Sometimes a water taxi in Bangkok is the best option from point A to B, a city bus cleaving through the choppy, brown water of the canal. The sweating commuters, packed elbow to elbow on the plank seats, are happy for the breeze and cool spray off the water, filthy as the liquid highway is. You have to be quick climbing aboard or going ashore. The taxi, like most things, is connected to the frenetic pace of the city and does not stay moored on the pilings too long. Old radials long retired from street work act as a buffer between the dock and the boat’s hull that slaps against the tough rubber panoply as the taxi dips and rises with the weight of riders scuttling in and out, and the undulating current.
A career in public transportation observing the diurnal comings and goings of the masses may not sound like an exciting life but believe me, for an old timer like myself, I am lucky to have my job. Most of my ilk were not as fortunate to find such a position after completing their service.
I work on the Hua Chang pier in the shadow of the Monkey Head bridge that spans the busy canal. This stop on the taxi’s route is a popular one with tourists. Nearby is Han Square and the bustling open air markets where one can purchase anything from fresh prawns for dinner to a wok to cook them in, not to mention the rainbow of spices and flowers perfuming the air. Just off the square is the Paragon hotel with its famous, or perhaps infamous, Gold Elephant bar. Once a favorite watering hole for legendary expats and writers, a cocktail in the rich French Colonial interior amid palms, teak and ivory is an experience not to be missed by many erudite visitors to our city.
Although historical ghosts will haunt the district forever, several reputable hostels attract younger travelers and all their youthful energy. I see many faces everyday who are excited about life and the wonders they will discover and experiences they will treasure forever. My pier is not a gateway to an austere temple or a sober business center, my pier is an entrance to pleasure.
Yes, my pier is a fine place to work and I am lucky. I have always been lucky, considering my humble beginnings. I rolled into this world as just another nameless creation among a multitude of nameless creations with a bright, shiny black face but not much else to set me apart from the rest. We truly all are brothers and sisters on this earth. We all come and go in our own time and although we are created for different purposes, we all leave behind a footprint.
My purpose seemed to be traveling and I hit the road very early. You need tough skin for a life on the road and mine was galvanized. I have seen some of the toughest give out early, ending long before their time, but I managed to keep on going until that fateful day. I was on my usual run through the Southwest when I was taken by surprise and stabbed outside of El Paso. The wound was not severe enough to kill me but it put my hazardous career in doubt. I was fearful of what I would do next since my qualifications were scant.
The company patched me up and kept me on as a reserve for a period before being laid off with others like me. Fortunately, there was still some life left in me and I found work doing local deliveries for a while before I was finally unable to take the burden. My employer was a kind soul and, unlike the big company from which I was unceremoniously discharged, kept me on his payroll as an amusement for his children. It was a peculiar job to say the least but it was fun and rewarding and not the least bit difficult.
My quarters were below a massive oak whose broad leaves provided cool shade during the hot months and a mosaic of brilliant colors when the season changed. The children would take turns climbing on my rugged shoulders for a ride. I would take them back and forth, high into the blue heavens to our mutual delight. I never tired of it.
There was not much use for me in winter months but I did host a family of birds who built their nest in the safety of my bosom. I took great pride in sheltering the vulnerable and doing my part to foster new life in a hostile world. When the hatchlings were of age, they flew one by one from my sanctuary, leaving me alone and feeling melancholy. I looked forward to warmer days and the return of gleeful children but I never saw them again. They, along with my employer, moved away and the new owners of the big house had no use for an old fool like me hanging around their lovely oak tree. I was cut loose and sent on my way, to where I did not know.
It was not long thereafter that I found myself in the company of other worn out, discarded characters. Those who spoke, always talked of a young and proud past when life had purpose, never of a hopeful future. We made for a wretched congregation of the unwanted. I was glad to be free of that woeful bunch when I was hired on as part of a roofing gang.
The work was not difficult and required no experience; I simply held things in place along with a few of my fellows. At first I was skeptical that someone as unskilled as myself was even needed and worried that the discovery of that fact would surely result in my dismissal. The man in charge, however, insisted workers such as myself were crucial and spoke of things I didn’t understand like, “roof rumble” and “oil-canning.” So, work I did despite the job being boring to the point of stultification. And the heat, that unforgiving Texas sun. Everyday I felt as though my black skin, thick as it still was, would melt on the baking, popping tin. And yet I performed my duties with no complaints; as lowly as my position may have been, I still served a purpose, a role in life.
A brief shower or thunderstorm deluge brought momentary relief during the long, parched hours of the workday. “Might as well enjoy the rain,” I reasoned. There was, after all, no shelter on a rooftop. The drops hit the metal skin of the roof like fingers tapping out a mystical rhythm on the head of a bongo. I have no ear for music but I would hum a silly melody that I remembered the children singing as they played around me beneath that magnificent oak. Or perhaps I learned the melody from that family of birds I harbored.
My strange course through life took another abrupt turn during one particular and very violent storm. The tempest was nothing I had experienced before and I admit, I was frightened. Clouds the color of an ugly bruise lowered close to the horizon as if weighted down by the heavy inundation within them and the sun overhead disappeared like a candle snuffed out. The blistering heat of midday was blown away by cold gusts that made the metal below me creak and buckle but I remained steadfast as a fool, determined to do my job regardless of the unsettling situation. Experience taught me to anticipate a thorough drenching. I waited for the first fat drops of rain but what hit the metal first with a loud snap, ricocheted off and struck my hide with an icy sting. In an instant, the roof and my poor self were being pelted with balls of ice the size of cocktail onions. To this day I shiver with the painful memory of my frigid lashing.
What followed the frozen barrage I will never forget. From one of the low, ominous clouds, the finger of a dark, malevolent God extended, spinning, as if it were drawing frantic circles into the earth as if writing an account of epic mayhem. The rotation created a thick cloud of destruction filled with all manner of debris, natural and man-made and the impending doom was headed directly toward me.
I recall very little of what happened next. A strange sensation of heavenly ascension wrapped itself around me. The air was sucked away just before everything went black as death.
At first, I believed I had been called home to the Lord, unscathed and weightless, awash in divine effulgence. But I had not died, the darkness was temporary and I woke to a brilliant day. The buoyancy I felt was the gentle, warm sea where I bobbed like a bottle carrying some strange message to whosoever should find me. And found I was, indeed, fished out of the waves like a mackerel by a kind boatswain of an Eastbound freighter.
To my dismay, not a single member of the ship’s crew seemed the least bit impressed that someone like me should be found floating in the Gulf of Mexico. Indeed, they treated my presence in the water as something as common and natural as a fish. Although exceedingly grateful for my rescue, I could not help but harbor some resentment that no one aboard recognized the miracle I represented. What saved me from sinking into the depths or shark attack, in my opinion, could only be explained as the intervention of our merciful Creator. I reflected on this miracle for the entirety of my journey to Bangkok and continue my contemplation to this day.
Of course, I have shared this marvelous odyssey with my co-workers at the Hua Chang pier. A few are cynical as they never traveled far or suffered real trials while others have had lives similar to my own. One steel-belted soul, a Michelin, served on the frontlines of a civil war and witnessed unbelievable brutality. And I work side-by-side with a more meditative Firestone who was nearly burned alive in India.
As for others, my new career provides ample opportunity to share my tale with all who take the time to listen but few do. I do not blame them. People are in a hurry and are often too busy to recognize the everyday miracles that surround them including their own precious circumstance. But I have learned to take nothing for granted. The bustling city, her canals, the pier, the water taxis and their passengers, my own watery reflection. I cherish them all and will for the remainder of my lucky, lucky life.