Thursday, June 27, 2013

Escaping From and Searching for a Declining Profession

There are dying professions in this world.  There always have been.  How many armorers, coopers and buggy-whip makers do you know?  In my parents’ youth there were milkmen.  What happened to them?  Given my love of exploring the world, I might have decided that becoming a travel agent would have been a good idea in the late 1980’s when I was looking for a career. Bullet dodged there.  Who uses a travel agent anymore?   

Looking at how people in America research, compare and buy things now via the internet, you can see why my old job of appliance salesman felt a lot like it was a declining profession.   

Being in a profession on the decline can lead people to do things like leave their country, go to another part of the world and teach English.  I’m not in a declining profession anymore.  There will always be demand for English teachers, and five weeks into being one, I think I’ll do okay.

I was reminded of this declining profession phenomenon today as I was out looking for a service that in the US anyways, always struck me as anachronistic.  The shoe repairman is a 19th century relic from when footwear was made by hand and lasted decades.  In the US, it always puzzled me that a person could make a living as a shoe repairman. 

Tailors, laundrymaids, wandering brush salesman, food cart vendors:  there’s no end to  the list of jobs people do here to make a living that we don’t find in the West, or at least not nearly as many as there once were.  Shoe repairmen are on that list.  I can recall seeing half a dozen of them since arriving in Bangkok.  Remembering where I saw them, that’s a different matter. 

A couple days ago, I knew I needed one right away.  I have two pairs of shoes I can wear to work. One of them, the newer of the two, suffered a fatal separation of upper from sole, rendering them unwearable, but still relatively new.  I needed a man with the materials and know-how to glue the sole back on my shoe. 

I dreaded looking for one.  I said shoe repairmen were rare in the USA, but they’re easier to find.  Just look on Google or in the Yellow Pages.  Here, the shoe repairmen are more common, but they work irregular hours, their ‘shop’ consists of a couple boxes they set up on the sidewalk where and when they want to.  You might have read here in my blog about my frustrating quest for shoelaces.  There’s also been the quest for plug-in air fresheners, rice porridge, laundry places.  There’s SO MUCH to buy here in Bangkok, but finding it hasn’t always been easy. 

Just this last weekend, I hosted a small party here in my new condo, and a few hours before it was scheduled to start, I get RSVPs that half a dozen people whom I had not expected to attend were coming.  Oh shit.  This well exceeded the seating capacity of where people could put their butts in my condo!  So I rode off in search of some cheap, plastic, stackable stools.  You see them everywhere in Thailand, particularly at the roadside, sidewalk businesses which make up half the commerce here.

My condo came with one, but just one.  Give me 6 more of these. 
I live 3 blocks from the biggest mall in Bangkok.  I started there.  Checked the department stores.  Nope.  Checked the Tesco, our answer to WalMart.  Nope.  Hmmm…  I’d probably get a better price at the ubiquitous ‘general stores’ or small hardware stores out in the city anyways, so off I went.  I found four places in half an hour that based on their other merchandise, would be likely to carry small plastic stools. 

Not one sold them.

It wasn’t very hard after the first place to remember the word for what I wanted (I knew not at the outset the Thai word for ‘stool’).  Every store I went to HAD one. It’s where the merchant sat.  I would point at it and ask, “Nee?  Kohr nee?”
They did not have nee (although I will never forget that the Thai word for stool:  it’s kao-ee).

Before giving up, I contemplated asking the noodle vendor next the last place I looked who had his 6 tables and 24 kao-ee sitting there unoccupied how much he wanted for his roadside restaurant’s furnishings.  No, I don’t want to buy any noodle soup, but would you sell me your stools?

Anyways, it was that kind of experience I was thinking I might face with the search for the shoe repairman.  

Then it hit me as a I wobbled carefully to the whiteboard at the start of my 12th grade honors English class.  I got 20 locals right here hanging on my every word who can help me, and they speak English pretty well!  

“I have a question for the class!” I announced. “Where can I find a shoe repairman here around school?”

They all looked at me dumbfounded.  No one said a thing.

“Okay, this is not a question that will be on the test!”  I laughed.  Maybe they didn’t know the word ‘show repairman’, it is, after all, a dying profession.

 “Where can I find a man who can fix this?”  I then pulled my foot above desk level so that they all could see that Teacher Joko’s shoe had suffered a fatal blowout. 

“Aaahhhhh!! ”  They responded as a class.  It’s interesting how sudden understanding of a confusing situation is the same in all languages.  I think the release of the tension of confusion into understanding produces the same intonations everywhere.  It’s kind of like laughing. “Ahhhhhh” is the same in every language.

“Thong Lor BTS!” one told me, a few others nodding in agreement.   I clarified if they meant in the BTS or on the street or where.  On the street.  

At lunch today, knowing I had no classes after lunch, I took the BTS to Thong Lor (a 2 minute ride, it’s the next station down).  Of course, I had forgotten to pin down the location of this shoe guy from my students.  North side or south side of the street?  Uptown or downtown?  I used my intuition and observation skills to decide to go THAT way.  I was about 10 seconds away from deciding I had gone the wrong way when I found him.  

I made the mistake of neglecting  to agree on a price before turning my shoe over to the guy for fixing.  He not only fixed it, he made it better and shined it for me too.  I was kinda worried at the end he would say something like 200 baht for his services.   I was thinking 100 baht ($3.35) would be fair in my mind for the 20 minutes he spent fixing my shoe.  After all, men in dying professions have to get as much as they can for each job.  

When he was done and I asked how much…  80 Baht.

Look at this beautiful shoe!  Note the fixed one now was stitching in the sole to supplement the apparently crappy glue they used at the factory.  The shoe in the back ain’t got that.  It’ll probably be going to my shoe repairman sometime in the near future.  

Gotta make these shoes last.  Finding a shoe repairmen wasn’t all that hard.  Finding new shoes in a 12 wide, not looking forward to that.


  1. You may well have to have replacement shoes sent over, Joko. In the meantime, take good care of your footwear.

  2. Indeed. I was thinking my shoes would get major wear during the rainy season, but so far, this rainy season has been really mild. It rains less here in the monsoon than it does in Seattle in an average month.

  3. That reminds me - I also need a shoe repairman. Wonder if I can find one in Helena, MT. Smart move, asking those kids. Just found out my niece (who is in her 40's) is headed to India for 8 months and will be working in some rice paddies. Should be quite the experience for her also.

  4. I have no idea why, but I found this post really entertaining and interesting.

    1. "I have no idea why, but I found this post really entertaining and interesting"

      yannow, that is like the best compliment a writer could possibly get.

  5. You never told me what kind of t shirts you wanted. Should I send the URL again?

    We should Skipe again soon.

    1. I've been looking at my mail box for a week now... as I said in the post... 'Ahhhhh'

  6. I have been using shoe repairmen for years. Our present one is on the lower level next to Sears I the Clackamas Town Center in the Portland, Oregon area. :)

  7. This story illuminates one of the things I love most about Thailand and you really hit it on the head! Like you said, in America it would be so easy and convenient to find a cobbler but certainly not interesting. In Thailand it was practically an adventure! I love it!

    Thanks for sharing Joko.


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