I watch him from the luxury of an apartment, realizing the very tentative and fragile separation between us. It's a cliche that most Americans are one paycheck away from being homeless and the gap between this man and me is much smaller than the distance provided by the street that lies between us.
For the past month I've done my best to make one hundred dollars last for thirty days. My rent and telephone bill are paid, I have--thanks to a good friend--a bucket of dried catfood in my closet. I have rice in my kitchen, both jasmine and glutinous. I have fish sauce and tea and the water that comes from my kitchen faucet is potable. A store across the street sells pork and chicken in two-dollar packages. I have so much more than so many people in the world-- or in this city.
I think of how long one hundred dollars--three thousand baht--would keep me going in Bangkok. My conclusion surprises me--not as long as it does here. In my other home, my rent and internet and utilities were well under half of what I pay for an equivalent space in Seattle. But I paid thirty dollars a month for bottled drinking water, fifteen dollars a month for the pickup trucks that took me to the end of my street where most of the shops were, sixty dollars a month for food--at this point I'm already at one hundred and five. That doesn't include catfood, catlitter, coffee beans, Skytrain and Underground transportation, coins for the washing machine in my building, a meal in a place with airconditioning, a riverboat ride, or a bottle of beer at night at home. Barebones living for this farang in Bangkok cost at least two hundred dollars a month; it wasn't fun but it was functional. And the Thai people who surrounded me would have been appalled to know that a farang lived that way.
I have to confess that I usually didn't. There were things that nourished me in Bangkok--meals with friends outside of my neighborhood every two weeks or so, Vanity Fair and The Atlantic magazines, the Bangkok Post every day, the International Herald Tribune once in a while, a carefully chosen book from Dasa Book Cafe or Kinokuniya, shoes which never seemed to last more than a month, haircuts when necessary, and the essential trips out of the country to keep my visa going. My Bangkok life was far less luxurious than that of many of my friends--farang or Thai--but it took every baht I made to maintain it.
I came back to the U.S. with no idea of how much my daily life would cost me--I was deeply relieved to find an affordable apartment and get my internet access within it. But deposits and installation charges dug deeply into my financial resources and now I find that my dabblings into barebones living in Bangkok are helping me to move on in the U.S.
Next month will bring another paycheck--or so I hope with every fiber of my heart and soul. Meanwhile I feel true gratitude every time I get drinking water from my faucet and books to read from my public library and a movie to watch at the end of a day from hula.com. And I offer a quiet little thanks that I really enjoy rice and fish sauce.