A typical Klong Toey tale of four-legged friends and broken heads
by Father Joe Maier
She's a gentle mum, an Auntie Mum who is now of an auntie age. For 64 years she has lived in our Klong Toey slum. Her name is Pu Glin, a common name from days gone by. It means the fragrant aroma of sweet flowers.
Alongside her is a motley cast of characters: older sister Slum Mean; daughter Sweet Sixteen; son loopy from drugs; Man with Broken Head from a couple of broken beer bottle incidents.
And so it begins, a story pretty typical of the Klong Toey slumAuntie Mum's ex-husband -- the broken-head guy with scars from two smashed beer bottle incidents -- is still around here somewhere, even though he was chased off not long ago. Sweet Sixteen daughter sees him now and then.
Stumbling around as he does, he's easy to spot. He stumbles about on a gimp leg, like he's going to fall over any time he walks. Apparently there was a motorcycle accident way back when and the leg never healed, but that has never hindered his drinking.
Broken Head isn't real bright; he was stupid enough to lose Sweet Sixteen's Auntie Mum and, long before that, her elder sister Slum Mean. Really "double dog stupid" as the old expression goes. But then again, you could say Auntie Mum was "double dog lucky" to finally get rid of him.
For a week this guy hadn't stumbled home hammered late at night. No doubt he was hammered; he just hadn't returned home. So Auntie Mum asked Slum Mean to come and stay with herself, Sweet Sixteen and her son, who's always a bit loopy on drugs. Living with them were eight cats and 10 dogs. But the shack is large enough and the cats and dogs stay mostly outside -- unless one of them is sick. And that's often a problem, you see. Auntie Mum's pack of dogs is always growing and one or a few are usually sick or abandoned or kicked around with nowhere to hide.
So Auntie Mum keeps adopting more strays. Oddly enough, these strays hang around but don't fight or bark much. It's as if they recognise and appreciate any help they are given. In that way, you might say, they fit right in with the Klong Toey slum.
Then you have the cats. They, too, come around when they are sick. But cats being cats, they get healthy and move on. Eventually they might get sick or beat up again, and they will return briefly. But, in short, there isn't much fighting or noise at the shack. At least not from the cats and dogs. Auntie Mum's shack remains more of a home than a hospital to them. It's a relatively quiet and respectful place.
That is, until Broken Head finally stumbled back. With Slum Mean older sis in the shack, there was no longer room for him. Besides, the dogs never liked him. Snarled and growled at him. But they were nothing compared to Slum Mean, who had it in for him. She remains deeply insulted from long ago when they had briefly lived together. Story goes that one night he invited a working girl into their shack and, well, that marked the first time Slum Mean cracked him on the head with a beer bottle.
The second beer bottle incident occurred just a couple weeks ago when Auntie Mum didn't have the heart to throw him out. Why she ever took him in at all is one of those slum mysteries you can never solve. But I do know that he sweet-talked her and lied to her about liking cats and dogs.
That living arrangement was doomed from the start. He was mean to Auntie Mum's strays, he drank daily and refused work. Worse, Sweet Sixteen was afraid of him. Then, final straw, he kicked Auntie Mum's favourite dog and proceeded to slap Auntie Mum because she refused to give him beer money.
With what little money she had, Auntie Mum had planned to buy leftovers from the fresh market for a couple of very sick dogs. That was the money Broken Head wanted for beer. Auntie Mum, who is usually gentle and accommodating, threw an absolute fit. The dogs began howling. Slum Mean heard the howls and came running from a nearby noodle shop. She grabbed a beer bottle and cracked him on the head, breaking the bottle and sending him flying. Blood and shards of broken glass were everywhere.
"I dare you to call the police," Slum Mean shouted at him. Broken Head cowered and ran for cover. And that was the end of that.
You need to know that Auntie Mum is one of the most gentle and finest ladies you could ever meet. High class really. Just don't insult her or fritter away her money when she needs it to feed her family of cats, dogs and people.
Auntie Mum doesn't ask for anything. She says that she has all she needs. We did buy her a charcoal burner, but she doesn't want propane gas for it. Too complicated, she says, and, besides, who would carry the gas canisters when they need changing?
More importantly, the eight cats love to curl up on top of the gas canister. She's afraid that one cat or the other would hit something and turn on the gas tank. Also, her son, who remains a bit loopy from drugs, might light his cigarettes with a gas burner. He could forget to turn it off and it only takes one spark to torch a shack. And the shack next to it and one next to that.
This son of hers has been on drugs for a long time, so we won't say much about him. As long as the police and the neighbours don't see him as a problem and don't bother him, then we don't bother him either. As loopy and tilted as he may be, he makes sure none of the drugs fall into the hands of kids. Strange but true.
Auntie Mum's eight cats and 10 dogs are not of the cuddly and sweet variety you see in newspapers and on the telly. When they come to her, they are usually sick and often hungry. They have no pedigree papers. They were never showcased in a fancy store. But so what? Papers are just paper, Auntie Mum says, and paper doesn't make a cat or dog any better or worse.
But all of her cats and dogs have names -- real Thai dog and cat names. Like Ghern (silver money), Goldie or the verb "Me" (to bring), so that when you call them by their names they will bring gold and silver and good luck. That's the idea, at least.
Auntie Mum's shack is in the Nong Mai neighbourhood of the Klong Toey slum, right under the expressway. She's lived there for more than 40 years.
Originally from Nong Khai, she was born in a nondescript village on the banks of the Mekong, bordering Laos. But she is literate. Went to school, finishing Grade 4, as was the requirement back then.
She stopped in at Mercy today, just before it rained. She needed her monthly dole of 370 baht. It helps buy the charcoal she uses instead of propane gas. Also, the Klong Toey elderly women's group charges her an "offering" of one baht per day. Everyone in the group pays it, she says. It's a daily contribution to a Klong Toey senior citizens "after-you-die" fund. This way even the poorest of the poor die with sufficient to receive cremation prayers at the temple.
As for food, a neighbour who became a temple lady and frequently fasts (according to the lunar calendar) receives donated food each morning leftover by the monks from the temple. She shares this with Auntie Mum.
But Auntie Mum doesn't own a fridge, so the food she saved from yesterday has often rotted by the next morning. Not even the cats will eat it. However, the dogs made quick work of it. "Dogs will eat anything," Auntie Mum says.
With big refrigerators and everything, Auntie Mum says that only the rich can choose what kind of food they would like to eat and when they would like to eat it. But if you are poor, and you care for eight cats and 10 dogs, temple food is just about the finest cuisine you can find in Klong Toey. Better even than the noodle shops and cart vendors, she says.
Today, after 71 years of hard living, she has two teeth left. But they are nice-looking teeth, she says, opening her mouth and wanting you to see.
She goes to the doctor regularly, once a month or so. He gives her medicine for blood pressure, but she doesn't know if the pressure is high or low. Also, her knees ache when it's cold outside. No prescribed medicines needed for that, she says. A shot of local whisky numbs the pain.
So, whether you are from uptown or downtown, if you are passing Klong Toey on the expressway, drop in. We'll introduce you. With Auntie Mum's permission, you could maybe feed her cats and dogs and even meet her older sister and daughter of Sweet Sixteen.
However, you'll probably not see the broken-head guy. He wised up. Today he finally knows his place -- and it's not in Auntie Mum's crowded shack.