The Little Man
I grew up in a small seaside town in California where most every business was locally owned. Even the Helm’s bakery trucks were individually operated and would drive up and down the streets before breakfast and again before dinner to make sure everyone had fresh bread, donuts, and other bakery goods. Miller's Market where we shopped for our groceries was owned by Mr. Miller. The RCA television shop where we all purchased our color televisions when they first came out was owned by the guy who lived down the street. All the gas stations were locally owned as were the restaurants. Everyone knew each other and as a child when my mom sent me to the store to pick up whatever she ran out of, all I’d have to do is sign the receipt. On the walk home from school we could stick our heads in the door of almost every shop along the way and be greeted by friendly shopkeepers who would give you a free pencil with their name embossed, a small glass of juice, or something. They were grooming their next generation of customers and the greetings and gifts were all part of their long range marketing plans.
The last time I was in my hometown was about three years ago. Miller's Market is now a Trader Joes, their were 7-Elevens everywhere, franchise restaurants, and everyone would make the drive to a nearby town to do most of their shopping at Wal-Mart, Costco’s, or the SAMS Club. I had to really search hard to find an independently owned storefront or even a unique restaurant that wasn’t $200 a plate just because it was unique. A small rural Oregon town 900 miles north was next on my journey, a town I originally moved to because it “felt” like the town I grew up in. Everyone knew everyone, locally owned stores, etc. In the 15 years since, even this rural small town is now 90%+ franchises and big corporations.
Remember the ‘milk man’ who would leave glass bottles of fresh milk and other dairy products at your backdoor before the sun came up? The ice cream truck cruising up and down the street where you lived after school? Signing for purchases and paying on pay day? Heck, you could cash your pay check at any of the local stores, pay your tab, have them ask how your family is, and identification was never even thought of. It’s all gone. The money you spend now doesn’t stay in your town to help it grow and prosper, no one knows anybody unless some employee takes notice of you because you happen to come at a quiet time, and you need an array of identification to cash your pay check which they’ll take 5% out of for their troubles. Forget about installing that new dishwasher or hot water heater without a building permit, or cutting down that oak tree without a tree cutting permit approved by the city council and numerous environmental agencies, or heaven forbid if you want to actually start a business.
Sometimes I’ll visit my home town with my sons, point out where I went to school, where I had my first job, and I’ll tell them about “the way it used to be.” They laugh and joke and cannot even begin to picture the way it used to be. Besides, they’re too busy checking their cell phones, listening to their iPods, and their wallets contain a school ID card with a picture, hologram and RIFD chip, health insurance cards with thumb prints, and the visa card they’ll need if I ask them to pick up a loaf of bread and some milk on the way home from school. We used to ride our Schwinn Stingrays in / out of the school grounds for lunch. Now, kids need permission slips, ID cards, and must go through metal detectors in many cases each time they transit the school grounds. Bicycles are frowned on, and even then require helmets, safety courses, knee / elbow pads, and even insurance.
The Little Man, the men who built the towns we grew up in, are more endangered than the California Condor. We’ve lost our country to corporations and other big business entities. With it we’ve lost our way of life, and a good part of our culture. We’ve lost our homes as we knew them.
I’ve often said one of the reasons I like Thailand so much is because it resembles the Wild West. Anything goes, graft is common and knowing when graft is necessary, and how best applied, is considered a necessary business skill. Most expats say things along the same lines. They cite the lack of regulations, the ability to get things done with a bit of tea money, and the “anything goes” business environment as key reasons they’re here in Thailand. I agree with all this, but what everyone is really trying to say.. is that Thailand is full of Little Men.. Big business has yet to corrupt Thailand to a significant degree, or at least a degree that prevents the little man from easily starting their own business and living a regulation free life.
Walking through the soi outside my home is strangely familiar. The signage is in a different language and the people look different, but everyone knows me. They smile and wai and greet me when I walk into their shops. If I don’t have small bills in my wallet they smile and tell me I can pay the next time I’m in. My barber knows my entire family and when my next set of guests are coming to visit. Sometimes on the way into the soi I’ll stop at 7 Eleven and pick up a few beers and a soda and stop and have a drink with the car park guard where I live. He appreciates the beer and always keeps an eye on my car, on nights when I leave it full of photo gear he lets me park it next to where he sits.
Almost 50 years ago a brilliant German immigrant doctor brought me into this world. He used to make house calls and we never lacked for medical care. We never got a bill, instead my father made sure his offices always had new carpet. We never needed insurance or had bills that crippled our finances. There’s a retired military doctor on my soi. A visit to his clinic will set you back baht 50, a house call carries a baht 20 surcharge. He’s busy all day and makes enough to live in a nice home, yet the people around my soi don’t need health insurance either.
I had the idea for this submission yesterday. Today driving into my soi off the main Thanon I counted no less than 43 individual businesses. No one is making a fortune, but everyone seems to be getting by. The ladies in my soi visit the beauty shop (my barber) a few times a week. They spend about an hour getting their hair washed, head massaged, and hair blow dried and set for 30-40 baht. The barber trims the split ends for nothing. In rural Oregon my Thai wife was charged $50 for a “beautician” to trim an inch off her hair and was sent home with her hair still wet and uncombed from Supercuts. She thought they were joking when they told her she was done and to get out of the chair, and thought she was being robbed when they told her $50.
Maybe half the businesses on my soi are restaurants or food carts. As far as I know no one has a business license, health inspectors, or a sign on their door giving them a “grade” to embarrass them. If a Thai wants to open a restaurant they only need a few tables and chairs, a bottle of propane and a burner, and some ingredients and they’re in business! Many start just that simple. If it tastes good and makes no one sick, they get more business. If they’re unreliable customers go somewhere else.
A few places sell groceries. “Groceries” in Thailand means foodstuffs, produce, meat, dairy, and that sixth food group alcohol. All you need to be a grocer is a vehicle to go out in the early AM to the outskirts of town and bargain for your products, a large piece of canvas to lay in the street to stack your products on, and once you make it big a refrigerated cooler for the beers and soda. The refrigerated cooler is their key to easy street. If you have cold beer you WILL have a lot of customers.
There is also a fix-it shop. Armed with a minimum of tools these guys will fix anything from your television to your tractor. It doesn’t matter if they don’t even know what a Playstation is.. they’ll know someone who does. Just drop it off and they’ll take care of it. Next door is a lady with a cart with brown paper, boxes, and tape. You can leave your mail and packages with her. She’ll wrap them, weigh them, and charge you the going rate for postage and 20 baht for her trouble and materials. She’s never lost a single letter or package she’s sent for me and it saves me the 3 km drive to the post office, finding a parking place, taking a number and waiting in line for 30 minutes or so. A few times I’ve caught her at about 11 PM pushing her cart piled high with metered boxes and letters down the main thanon on her way to the post office.
When I was a kid we had the Fuller Brush man. Brooms, mops, hair brushes, toilet brushes, if it had a bristle or string the guy sold it. My mom would buy what she needed from him and he was grateful. If you need a broom now you’d better put it on your list for your next Costco shopping adventure. Here in my soi an old man pushes a cart loaded with freshly made brooms, dusters and sweeps. I call him the Somchai Brush man. Business for him is good. I buy at least two new brooms a month from him to sweep up the parrot food that falls outside the cage.
It’s easy to find a lot of bad things and inconveniences about Thailand, and boy do people enjoy pointing them out and writing about them. I don’t think I’ve ever lived anywhere, east or west, where I couldn’t find a bucket load of things to complain about. However, we’re all here living in Thailand and enjoying it and we all give somewhat different but mostly the same reasons. Thailand isn’t like the west. Warts and all, and maybe you’ve never thought of it in these terms, but I think the reason we all most enjoy living in Thailand.. is The Little Man.. Please, lets help keep it this way.
Until next time…
The Little Man
I remember walk'in round the court square sidewalk
Lookin' in windows at things I couldn't want
There's johnson's hardware and morgans jewelry
And the ol' Lee king's apothecary
They ware the little man
The little man
I go back now and the stores are all empty
Except for an old coke sign from 1950
Boarded up like they never existed
Or renovated and called historic districts
There goes the little man
There goes the little man
Now the court square's just a set of streets
That the people go round but they seldom think
Bout the little man that built this town
Before the big money shut em down
And killed the little man
Oh the little man
He pumped your gas and he cleaned your glass
And one cold rainy night he fixed your flat
The new stores came where you do it yourself
You buy a lotto ticket and food off the shelf
Forget about the little man
Forget about that little man
He hung on there for a few more years
But he couldn't sell slurpees
And he wouldn't sell beer
Now the bank rents the station
To a down the road
And sell velvet Elvis and
There goes little man
There goes another little man
Now the are lined up in a concrete strip
You can buy the world with just one trip
And save a penny cause it's jumbo size
They don't even realize
They'er killin' the little man
Oh the little man
It wasn't long when I was a child
An old black man came with his plow
He broke the ground where we grew our garden
Back before we'd all forgot about the little man
The little man
Long live the little man
God bless the little man
This submission definitely struck a chord.