Being homeless and watching over her three younger siblings whenever mum went off on a meth binge was a way of life for young Tangmo, and she accepted her fate without question. Now the children are in school and they've got a roof over their heads instead of a road.
Published in Bangkok Post, Spectrum Section, Sunday, Aug. 4, 2013
By Fr. Joe Maier, C.Ss.R.
Tangmo (Watermelon) tries to be as good and loving as any mum on the planet, but she's only eight, and she worries a lot about her five-year-old brother and the twins. Not that there's really much to worry about there: he's happy and the twins are jolly three-year-old eating machines. Her mum, back in rehab? That's a worry, but it's nothing new.
Like the time the police arrested mum again after she'd been sick and violent on meth and was coming down, on domicum mixed with methadone.Minutes before the police arrived, Tangmo (she prefers to be called Daeng) had grabbed her younger brother and the twins and ran to the safety of a rickety bamboo-shack karaoke bar under the expressway. She woke up the old man who's always asleep at the door to let them in to hide from mum.
It wasn't the first time. She knew the mamasan lady who arrives in the late afternoon would buy them noodles, if she was in a good mood. But they couldn't stay there overnight; the police would think bad things and put the mamasan in jail.
Whenever Daeng runs away, those two scavenger slum dogs who protect her come running - she fed them once and they are loyal for life. They curl up together for warmth all night - all four kids sleep soundly and safe with those two scavenger dogs.
What about hunger? In the morning, there was this nice crippled lady a few shacks away by the railway tracks who hobbles to the temple each morning, seeking left-overs and whatever the monks give to her and other indigents. She always saved a bit of rice for Daeng, brother, the twins - and the two dogs. In the afternoon, it's hit and miss.
Daeng with the beautiful eyes and almost straight front teeth went to school for just one day. It was the first day of school, and she'd washed her hair and her brother pulled out as many lice eggs as he could find. But she had no school uniform, so the other kids made fun of her as she came in barefoot with her brother and the twins.
The teacher said, ''No, they are too young.'' So Daeng walked. Shedding silent tears, holding hands with her brother and the twins, she went back to the slum. Sometimes Daeng sat the twins down and she and her brother begged at the traffic light from cars coming off the expressway ramp into the Klong Toey Port area.
They could always get enough to buy a few packets of dry noodles, which the shop will heat up for another three baht, and biscuits for the dogs - Klong Toey scavenger dogs have dignity; they won't eat dry noodles.
ONE NIGHT IN KLONG TOEY
Tangmo's story really begins with her mum at a slum birthday party, a ''booze-up'' at a Klong Toey shack. Strong foreign whiskey got then 13-year-old mum totally hammered - unconscious - and she was used and abused by a neighborhood boy. She woke up screaming, staggered home, clothes in tatters. Mum's meth-smoking dad was indignant, and threw her clothes out in the mud and dirt. She gathered up her stuff and her dignity and walked the few steps to the boy's shack, planning to move in. He denied everything and his parents cursed her - in terrible words - telling her that the baby in her tummy would die. She came running to us at the Mercy Centre. We said the Rosary asking the blessed Virgin Mary to protect her, and some of our devout Buddhist ladies also took her to the temple.
Months later, mum was arrested for vagrancy. Daeng was born in the detention ward of a government hospital. Her prisoner mum was 14.
The newborn spent the first two years of her life in detention. When mum was released, the detention centre people thought it best that baby Daeng stay with them for a while. In their judgement, there was no way that mum could properly care for her daughter.
Two full years later, they allowed baby Daeng to go home to Klong Toey. She cried as this strange woman held her - she didn't recognise her mum. The detention centre had made the right call the first time. Mum couldn't care for her daughter, and although Daeng survived and today is strong and wiry, she'd been never been sure of where her next meal was coming from since the day she was brought back to Klong Toey. Now almost nine, her mum has added three more to the family, for Daeng to care for.
By the way, she's named Tangmo because she was and is a beautiful child and the remand/rehabilitation staff felt she was like a watermelon: sweet and refreshing. Plus baby Daeng had and has hair and eyes that are beautiful and of the blackest black, like watermelon seeds.
BAD TO WORSE TO BETTER
Not long ago, mum was working as an ''extra hand'' on a building site and living at the site, leaving the kids alone under the expressway. She'd given Daeng 500 baht for food, all the money she had, but 500 baht doesn't last very long, even in Klong Toey. So once again Daeng was an eight-year-old mum, on the street with her three siblings.
But this time the crippled temple lady was sick and the mamasan said, ''You can't hang around our karaoke bar forever, it's bad for business. Plus the drunks might want to hurt you.'' The two slum scavenger dogs now had pups, but they were still loyal.
Then things went from bad to worse. All four children became sick with chicken pox. The crippled temple lady gave them a home remedy we call ya keo. Daeng had a rather severe case, but miraculously, her face is not pock-marked. Everyone told her not to scratch, and she cut her siblings' finger nails.
Somehow mum got the news, collected her weekly wage and caught city bus No72 to Klong Toey. Her children were there in their usual spot, sleeping under the expressway, weak and hungry. Mum now had no job, and with five mouths to feed, her money ran out in a week.
She had set up camp with Daeng and younger brother and the twins beside one of the pillars of the express way. Mum was fidgety, because she had slipped back to her old drug habits. Daeng, not trusting mum, was watching the twins, who were running fevers and runny noses. Daeng was terribly afraid mum would go through a violent spell and hurt the twins. Plus, mum was not sleeping with them, guarding them, but coming and going with strange men. One of them tried to fondle Daeng but was scared away when the slum scavenger dogs snarled.
Of course, mum is on the police ''watch list'', and they came looking for her under the expressway, to hand her a plastic bottle for a routine urine test. If it was a regular colour, she was free to go her way. But purple is definitely not cool; purple spells ''jail''.
There was too much purple in the plastic bottle, and Daeng whispered to the police lady, begging her to let mum take another test. So to please an eight-year-old girl in tears, who despite everything feared she would lose her mum again and be all alone to take care of the younger children, the police agreed. Maybe the tests were wrong. So, to be 100% sure, they'd come and do another test the next day.
Next morning they returned, but purple came up again. For the sake of the children, they didn't handcuff mum, and she promised to go quietly. The police lady gave 20 baht to each of the children. Miss Daeng said, ''Don't worry mum, we'll make it somehow. We'll be OK.''
So now mum is gone once again, doing ''government service''. Simply can't leave the meth - ya ba and nam kaeng (ice) - alone. After she was arrested another test came out bad for her - the doctor says she's HIV-positive. Mum says that's a recent development, so the children are safe. But she may not be back on the streets before Daeng is a teenager.
Now Daeng and the little ones are with us at the Mercy Centre. Not the perfect situation, but they have a roof over their heads instead of a noisy road and they're all in school. Daeng isn't at the top of her class, not yet anyway. After all, she'd never gone to school, except for that one day.
But she's catching up. She desperately wants to learn how to read and write, so that she can send letters to her mum. Her younger brother and the twins are getting a better start, in kindergarten.
Every day Daeng still takes part of her lunch money and buys biscuits for those two scavenger dogs who protected her and kept her warm all those nights, and for their puppies. Her language has much less of the salt and spice of the street, and slightly more polite.
And by the way, Daeng has already seen her first three wishes fulfilled. First, a bed for her and ''her family'' to sleep in, and someone to tuck them in and kiss them on their foreheads and whisper ''good night''. Second, toothbrushes for her and her three siblings so she can make sure they all brush their teeth regularly.
Finally, she's learned how to ride a bicycle and is teaching her little brother.
She isn't stopping there. Daeng says she's almost learned enough words to write her first letter to mum.