Thursday, June 2, 2011

All the News All the Time

For the past fourteen years, when I have lived in Thailand, I've lived in the same neighborhood, and during that time the same woman sold me a paper any time I wanted one. Long after other stalls gave up on selling Bangkok's two English language newspapers, this lady continued to carry them. She looked rather gleeful when I told her she was the only person who now did. And when I came back from a trip to Laos, ecstatic to see newsprint in my language again, she looked almost as happy as I did.

She was on the sidewalk every day for the entire day, behind her little cart, owning that portion of the street. She always looked old from the first day I saw her until the day she told me it was her last as a newsstand proprietor. "I'm sick," she said, "I'm old."

"I'll miss you," I said, and I do. It's difficult for me to go to that part of my neighborhood now; part of my world has been diminished. One of the people with whom I've shared a history of sorts is gone and a piece of the fabric that tied me to this spot in the city has frayed. My community is fading, both with people departing and places transforming into something I wish they hadn't.

This street has several gigantic estates, with a thick green canopy of leaves rising above the walls that conceal them from the rest of the neighborhood. I've peered through the gates of these places for years, fantasizing about someday having one for my own. Then came the day that the gates swung open on the greenest of these compounds and the trees came down. My heart broke.

There are four air-conditioned restaurants on this street now, all of which serve mediocre food, often thawed and heated in a microwave. There are precious few people who make food in a wok--and when I think about it, I can't blame those who've stopped using one. It's hot and hard work, with fumes from frying chile and garlic that have to damage the lungs and eyeballs of whoever is frying them. Nonetheless, the stinging fragrance of sizzling food is one I never thought I wouldn't smell on the street of my neighborhood.

The tapping of sticks that heralded the approach of an itinerant noodle-seller, the mournful call of the kouay-chai man, the little Bozo-the-clown horn that meant ice cream was on its way were all sounds of my street which I rarely, if ever, hear now. Life is change, and it is changing all around me. It makes me realize that what I thought made this place home was merely cosmetic; more and more I feel as though my neighborhood has gone away, leaving me behind.

A friend who lives in the heart of Bangkok told me his neighborhood holds everything--department stores, supermarkets, hotels for visiting guests, bars, bookstores, fleshpots, Middle Eastern enclaves--the list could fill a Webster's Unabridged. It's an urban and urbane spot; highrises soar and so do the prices of meals in many of the restaurants. When many people think of Bangkok, they think of this part of the city.

My neighborhood holds Thailand. Resolutely without sophistication and largely homogeneous, it's a spot where the opening of a new convenience store means every street urchin gets a helium balloon and where a pair of shoes can die within a month because there are damned few sidewalks. Ancient food carts serve up delectable meals in surroundings of dubious hygiene. The same fat dog sprawls on the same sidewalk every day, forcing pedestrians into the street, taking up more room with each passing year.

But it's a village encircled by highrises and will eventually become indistinguishable from the rest of Bangkok--international, glitzy, on the move. There will be a Big C complex where now the huge food market sets up three times a week and condos will have sprouted where the trees tower behind walls. And residents in that future- to- come will buy their copy of the Bangkok Post or the Nation or even the International Herald Tribune as part of the way that life is meant to be, never knowing that once in this neighborhood, these could only be purchased from one stout little newsstand owner, a lady who kept on going until she no longer could.


SeattleTammy said...

Oh, honey. We've had that happen twice. When all our friends on Cap Hill died of AIDS. And then the Central District gentrified after 18 years. Now, at 51, I'm starting a new garden. I hope you find your garden.

Ebriel said...

How true all of this is, from what little I've experienced of this neighborhood's transformation.

And yes, the air-con restos on the soi do serve mediocre food. My British man - who can only seem to get his work done in an air-con environment, and who's not terribly concerned about whether the Thai food is authentic - often makes that his first choice to escape the mid-day heat. And I frequently join him, as today. Oh the compromises we make for love.

Looking forward to exploring more of Soi Ari in the coming months.

Having moved around so much, I don't really get attached to anywhere in particular anymore. Places change, whether I like it or not, and I hope to be part of positive change (with my studio projects in a few places).

After seeing artists studios gentrify neighborhoods - then watching the studio evictions once the neighborhoods had been tarted up and made desirable for less creative types - I realized that the only way to avoid that was to buy my own place. And if I'm renting, the changes will happen without my input, for as a mere renter I'm not invested in the neighborhood, my money is transient, etc.

Janet Brown said...

Tammy, resilience is the key, isn't it--and the people we love--

Janet Brown said...

Elizabeth, I'm sure you'll like Ari.
Incidentally, when I take off for a few days (which I'll be doing soon once or twice before I leave town for good), Roy is welcome to work at my place if he wants. I have air which I never use--

Kristianne said...

I suddenly have a significant yearning to pay close attention to the calling of the morning Bebyo vendors, the clinking of trishaw bells and the rhythmic proclimations of the men who carry around the long bamboo pieces to sell. Despite that these sounds wake me in the morning at unreasonable hours, I'd rather have them then flat silence of characterless neighborhoods.

Ps. I'll die if they really put a Big C there.

janet brown said...

Kristianne, Mrs Nupa says that won't happen. The land belongs to EGAT (Electric Company.)