venerated in a local shrine, come to one of the hospital volunteers to tell her that the hospital is built upon the burial ground of past kings who are sapping the energy of the sleeping soldiers to fight ghostly battles; the men will never awaken fully. A young psychic has been summoned to their bedsides to penetrate their dreams and offers to lead the volunteer into the sleeping world of the soldier she has informally adopted as her son. It is a palatial vision, more glorious than anything the volunteer has dreamed of herself, and as the psychic reveals the soldier’s dream world, the volunteer traces her own memories on the grounds of what was once her schoolyard.

Both journeys are equally spectral; a former bomb shelter for children who were threatened by the war in nearby Laos still stands in place near broken statues that filled the grounds of the ancient kings who once ruled this place. These remnants of history, these provinces of memory, are all fragile and doomed, threatened by the buildings that are making their slow progression across the city and the escalators within them that carry mute and passive shoppers, the mysterious backhoes that scoop sacred ground from a royal cemetery.

On one lazy afternoon, the hospital volunteer shares a meal with her adopted soldier-son, who quotes the famous maxim of the revered historical monarch, King Ramkhamhaeng, “There is fish In the river, rice in the fields.” “Rice in the fields and then there is nothing,” is her response, which would be a criminal act of lese majeste in Thailand.

At the end of the movie, she and the soldier exchange dreams. Whatever she is given remains a secret but it has stripped the beauty from her aging face. The close of the story shows her sitting near the excavation site, her eyes staring fixedly at some terrible vision that only she can see.

Apichatpong’s subtleties are rooted in the culture that shaped him and are obvious enough to Thai citizens that his films are unavailable in the Kingdom. He has said that the current political repression means that he can no longer work in his birthplace, that Cemetery of Splendor will be the last movie that he makes in Thailand. As for the audiences who are puzzled by his work, the hospital volunteer has words for them, in English. “You’re a foreigner,” she tells her American husband, “You just don’t get it, honey.”

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Stepping on Seattle's Dreams

Yesterday I read about an Ethiopian spice grocer who will be displaced by Vulcan’s purchase of Promenade 23, along with some other small businesses and the only supermarket to serve that part of Jackson Street, the Red Apple. Since I haven’t been to that neighborhood since I moved, even though it’s much closer to me now, I decided to explore in that direction.

This is an old neighborhood, and a graceful one. The Langston Hughes Community Center is a cultural anchor and the Sojourner Truth Library combines Carnegie elegance with a downstairs addition that is flooded with light from skylights and offers seating on modern red sofas. The streets are quiet and it’s difficult to remember that it’s a quick walk from them to downtown Seattle.

Jackson Street is peppered with entrepreneurial success stories that stand out among the Walgreens and Starbucks that have sprouted there. Craft beer from Standard Brewery is showing up in restaurants; it soon will offer food as well as fresh-brewed beer in an expanded setting. Nearby in a dusty shopfront, an Ethiopian lady sells what people have told me is the best fried chicken in the city, and I came away yesterday with almost an entire chicken for less than eight dollars. She sells the Ethiopian version of samosas too, sambusas, and little coconut handpies that are made locally, are consumed in two bites, and could prove to be addictive. A bit further down the street is Two Big Blondes, a consignment shop that sells designer wear; 14 is the smallest size in the place.

The Starbucks is one of the few I’ve seen in Seattle with patio seating and it always seems to have people in it who are savoring their coffee, not gulping it on the run. Across the street the Red Apple sells food for families—ice cream in tubs, racks of ribs ready for barbecue grills, reasonably priced produce, and catfish sandwiches for instant picnics. When I lived in Chinatown, I often walked here in the summer, uphill most of the way, to escape the high prices and Japanese junk food of Uwajimaya.

Then there is the ill-fated shopping center, which the Seattle Times in their usual burst of inaccuracy said contained “beauty salons, barbers, and nonprofits.” They weren’t completely wrong, but except for the nonprofits, the other enumerated businesses are singular, not plural. They failed to mention the one clothing store, whose window announces that they offer in-house teeshirt and hat printing and bears a phone number for those who are in the market for custom gold teeth. There is a Seattle Neighborhood Service Center and a place that takes donations of used children’s clothing—and then there is East African Imports and Restaurant.

The minute I walked in, my nose never wanted to leave. The smells came in a barrage and they prickled my nostrils with scents I recognized and those that were completely new to me. Bags of powders and flour and unroasted coffee beans crowded the shelves, along with stovetop grills for injera, kettles and coffee pots in graceful shapes and delicate cup and saucer sets and pans to roast the coffee beans. Colorful baskets of different sizes were heaped in a container at the front of the shop, with much larger ones filling the shelves. Clothing, most of it beautifully embroidered, hung on the few patches of wall that were not covered with shelving.

This was a store for serious cooks and I was dazzled by the world they knew how to negotiate with skill and confidence. When the man behind the counter asked if I had questions, I told him I had too many to answer in one visit, and then assailed him with the most insistent ones.

There is a restaurant partitioned off from the spice shop, with cozy booths and small tables and a menu that gave descriptions of the 22 dishes that can be eaten there. The coffee is hand-roasted and freshly brewed and can be had for breakfast, since this spot opens every day at 9:30.

This shop and restaurant aren’t just a community resource. It ought to be a city treasure. Instead it has at best eleven more months, less if Vulcan is allowed to proceed with their plans apace. It will be replaced by 570 apartments with underground parking and as a sop to the existing local community, a plaza.

In an area where lovely old houses with yards are the predominant feature, a plaza doesn’t seem as though it is what the residents are going to yearn for—especially when it replaces a very well-stocked supermarket and a very good restaurant and a spice shop that is unique in the area.

Arguably even more alarming is the idea of at least 570 new residents and probably more, depending on the size of those apartments, each with a car to keep safe in that underground parking area. Jackson Street is a major thoroughfare that is filled with several well-used bus routes and now the streetcar. Anyone who has seen what happens in the area from South Lake Union to lower Queen Anne in the late afternoon can only shudder at the thought of almost 600 hundred new drivers taking to Jackson Street every day. Even if there were no other neighborhood impact, this is enough to make Vulcan’s vision for this neighborhood one that needs severe alteration.

It also makes me wonder what exactly is being planned for the new and improved Yesler Terrace project. The silence that surrounds this has been broken, to my knowledge at any rate, by an announcement that the development will be similar to that of South Lake Union. To someone who has lived off Jackson for over a decade and who loves it, this is news to chill my blood. Perhaps yours too?

Paul Allen’s vision for Seattle is not mine. This billionaire is stepping on the dreams of those less fortunate than he—and that is almost everybody who lives in this city.


Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Granted Wishes at Dong Thap

Ask and ye shall be given--Dong Thap was given to me yesterday after my plea for pho with flavor and I see no reason to ever eat this dish anyplace else in Seattle. Pho in this place bears no resemblance to any I've ever eaten.

First of all there are those fresh made in house noodles. Second is their shape--flat, not round--"This is the shape we use in Vietnam,"said the Saigon-born owner, "Most places here use dried noodles and they are usually rounded." Third is the broth, rich with slow-cooked bones and aromatic with spices which are used with subtlety but are present on the tongue while eating. Then there is the meat--the brisket and meatballs that I chose from the twenty selections on the menu were perfect, not stringy, not dry, completely delicious.

"Never give up on pho. It is wonderful,"the beautiful lady behind the counter said before I left. Yes, it is--if you eat it at Dong Thap.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Desperately Seeking Pho, Long-term Relationship Desired

Yesterday I felt depleted and lackluster and in need of a meal, so I went to Lemongrass for soup. It is a downmarket place when compared to Eric Banh’s joints that are quite nearby, and I figured the only reason for its survival would be its food. A month earlier I’d eaten fried fish with tamarind sauce that had tasted very good to me so it seemed a plausible spot for a hot and restorative meal when necessary—and right now seemed very necessary. The wind was raw and I had prudently worn my rain coat which wasn’t warm enough. I walked in and ordered my food, feeling happy that I was given a seat near the streetside window. When the waitress offered to pull down the shade to spare me from the tanning quality of sunlight, I felt hopeful. If she believed darkness was a positive asset, then maybe the cook would believe in serving the true food of Vietnam.

I know nothing at all about how Vietnamese food should taste, only that the ingredients need to be very fresh and that fish sauce is as much of a staple in that country as it is in Thailand. I come to it as most people approach Thai food in America. If it pleases my palate, then I call it good.

I’d always avoided pho after my first few bowls of it, deciding it was far too subtle for me, and ate bun bo hue instead, which is hearty and flavorful and packs a punch of heat. The first bowl of it that I ever ate had a jolt of fish paste, which I really liked and have never encountered again. Still it pleased me more than pho, which tasted like nothing at all but the herbs that accompanied it. “Too refined for me,” I decided.

Then my friend Kim came to town and we went to eat Eric Banh’s acclaimed pho at Ba Bar. After several spoonsful she told me politely, “This is good soup, but it isn’t good pho. There’s no spice in this broth.”

I was surprised because I had never realized that pho’s broth should taste like anything other than slightly salted stock. When Kim told me it should have notes of things like cinnamon as its anchor, I felt cheated and when I saw that Lemongrass had a five-spice chicken soup, I ordered it.

It wasn’t pho and the broth was a vegetable one, but it did say five-spice and I felt optimistic. I sipped my tamarind soda and looked at the other patrons. Few of them were white and that made me even happier. I smiled at the plate of mint, basil, jalapeno pepper, and bean sprouts, with its generous slice of lime and remembered the Vietnamese restaurant in Hong Kong that had told me they had no lime when I had requested it for my meal. This place had already passed that hurdle successfully.

My soup arrived in a bowl that resembled a small basin and I covered it with the herbs, sniffing happily as they released their scents. I stirred it all with my chopsticks and found three large chunks of roasted chicken with its once-crisp skin still attached. It detached from the bone easily, dark meat that hadn’t become hard and dry. It all tasted quite comforting, but where were the five-spice flavors?

They weren’t there, or if they were, they were far too delicate for me to detect. What I had in my bowl was typically Seattle pho, a light broth with a clump of rice noodles that clung together in chummy fashion at the bottom of my bowl. The difference was the roasted chicken.

It tasted good, although toward the end I wished I had chili sauce on my table to jazz up broth that had become tepid. But I ate it all and assured the boy who came to clear away the dishes that he had probably saved my life.

I left a sizable tip and went away feeling fed. Whether I was well fed or not, I have no way of knowing. I only know I was given a meal in a bowl that tasted good and made me feel much better than I had before I ate it.

And isn’t this the best that we can ask of a restaurant, especially an unpretentious neighborhood joint with low prices? In some ways I would say yes. In other ways I feel cheated. I would bet that every cook in a Seattle Vietnamese restaurant goes home and puts spices in their pho, ones that I found in a cookbook on my bookshelf. Pho contains a cinnamon stick, coriander and fennel seeds, anise and cardamom pods, and whole cloves, tied up in cheesecloth and simmered for an hour in the broth. They can be bought in a little package at a local Vietnamese grocery. I know that’s true because I bought them myself at Viet Wah recently to put in a Thai dish that I made at home.

Even when Vietnamese restaurants first appeared on US shores, these spices were available, but I’ve never detected any of those familiar flavors in a bowl of pho. They are all well known to American palates. Why aren’t they used? Is it because US eaters associate those spices with pies and recoiled from them in soup?

But then if eaters don’t know they should be there, does it matter if they are missing? As someone who has never cared for pho, I say yes. If I enjoyed the taste of salted water that is augmented with a handful of fresh herbs and the meat that floats in the broth, I’d say who cares?

And this is the question for me: is it wrong to criticize Americanized Asian dishes? They serve a purpose and make people happy. What’s not to love? But I do think it’s unfair that I now have to search for pho that has retained its traditional flavors in a city with acres of places that serve a watered down version of the real thing.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Clean, Well Lighted Places

When I was a teenager, we spent part of one summer with my Aunt Ruth in Easton, Pennsylvania. This was exotic ground for kids from an isolated Alaskan homestead and we were enchanted by this small city’s urban pleasures. My aunt lived in a house that resembled the dollhouse of my early childhood, a big two-storey white Colonial that she had furnished with antiques. Silver salt cellars rested at each place setting in the evening but she was a jolly woman who always made us feel relaxed at her polished table.

My little brother and sister became ardent disciples of their cousin Johnny, a kindly giant who spent most of his free time in his bedroom watching television. He would send them to the corner store to buy snacks and that became another hangout for them, where they learned the joys of cold sodas and instant gratification.

I loved going for walks in the morning when the sunlight was still soft, down the hill to the city's core where a local department store had begun to feature clothes from Glamour magazine’s College Issue. It was still the era of classic clothes for coeds and I wandered through the tweed and bright wool, feeling as though I’d been transported into the pages of a magazine I used to treasure and save when it infrequently came my way in the hills of Anchor Point.

In late summer, Easton was much hotter than any of us was used to and the afternoons were long. Soon after we arrived, I discovered that a beautiful house down the street from my aunt’s was a library and mustering up my courage, I entered what to my unsophisticated eyes looked like a mansion.

The Mary Meuser Library was a carefully preserved old house filled with bookcases and for me, fresh from living ten miles from a library with meager stock, it was my idea of bliss. I’d go in the afternoon, read until supper, and often return for a couple of hours until the doors closed at eight. I’d sit near the fireplace feeling as though I were the daughter of English aristocracy and read greedily, making up for years of lost time.

I read constantly in Alaska but the pickings were slim. Often I’d reread the few books I owned because I’d run out of new words to gobble, or picked up selections on my weekly trip to the library on horseback because they were new books that I’d never touched before. Selection had never been a keynote of my reading until I entered the doors of Mary Meuser’s house.

It became the touchstone for what a library meant to me: books upon books in lovely, welcoming, and intimate surroundings, a private club that anybody could join. It took me fifty years to find it again, in Bangkok, in a library that, like the Meuser, had been a woman’s home. The Neilsen-Hayes Library was a small white house set in the middle of a large garden. Many of its bookshelves had glass doors and shutters of dark polished wood over the windows served as a shield from the sharp Thai sunlight.

It was a sanctuary from the barely controlled chaos that lay just outside its gates, with tranquility and elegance that soothed me every time I went there. A long gallery that was separate from the library offered art and food, and chairs and small tables were sprinkled nearby in the garden. In a country that prided itself on never being colonized, this place provided a touch of colonial charm of the best kind—the sharing of English words in a spot that anybody could enter to be bathed in quiet and surrounded by books.

When I returned to Seattle after my years in Thailand, one of the first things I did was get a library card. Although I used it often, the soul of the city’s libraries had changed. They were media centers, social service centers, and day shelters for people who had no other place to go. They were no longer refuges from the noise and exigencies of daily living. A visit to a Seattle library was a lot like a journey on a city bus, with encounters and adventures that were constant reminders of lives that were uncomfortable, of sidewalks that held tents, of illness that was not being cared for. I began to buy my books from used bookstores, often online, and hated myself for doing that.

Last year word began to spread of a private library with a yearly subscription fee, a place where readers could come and sit and work and read and borrow books. My egalitarian back went up immediately. Why not work on making public libraries more tranquil, I sputtered to anybody who would listen. Why revert to the club-like atmosphere of the Gilded Age, where aging, affluent Seattleites could retreat from the social realities that surrounded them? I felt this way right up until the minute that I was welcomed through the doors of Folio Atheneum.

As the founder gave me a tour of the bookshelves, I saw books I’d loved, books I had long wanted to read, books I’d never heard of. He assured me that this wasn’t an elitist institution, that anyone could come to sit in the comfortable leather armchairs, play chess with the set that was waiting on a table, read the books on the shelves. However the subscription fee allowed readers to take the books home with them. 

When I paid for my membership, the ladies behind the counter were warm and conversational. When I began to browse the shelves, the silence was both welcome and welcoming.
And suddenly I was fifteen again, within the walls of the Mary Meuser library, in a place where the printed word was paramount and books were treated with the reverence they deserve. Without formality, the rooms still held grace and civility, qualities that are as essential a need for all of us as are books.

I know a girl who is just entering her teens, a hungry reader. She’s not quite ready for the books at Folio, but as soon as she is, I plan to take her there and buy her a membership. I know this place will feed her as completely as the Meuser library did me, and the Neilsen-Hayes library, and the small library in Anchor Point with its scanty number of books, because like those other places, Folio holds the best kind of nourishment that can be found. I know. I’m there every week, soaking up its sustenance and feeling profoundly grateful.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Death of Appetite

Mushroom foie gras ice cream, anyone? Imagine it. "The chunks of mushroom somehow managing to taste like, well mushrooms, yet still marry with sweet vanilla ice cream, while the foie gras got lost in the tofu caramel topping."

Still with me here? Bay leaf ginger ice cream with the bay leaf left whole, giving "permission to chomp into it," is another choice, and gee is it ever tempting.

But that's only dessert. Before we reach that point, we have the joy of eating curry chicken wings that have been embellished with Nutella, and drinking a lager brewed with mashed fruit cake--and this is where I checked the date on Nicole Sprinkle's review in the current issue of the Seattle Weekly. (I know, I know, but I'd run out of the backs of cereal boxes to read.) Was it really April Fool's Day? Had I slept through most of February and all of March?

Apparently not. We really can enjoy all of these brave new taste sensations in Amazonville. Ooops, I meant to say Allentown. No, it's South Lake Union, hush my mouth. And what's more, the establishment where these delicacies are being served is called Mollusk.

I don't know about you, but to me mollusk conjures up a slug. Maybe that's just me, and you know? Maybe slugs are delicious with Nutella and mashed fruit cake. Somehow I think this restaurant might just have that on the menu soon. Can't wait.

This is not an unknown trend here in our trendy city. Not too long ago I bought a serving of blue cheese ice cream from a spot on Chophouse Row. I don't know why I did it. I hate cheese and ended up spitting the little chunks of Roquefort (perhaps?) into a napkin as I walked through Capital Hill. Maybe it was because last year I tried banana and cheese ice cream in Bangkok and lived to tell the tale. You see, I really am an adventurous eater, but there are some things that go beyond a joke and chunks of mushroom covered with tofu caramel sauce is one of them.

"Peculiar," Sprinkle dubs it. Fare for bulimics is my assessment. But then I am a crotchety old baby boomer. What the hell do I know?

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Goodbye, Huai Kwang

Huai Kwang is not a lovely section of Bangkok except for the few trees that are found near its streets. Sprawled behind the condos and entertainment centers of Rachada, it is populated with residents from the many low-income housing apartments that have sprouted in clumps several stories high with outdoor hallways that serve as verandahs running down the full length of their fronts. Each apartment opens onto this hallway, which takes the place of the ubiquitous Thai balcony, that private pocket-sized space where residents hang out their laundry and put a plant or two. There’s little privacy in these grey rectangular hutches; most of the light and ventilation that comes into their apartments enters through the doors that face what is essentially a public thoroughfare. People have their meals on the floor near the open doorway as their neighbors pass by, and some stop to lean on the railing of the pseudo-verandah for a cozy little chat. This is housing that is as public as it can possibly get, without a trace of hominess to soften its basic function. It provides shelter in the blandest, most utilitarian fashion in a way that seems designed to obliterate the imagination of anyone who lives there.

But Thai people are more resourceful than that and the streets of Huai Kwang testify to that truth. On the sidewalks surrounding these grim buildings is a life and energy that is the soul of this neighborhood. For blocks on end, people sell fish, poultry, fruit, vegetables, cooked food, cheap clothing, and flowers from ramshackle stalls that blossom into activity every day except on the one that is the city-mandated hiatus, and draw shoppers to them well into the night. The fish are so fresh that they still twitch on the counter, the chicken has no hint of gaminess in its odor, and the produce is the kind that upscale stateside supermarkets can only dream of. Flowers turn street corners into gardens and everywhere people are pushing, shopping, gossiping. The Huai Kwang market is the front yard of a neighborhood that has no other.

If I look beyond the stalls at the cracked sidewalks, the mottled concrete buildings, the canal that’s filled with household garbage, this part of Bangkok is depressing beyond all measure. But I never have. I’ve spent hours wandering through this place, mentally constructing meals from the food that is on display, buying cheap polyester sheets in improbable colors and kitchen crockery to furnish yet another apartment, bringing home more rambutan than I could eat in a week that I end up sharing with friends and little bags of kaffir limes that I treasure for their fragrance alone, finding teeshirts with bizarre English phrases to take back to the states as gifts. I buy orange juice that was squeezed minutes before at a stall that is mounded with fragrant peels and if I’m lucky, I’ll find crisp, molten kanom krok that are a cross between a pancake and a sandwich, filled with coconut cream. Once I found a Buddha amulet that called to me from a stall that sold many of those images. When I was crass enough to bargain for it, the vendor gave it to me and I burst into tears.

This is one of my favorite places in the world and for decades it has been a place I go to for nourishment that has not so much to do with food. Two days ago it showed up in my twitter feed. It will soon be dismantled by the junta and the city government, who seem to believe that clearing Bangkok’s sidewalks is a sacred mission.

The buildings of the official public market will remain in place, where in dark hallways people dismantle animal carcasses and stand in the heat, selling wholesale to purchasers who back their vehicles up to loading docks and carry food away to other parts of the city. They will find it easy to drive their purchases away from Huai Kwang because the streets will be empty.

The crazy entrepreneurial spirit of Bangkok’s streets is being systematically erased and with it goes the life of the city. The slums of Huai Kwang are of course prime real estate, close to the subway and not too far from the central business district. The nearby arterial of Ratchadapisek Road is being filled with buildings that offer all modern conveniences to office workers looking for chic little city residences with swimming pools, fitness centers, little kitchens with microwaves and separate bedrooms in condominium units. They want the same shopping palazzos that downtown Bangkok has: clean, comfortable, filled with franchised goods and food, stretching through buildings that are the size of football fields. And they will get exactly what they want because providing these creature comforts are the way that business tycoons increase their sizable fortunes.

My heart breaks a little bit more for a city that I only thought was mine, in a country that I knew never could be but that I’ve loved for twenty years. Bangkok memories come to me now in the company of a dull, persistent ache and when I think of what I used to know there, I breathe in the shallow gasps that presage panic attacks. Even if the junta leaves, their legacy will never go away, their dismantling of one of the most vibrant cities on earth.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Living to Read, Reading to Live

When I left my Chinatown apartment, I packed my books first and that was a huge mistake. For the past two weeks I felt bereft and last night when I pulled one from my new bookcase and began to read, I could feel a hole was being filled. The internet, as useful as it is, doesn’t replace what books do for me, and when I read from a screen before I made the final move to my new home, I felt as though I were satisfying a cramping hunger with Cheetos.

I have 140 books, every one of them kept only because I can reread each with pleasure. Although in everyday life, I usually look at them as a cabinet of mementos, and complain that there’s nothing in the house to read, that’s a distortion of truth, an addict’s excuse for going out and getting more. I realized that when I looked at my new bookcase filled with old books. Each one of them was enticing after our separation period and I began to read with a very real delight.

It’s a strange and lovely coincidence that my new bookcase holds every book I own with room for no more than that. It means that if I buy a new book, I either have to give it away after I read or give up one that I already own. In my room there is no space for another bookcase and that pleases me. I love ownership but I hate greed.

One of the most depressing places I’ve ever visited was a studio apartment furnished almost completely with bookcases. All of them were full. Books had been piled high on a little table and were stacked neatly on the floor. The smell of dying paper was palpable and sad. There were more books than any one person could ever hope to read in a lifetime, let alone reread. I could only spend a few minutes in that place without wanting to retch.

There will be other books that I’ll bring home, and I may fudge the issue of giving and keeping by deciding that the cookbooks will have to find a space somewhere in the kitchen. But overall I’ll stick to my buy-one-give-one policy. Claustrophobia will trump avarice every time and my room is extremely compact.

But even stronger than the issue of space is the memory of six paperback books on a shelf made from rough lumber in a room that was mine when I was fifteen. Catcher in the Rye, Nine Stories by Salinger, East of Eden, China Court, a Louis Untermeyer anthology of 20th Century poetry, a copy of the Tao Te Ching: there were many other books in our house but these were mine, chosen and cherished, read and reread. Then there were my childhood books on another shelf, ones that I rarely opened at this stage of my life but were impossible for me to give away, Anderson’s Fairy Tales, the Brothers Grimm, Treasure Island, King Arthur retold by Sydney Lanier, worn-out copies of Little Women and An Old Fashioned Girl, Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom, An Episode of Sparrows.

All told I kept less than twenty books over the course of my life at home. When I finally went to New York to live with my grandmother, I wasn’t horrified to see that her collection was even smaller than my own. It was easy to understand that; she lived in a city with branch libraries in every neighborhood and soon I was a regular patron of four of them. I would come home with as many books as I could carry, gobble them up, and then go back for more. It was bliss.

The saddest thing for me in this new century is the state of library books, which are so disgusting that I can no longer borrow them. Nothing is more appalling than turning pages that are stained with mysterious fluids—or worse yet identifiable ones. Since the books belong to everybody, they belong to nobody, and the stern dragon-faced librarians of the past, whom I was certain examined every book I ever returned and would confiscate my library card if they found one that I’d besmirched, are dead and gone, replaced by social workers. The libraries themselves are filled with people who have nowhere to go, no place where they can take care of themselves or be cared for. In the 21st century we can pride ourselves that we have no workhouses, no lunatic asylums; we don’t need them. We’ve replaced them with libraries and we are all the poorer for that.

In Seattle we have built a library designed by Rem Koolhas, a building so innovative that it even filled pages in an architecture magazine published in Bangkok. I couldn’t wait to go there when I finally returned to the states but I don’t think I’ve visited it more than six times in the past four years. When I walk past it in the morning before it opens, a small crowd waits outside its doors. The emergency shelters close for the day, the occupants take to the streets, and then to the libraries. All over the city people surf the internet, sleep in corners, and often rave to themselves in public libraries.

When I visited my sister in a small South Carolina town a couple of years ago, we did a small tour of the local libraries. They were the refuges of my youth: quiet, with not an indigent to be seen within their walls. It was both soothing and terrifying—where did the street people go? But then come to think of it, I saw no street people. I don’t think they were allowed past the Mason-Dixon Line; I’m sure they haven’t all been sent to Seattle but there are days when it feels that way.

In a city where encampments are supposedly only official ones, tents are turning the entire city into an impromptu Hooverville. Welcome to the New Third World, where libraries become refuges for the poor and the mad, and used bookstores are where readers go to enter the repositories of books from the past.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Break Up

In Alaska, break up means a prelude to spring, when the river ice begins to thaw into big chunks and water starts to flow again. This used to often be a violent time when the water-born ice took out bridges, and a hopeful one that spawned the Nenana Ice Pool, when people would bet on the day and time that the ice would break.

I keep reminding myself that breaking up means change, motion, and renewal, and I've had do that a lot recently. My latest trip to Bangkok ended a 20-year love affair with that city and when I returned home, I began to separate myself from the Chinatown neighborhood where I have lived since 2004--with a hiatus of several years when I moved briefly back to Bangkok.

I believe that the day I stop changing my life in some significant manner is the day that I begin to die. Loss means a new beginning. Finding something new to love, to explore, to inhabit is a crucial process for me and I look for a chance to do that every few years. But it, up until now, has always been a matter of my own choice.

Leaving Chinatown became inevitable with my last rent increase but I was lucky to find a new spot to call my own in an area that is still relatively ungentrified, thanks to an old friend with a vacant guest room. Right now my days are schizoid ones--setting up a new space while dismantling the one in which I still live. The act of moving could easily be done in several journeys by taxi; the act of letting go is significantly more difficult. I tell myself I'm a quick 10-minute walk away from this place that I've loved. This is true but soon I won't be walking through a generous sprinkling of neon to get home at night.

Bangkok? I knew I'd find changes there on my first visit since the Junta took over but I had to see that for myself. Coups have come and gone in Thailand as a matter of routine in the past hundred years or so, but life on a daily level has gone unchanged. Not this time, not in Bangkok. Market by market, the city is being erased, and personal freedom is disappearing with it. It hurt me every day of the month that I was there, and for the first time ever I was happy to return to Hong Kong on my journey homeward.

I still can't write about the city that I've lost, not yet. Instead I focus on putting objects into bags, assembling furniture from Ikea at the new house, finding new facets of the neighborhood that will soon be mine.

It's Break Up time. Bridges will be broken, but not burned,