The Suburbs of Babylon Chapter 6

What’s up, everyone. I’m Bangkok Seven and this is my blog. On Fridays, I like to frowback to those days of yesteryear. When Thailand wasn’t even a thought in my head, and life was a giant, steaming pile of shit. We’re smack in the middle of summer, friends. That might mean something where you are, but for me—a whoremonger trapped in purgatory, aka the United States, waiting in limbo for permission from the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs to return home to Thailand, the season is irrelevant. It’s just shitty, 24/7. Similarly, it matters not whether you’ve read the first 5 chapters of my self-published, semi-autobiographical Un-novel, “The Suburbs of Babylon.” You’d likely get as much (or as little) out of the following chapter with or without the previous installments (all available by scrolling down my homepage). In any case, here is the continuation of that saga…

“Chapter Six

Now I got a job, but it don’t pay. 

I need new clothes, I need somewhere to stay…—The Clash


 I should give you a little more history, so things make a bit more sense.

So I grew up in an orphanage, you already know that.  I know next to nothing about my parents—only that they were not from around here.  I think they wanted to put as much distance between them and me as possible.  They’re probably from Alaska, or Vermont.  My dad was a musician, I was told by my caretakers, and though I never knew for sure, I think my mom was a groupie that became a one-night stand.

The place where I grew up was a state-funded home for adoptable children.  It was a one-story, L-shaped building with a lobby and offices in the front, a long row of rooms behind, and a cafeteria at the far end.  Inside the L was a long playground with a tree and a sandbox at the farthest corner from the front entrance and a wall separating it from the street.  There was always about fifty of us living there.  Adoptions were few and far between.  There was a school a block down where all of us went until the sixth grade.  We were largely ignored by the teachers, who I suppose thought that there was no hope for us and who devoted all their time to the students with parents.  In retrospect I can see how they might’ve felt that way.  If one of us acted up or did poorly, there was no one to call or conference with or complain to.  So what was the point of wasting time on us?  I was lucky enough to be a good reader, and over time facilitated most of my own education alone.  I read a lot—sitting in solitude under a tree or in the sandbox, living the lives of imaginary characters in made-up worlds.  Very early on my vocabulary became so much more advanced than my peers that talking to them was almost a waste of time.

Every Sunday we were carted off to church for Sunday school, which I didn’t mind, for one because it was about a mile-long walk to get there, and the change of scenery was a blessing, and for two, I was warm to the idea that, even though I didn’t have an Earthly father, I had one in Heaven who watched out for me.  If I was bad, He’d punish me, and if I was fearful or alone, He would protect me.  It was an ironic coincidence, then, that my first unpleasant experiences at the hands of other people happened while I was in Sunday school.

One of my earliest memories of the place occurred when I was about three years old.  I was playing alone in a fenced-off yard behind the church, making up stories in my head, imagining far-off places and adventures, when an older boy—not from the orphanage—came up to me.  He told me he wanted to tell me a secret that no one else could hear.  I felt curious and privileged that I was the one he chose to tell his secret to.  He cupped his hands around his mouth, and I gladly leaned in to hear his news.  He hesitated a moment, stoking my anticipation, and then spit a large wad of phlegm in my ear.  Then he walked off, chuckling with satisfaction, muttering something about “stupid orphan” under his breath.  I never told anyone.  I just cleaned out my ear with the end of my shirt and went on playing around the yard.

As years went by, I was disappointed to learn just how many church kids took pleasure in berating and humiliating the orphans.  We were ostracized, ignored, and insulted, and that was when we were lucky.  At worst we were beaten, mocked, belittled, and tormented by the cleaner, wealthier, “wanted” children.

I don’t fault God for this fact, but it has been my experience that in church, one will find just as many if not more cruel, twisted, and uncaring people as any place else.  It’s a strange kind of paradox.  Although, I suppose if they should be anywhere, it’s at church, where there’s at least the possibility of repentance and inevitably, change.

Not much changed during those early years.  No new children came, very few old ones left.  A few years later, we got some new arrivals—a pair of brothers whose mother had defected from the Soviet Union and then got hit by a car while jaywalking.  Their names were Joseph and Adam, they were Orthodox Jews, and therefore were not required to go to church with the rest of us.  They were driven to North Hollywood every Saturday to go to temple, and on Sundays they stayed at the orphanage and were supervised by one of the volunteers—college students who came as part of some school requirement and never said or did anything.  Well, one Sunday we came back from church to find that Adam had somehow come across a hammer, had hit Joseph over the head with it, like Elmer Fudd might have hit Daffy, and killed him.  The student-volunteer was nowhere to be found.  After that, Adam was dragged off to a mental institution, where he resides, I’m sure, to this day, and all scheduled visits from college students were cancelled.  I recalled wondering to myself if all that happened because the boys weren’t in church where they should have been.  I began to fear then that God might be the kind of parent who struck you down if you so much as tiptoed out of line.  But beggars can’t be choosers, so I did my best to stay on His good side.

The people who cared for me in my youth have all faded in my memory, as have the other children, except for one or two early on—a woman we called Cara who was always sitting under a tree in the yard while we played, and Neil, the night orderly, a short, wiry, balding man with a high-pitched voice and a penchant for bad jokes.  I can also recollect a girl my age whose name I don’t remember.  She had strawberry blond hair, green eyes, and a constellation of freckles across the bridge of her nose.  In my mind I see her in a pair of red shorts and a red and white striped shirt, her hair to her shoulders and one missing baby tooth in the front of her smile.  Her skin was tanned a golden brown from always being outside, and her arms were covered with a thin coat of fine white hairs.  I remember sitting in the sandbox with her day after day, listening to her talk.  She had known her parents—they died on a trip to the East Coast—car accident—and chattered about them ceaselessly.  She seemed none the worse for wear over it, and I suppose in retrospect that was the trick, to not appear as depressed and disillusioned as we all really were.  Because she was snapped up in no time by a hopeful young family.  On the day she left, she came out to the sandbox where I sat alone, and gave me a kiss on the cheek.  She said nothing—I think she was too excited to speak.  Then she ran off, and I never saw her again.

One thing I do remember about my early caretakers is that I was a disappointment to them.  According to my records, my elementary teachers all held high expectations for me.  Judging by their tests, I was supposed to be some kind of genius.  They pegged me as an uber-child who would eventually take over the world.  The orphanage positively thrummed with the anticipation of my greatness.  But somewhere between 3rd grade and high school, I dropped the ball.  It was right about the time I got my first mental picture of eternity, and began to envision what my spirit actually was, and where it would go when I died.  My Sunday-school teachers told me I’d go to Heaven, but for some reason that thought terrified me.  No regular school subject could satisfy my life-questions, so gradually I began to neglect them as inconsequential.  I saw no purpose in earning good grades, since the act was simply to get a reward from people who’s opinions I didn’t respect and who’s approval I didn’t value.  Plus, I began to disbelieve what every teacher and textbook had to say.  It all seemed to be part of some conspiracy to domesticate and tranquilize every passionate and independent-minded person.

Fast-forward to today, I’m penniless and psychotic and looking for an alternative to my present miserable existence.

*    *    *

            Well, call it good fortune if you want.  I managed to secure a job.  I’m now an elementary school substitute teacher.  Which, I know, I know, isn’t really a real job.  I only work two or three days a week, and that’s if I’m lucky.  But at least I can stop diving deeper into debt.  And I have spending money for strippers and French wine.  The bare necessities.

The good part about the job is, if I’d rather drive to Mexico than work on a particular day, I can.  It just means less money in the bank.  So I’m sacrificing wads of cash for freedom, but it’ll do for now.  Plenty of time to join the workaday world and kiss all hope of happiness goodbye.

*    *    *

Last night I had another dream about the dark man.  Or at least he was in the dream I was having.  It involved being on a plane.  I was on my way to Alaska, I think, flying above the California coast, when suddenly the plane lost power and crashed into the ocean.  A sense of helplessness, urgency, and acceptance all took hold at once.  As we sank beneath the waves, giant sea creatures—whales, sharks, octopi—surrounded the plane.  I looked out the window, and there amid the animals, suspended in the water, was the dark man.  He appeared to have no problem breathing, and the fearsome creatures left him alone.  I felt envy at his ability to remain so calm, so detached, in what seemed to be harrowing circumstances.  I relished his stoicism.  I wished I could be like him.  Cool and unaffected in a crisis.  Oh, how I want to be like that.  As much of a work of fiction as he is, this made up character in my head, I wish at times he could take me over, speak and act for me, absorb the pain for me.  Though if I were completely honest, I also fear what he might do to me if ever given the chance.

I woke from the dream feeling as though there was a lesson to be learned in it, though what that lesson was I couldn’t quite put my finger on.  I lay in bed for a while, trying to think of a reason to get up.  Trying to find something to hope for for the day.  Ignoring the textbook warning signs, I got up and had a Cape Cod with my oatmeal.

*    *    *

The other day I was going through a box of old stuff in the back of my closet, and ran across an old photo of me at the orphanage.  It was the day before I left, actually.  I was sixteen, and though eligible to stay for two more years, I elected to move to a group home closer to the high school, where other kids my age lived virtually independently.  In the picture, a tall bony woman with curly brown hair and large glasses is standing beside me, an arm around my shoulders, grinning with pride.  She was a teacher and live-in aide at the orphanage, and though I can’t remember her well, I do recall she was always smiling and cheerful.  Even though her husband and two children had been killed, I think by a robber on the street.  Which is why she moved in with us.  We became her children, and when we got old enough, we left her behind, with her memories and a new group of children searching for belonging.

The group home I went to was bleak.  Most of the people there were coming to grips with the fact that no family would ever be adopting them, that they were too old.  There was a lot of drinking and drug use.  Ironically I never got involved in that while I was there.  I was squeaky clean.  I didn’t bother anyone, and no one bothered me.  But everyone at school knew who the bastard children were, and I never escaped that stigma.  At least, not until Cris deigned to love me.  Her approval made me acceptable in the eyes of the rest of them.  When I was by her side, I stopped being something hideous.

Then in the blink of an eye, it seemed, she was gone, and high school was over, but mercifully, the federal government provided adequate funds for me to attend the local state college and even stay on campus and eat three meals a day.  It was the most carefree time in my life.  My studies kept me busy, I met no one of particular significance, and my time there passed like a vacation on Dramamine.

Looking at this old photo, and skimming over the years between then and now, it’s hard for me to put a finger on anything worthwhile.  I might as well not have existed.  The world would be none the worse for wear.”

Full disclosure, not everything in this chapter is a historically accurate depiction of my past. Much of it is…metaphorical. Nonetheless, it adequately represents the sense of trapped, bleak desperation that characterized my entire young life and early adulthood. Thankfully, Thailand cured all my ills, and turned my frown upside down. Now if only I could get a repatriation flight back there, happy days would return again.