12 April 2009
Mad as Hell
Things Are Bad (Again). "I don't have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It's a depression. Everybody's out of work or scared of losing their job, the dollar buys a nickel's worth, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter, punks are running wild in the streets, and there's nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there's no end to it. We know the air's unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit and watch our TVs while some local newscaster tells us today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that's the way it's supposed to be. We all know things are bad. Worse than bad...."
Every time it rains in Bangkok my cable TV stops working. When the screen went black last night I dragged out the old box of VHS tapes I shipped here years ago (along with the VCR) and never opened, closed my eyes, and made my random selection. The winner was Network. I had not seen Paddy Chayefsky's brilliant film for ten or fifteen years. It was made in a time when one incompetent Republican president was about to leave office, terrorism at home was making the headlines, and America was trying to regain its dignity at the end of a costly and unpopular war. Sound familiar?
Aside from the wide lapels and the long sideburns, the movie could have been made yesterday, instead of 33 years ago. The beginning of insane newscaster Howard Beale's "mad as hell" speech (quoted above) could have been lifted from today's newspaper. I hit "pause" and went to the balcony in the hopes of hearing the public shouting from their windows. But the night was silent except for the rain and the traffic.
In the end, Beale was murdered on live TV for, as the announcer put it, his show's bad ratings. I suppose we are all being murdered these days for our own poor performances at our windows. Maybe that's the way things are supposed to be.
What Color is Your Shirt?
Thailand has become the first color-coded country, where you tell the good guys from the bad simply by the shirt they wear. Who is good and who is bad depends, of course, on your own color preference.
"Protestors Control Bangkok Streets" was the breaking news ribbon sliding across the bottom of CNN's screen this morning. That is a pretty big exaggeration, but what can you expect from TV news? Howard Beale?
The Red Shirts, loyal to a former prime minister who was convicted of corruption and fled the country, have been cramming themselves by the thousands into big trucks and driving around the city, flags flapping in the wind. Coming home from the supermarket yesterday my taxi driver and I watched as they took over the street that runs in front of police headquarters. It was all very festive and none of the other motorists seemed to even notice. We spend our time navigating around one traffic jam just to find ourselves in another.
Historically, peasant rebellions do not end well for the peasants, and I doubt this one will, either. Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot all killed millions of their own. From his hiding place in either Dubai or Nicaragua the afore-mentioned politician has been calling for more demonstrations. He does not seem to mind sacrificing his followers. The government is, for the first time, beginning to crack down.
Meanwhile, most of us are tired of all this. The Red Shirts have trashed local businesses and even mosques. Their crude bombs have put whole neighborhoods in serious jeopardy and residents have begun to fight back. Apparently office workers on their lunch hours fought back a few days ago and pelted the demonstrators with rocks and bottles. It will not take much more before people really are mad as hell and do not want to take it any longer.
So what does it all mean?
If you think you have connected all the dots, here is a brief quiz. Please choose the statement that seems most correct:
1. All of us are responsible for the world's social and economic problems. You can not blame any single person or group of people. Obama has a plan to fix everything. Just wait and see.
2. Wide lapels and sideburns are the cause of the global economic crises.
3. We are all screwed. This is the way things are supposed to be. Get used to it.
4. Stop complaining. I have a toaster oven and steel belted radials. Too bad if you do not have your own.
5. There is really nothing wrong with powerful people and institutions using the rest of us to achieve their objectives. We can not all be the leaders. So what if I go bankrupt or get shot by soldiers for what I believe in? This is the way things are supposed to be.
6. I am really tired of guys in expensive suits trying to find new ways to ruin my life. I can do that without any help from anyone else, thank you.
7. None/All of the above.
Where to Eat
One of the real joys of living in Thailand is "street food," those cheap eats enjoyed at folding tables on city sidewalks. Drive around Bangkok at night and you will see thousands of people dining outdoors under glaring fluorescent lights regardless of the weather. If you see tables that are packed, that is bound to mean that something extraordinary is happening in the kitchen.
My newest favorite restaurant is Jae Koy, on Petchaburi Road, about half a block west of the Ratchathewi SkyTrain stop. Jae Koy serves the kind of food that was born in the rural villages of Thailand's Northeast. Some of the things on the menu are unusual. If you have a yen for ducks bills or chicken entrails this is the place to go. But if you are not so adventurous there are plenty of other choices, including grilled meats (the pork is out of this work) and seafood, and every variety of somtam, the country's zesty national salad of shredded papaya. The catfish and larb (minced meat with spices and mint) are also sensational. Here is a perfect place to take Thai friends, drink plenty of beer, eat your fill and spend less than 1,000 baht for four or five hungry people.
How to get there: Ask a taxi to take you to the entrance to Petcheburi 14. (Your hotel will write this in Thai.) Or take Skytrain to Rajthewi Station. Get out on the Asia Hotel side and go to the corner of Petcheburi Road. Turn left. Pass the construction project and you will see a row of restaurants. Jaye Koy is the third. They usually have more customers than the others. In addition to tables on the sidewalk there is a larger indoor dining area. It is very clean and the service is very friendly. It's ok to flirt with the waiters. They may flirt back.
"Street food" usually implies food sold on the sidewalk. But Lek & Rat Restaurant is actually in the street. If you really love seafood head for Yaowarat, Bangkok's Chinatown. In the street where Padongdraw Road meets Soi Texas look for crowded tables, hungry people waiting for a chair, and red uniformed staff.
Everything on Lek & Rat's colorful menu is unbelievably good. However, many choices are seasonal. Most of the fish and shellfish are on ice for you to view before you are seated. They will prepare anything grilled, boiled, steamed or fried and with just about any kind of sauce, seasoning, or condiment you crave, or even with noodles or in a soup. If you see mussels, you are in luck. Try them with zingy chili paste and fresh basil. You will nearly always find crab, lobster and both fresh- and salt-water prawns.
Lek & Rat takes over part of the street beginning at around 6:00 p.m. and stays open until midnight. Go hungry. The beer is cold and the prices are very low. And while you gorge yourself on a mountain of grilled prawns the cars inch by so close you can touch them. Passengers will stare jealously at your mouthwatering feast. Have pity, for they will never find a place to park.
Suicide by Credit Card
One of the root causes of the world's financial dilemma is, of course, simple greed. We all want more of everything and the people who already have everything want even more. In his riveting speech Howard Beale went on to declare that people just wanted to be left alone. We are content with our toaster ovens, TV sets and steel belted radials, he said. Credit makes it possible for us to have all of those things, and more.
Nobody probably believed that more than my darling partner of 7+ years, of whom I have written so much in this blog. With a monthly salary of slightly more than 20,000 baht (about US$560) he managed to add five or six platinum credit cards to a wallet already bulging with plastic. Offers from banks seemed to come every two or three weeks. For him and millions of others, these opportunities to have more stuff with money that had not been earned yet was like winning the lottery. Greed is probably a stronger human trait than restraint. We all love to have something for nothing and contemplating the future is not a behavior that Thai society teaches its children.
Before long the cards were all charged to their limits and he was depending on the new cards to pay off the old ones. Over a few months he secretly helped himself to a very significant sum of the company's money, and had one final orgy of partying. Within days of his thirty-fifth birthday, his hopeless life collapsed, buried under the debris of his own debt.
The real crime here was and continues to be committed by the banks. Issuing credit cards to people who can not possibly pay their bills is like ... well, ... giving mortgages to people who are not in a position to afford to repay them. Those in debt are enslaved forever. If you suffered through Latin classes you have probably already figured out that "mortgage" literally means "death pledge."
Death is not new to me, but this is an episode in my life I had not counted on. That is how big life-changing events seem to happen. Actually, I am not sure how I will survive this on top of all the other shit that has come my way in the Land of Smiles. But maybe I still have one last book in me after all. And there is probably a bake sale in my future.
Happy ending? Not this time.