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How a Bangkok woman was driven to living on the street, and cutting off her ex-husbands penis.
The streets of Bangkok are alive with the sound of music. A bony, disorganised, rambunctious kind of music; it sounds like a television blaring when you’re trying to concentrate, like an old machine in need of grease, an oil drum, the sizzle of oil in a hot pan, a distorted phone line. It sounds like a thousand horns, a gaggle of geese, the growl of a peacock, like the melody has been salvaged from the recycled bits of a rubbish tip. The sounds come at you from every direction. It is menacingly beautiful.
Rain begins to fall in downtown Bangkok and it’s smudging her mascara, washing the grime from it’s buildings down the gutter. People scatter like mice.
In amongst it all, horizontal on a banana recliner chair, a couple of inches from a roaring street, a street tailor is trying to gather some sleep. Several others that line this street everyday, fixing travellers clothes and backpacks, are ducking for cover. With piercings in her eyebrow and nose, she appears a rough character, a lived-in character. But she looks incandescent lying there, peacefully, in the rain.
I decide to wake her. She’ll soon be as sodden as wet toilet paper if she’s left there. She doesn’t seem to mind when I shake her by the shoulder and we both huddle under a shop window. I help her drag her ancient industrial singer sewing machine under shelter. I remember seeing the same sewing machine in many living rooms back home as nostalgic ornaments. Here, it is somebodies livlihood.
I’ve brought along a pair of my shorts that have acquired a gaping hole in the crutch. Don’t ask why. She tell me she can fix them and offers me a chair when I indicate I would like to sit with her but I plant my ass on the concrete next to hers. Her English is makeshift but understandable. Her name is June.
She hasn’t slept in days, she tells me. There’s a new gang of homeless that have moved into the area and are giving the street’s long-time tenants grief.
“They try to steal my sewing machine every night so I chain it to my ankle,” she says, poking an eye at me through the gaping hole in my shorts.
“You sleep here by the road?”
“Yeah, I must – room is very expensive in Bangkok,” she tells me.
“But I sleep at my son’s apartment some nights- this is enough.”
I make sure I understand this clearly. “You sleep on the street while your son sleeps in a house?”
“Yes,” she says, sounding irked.
“I pay 5000 Baht a month for their rent and I sleep under the stars.”
She’s exaggerating: Bangkok’s skies resemble a swamp through which no stars shine through.
Her sewing machine starts to clatter like a machine gun. A passing man takes a photo of us both. June cackles a laugh. I feel like she’s more laughing in his face rather than posing for the photo.
When he leaves, her face transforms and becomes sour.
“Too many tourist in my life,” she says.
The rain has stopped and the street has let out its breath.
“It's a hard life in Bangkok, never any money, never enough and nobody cares,” she says.
“Why do you live on the street June?”
“My last husband threw me out!” she laughs.
“I used to drink a bit too much when I found out he had other young girlfriend.”
“I could understand why,” I said.
“ But this is normal in Thailand – many men have many girlfriend and for most women this is ok, but I can’t think about it.”
“ My first husband was worse.” She has stopped sewing now and is looking straight at me with a straightened back.
She tells me he was a “bad man” who “couldn’t get enough sex.”
“I begged him so many time after I know he has a girlfriend but he would just laugh at me,” she says swatting the air in front of her face with her head down.
“ I used to threaten I would kill him but I never could...”
“Instead when I came home drunk one night and he was sleeping...I cut it off,” she says with a sinister grin.
"Cut what off?"
"His penis!," she remarks with a sinister grin.
“You cut his penis off?!”
“Yep, I came home one night and he was with another younger girl so when I come back home, I was a little drunk and I cut it off with a kitchen knife!” she says breaking into laughter.
I cross my legs.
The grime of the street is under my toe nails. Not far away a woman squats with a bucket in the gutter and scrubs at a pot. I can smell garlic and fried chicken from the food sellers across the road.
Earlier in the day they had set up their big umbrellas on the opposite of the road under the shade of the block buildings and followed the shadows as midday saw them switch sides.
They seem not to notice the heat from their woks and their deep fryers as it only intensifies the unbearable heat of the April sun.
Surveying the street from the gutter I realise one cannot distinguish the end of one building to the beginning of another. They're crammed in together like the masses of people who walk the street, stuffed in between shop fronts and street sellers.
Tuk tuk drivers are lazing about on the corner. Heading towards us is an old man who looks like a discount taxidermist's best piece of work. His hands shake as he holds out his baseball cap to tourists who try to avoid his eyes.
When he reaches June, she flicks him a cigarette and he stops to chat with her. They know each other well it seems. When he leaves she gives him a pair of pants. She tells me hotel’s give her clothes they find left behind in tourist's rooms and she fixes them up to give away or send off to the markets to sell to other tourists.
“It’s so hard,” June keeps repeating.
“ I have never been happy in my life,” she pauses pursing her lips.
“ But my young son makes me happy. When he sees me he stops everything to look after me- he has a good heart.”
“He massages my hands, my feet and back and he wont even turn on the television when he knows I’m sleeping.”
June goes on to ask me about my mother and how often I see her, stirring up guilt inside of me.
“Do you see her often? You should, She will be so happy when she has all her children around.”
June tells me that she still sends her mother money each month. This is still entrenched in Thai culture: the elderly and the family are paramount. Nursing homes make no business here.
“You come from a lucky country you know,” she says. I nod. Possibly, the only thing dividing me from her and this gutter is my fortune of having been born in Australia.
“My mother never gave me study and when I asked her why she said to me, ‘I gave you ten fingers just like my mother gave me’
This is why June really wanted her children to study. June is one of the many who are struggling with the inflation that is hitch hiking a ride on Thailand’s economic growth spurt.
A kilogram of rice, the grain that has seen Asia’s developing countries through years of poverty, cost 13 Baht (40 cents) two years ago; now it costs 70 Baht (US$2.20).
A bent old woman doges traffic as she tries to make it across the road carrying two heavy looking baskets on either end of a bamboo pole slung over her shoulder. Another is dodging cars with her food cart.
Everybody works so bloody hard in this city to survive. They toil off the streets of the city like a farmer toils in the soil. This is what urbanisation does in developing countries. It transplants the struggle for life from the farm, to the city.
My pants are fixed and June hands them to me with a smile : " be good to women - they live hard life."
And with that, I returned to the throng of people who walk past these stories everyday of the week.