So Little, So Much

One of the first impressions upon entering Swan 4 Laundry is boy, these people must work hard. Washers rumble away in the back and the floor is strewn with baskets of clothes. Near the front a trio of large dryers jostle each other, chewing the moisture out of their loads. A fan positioned next to them does not so much disperse the heat as it relocates it.

The routine is always the same. I hand over the heavy bag of laundry I’ve lugged down the street to the proprietor, Wan, who empties and sorts out the contents. An inventory is made of the t-shirts, shorts and socks that comprise the wardrobe of a tropical retiree. With a few quick keystrokes this all gets entered into the PC atop the counter, which responds by spitting out an invoice.

Tomorrow, she always says, handing me the bill.

Tomorrow, I always agree.

The next day the clothes, nicely pressed and folded, have been placed in one of the “squares” of the checkerboard shelf by the entrance. On only a single occasion has anything ever been lost (a white sock — I managed to get over it). The only trouble I sometimes have is finding my scruffy belongings amidst all the other plastic packages of shirts, underwear and jeans. Business, it appears, is good.

I cannot recall when it was I began giving Wan more than a token tip for her services. For a long time her serious demeanor had me slightly off balance, making it difficult to gauge her reaction to anything more generous. Eventually I decided that didn’t matter. The paltry ten percent or so I’d been adding on top of a two hundred baht bill ($6) was niggardly. The woman deserved better.

I started by simply not accepting any change. If the cleaning cost one hundred and seventy baht, I gave her two hundred. If over two hundred, I handed out three. From there I advanced to five hundred baht (@$15), regardless of the bill. (It’s so much easier to pay with a five hundred baht note rather than ransacking my wallet trying to pull out one hundreds.) Soon Wan’s grim demeanor began to thaw, with brief smiles surfacing on occasion. (Later I would realize the woman was simply shy.)

Which brings us to the first week of January. During the holidays, I had made it a point to give extra large tips to the “working women” in my life such as Lek, who cleans my room, the bar maids in Beer Garden, and the girls at Sports Academy Pool Hall. All part of the program to share some of my new wealth. Wan would be treated the same way. Stopping in to pick up my laundry, I paid with a one thousand baht note ($30), wishing her a Happy New Year in Thai — a phrase I’ve been able to master after a half decade in this country.

I was not prepared for the reaction.

“Thank you, thank you,” she exclaimed, suddenly stepping forward and wrapping me up in an extended embrace. “You are a good man.”

For a moment I thought she was going to cry, this woman who had never been overly friendly with me. That would have been a shocker. As it was, the response was still a surprise, being one of the most heartfelt thanks I had ever received. And compared to the money I’d doled out over the past year trying to improve the lives of a few Thai ladies — usually with dubious results — the thousand baht was but a pittance. For the first time I began to wonder if maybe I’ve been helping the wrong kinds of people.

She did smile at me once. Honest!

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