By Father Joe Maier
Master Galong rides an imaginary motorbike and takes his teeth from his pocket to eat, but never fails to show his gentle nature.
Published by the Bangkok Post, Sunday Spectrum, April 24, 2016
Galong, born with Down's syndrome, was of indeterminate age. He lived on the streets and worked as a "doorman" at a low-budget karaoke joint near the Pratunam market. Always a proper gentleman, he greeted us, shook our hands and in his gravelly voice asked, "How are you?"
For sure, he did not grow up on the streets. He is much too gentle and refined for that. Plus he is healthy and well fed.
Being born, growing up and living daily on the street takes a certain roughness to survive. Master Galong does not have that roughness. He is the essence of good Thai manners. Someone raised him properly as their beloved son.
Who? We don't have a clue. Where did he come from? How did he first come to the karaoke bar? No one knows.
We got to speaking with the mama-san at the bar about how Galong, who stands just four feet tall on his tiptoes, takes care of himself. The mama-san said one problem was strangers making fun of him. She said, "The girls and I and the barkeep care for him as much as we can. Protect him as we can. Also, he sleeps just outside the door at night when we close up."
While there are mosquitoes, he's safe. He really did not have a home.
We asked Galong if he wanted to change homes. Come live with us in Klong Toey. You know, "watch the door".
He could stay with the younger boys in our Mercy Centre and be a big brother. He wouldn't have to sleep just outside the bar door after closing. He would always have food, and no one would make fun of him. He would have a safe place to park his imaginary Chopper motorcycle, and maybe, he even could go to school.
He said "yes" (he's very agreeable!) and then we asked permission from the mama-san and her girls sitting outside. They looked at us closely, and then said, "Why not?" They knew us because one of the younger girls there was from the Klong Toey flats near the slaughterhouse, and had asked us to care for her little girl for a while. So we took in her five-year-old daughter and she studies at our kindergarten; Mum was promised an office job but was waiting for their call. Until then, she had no income and her own mum was sick. Really. (Two months later, she did get a good office job.)
But, the folks at the karaoke joint insisted, we would have to report back to them regularly to tell them how Master Galong was doing, because they would miss him. And, the mama-san continued, don't hurt him or abuse him in any way or I will find every bar pimp in Bangkok to come and pay you a visit. She didn't threaten exactly. Merely told us. We understood and agreed.
She told us of an incident that had happened a few weeks before. A couple of uncouth strangers had belittled Galong at the door. Nasty trash talk. Not necessary. All Master Galong could do was cry, tears and tears. If you see him cry, it rips your heart out.
When that happened, the mama-san told us, she called a couple of uniforms she knew, who watched over her karaoke establishment. At the sight of the uniforms, these two strangers remembered the manners their mum had taught them long ago. Master Galong received a full apology, plus a cash remuneration. The strangers offered him several baht bills to choose from, and he took the largest.
And, of course, Master Galong gave each of them a big hug. Shook their hands and said, "How are you?" Never mind that they made him cry. He hugs almost everyone he meets.
Master Galong came back home with us. He owned one extra pair of pants and one extra shirt, besides those he was wearing, and a toothbrush which he kept in his pocket. The mama-san made him bathe each morning in the bathroom at the karaoke bar. He washes his own clothes, but one of the girls working there always washed them again, this time using soap. She charged him five baht. Another girl made sure his fingernails were clean. Reasonably so.
No name at all. Master Galong didn't/doesn't have a proper name. Not even a nickname. And, of course, no documents. He could speak only a few words, and, unfortunately they weren't the ones he needed to explain where he came from. One of the girls in the bar said, "We named him Galong, for a lost bewildered little bird which has fallen out of the nest. It got lost from its family and is found, and someone loves and raises that small bird as their own."
Not long ago, we were going to be "in the neighbourhood" of the karaoke bar, so we brought Master Galong along and stopped to see if the establishment is still there. It is, but a bit worse for wear. It's been 17 years.
One of their staff was still working there, and Master Galong remembered that she had been kind to him those long years ago. He first shook her hand, saying "how are you?" Then he hugged her, as he does, and got down on his knees to hold her feet. And this girl, a mature lady now, remembered Galong fondly. She had just gone through a bad patch in her own life, and she said that no one had ever shown her such respect and dignity before. Galong was the first.
Each morning, at 8.30am, in jacket, helmet and sunglasses, he imagines that he is a proper dignified traffic policeman, on an imaginary motorcycle.
It's an elaborate ritual that starts with make-believe dialogue (using made-up words) on his fake walkie-talkie. Then he goes to his imaginary parking space, kick-starts his imaginary chopper, getting the engine to turn over on exactly the third try, and off he goes, running recklessly one lap around our Mercy Centre, holding his arms up high around his imaginary handle bars and making the sounds of an engine running full throttle. Vroooom vroom vroom.
On one occasion, he almost collided with a small child, so I fined him five baht for speeding and reckless driving. He wouldn't talk to me for three days.
Next, his routine is a long conversation, again in made-up words, on his toy, but real-looking mobile telephone, to a commander at police headquarters.
He also enrolled himself in our kindergarten. He loved school -- faithfully attended daily class in third-year kindergarten. Finally, after 12 years and after receiving his 12th kindergarten graduation certificate, he decided he needed a "real job". A movable streetside noodle "mom and pop" shop down the street from us "hired" him to wash dishes there along our slum roadside.
He works from 9am until 4pm, Monday through Friday. He rides his chopper the five minutes to the noodle shop, parks carefully beside the road and locks his machine lest someone try to steal it. He then shakes hands with the mom and pop owners, and adds his customary "How are you?"
Occasionally, if a customer doesn't eat all their noodles, he takes the bowl with the leftovers back to their table, points to the noodles and asks them to eat them all up.
He's healthy, now getting grey and losing his teeth. So false teeth it is.
Our dentist estimates Galong's age at 40-plus. His "store" teeth fit quite well: Master Galong wears his false teeth at meal time, and when he's finished eating he takes them out, washes them and puts them back in his pocket, next to his toothbrush until the next meal. He says you only need teeth when you eat, or for photos. He wears them for the photo, then takes them out and puts them back in his pocket.
He makes an exception on teeth-wearing for his birthday party on St Valentine's Day. We do not have a clue when his birthday is, so we all decided on St Valentine's Day. We have a party with a large cake, ice-cream and cookies. Plus music. He dances till the last song is sung and the instruments are put away.
Even now, over two months later, he is still moved by this year's festivities, and he pantomimes how he blew out the candles and ate his piece of cake.
His artwork started that way: blowing out candles and an elephant eating a piece of birthday cake.
Just after one of his birthday parties, while he was still in kindergarten, one of the girls in his class mocked him: "You don't know how to draw." He tattletaled to his teacher. Silently, she handed him a piece of paper and a crayon.
First he drew two stick figures, and a birthday cake with a candle on it, and a stick figure happy elephant with the sun in the sky above. He showed the picture to his teacher. She smiled. He immediately drew another picture, but no cake. He said the elephant had eaten the cake.
He was on his way.
He has drawn that same basic picture each day, for several years now. He explains the two figures are his mum and dad, the elephant and children his friends.
You might call his drawing a masterpiece, a one-of-a-kind. Or you might call it silly scribbles.
His daily drawing has become almost a trademark for us. "Masterpiece" is a strange and scary word of a world beyond, in another dimension from our Klong Toey slum, but I think this does fit the description -- especially if the artist is a real-life figure, almost four feet tall standing on his tiptoes, who rides an imaginary chopper, keeps his false teeth and toothbrush in his pocket. Out of step with space and time, and whose only name is Lost Bewildered Little Bird.
Hey guys and ladies. Wish you could have been here last week. Last week was Songkran – Thai New Year – the Water Festival. Except that might not have been room for all of you in the kiddie plastic wading pool we had - but almost. Many of the children at Mercy Centre went home for the holiday; to visit their grannies, aunties and cousins. For the ones who do not have a home, we had a great celebration right here in Klong Toey. No – not like ‘up town’ with big and dangerous water pistols and all that fancy stuff. Our kids decided to use only stuff which they knew that If they sprayed the statue of the Buddha, he wouldn’t be upset. Not these water cannons.
We fill our plastic kiddie pool with water and this year no one was safe from a splash of water or ten – it must be the coolest celebration in the shanty slums – our kids are allowed to swim and play ALL week!!
And we actually had a contest - who could splash water the best?
So lots of splashing and noise. And question: do you want to know perhaps the most beautiful musical sound on the planet? Of course you want. And the answer is simply 33 five & six & seven year old girls playing and splashing water. And after that another 30 of Mercy’s five & six year old boys splashing and singing and shouting, but more shouting that singing.
We decided to play and then pray. Maybe it should have been the other way around, but play we did and pray we did. I don’t think the Good Lord cares which comes first.
Songkran is the tradition and celebration of pouring lustral water on Buddha images and water on the hands of the elderly. We believe this is a blessing and good fortune for the year to come. Also to wash away last year’s sins. At the same time we ask forgiveness and show our respect for the elderly and in return they will gift us good wishes for the year to come. The festival also welcomes the much needed rainy season for our crops and land.
Dear everyone – each year, for the past 49 years, in one way or another, I have written an Easter story for you – as a blessing and as a ‘Thank you’ for all that you are for our children and for the poor in the slums of Bangkok.
Our kids, Buddhists, Moslems & Catholics already know the Easter story. That humble Jesus washed the feet of his Apostles – and the bad guys nailed him to a Cross and God in the Cosmos was not pleased: there was an eclipse of the sun and rumblings of an earthquake. Jesus died and Rose from the Dead three days later, and surprised everyone. No one had ever risen from the dead before, or since then. And he first went to see his mum, Mary. And for the Thai New Year coming in two weeks the belief is the same. We celebrate with a sprinkling of water on the heads of our elders – our mums and grand mums, fathers and grandfathers: asking for Blessing and forgiveness plus we attend a temple ceremony with the Monks to pray for our dead.
These ceremonies flow gently over the children’s heads and really over the heads of us all. They tell us there are no ‘broken halleluiahs’. So I think best to send you a couple pictures. Maybe that’s a good way to say Happy Easter and Happy Thai New Year. These happy faces mask great struggles, disappointments and sadness, but that we should all learn from the children of Klong Toey – learn to enjoy the moment, be grateful and ‘do your best to be the best’ – that’s really all one can ask for….
Klong Toey is like one big broken family. And our kids are brazen and cheeky enough to know what we, the kids can mend that. So every day we dare you to follow us and be joyful.