Holding on to Pride and Hope
Bu Breo has been broadsided by the realities of growing up in Klong Toey's Slaughterhouse slum, but somehow she's managed to steer her 10-year-old son toward a brighter future

By Fr. Joe Maier, C.Ss.R., published in Bangkok Post, Spectrum, March 6, 2011

She still hangs on to that old photograph, faded and wrinkled after 25 years, of the cab of a long-haul truck. Dad's at the wheel and mum's snuggled beside him holding their baby, Bu Breo. Now 27 and with a 10-year-old son of her own, Ms Bu Breo phones her father often - says he's a gruff dad.

Before the troubles all those years ago, her mother rode with her father everywhere - riding shotgun. Mum said that her talking kept him from dozing off at the wheel. He didn't need ya ba to stay awake.

Recently, Bu Breo rode with her father again on a long-haul run. It was the first time for her son, Prab Pram. It was also the first time the boy had met his grandfather. Prab Pram boasts that he didn't get motion sickness and it was the first time he had been out of the "Slaughterhouse" Klong Toey slum for more than a few hours.

Bu Breo took him along because she was afraid she would go to prison, again, and her son - her only hope – would be abandoned, as she had been when her mother went to prison. She wanted him to know his grandpa, who would surely take care of him, and send him to the best school he could. He's in Grade 4 now, an honour student.

Riding up front with his mother and grandfather, Prab Pram kept asking for that story again.

"The one grandpa, about how you and grandma were so happy together and grandma was the only woman you ever loved. But how can you love her when she went to prison so often?"

They'd "split the sheets" 25 years before, when Bu Breo was two. That's when her mum began spending most of her time in prison, for drugs.

Today, Bu Breo is notorious in Klong Toey for her own jail-house history -she's had eight spells in prison over 11 years. During her fifth stint, her father came to visit, the only visitor she ever had behind bars. He told her he would send her a little money when he could.

In the cab of the truck, Bu Breo whispers to her son that he is her pride and her hope, and it won't always be gambling and drugs and prisons for her.

She is missing a front tooth from a scuffle with a prisoner from another country who out-weighed her by 50kg. This woman told her that she was not a good Catholic girl (which she says she is). The ultimate insult. Bu Breo says she won the fight - by smearing smelly mud in her antagonist's eyes.

Twenty-seven years old, she speaks a saucy combo of Slaughterhouse jargon mixed with prison slang. She only finished the third grade. That's when her mother began her "long-term government service" for possession with intent to sell, and left nine-year-old Bu Breo pretty much on the street.

The girl later moved in with her grandmother, "Shaky Hands Granny" they called her.

Granny never missed Sunday Holy Mass, except when she was in the middle of an all-day card game. Granny tried to protect her - but one pre-dawn, after the men had finished butchering pigs at the slaughterhouse, when the abattoir was quiet and granny was next door playing cards ... She didn't hear the horrorible screams of her granddaughter over the laughter of those four drunks.

Nine-year-old Bu Breo never told Granny. She stole some of her card winnings, and got an older girl who worked nights downtown to buy her some medicine.

Years later, as a teenager, Ms Bu Breo fell in love with a narcotics policeman. Her first real guy - and she really loved him. She named their son Prab Pram (meaning police investigative department). When it was time to go to the hospital, her man was gone on police work. Knowing the baby was coming soon, and that he might be away on an assignment, he had left some money. She spent it all, figuring that since she was nine months pregnant, that should bring some good luck. So she bought a fistful of underground lottery tickets and hit the right numbers. She won a bundle, but the tricky purchase lady wouldn't pay. In desperation, she hocked her husband's two favourite fighting cocks for taxi fare to the hospital, and more.

She gave birth to her firstborn alone - no relatives, no neighbours. She didn't tell anyone she was going, and no one was looking in after her. She was so proud of her infant son, said he was going to be a great man. "People will look at me and say, 'There goes Prob Pram's mother."'

Three nights later, sometime after midnight, she painfully walked out of the hospital, carrying her baby. Why pay if you don't have to? The hospital staff get their salaries no matter what, and they talked trash to her _ so she said.

She flagged a taxi to the Slaughterhouse. She still had some cash, but she offered the driver three pills, and, luckily, he agreed. He was a Klong Toey man. He understood. He would have taken her home for free, but why turn down a good deal. Three pills for a 50-baht taxi ride - tourists will pay 200-300 baht a pill.

Her policeman husband was not pleased with his son's name. Plus, he had to go and arrest the guy who had his fighting cocks -for gambling! Of course, he kept the two birds for evidence.

The policeman ditched Bu Breo when Prab Pram was about 18 months old. They'd been living together as a real family, more or less. He loved her, and he was almost too kind and caring to be a narcotics cop.

Why did he leave her? She wouldn't stop gambling, and she was never home. With drugs all around and him charged with investigating them, something had to give.

She moved back into her granny's place with her baby. Bu Breo was always short on cash, and once someone quietly slipped her money to deliver a small newspaper-wrapped package, no questions asked. Her granny was in one of her all-day card games, and Bu Breo stopped by and started betting on granny - and forgot all about the package. The street kid they'd given 20 baht to shout if any cops came around had fallen asleep, and the card game was busted.

In the confusion, Bu Breo managed to remember the package and stuffed it in Prab Pram's smelly nappy. The police didn't check there, and they let everyone go. However, first they told everyone to empty their pockets and they took all the money. "Take your choice - money or jail," they said.

But now the drugs had poop on them. The seller wanted his drugs back or the money - and she gave him the soiled drugs. He was not pleased.

Not long after that, Bu Breo made her first trip to prison. It started with gambling. Granny was a notorious cheat with a deck of cards. No one could catch her. Bu Breo, for all her schemes and scams, is honest. She wouldn't cheat - that was the problem.

She started playing cards and she kept playing, and she kept losing. Finally, to get the cash to play cards, she began to seriously move drugs, then "graduated" to buying and selling. Granny warned her, but she wouldn't listen. She figured her luck would change, and she'd be as good as Granny.

She wasn't happy. Besides losing at cards, she'd also moved in with this new guy who wasn't nice to her. He resented the fact that she was caring for baby Prab Pram.

Then her luck got even worse and she was busted for drugs, her first conviction.

Now the police knew about her. So when she was back on the streets, it was simply a matter of time before they got around to picking her up and charging her again.

One time, some "up-town uniforms" gave her some bur bank (marked notes) to act as their agent and buy from a guy who had started hanging around the five-storey walk-up flats. They said if she cooperated with them they would make all her problems go away. But when she spotted the "mark", she couldn't do it, because he had gone to school with Prab Pram's daddy and his boy and Prab Pram were best buddies in school.

That night her new "live-in" beat her up. He wanted some drugs. So she threw half the marked bills at him and told him to go buy his own. She also let that another dealer had set up shop and was cheaper than the "mark".

Her live-in walked out of the house with the marked bills, and she called the "up town" uniforms. Two problems solved.

But the police wanted the rest of the marked bills back, and Master Prab Pram wanted a bicycle for his birthday. She could never say no to her pride and hope.

She went to her granny, now in her eighties, and begged her to get into one last card game so she could pay the cops their money back, plus some "coffee money". Granny did it, and she won of course.


The story goes on.

Bu Breo used to put her Thai ID card down for collateral when she needed to borrow some cash, or drugs. Once she claimed the prison had called and said her mother had died in her sleep and she needed money to go and collect the body for burial.

Today Bu Breo's life is relatively calm. Prab Pram is still with her in the Slaughterhouse. She's promised to take him on the train down South to stay with her dad a while. We bought tickets and she pawned them, but she promises they will go soon.

Granny is healthy. Bu Breo's mother will be released from prison in a few months.

Prab Pram is a son any mother would be proud of. He likes his grandfather and his 18-wheel rig. He writes to his grandmother, who he has never seen, in prison. She writes back to him every month, and she's excited about seeing him when she gets out.

Grandpa says he still loves her, and she can come stay in the South with him. She's a good cook, and so is Bu Breo. They talk about leaving Klong Toey behind and making a fresh start down South, maybe opening up a small food shop in grandpa's little house facing the big road.

Grandpa knows the headmaster of a good school there, and there's a place there for Prab Pram, if he wants it. The boy says maybe he'll come for a visit on his summer holiday and take another ride in that long-haul truck with grandpa.