A sweaty night, stepping off the Skytrain Ratchathewi stop and wandering down an alley past street vendors selling cuttlefish on a stick and rows of mini-dress women calling “Massage? Massage? You want massage?”
Bangkok smells amazing in season, especially during the endless nights. Squid and chicken steaming from a cart. Spices and a sultry damp. The Thai capital can smell like the sweat-breath of an alluring stranger leaning in to whisper you a secret.
And sometimes it smells like someone peed on a dog.
I had lived in Thailand two months by then, interning for a wire service. About a week after this particular November saunter to Ratchathewi, the anti-government protestors who had been occupying the prime minister’s offices since August would seize the airport, giving me two experience that will never come again.
The first was the chance for an intern to cover the stories the protest-swamped foreign correspondents would normally handle.
The second was a tourist-free Thailand in the heave of tourist season.
I walked into my tailor’s to check on my new suit.
While a Thai assistant retrieved the jacket from the back room, the Sikh owner — Mr. Sam, if I remember correctly — looked me over. The walls were stacked with fabric swatches. A portrait of King Bhumibol Adulyadej hung in the corner.
“Where are you from?” Mr. Sam asked.
“America,” I said.
“Where in America?”
Mr. Sam then grunted and nodded at the television tucked in the corner over bolts of fabric. On the screen behind me, an ‘L’ train rumbled by a glass-and-steel building under a clear and chilly sky.
Chicago had followed me to Bangkok.
“Gary Hobson,” Mr. Sam said. “He gets the paper a day early. I love this show.”
Then he hustled me into my new pinstripes, repeatedly pledging discounts on the suit in exchange for American DVDs of CBS’ Chicago-based late-‘90s action drama “Early Edition.”
On Wednesday, I’ll file my 500th Chicago afternoon, as near as I can get to a halfway mark since I picked an odd number as endgame.
I started this kerfuffle to tell the stories I couldn’t get into when I was a daily beat reporter, the bits of life that got swept aside to make way for bleed-lede headlines and the levying rate minutia aimed at the “What about the children?” set.
As I hit the halfway, I think about all the stories I’ll never get to tell. I think about the planetful of detail I’ll always miss.
Over the weekend, I read a book about how Deerfield incorporated a park in the 1960s to keep an integrated development out of town. At my parents’ house in Rockford, we had lunch with one of the 1940s Rockford Peaches baseball players, just a little old lady from down the street.
Chicago’s not magic. Stories are everywhere.
You should find them.
Write 1,001 Bangkok, 1,001 London. Write 1,001 Afternoons in Topeka, Kan. Talk to your friends, neighbors, to strangers. Learn their stories, joys and struggles, either to share with the world or to squirrel away for yourself, bits and pieces of others’ experience to relish at your leisure.
If you listen, the world and the people in it will tell you stories beyond your belief. All I’ve done these 499 is share a few I’ve seen.
Here are a few of my favorites from the first half:
- Cockroach on the Factory Floor — A story of justice and love at Cook County Bond Court.
- The Murderess Down the Block — I find out a 1920s lady gunner lived a few houses over from me.
- A Blue (Line) Christmas — A special audio Christmas wish from 1,001 Chicago Afternoons and a group of amazing CTA street musicians
- The Elevator Demon — Diving into the 1,200-year history of one of the Art Institute’s lesser pieces.
- The Steelworker’s Mermaid — How four sculptors hid a seven-foot mermaid for 14 years.
- Downtown Brown — Meet Downtown Brown, a Woodlawn cabbie with a story.
- Party at Uncle Fun — Customers, staff and Uncle Fun himself say goodbye to the well-loved Belmont gag shop.
- The Mayoral Candidates’ Campaign Finance Paperwork in the Style of Great Poets of History — Because who hasn’t wanted to read Bob Fioretti’s quarterly contribution filing in haiku?
- Old Joe of Canaryville — Joe sits in his shop waiting for customers, as he’s done for 68 years.
- The Human Addict — A begging addict talks about being treated like a person.