Sunrise Street Cleaners

Sometimes when I awaken early and cannot get back to sleep, I get up and do a short, pre-dawn walk. The roar of city life receeds during these hours to a distant growl and my pace is slow and relaxed. When in the mood for a challenge, I stop and try to identify an overhead star or planet. On other occasions I stroll down to the convenience store for bread and milk — two items always in short supply at my place.

In hindsight, I should have found the sight of people sweeping my street at 5:00 a.m. unusual. While the Thais are generally neat and clean, they are far less fastidious in their attitude towards their general environment. A Thai home might be well-scrubbed with everything in its place while the canal but a few meters away is blighted with floating islands of discarded plastic bottles and candy wrappers. The idea that anyone would care about refuse blowing down an empty Bangkok street makes sense only when one notices the plethora of tourist hotels in my area — having tourists stepping over garbage whenever they go out is not the best way to advertise the city.

So there is a definite need to employ an early morning broom brigade to tidy things up. At first glance, this would not appear to be a desirable profession, getting up in the middle of the night for the purpose of cleaning up after others. But in a nation saturated with menial jobs, one could do far worse. For one thing, the sweepers do not have to handle the bulging plastic bags of reeking garbage, nor are they laboring in the intense midday heat. Their dark uniforms, overlaid with green Day-Glo jackets, even lend them an air of respectability.

Saow is one of the female members of the cleaning crew whom I sometimes run across during my insomnia-induced meanderings. I believe she begins her night down near Nana Plaza and slowly works her way up to the end of Soi 4, a couple blocks beyond my apartment (a total of five hundred meters or so). There’s an understated prettiness to her and whenever we meet, I give her one hundred baht ($3), telling her (with a smile) that it’s for breakfast. We cannot converse to any degree, but I always enjoy making a kind gesture, and although somewhat reserved (shy?), she’s happy to see me.


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