No poor slum kid was ever more deserving of a break than Pim, and after another narrow escape it looks like she's going to make the best of it, writes FATHER JOE MAIER
Miss Pim had been with us for nine years. She was 16, third in her high school class, gentle as gentle can be, with a smile to warm the hardest of hearts. One Sunday morning about a year ago, she handed me a wrinkled piece of paper, a note she had written in her own hand.
Miss Pim's note and her story are important because she is a ''throw-away'' orphan kid who made it. Lots of kids, but especially these ''throw-aways'', need to be walked through the bad patches not just once, but many times before they reach adulthood.
On that Sunday when she handed me the note, I knew the contents were grave. Miss Pim had that limp, wilted, beaten-up look of a teenager in mourning at a temple cremation, standing in front of the furnace when the temple manager zips open the red plastic body bag in the coffin to offer one last glance at a dead friend as the monks are chanting their final chant. Grieving for someone who has died before their time. Utter despair. Absolute misery. It was that kind of look she gave me. If you've seen it once, you never forget it.
The note she handed me was torn from a school notebook - a last will and testament really. It said that she was leaving us to work as a bar hostess in Pattaya. There was a pimp from the slum who could get her into a bar. Said she wouldn't have to pay him much, that she'd make good money the first few weeks because she was ''new''. Said he'd look after her, discreetly, so the authorities would look the other way. True, look the authorities would check her out, but not too closely. Business is business.
Panic and shock set in, like she had not only been kidnapped for ransom, but like she kidnapped herself for her own ransom. And her graciousness only made it worse. I knew she could just walk away, down a path from which she would never return.
To compound her money problems, her doctor had prescribed some last-ditch expensive medicines that were not on the government list. Mom didn't have the necessary cash. The doctor told her these meds would not save her life, just make her passing a bit easier.
Mom was terrified of death. For years, she had been a nighttime ''fortune teller/masseuse'' by trade outside and inside a ''one star'' hotel. But this time, she couldn't pretend to know the future, and she was afraid - especially afraid that without her daughter Pim no one would take her body to the temple for prayers.
Sick Mom told the collector to go see her daughter. Maybe Pim could do a few chores after school in the afternoons. He confronted her on her way back from school, and told her the money was needed to save her mom's life. And now, on that Sunday, Pim said she was leaving us to hustle some money for ''good ol mom.''
Born on the run
This is how the collection game is played: the hired gun gets 100 baht for every 1,000 baht collected. The real boss, in the shadows, usually throws in a can of mace for the hired gun to carry, just in case the debtor acts impolite. Pim's mom was no stranger to mace cans.
Pim is petite. Didn't eat too well in her early years. She was the youngest of three children and was born, literally, on a small wooden footbridge not far from her house in Ayutthaya. Mom was pregnant with Pim when she ran away from her husband, and she gave birth just before she found shelter. Babies choose their own time.
A few days later, Mom left her other children, a son and daughter, with her husband's parents who were poor rice farmers; and she brought her new baby to Klong Toey. Here, she hooked up with a one-legged guy who made his living begging on the streets. She married him for survival, not love. He made enough money as a beggar for the family to get by. Trouble was, he drank most of the money away. Pim's mom had to find her own work, so she called herself a fortune teller/masseuse and made up attractive lies for passers-by inside and outside of one of the city's larger cheap hotels.
When the booze flowed at home, Pim's mom and her one-legged step-dad fought hard; and somehow during these fights Pim got beaten up, too. This went on for years - until Pim was just old enough for kindergarten and her mom dumped the one-legged guy and took up with a quack medicine guy who drove around in a clap-trap pickup truck and loudspeaker from village to village, selling cure-all potions.
The quack medicine guy wasn't into kids, so before running off, Mom sweet-talked a neighbourhood lady into watching out for Pim for a few days. Mom would pay the freight when she returned. The neighbour didn't love the child or show any affection. One reason was, a few days became a year and Pim's real mom conveniently forgot to send money for food, board and clothing. But at least this neighbour lady didn't beat Pim, plus she did feed her, and during this period in her life, Pim went to school.
Miss Pim finished kindergarten and was in the middle of the First Grade when her real mom returned and went back to the one-legged man. The booze and fighting resumed and Pim was caught in the crossfire once again. She dropped out of school.
Shelter from the storm
When Miss Pim was seven, a local policeman brought her to our Mercy Centre. She was pretty much black and blue, skinny and hungry, but safe with us; and after she recovered from her latest bruising, we put her in one of the neighbourhood schools.
Years passed, and Miss Pim's grades were good. She continued to live in our shelter for older girls and showed a knack for English. Slowly she made her own way, gained confidence, and Gentle Pim became a leader and role model among our girls. We prayed there would be no more bumps in her road.
Pim had escaped from a world of trouble, but her older sister Noi wasn't nearly as lucky. Noi had been living all this time with her elderly grandparents in Ayutthaya, until they could no longer care for her properly. A neighbour/drunk had been abusing Noi, a pretty girl but a slow-learner, and the police would not intervene; the abuser had powerful drinking friends.
The grandparents had no recourse, no one to turn to. Plus, they didn't know their daughter's situation in the city. So they sent Noi to her mom, who was now sick with Aids and still living with the one-legged guy. He started using Noi until eventually Noi, too, showed up on our doorstep, heavily pregnant and beaten black and blue.
This was the same week the collector came to see Pim and told her to give him cash. On the day Pim gave me the note, we told her she was a true heroine, among the most loyal of daughters to walk the earth, but if she had even one brain cell in her skull she had to stay in school.
That same afternoon we walked five minutes with Pim down the slum railroad tracks to a popular four-table noodle shop. The collector's mom owned the shop. Seems she and Pim's mom, though never close friends, knew each other years ago when they were both young and pretty. And we knew the collector himself from many years back when as a child he had learned to read and write in one of our slum kindergartens.
We ate our noodles. Came time to pay, we secretly had given Pim the money for the noodlesplus an extra 1,000-baht note. She paid the bill, and laid down the extra note - slum style. There are rules and customs to be followed in Klong Toey. Walking out, we whispered, ''Leave the girl alone! Enough is enough!''
Decorum and dignity had been served. No collector would bother her again. Pim was safe. Then we got her mom out of the hospital and brought her to our Aids hospice, where she died of virulent TB a few days later.
At the temple, the monks chanted the customary three days of prayers in one sitting so we could cremate the body on the same day. There was only one small wreath. The collector brought it. Always best in his business to keep good relations, especially with the deceased. As it turned out, he and his noodle shop mom were the only ones at the temple besides ourselves.
Two months later, the one-legged guy died of Aids. That's about the same time we discovered that he had given the virus to Pim's sister Noi, who gave birth shortly afterwards - before going over the edge. She walked away one morning. We've looked everywhere. Now, we fear the worst. Noi's story is too painful to tell right now, and this is Miss Pim's story. But I do wish to mention that to everyone's delight and surprise, Noi's baby, a beautiful girl nick-named Miss Grasshopper, is healthy. Luck of the draw. Does not have the virus, has not tested positive. She remains in our care as a gift ofgreat joy and hope in our house.
Meanwhile, Pim stayed in school, continuing to excel, everybody's favourite teenager. She was recently awarded a two-year scholarship in a wonderful International Baccalaureate programme. Wow!! But the path is never smooth, is it? She needed a passport.
Passport to the future
Her mom was dead, and mom's stories to Pim were that her dad was dead. You know - he was drunk and plowed full speed ahead into a pillar on a stolen motorcycle, or bitten by a deadly snake, or shot dead for being in the wrong place at the wrong time - whatever! This meant that Pim was legally an orphan and an official ward of the Thai courts. It also meant that she would need a signature from a children's court judge to qualify for a passport.
During the application process, unravelling the red tape in a government office in Bangkok where there is a computer that keeps track of such things, we learned that her dad was, in fact, alive and living with his parents in Ayutthaya. We figured getting his signature on a form would be easier than going to court, so Pim, along with staff, went to find her dad.
He had moved. It took a series of false leads and wrong roads and seven-hour drives upcountry to find him. But he really was alive. He's a 57-year-old cow herder. A hired hand watching some 40 head of Bhrama cattle. He's got a weather-beaten face, a bit deaf. A simple man who doesn't talk a lot. He accompanied us back to Bangkok to scratch an ''X'' and thumb prints on the forms and swear an oath of paternity.
On the way back in the van, Pim suddenly realised that she had gone from being an orphan to having a dad. She was so shaken, sitting next to him for the first time, she remained silent the entire ride.
We took Pim and her dad to the government offices, jumped through all the official hoops, and then sent him back home again. And that, we thought, was that.
But before we satisfied all the bureaucrats, he had to make two more trips to Bangkok.
Finally, all the ''i's'' were dotted and all the ''t's'' crossed. Sending her dad back home for the final time, at the bus station Pim asked him, ''Why didn't you ever come find me?''
First he shrugged, and then he cried.
These days, Miss Pim is taking a crash course to improve her English in preparation for her studies abroad. Not a doubt in the world that she will graduate, and wouldn't it be fabulous if she gets a university scholarship. The first in her family to get beyond the Fourth Grade. Says someday, she wants kids of her own - and every kid she meets - to give them all the love she never got.
She also mentioned that she would like to visit her grandparents again, and to take along her niece Miss Grasshopper. Her grandparents are both over 90 and not in the best of health. Pim would like to seek their blessing.