The fire alarm went off in my Bangkok apartment on a Saturday afternoon when I was heating KFC leftovers. I didn’t recall reading any information on the notice board of the apartment and had no idea whether this alarm was for practice or for real, but one shouldn’t take the fire alarm lightly. As if an earthquake had struck, I dashed to the fire escape and rushed down the stairs from the twentieth floor and came across other tenants from the different floors.
This was when I realized the true nature of the question asked in various sets of moral trivia; if you had thirty seconds to escape from your apartment room before the building blows up what would you take? In a question, you have time to think of something meaningful to you, but only when it happens for real you realize it is not something to risk your life for.
A middle-aged white woman from the fifteen floor entered the fire escape like she was in the process of nursing a hangover. She was wearing a tiger dress that smelled vaguely of perfume and a nightclub. She exuded an air of aloofness despite the earsplitting sounds from the fire alarm—she seemed to be in no rush. If she was asked that question she would have come up with a delightful answer, something irreplaceable like a locket engraved with initials her first husband gave her the day after they lost their virginity. But, there she was, off with her LV bag, a pair of Gucci sunglasses and an embarrassingly huge, meaningless, pearl necklace dangling on her neck while she made her way down the stairs.
The people I met in the fire escape had big carry-on luggage, duffels, or crying babies as if all of them suddenly had the urge to go on a vacation at the same time. Whatever it was in their luggage; they made me look like a bozo as the only thing I had in my hands was a box of KFC. The saddest thing was that it was just a small brick-size box made of cardboard for one person and not a combo size.
The strangers I met in the fire escape looked at me with bewilderment; seriously dude? Is that all you’ve got?
I had no idea how a western man I encountered in the fire escape gathered so much into three big cases and a ragged mailbag over the course of, say, two minutes. ‘Has he just moved in?’ I wondered. As I’d never seen him before, but that’s one of the problems with living in a high-rise building. You may see somebody and think of him or her as a brand new tenant even though they could have been living in the same building for ages.
He might have prepared for it. I thought. Bangkok is one of those places where you’d have a better sleep if you already had an escape plan in case you had to make a run for it. Just for peace of mind, especially when you’re a foreigner.
It turned out that it was a faulty alarm and that pissed everybody off. Looking at the people waiting in the elevator hall, I experienced a minute of victory and felt less like a bozo because I had fewer possessions than other people. They all looked like clowns and the more they carried down the fire escape the more they revealed how possessive they really were in this situation. I took and swallowed my pride as I chewed a KFC drumstick.
The western man with three big cases turned red with anger, his shirt stuck to his back with sweat, while the woman in the tiger gown was still in her lofty manner. Put these two and a guy with a single box of KFC in an elevator and you can see that the fire alarm did so little to change how humans interact with each other in elevators. I’ve been living in big cities for almost decade I find elevators to be an odd, inevitable space you have to enter when, where love, weird encounters, and deals take place. Over time I’ve observed, experienced and collected weird encounters from Bangkok elevators, they are as follows:
Killing two minutes in elevator
There is no mobile signal in the elevator at my apartment but, somehow, most people are compelled to grab their phones and look at the screen. Smartphones are supposed to make our lives easier but, still, I feel like I can’t get anything done in two minutes. Before this I bet you could light a cigarette, inhale and hold the smoke in your lungs until the elevator takes you to your floor so you can let out the smoke.
It took years before I found a better way to spend time while riding the elevator and could really get at least one thing done. It’s breathing. Close enough to smoking but instead of a roll of cigarette that would increase my chance of getting my lungs shot to pieces by cancer, it requires a function called ‘Breathe’ in the Apple Watch I’ve been wearing for months. I like to think there’s a secret yogi living inside the watch who instructs me when it’s time to breath or it’s time to stand. Before I strapped the watch on my wrist, I didn’t realize these were things I was bad at. Not the breathing and standing but the self-reminder for such activities.
When in an elevator, I would shut my eyes and take a minute to breathe. The watch sends little vibration to signal me to focus on my breathing, in and out. The world shrinks to the size of the elevator with only tiny yogi and me, and no one would care or notice the difference since all eyes are fixed on their pre-downloaded social media feeds they can scroll up and down. I hope my discreet meditation m.o. is safe as long as no one farts in the elevator.
Even though elevators never a good place to start a conversation they are often a place where previous chats continue
“Try it!” A tall black man said to his white partner, their mixed babies were in stroller. He was challenging his wife to have some of the durian from his hand. Durian is one of the smelliest fruit in the world. The numerous spikey protuberances from the green husk make me wonder who was the first person who tried this devilish looking fruit and discovered how tasty it was and then introduced it to the world. But not everyone is cut out for exotic tropical fruit—myself included, and so, I presumed, was the white woman. When the elevator door clunked shuts, I prefer risking getting lung cancer from the smoke than the reeking smell of durian. “Come on… You’re gonna love it!”
This is where I should have interrupted but then, as they lived on a lower floor, the elevator door slid open before I even say a word. Timing probably saved my life as I sensed that he might make me eat it too.
The only thing worse than riding in an elevator with someone you don’t like is getting stuck in an elevator with someone you don’t like
Working in marketing you hear numbers all the time. In Thailand, the topic would reach its height twice a month when the lottery day is approaching. The maid who cleans our office is a nice lady named Mali from the northeaster who seems to hit the last three number every month. When I asked what’s her trick was she answered while cleaning the telephone at my desk, “Khun Sam, you have to pay attention to the news.” Khun Sam is the Thai way of saying Mister Sam. Lottery jackpots in Thailand have a history of association with numbers that appear in the headlines of newspapers. Most recently, a minivan crashed and the last three lottery numbers were the van’s license plate. It might have something to do with the way government encourages its citizens to read the news.
Cleanliness is important but it seems to me that the actual functionality of the maid and why most offices in Bangkok have one is to make the employees feel at home and relaxed. I’ve got too cozy with the camaraderie and now I wouldn’t want to work in an office without a friendly maid.
The second maid is a woman who buys coffee and newspapers for me from time to time but I don’t know her name. I often ignore her at the water-cooling machine while I’m talking trash about the people I dated or predicting the next lottery jackpot with Mali. This might have caused her to feel neglected and being treated like a maid. She apologized one morning, said she accidentally drop my $25 Starbucks coffee mug while cleaning it. This, I later learned from talking with people working in different teams, had not only happened to me. Her stern look made everyone wonder why she still worked here. Perhaps she knows some nasty secrets of the company or she’s one of those corporate spies who has been assigned to observe our operations while we have to endure the broken pottery from the many coffee mugs she accidentally drops while cleaning.
The elevators at our office building aren’t the kind with awkward elevator music playing in the background but have something much worse; movie commercials. The doors opened to the sound of a woman screaming for her life. It was late in the evening and almost everybody had gone home. I thought I was alone in the elevator when it stopped in the mid descent, the light went off and I heard a woman scream from behind. It was the unfriendly maid. “Khun Sam, what should we do?”
“Calm down. Khun…” then I stopped, realizing I didn’t know her name.
“Koy. My name is Koy.”
I’ve been working in this office for over a year and if I really wanted to know her name I could have asked other people or my colleagues. This was the first time I heard her name. It was also the first time that I pushed that emergency button in the elevator that I’ve been meaning to try and see what would happen since I was young, trying to get out of this dark, stinking box. The emergency button didn’t work and, under the dimming light from my no-signal iPhone screen, I thought I saw tears running down her cheek. She looked decades older than me, especially in the dark, and this seemed like her first experience stuck inside an elevator.
“I hope help is on its way.” This was the way I consoled her. The same way as when I got stuck in elevator in Hong Kong, which seemed designed to fit no more than two guinea pigs, with a Ukrainian guy. “I hope help is coming.” What else can you say when you’re standing next to a shivering stranger in the dark with no phone signal and no guarantee of safety.
“You know what.” I spoke to Koy. “We can sue the shit out of this building. And we can be rich without winning the lottery jackpot!”
This made her laugh. I felt her shaking hands on my arm. The light turned on and that put the smile on both of our faces. The screaming from the horror movie teaser was back as the elevator slowly made its way down to the ground floor. From that day on Khun Koy always smiles when she sees me and my Starbucks mug has never broken again.
Never date anyone who lives in the same apartment
Also never pick up anyone matched on Tinder from the lobby. In my final university year there was a young girl I matched on Tinder and I didn’t explain to her that I was also open for the same sex. I was my younger self that thought it would be best to leave out the details of my complicated sexual orientation on the first date. A few months after we hooked up she moved into the same apartment and I would encounter her in the elevator. Most of the time I pretended I was drunk and didn’t notice her existence, but my face might have given it away or I didn’t render the drunkenness well enough to make it believable. That was fine, though, when she saw me coupled with a guy on the way up to my room, drunk or sober, there was no denying that it was time draw the line if I want to keep my love life personal. So when I settled in my new Bangkok apartment I made it a point that I would never date anyone living in the same apartment, ever in my life.
But in a building with more than two hundred units the possibilities for meeting interesting guys in the elevator are abundant.
“Oh! We live on the same floor! I’ve been living in this apartment for three months but I’ve never seen you. I’m Frank we should hang out sometime.” Frank was hot. The muscular body underneath his professional outfit was begging to be explored. But the distance and time was too short and the man took too long to finish his elevator pitch and seal the porn deal with me.
“Yes, why not.” I said, mindlessly, before I made my way back to my room next to the fire exit.
The next time we met he asked what I do for a living.
“I’m a writer.”
“Oh cool! What kind of writing?”
Ding! And we were arrived on our floor before I could answer.
The conversations with other tenants living in the same building are like lyrics from a pop song from the 1990’s that we’ve stored in our memories until our next chance encounter. I learned that the black man who was forcing his wife to eat durian was working at Agoda, the online hotel booking platform, as a brand researcher which made me wonder what else he had eaten and convinced other people was good and you’re an idiot if you don’t eat it.
You can get a job offer on an elevator ride
But, oh, the one who has a crush on you gradually learning who you are and found your blog. Frank was German and was working on a dissertation about age rejuvenation disciplines. “Can you help me write an abstract?”
This was an offer I received on the way up to my room one morning. “I don’t know anything about your research or rejuvenation. That topic is not my cup of tea.” I said. I knew that this could lead to a different kind of job if I agree to what follows. “Can you come to my room so I can explain it to you in detail?”
In fact that topic really interested me. Like video games or mobile games, I’ve seen the number of people who are obsessed with them and how much money these industries discreetly made. 68 million people downloaded and played Slither.io globally by the end of 2016. Women in their thirties are investing money in cosmetics and rejuvenation. The topics that were once silly and shallow suddenly become a little darker. I would like to know the details but frankly, Frank was obviously trying to talk me into sex. I told him I was late for work and he could send the details to my inbox and left with a feeling like I was a woman in her thirties in need of rejuvenation to improve her sex life.
Wait until you go down
I have a friend who moved to Bangkok and enjoys partying in fancy clubs on hotel rooftops. Mae is a year younger than me and is a pretty girl from the north who has a habit of being selective. When we were students in Chiang Mai University, there weren’t so many rooftop bars. The city was quiet and most things were happening at ground level.
In Bangkok, Mae often finds her prince charming at the final call in the elevator. Something Chiang Mai has failed to offer. A dopey looking backpacker would introduce himself to me, a way of testing if Mae and I were dating or Mae was a girl I’d picked up from the club.
Once it was a nice gentleman whose Audi car key was dangling from his belt. He didn’t show off the entire four interlocked circles but he left enough traces for us to realize he wasn’t just an ordinary guy.
These relationships didn’t last very long and it didn’t take long for Mae to register the nature of one night stands in Bangkok. People always look like a potential lover and the fear of missing out has driven her to do things she later regrets. “What if I said no?” Mae would say.
“You better save ‘yes’ for someone that really means something to you.” This was my advice to her, which I didn’t fully believe myself. I thought this thing is like turning down job offer from a big company—you sent that email and don’t ever look back or ask what-if.
We often laughed at ourselves on the way down after spending a lot of money and having meaningless, repetitive chats with the people we met at the club just to find ourselves broke and empty-handed waiting for our Uber driver to arrive. All the brand name clothes we were wearing, our weary faces after consuming expensive brand name drinks were like a badge that begged to be looked at. “Look at us.” I kissed her forehead while looking at our reflections in the mirror—a humble appreciation that, even though no one looked at us and decided to take us home, they are all we’ve got.