Saturday, August 15, 2009

What I Found When I Was Lost

Breakfast at the Mali Restaurant

When I was 24 I threw myself in front of a train. Naturally, my timing and my aim were off. Sissy boy. Couldn’t hit a baseball, couldn’t throw a punch, couldn’t hit a Light Rail train -- not even with myself.

The Light Rail was new in Denver -- and turned out to have excellent brakes. The conductor stopped the train and cussed me out. “What is it you are trying to do?” Frankly, it was more embarrassing than anything else. I stumbled back to my friend’s house and didn’t tell anyone. My clothes were soaked. I said I’d fallen in the snow. As suicides go, it wasn’t much, but, hey, it was an attempt.

The next day I decided that, since I was going to kill myself, I might as well go back to India first. I’d been going to India since I was 18, prostrating to swamis and lamas, reading novels, getting dysentery, and cruising the bamboo at Cubbon Park. I stumbled off to India and got hooked back into life. Whatever works, right?

More than a dozen years passed, several different lives and countries, but, despite setting records for sustained neuroses, I never seriously considered killing myself again – until about two weeks ago.

I live in Tokyo now, where the trains are very fast and doubtless would have done the trick, but thankfully I was trying to be modern, also painless, and so I googled ‘Ativan lethal dose’.

Do you know what you get when you do that? You get 15,000 online dealers trying to sell you Ativan. Which pretty much extinguishes any warm and fuzzy Ronald Reagan- type feelings I have toward capitalism. On the plus side, there were so many budding capitalists that it was impossible to find the information I was looking for.

When I am lost to myself, when the demons have spirited me away, I sit in the corner drinking beer, writing little notes to myself on scraps of paper. Two weeks ago, the morning after a hopeless night, while tidying up the beer cans and the scraps, I found a little note that read: I’m not going to kill myself because I want to eat breakfast again at the Mali Restaurant.

“Dude.” I said to myself. “Nice idea.”

I bought a one way ticket to Bangkok and here I am, eating rice porridge with pork, suspended in a humid cloud of fish sauce, green onions and monoxide, sitting outside at the Mali Restaurant in Bangkok.

Now that my insanity has been firmly established, I would like to tell you my mystic theory of restaurants. I believe in soul mates basically. Not for romance, but for dining out. Each soul receives, at conception, the name of a restaurant and that restaurant is the soul’s destiny, where the soul and the stomach are perfectly satisfied. (It’s better if you pronounce this in your best Osho-faux guru accent.) For some souls it might be a sushi bar, for others a hot dog stand on a sunny corner. Some tragic souls never seek out their restaurant -- they keep going back to Panda Express at the Food Court.

I’ll leave it to Hollywood to work out all the dramatic implications.

Anyway, the Mali Restaurant in Bangkok is the restaurant of my soul, the very best restaurant in the world. The Mali Restaurant has excellent food, of course, Thai and Western both, all very reasonably priced. Inside it’s dark and cozy with cushions and photos and bric-a-brac. Outside there’s an intricate wooden verandah that’s glorious if you don’t mind the street noise. The management and the waitstaff greet you tenderly, as if your mother had called ahead and asked that they be especially sweet to you.

However I suspect that the Mali Restaurant’s principal attraction for me is its strange and occult power, a bit of benevolent witchcraft. At the Mali Restaurant it is impossible to feel afraid or hopeless.

I have fled to the Mali in the thick of a panic attack, or after a day at the baths when I could have torn out my eyes from self-loathing. Demons can’t get inside the door. Mine can’t anyway. I can’t explain it otherwise.

Naturally I have my theories about this.

The Mali Restaurant is run by two men, a couple, one American and one Thai. Of course they are ordinary men, with complaints, with aches and pains. They are ordinary and at the same time I think it can also be said that they are beautiful experiments in human goodness. Experiments may have unforeseen peripheral effects.

The American was a soldier in Vietnam and, from what I’ve overheard, is haunted still. I heard him say once that he keeps his room smelling like a French whorehouse so that the smell of corpses won’t revisit him. It could well be that, in constructing a refuge from his own fear, he has created a safe haven for everyone.

The other man, the Thai, has a compulsion for preserving life. At the market he will buy frogs and even goats to save them from being slaughtered. Eavesdropping as I ladle up rice soup with pork, I note that he does not speak like someone who woke up and decided to be virtuous, but rather like a man who cannot help himself. He cares especially for dogs. He saves dogs the way other men drink.

The leftovers from the Mali -- the unfinished lunches of embassy staff, the leavings of sex tourists with too big eyes -- all go to stray dogs. But it goes much further than this.

Driving one night three years ago, he saw ahead of him a truck full of dogs. And he knew these dogs had been kidnapped and were being taken up North where they would be slaughtered and served in a restaurant.

Very upsetting, isn’t it? I would feel outraged if I saw such a thing. And I could also be relied upon to not do a damn thing.

From what I understand, he forced the truck to the side of the road, threatened the kidnappers, convinced them that he was a legal authority, and took possession of the dogs. A happy hijacking, in other words. Robin Hood for dogs.

And he brought the dogs all home. Dozens and dozens of dogs. Thankfully the managers of the Mali have some land of their own. He now operates a dog shelter and works to stop dog trafficking.

Courage on such a scale is bound to have effects. Don’t you think? Unintended, peripheral effects. By which I mean to say that I am just another of the dogs. Another stray, or house pet that got lost. A lucky dog rescued at random on the way to its destruction, who instead winds up eating breakfast at the Mali Restaurant.

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