For these 'slapped around' street kids survival may be just a matter of months or weeks, but friends are forever, writes FATHER JOE MAIER

Gee and Kao don't look tough or mean, they just are. It's something you become when you grow up on the street. No tattoos, no long hair, not much swagger. Tattoos are for prison, swagger is for cool. These two 15-year-olds are neither "prison" nor "cool". They're just pure essence of Bangkok street.

They met while foraging on the street. Though they never really "hung" together, they were street friends. That means loyalty. It also means they gave each other lots of space, never crowded each other, never pushed.

Gee is the first kid we ever met who was totally slapped around by 505, a newer combination of rubber cement and industrial paint thinner. It fits nicely in a pocket and can be discarded when a uniform shows up. Nobody ever notices it - except for the smell. Oh, it stinks! Not even garlic knocks out the smell.

Gee was living with his granny under a bridge near a brightly lit traffic intersection. When he got hungry enough or the 505 demanded his attention or granny hollered at him loud enough, he would go clean automobile windscreens for as long as it took to scrounge enough for food or 505.

Granny was weak and would walk around in slow motion, even on her spryest days. Eventually, we took granny in. Gee would prepare her food every morning. He got up at dawn and bought rice and cooked it up before he went to our special Mercy Centre school for teenagers who never got any education when they were young.
Granny would have her bad spells until one day she was so decrepit, Gee got scared. Every day, she got worse. Gee bought her food but she'd leave it untouched. Thankfully, she died in her sleep.

In preparing for the funeral/cremation, Gee couldn't memorise his prayers - for becoming a monk - "in front of the body" as we say, because the 505 had messed up his head. So on the day of granny's cremation, the temple abbot, a kindly man, looked him over pretty well. Gee's eyes were clear: he was off the glue. So he allowed Gee to be a monk for a day to make merit for granny. She'd always wanted that and had made him promise.

Kao came to us next. Kao's dad used to get him high on 505 and gave him broken beer bottles so he could cut himself on his arms, which made it more profitable when begging at traffic intersections. The drivers would see the blood and give money.

Kao's sister is in reform school. She never did drugs, but had a mental breakdown after she saw "these two men on a motorcycle wearing helmets for disguise" shoot the only friend she ever had. That happened during the Klong Toey drug wars a couple of years ago.

The day her friend died, Kao's sister swallowed her whole stash of amphetamines: three pills, the equivalent of, say, a dozen big tablespoonfuls of coffee and sugar in one swallow. She was so jittery and crazy she decided to fly off the roof on the third floor to go and see her dead friend in the storm clouds.

Kao tied a rope to himself and whispered to her, gently, that all would be okay. Like a skittish kitten, she believed him long enough to watch him crawl out on the roof towards her - she didn't jump, but looked down, panicked and tottered, he grabbed her, and the rope held. That is just one of Kao's defining moments in brotherly love.

These days both Kao and Gee are living in our Mercy Centre in one of our shelters for homeless kids; and that's where they met Miss Joop Jang, who lives in our home for children born with HIV. All three attend that special class, learning how to read and write.

Miss Joop Jang is 15 years old, our oldest surviving child born with HIV. As with most of our Aids kids, her dad gave it to her innocent mom, who passed it along to innocent Joop Jang at birth. After Joop Jang's dad and mom died from the virus, she stayed with granny. But then granny got sick and couldn't care for her any longer, and that's when Joop Jang came to us.

Gee and Kao said Joop Jang reminded them of a girl they both knew on the street, a girl who had Aids, too, and was killed by a hit-and-run truck. They watched her die right there on the street and then they got hammered on 505 with her boyfriend to make her look of terrible pain and her final words - "Help me! Help me!" - go away. She died before they could get her to a hospital; they didn't have taxi money anyway.

But back to Miss Joop Jang and her friendship with Kao and Gee... Someone in their class started calling Joop Jang 'Miss Sweet Sixteen' one day and now they all do.

Their classroom is on the third floor of our office building across the street from the Mercy Centre. Since Joop Jang is often quite weak, her teacher asked Kao and Gee to carry her up the steps.

Miss Sweet Sixteen is painfully thin, almost weightless. She knows she isn't long for this world, but she won't let on. Although her teeth are crooked, what she does with them when she smiles lights up a room.

Her life force is what won over Gee and Kao, I think. They know what fighting for survival is all about, and that gives them something in common.

Joop Jang continues on - three days well and four days sick, as we say in Thai. Sometimes she stays in bed all day by her oxygen tank. Occasionally she's hospitalised. But when she can make it to school, the boys treat her like Miss Sweet Sixteen, an age she probably will not live to see. She has a huge crush on them and they both are incredibly gentle with her. Oh! they love her - a hardcore, street kid kind of love.

They are a happy threesome - Kao, Gee, and Joop Jang. Someday the boys will grieve for their sister, Miss Sweet Sixteen, as will all of us, but through our tears, we will try to remember, "You should not grieve for those whose time has come."