Monday, 26 January 2009 11:17

She broke it, her almost-magical finding stick. It happened in a panic, while she was frantically prying her rented pushcart off the Klong Toey slum railway tracks. You can only expect so much from an old piece of bamboo.

The 3:30pm Klong Toey freight train demolished her cart. She herself had fallen backwards to safety when her stick broke. Total disaster - the rented cart was destroyed, her day's rummaging of maybe 20-bahts-worth of recyclables ruined; plus bruising her bottom when she landed and losing face.

She's had to support herself ever since her parents died when she was 10, and has been a used goods collector and seller for 41 years. She says that the almost-magical finding stick used all its magic powers at the moment it broke, throwing her back to safety away from the tracks. And that the stick secretly had never gotten along very well with that rented cart anyway. High class stick, low class cart.

Even before the train accident, her pushcart had a wobbly front wheel and was always breaking down at the worst of times. Put any weight on it, like beer bottles, cans, folded down cardboard boxes or newspaper, and she could barely push it. And how can anyone make a decent living as a bag lady with a "lame" cart? "Good riddance to bad rubbish," as they say.

Please Also See Our Photo Gallery: A Day in the Life of Aunti Chalor

She rented her rickety cart from the junkyard guy on Sukhumvit Soi 36 for 10 baht a day, and she owed him back rent. She told him that his prices are shameful. Who can possibly pay?

"Prices ain't even prices anymore," lamented Auntie Chalor, a proud descendent of Klong Toey's original Bag Lady Clan. Used newspaper from five baht a kilogramme to one and a half baht, and used-but-washed-clean plastic bags and a case of beer bottles from 14 baht to six. And assorted bottles three-for-one baht. Cans down, too. Plus, the junk dealer guy uses a crooked scale to weigh her stuff. Always cheats.

The finding stick was of sturdy bamboo, just the right thickness for her tough, no-nonsense hand grip. Short fingernails. And just the right stubby height, as she is short, maybe 135cm standing straight. She says her mother used to tell her you don't have to be tall to be pretty. Mother also taught her how to use a finding stick, with her tagging along behind as her mother stirred through plastic and other recyclables you find in rubbish bins and where people dump their stuff.

Only glue-sniffers stick their bare hands into unknown junk. There are always rats, broken bottles, cans, even snakes - thus, the need for a finding stick. Also, glue-sniffers often eat thrown-away food they find. Not Auntie Chalor. Missing a meal or two beats losing dignity.

Once she dug into some rubbish with her finding stick and a young python wrapped itself around it. She shook the stick and hollered at the snake to let go.

After the python incident, she went to the local temple. She carried her finding stick with her so it would touch the sacred ground of the temple. Of course, she didn't dare ask a blessing for her finding stick, but she felt things got better after the visit.

She had a seizure some years back when she was heavy into the booze and her daughter was small. Ever since then, her right side is weak, and she drags her leg a bit. That was when her husband left her for a younger bag lady. A real hussy!

It wasn't pleasant the first time they met. There were loud words. But what stung the most was her husband was watching, and when the hussy said some bad words ... her husband said nothing. Didn't stick up for her, his major wife. That stung a lot - enough for a lifetime.

She never was married to the man in what society calls a "proper ceremony". Such events cost money and are for "up-town high society people".

Her sister had asked for a 120 baht dowry and there was a bit of quiet talk. The "elders" agreed that the bride's price should be 80 baht, as Miss Chalor, pretty and young as she was ... was "in the family way" and thus slightly used goods. For a wedding ring, the bride wore a brass ring she had found with her finding stick, the same ring she still wears today.

Her husband told her before he left her that he didn't want a wife with a gimpy leg.

"Gimp or no gimp," she replied, "I'm from one of the oldest families in Klong Toey, and you'd better appreciate that." But he didn't. Her older sister always said that the man was low in station.

But life goes on, and while the junk dealer didn't charge her then-and-there for the destroyed cart, he did raise her daily rent to 15 baht a day until the cart was paid for. She cursed him, calling for every demon who lives in garbage bins to come out to haunt him.

But even after the train crash and Auntie Chalor's trash talk, he did let her rent another cart, but one in a bit worse condition. He told her that at an extra five baht a day it would take 120 days rent to pay for another cart. She doesn't talk to him now, gives him "the silent treatment".

Her daughter helped her take the smashed cart back to the junk dealer. Tied it to the back of a motorcycle. She is 18, pretty and everyone calls her a "tom". Wears her jeans slung low on the hip, boy style, and spikes her hair. Says Klong Toey boys are sissies who are trying to act tough. They smoke expensive three baht cigarettes out of a pack and have tattoos - the fake ones, not one of the big nine tattoos that can really protect you.

At 18, she feels embarrassed help her mum push the cart, says her school friends laugh at her. And her mum tells her: "Shush, shush. Such talk. We are an old family of Klong Toey with a dignified profession. People know us; we have a reputation to uphold."

The train accident happened the afternoon before the last full moon. On the following evening, Auntie Chalor placed a bucket of water out in the light of the full moon. Early dawn, before the moon went away, she bathed in the water shone on by the moonlight, hoping that she would be protected from further cart accidents.

Auntie Chalor never went to school. She wanted to, but the school said she needed a Thai birth certificate. She had one, but when she was one year old, her parents' shack burned down in a Klong Toey slum fire; their clothes and documents went up in smoke. So her parents chalked it up to bad kharma and decided their daughter wouldn't need a birth certificate. Later, dad died "of an age" and her mother got drunk one afternoon, fell in the Prakanong canal and didn't come up. Auntie Chalor was 10.

She can't read, but she knows her "sums" - oh boy, does she ever know her sums. She has to with that cheating junk dealer guy and his crooked scales.

There are a couple things Auntie Chalor talks about. First, when you ask about the dangers of her profession, the first thing she says is she hasn't been bitten by a dog in years. She credits that to the fact she's never even once eaten dog meat. That's what they say in Klong Toey - eat dog meat even once and the dogs know forever and will bite you.

And second, her husband who dumped her for that hussy. She says she knows now why they split - because their celestial signs clashed. She should have known better, should have checked him out. But she was young then, and that's a story for another day. These days she's more careful, more worldly, and now wears sai sin, the wrist band of string you get from the temple when you make merit. Says it protects her and makes her feel more confident.

Last time she passed by our Mercy Centre, she told me the tale about her flip-flops and the glue-sniffer. The day before, just halfway through her daily six-hour sojourn for recyclable second-hand goods, one of her flip-flops came loose. The right one. That's her bad leg side that takes the most punishment. The thong between her first and second toe came out. And new rubber flip-flops are horribly expensive. Thirty-nine baht, maybe more.

She was sitting along the roadside, trying to do a repair job with some string, tie it together somehow, when this glue-sniffer ambled by - watched her a while. He wasn't totally hammered yet, else he would have been skittish and into his own world. He knew Auntie Chalor. She'd helped him a while back when he really needed some glue to get through the day. She'd found an old can with some glue still in it; saved it for him, when he needed it. He was grateful. He remembered.

Now, glue-sniffers don't pour the whole can into their plastic sniffing bags - maybe about a third, and they cap the rest till they need more. So this glue-sniffer, remembering, opened his can and found a twig along the road; and then he and Auntie Chalor fixed the thong - glued it back together. He waited with her till the glue dried and she could wear her rubber flip-flops for a while.

With no prices for second-hand goods, she's back more and more on the street. Stashes her cart and tote on the footing of an expressway pillar along the slum canal. Doesn't eat at her sister's shack anymore - comes back late when her sister and daughter are asleep, and leaves before dawn, so as not to bother anyone.

Embarrassed, but with a grin, she says it's only a matter of time till prices go up and she gets back on her feet again.

Please Also See Our Photo Gallery: A Day in the Life of Aunti Chalor