Every day Bunjerd, who's in his late 40s, goes to work in a clean, ironed long-sleeved shirt, belted trousers, socks tucked neatly in tidy leather shoes. He sets up his shop each morning and cleans the tools of his trade, getting ready for the first custo
For 20-odd years Bunjerd has been repairing shoes as well as working as a “locksmith”, which in Thailand usually means duplicating keys. His “shop” is a small, nondescript, open-air kiosk at the foot of a staircase outside JJ Mall in Chatuchak. Few people notice his “shop” – or him. He doesn’t have a radio blaring loud music, nor any eye-catching banners. His kiosk is full of “stuff” that he locks up every evening around 7 or 8 before heading home, leaving as quietly as he arrives every morning and goes about his work every day.
I met Bunjerd two years ago. I had just undergone hip-replacement surgery, and one of my legs felt longer than the other due to the severe and prolonged preparation for the operation. I needed (and still need) customised shoes to compensate for the uneven limbs. My surgeon suggested I try one of the wet markets to get the left shoe padded, rather than an expensive speciality store.
After many futile searches in the wet markets, I found Bunjerd’s “shop” by chance. His price was higher than what my doctor said it would be, so I began haggling. He wasn’t upset or angered by it. He simply said politely, without emotion, that he could only pad the shoe at the price he’d already quoted because he would be using a high-quality rubber sole. I remember thinking sarcastically, “Yeah, sure.”
When I picked up my shoes, though, I was surprised at the neatness of the work. And, yes, his material was of high quality. He hadn’t padded his promise. He is a man of few words, but he always means what he says, and he’s always truthful.
Over time I got him to modify all my work shoes. Never once did I feel let down by him. Nor did he ever fall into the trap of the old “familiarity breeds contempt” adage. He is consistently polite as well as frugal with his words. He treats all his customers alike, no matter the price of their shoes. He repairs cheap sandals in the same meticulous way he mends designer shoes that cost the equivalent of several months’ income for him. As strange as it sounds, he believes that every shoe deserves to be treated with respect.
In a society like ours, where the lowly foot carries an insult when raised in contempt, Bunjerd’s profession doesn’t get much respect. He makes shoes that are dirty and shabby look like new again and, for his trouble, is usually taken for granted, with little or no due deference. But, to Bunjerd, this is his craft and pride, and to practise it the right way is a matter of honour and dignity.
Bunjerd has two children. The elder one, now in his 20s, is a lost cause. Bunjerd admits that maybe it’s because he was always busy earning to make ends meet and didn’t spend enough time with his son to instil in him a proper sense of right and wrong. The young man now wants nothing to do with his father, who he perceives as a nobody going nowhere career-wise. Perhaps he doesn’t regard shoe repair as a career. He’s a drifter, aimlessly shifting from one job to the next, averse to hard work. Father and son stay in the same rented flat but rarely talk to each other. Their paths have become irreparably parallel. It is heartbreaking for Bunjerd, but he has come to terms with it.
His daughter, a little over 10, went to live with his wife on a farm upcountry that belongs to his wife’s sister. Bunjerd can’t afford a decent school for his daughter in Bangkok and he can’t afford to feed all four mouths on his meagre, patchy income.
Last weekend an older female customer came in to pick up her shoes, carrying with her many items she’d bought at the mall. Bunjerd told her to give him a minute to lock up his kiosk and he’d help carry all her parcels to her car. Knowing that she’d otherwise have to make several trips back and forth to the parking lot, she offered him Bt200 for his assistance. Bunjerd looked straight at the woman and said, politely but with resolute pride, that he could not accept it. It was part of his customer service, he said. His response was quiet yet firm, to the point where the woman felt terrible, fearing she might have insulted him with her offer of cash.
It’s now 8pm and dark. Bunjerd hasn’t had any customers for a while, but he’s kept the shop open as usual until closing time. He’ll stop at a food stall for dinner on the way home, and by the time he finishes his chores it will be 10. He’s exhausted.
He used to pray, but these days he’s too tired to concentrate on the words. He’ll lie down and watch some television.
He misses his daughter. He yearns for the day when the family is together again, once he can collect enough money to bring his wife and daughter back from the farm. He wishes he had the chance to right his wrong in the rearing of his older child, and he wants to be the one teaching his little girl that dignity and honour come from within, through doing the right thing, , not from any external source – they cannot be acquired any other way.
He wants to tell her that even a shoe repairman is not without honour, because honour and integrity are earned through doing one’s duty honestly and responsibly. He wants her to understand that, above all else, he takes pride in being a craftsman who tries to be true to his craft. He wants to tell her that money is important, but it’s not everything. Nor can it buy everything, and certainly not pride or honour or dignity.
Bunjerd doesn’t know if he’ll ever have the chance to teach his daughter such things. He’s tired now, and tomorrow he has to be at his “shop” by 8.30am sharp, getting ready for the first customer, who might not come in until afternoon.