Two decades ago, I lived in a working class community in downtown Bangkok, on Petchaburi Soi 7. It was one of those authentic streets that Robert Moses would have been appalled by. My one-room flat overlooked a bustling cock-fighting ring at the train tracks, and a popular snooker hall in the ground floor of my building attracted visitors at all hours of the night. My neighborhood also featured a barbershop where over the course of two years, I learned enough Thai to pick up translation work to help pay for my expenses. I spent many evenings sitting on a stool on our street, next to one of the vendors selling steaming bowls of noodle soup, refreshing papaya salad, or savory minced pork and shrimp meatballs, observing life and catching up on the local news as interpreted by my neighbors. All of the residents on the street frequented its many family-owned shops as well as commercialized “marts”. There was public transportation at the end of the street, and a sense of security when you walked alone, even at night, as there were many eyes on the street, and most of those eyes knew who belonged and who did not. Most of us were not from Bangkok. A lot were from impoverished areas in Northern or Northeastern Thailand. I was the American among them who happened to be born in Northeastern Thailand, and through a family connection was immediately absorbed.
It was also on this soi that I learned how to grill cockles, made tom yum goong, gained intimate insight into gender roles and ethnic division, and experienced my first Bangkok flash flood, almost up to the knees, where everyone just rolled up their pant legs and tried to push the water out of their first floor properties.
And there was a prostitute who lived on our street. The first time I met her, she was wearing blush pink satin pajamas at 2 PM, wandering out of her apartment building to buy some street food. One day she approached me and asked if I could help translate her green card application because she met an American man who wanted to marry her and “rescue” her from a life of exploitation. Everything on the form was fairly straight forward until we got to the question about occupation. She panicked for a moment because apart from prostitution, she really had no other profession. “That’s okay,” I said, and then suggested, “What about we put down vendor?”