It's funny what it takes sometimes to turn a life around. For Cookie Crumb James, all it took was a tasty meal, some cookies. And crumbs.
He came to us a total mess. Basket case material. Couldn't walk, couldn't crawl. Barely speak (or didn't want to), large industrial-sized migraines that fried his brains. Not a friend in this world: he was born with HIV and has AIDS. Perfect example of a "throwaway kid". He was eight years old. Size large for a HIV/Aids kid. That means normal size of an ordinary eight year old. Scarred face, bad left eye: shingles (herpes zoster) did that. But he ain't ugly! He's our Cookie Crumb James. You'd like him if you met him. Great lopsided grin.
When a child is brought to us out of nowhere - end of the line and "junked" on our doorstep - in hospice lingo we call that a "dump." A few days after the "taxi dump" at our Mercy Centre, we bestowed on Cookie Crumb James a special ribbon for bravery, valor, and determination. But by the second day, James slobbered rice gruel all over the ribbon. So much for valor.
We rarely do such ribbon ceremonies. In eleven years with AIDS children, we've only bestowed a ribbon of honor once before - to a very special girl (but that's a story for another day).
Cookie Crumb James of the Soiled Ribbon decided to get better. Not right away. Nothing is ever that easy. The effort and energy you need to get well and just wanting to live can be an unbelievably difficult decision. But eventually, make the decision he did. Probably for lots of heavy duty type awesome reasons. But heck, on the surface, like so many of the "calls" that flip our lives upside down, Cookie Crumb James' biggest reason seemed so simple.
Motorbike Kheng never used drugs in his 31 years on earth. He despised drugs. But suspected drug dealers repaired their bikes at his shop. Plus a few motorbike racers and lots of ordinary folk. They shot him anyway. Just for good measure. Just to be sure.
At the time of the killing, he was fine-tuning a carburetor on a souped-up 125cc bike. Squatting, chewing on a toffee, a cell phone to his ear, he had just finished talking with his wife and was saying good night to their nine-year-old son. Every evening at nine o'clock, Motorbike Kheng called from his repair shop to say good night and "three Hail Mary's" together with his family. His son had just said, "Daddy, I love you," and Kheng replied, "Daddy loves you, too." Those were his last words. Shots rang out. His son screamed, "Mommy, what are those noises in Daddy's shop? They hurt my ears! Why doesn't Daddy talk to me?"
The Night Riders work for some authority who seems beyond authority. By day, these cats are smug. Not smirking but hinting. Not threatening outright, which somehow makes the threats more ominous. They come and talk to the slum community leaders like they would to recalcitrant children, telling our poor neighbours things they already know: that there are still folks flogging drugs in our fair city and all over Thailand. That there are motorcycle shops that "soup up" bikes. All the while ignoring the fact that we all played street football together, listen to the same pop songs on the radio, grew up together. Like they've forgotten where they're from.
Motorbike Kheng was probably a witness to a crime or two. Certainly knew a lot of folks. That's all. Perhaps he knew some things; most likely he didn't. He wasn't that kind of person. Even as a kid, he didn't care about who was dealing, who rode such and such a chopper. It wasn't in his nature. But witness or not, he was on somebody's list, somebody who decided that he wasn't on the right side, and so the Night Riders came.
She'll never win the Bangkok Grandmother of the Year award, but she's definitely Granny of the Year in the Klong Toey slum. Yai Sing, or Granny Sing as she's known _ and I'll explain that in a minute _ rolls her own smokes and earns her own way from her motorcycle-propelled coffee cart. Sports a trademark ancient pair of second-hand 20-baht "shades'' her granddaughter Mot swapped from a "trader'' in a back part of the slum. Two plastic bags of Granny Sing's original blend of ice coffee for the shades.
Seventy-three years old plus some change and, wow, she's out there seven days a week, kick-starting her funky, three-wheeled red motorbike with a cart attached, bouncing through the potholes and rainy season puddles, stopping where she can find some shade to dispense hot and iced coffee, hot and cold sweet tea, Ovaltine, and assorted, sugary pick-me-ups.
When Flower Girls Grow Up (2004)
By Father Joe Maier
This one begins rough. And the middle part is rough, too. And the ending? Well, I guess you swallow hard through the tears and you shut your eyes tight to squeeze out tears so that you can look up and maybe see a rainbow, and then maybe you cry a bit again, because somehow, for so many of us, way deep down deep, we want, we demand, more than a rainbow.
And that isn't how life works.
This one's about two heroines: Miss Gook Gik and Miss Nong Lek. Their scumbag moms were always lurking in the shadows. The money was never enough for their moms, no matter how much their children scored. Mom's rules were blunt: you girls con money from bar bums so we can play cards. The money, of course, was never enough. Money goes fast in a card game.
It's the same here as anywhere else. They let you win the first few hands.
Only in a game of "Let's Pretend" can you find cute, happy heroines. We are taught that proper behavior for seven-year-olds is playing with dolls, hopscotch, jump rope, that they're all whispers and giggles. Not heroine stuff.
Life doesn't work that way, either.
Miss Gook Kik, thin and willowy, her AIDS temporarily in remission, remarked a while ago, "I earned 500 baht each night since I was five and my mom never thanked me once."
JOSEPH H. MAIER
MS Kanok-tip is President and Pioneer/Founder of the Klong Toey Slum Chapter of the Physically Handicapped (the Chapter), that is, the Five Kiosk Workforce. At 38 years of age, she's tough in many ways but very fragile in others. Never went to school. One leg gone from bone cancer years ago. Just recently her husband, while working as an assistant bartender, began a relationship with a short time girl from a remote province who hires herself out of the bar and he left Kanok-tip. One other thing: Tip is four months pregnant.
Note always rode behind his partner, Master Galong, who has a faster make-believe vehicle - an imaginary motorcycle. Sometime Galong has make-believe trouble starting his chopper. Master Note told him that choppers are hard to start in cold weather. Note is extra smart and school bores him. His is small for his age. You can blame Aids for that. Got it from his mom at birth who got it from his dad, both whom died when Note was three. Says he remembers his mom who cared for him as long as she could.
Note's life - lived in that deep part of his soul where nobody else can go - seems to be filled with light and beauty. He loves to draw and, except for the occasional fire-breathing dragon (a monster many kids seem to draw in times of death and sorrow), Note's sketchbook is a kaleidoscope of joyful colours and happy imagery.
Miss Fon: Somruthai - delightfully bossy.
Miss Fa: Saitara - gentle, never argues with her sisters.
Miss Fai: Wasana - fragile, giggles the most
All three were born on 29 Nov 1997.
Mom: Bho - recently a Klong Toey Baht Bus ticket collector.
Dad: Dhey - just lost still another job as a shopping mall guard.
Granny: Praphai - crippled, retired as a "comfort person" for sailors in Klong Toey Port.
Step grandpa: - push cart bag man, now deceased...
click here to purchase this film
by Jeanne Hallacy
color, 50 min, 2002
PHIL JONES: Children singing the national anthem of Thailand -- it's how their school day begins. After the anthem, it's time for their prayers, led by the teachers.
TEACHERS AND STUDENTS: Bow once to the Buddha. The Buddha is great....
Thailand soon became one of the world's first success stories in the battle against the virus, reducing the number of transmissions from 140,000 in 1991 to 23,000 in 2003. Nonetheless, one in every 100 Thais is infected, and AIDS is still the country's leading cause of death.
The Mercy Centre is the first and largest free AIDS hospice in the Thai capital, Bangkok. It is located in the middle of the city's biggest slum, Klong Toey.
The Mercy Centre was established in 1993 by a Catholic priest, Father Joe. Initially, the project was received with disdain and fear by the slum-dwellers, says Usanee Janngeon, one of the centre's health managers.
"When we first began our patients weren't allowed to go outside. But now, they can walk out in the community, buy food and do whatever they want as long as they don't make trouble. The community accepts them. I'm not saying there's no discrimination, far from that. But at least the slum-dwellers have shown acceptance of HIV/AIDS patients."