United at the Drunk Tank

 | Fri 3 Jan 2014 15:53 ICT

The police appeared motionless, like shifty-looking mannequins, when we rounded the corner – illegal turn – and ran right into them.

“You, come out car, check alcohol.”

He was 0.060.

According to the Blood Alcohol (BAC) chart he should have been feeling mild euphoria and joyousness, which I guess is good for a night in jail. In terms of drunkenness though, it’s a tiny bit on the wrong side of legal. 0.050 is the limit. I was for some reason later allowed to look at the arrest sheets and what people blew on the breathalyzer.

Someone turned off the Mobb Deep that was playing on the car stereo. The party atmosphere was now a little cramped with the onset of reality, the bass speakers that were thumping a minute ago were now disarmed. Time to act our age.

“I’m going to the cells,” my friend told me.

The police told us to take his car. A problem, given that I was – an informed guess, about 0.070: blunted feelings, extroversion.

A young guy in the back who we had met that night – his first time in Thailand – was good to drive, he said, having only had a single glass of wine (although he struggled a little driving on the left side). I’d actually worked with his girlfriend when she was an intern. They’d come from the US together. I was taking them out…

The station was a bit of a mess, and I’m not talking about the rooms. I mean it seemed disorganised. Getting bail (20,000 baht) was a series of hoops to jump through, but to be fair to the cops we were new at bailing friends out. Each time we met a requirement we found that another hurdle had to be crossed. You’ll need his passport (no him, no key, no car); you’ll need a Thai person to bail him out, and a Thai person to collect bail in the morning. A smoky night was already segueing into a misty morning, and the sleepy cops just told us to hold on, hold on, hold on.

My friend had already made some pals in the cell when I arrived. A few guys dressed in dark pastel-shaded tracksuits or tight jeans slept on the floor. One man (0.220: stupor, possibility of falling unconscious) was talking mostly gibberish in Thai to me, with his face conspiratorially pressed against the bars, I think devising a plan of how I would get him out of jail.

“It’s going to take some time,” I said to my amused mate through the bars.

The cell, strangely enough, contained only tattooed, bruised, ragged-looking people. Certainly none (besides my friend) of the gorgeous drunks we’d been drinking with (on probably the most expensive bar on Nimmanhaemin Road) were in the cell. How easy it would have been for the police to wait at the end of Nimman and catch drunks as they flopped like dazed salmon out from the end of the street. From what I could see, everyone was driving a car. Thousands of arrests could have been made that night. But perhaps the police are not as savvy as I am to the various immoralities of nighttime and where they take place.

A young man (0.090: anger or sadness, boisterousness) was sitting in the corner of the cell. He smiled at me cheekily. He reminded me of the film Hellraiser, with studs planted symmetrically all over his face. His grandparents came to pay his bail. I wasn’t witness to this but my friend said that they had been giving the young guy a hard time, telling him his mother would be disappointed. Berating him with stern words and, as my dad might have said after I’d done something similar as a teenage drunk, ‘wiping the smile off his face’.

Outside, the gran took a photo with Brian Myouzat, the Frenchman who made the excellent viral short film ‘Never go to Thailand’. We’d arranged to meet over the holidays when Brian, who had been invited back to Thailand to make films for Thai Airways – was in Chiang Mai for a short time. I was taking him out…

The grandmother, whose face was a grey hue, etched with countless age lines, wished us all Happy New Year. She gave Brian a friendly hug and took a selfie with him, right outside the cell where she was waiting for her grandson to be released by a jailer who looked like he didn’t want to be working during the holidays. It was her warmth, her determination – in spite of her grandson’s teenage kicks – and her seemingly casual attitude towards us, her well wishes and transcendent smile that cheered us all up in the now chilly middle of the morning. We were almost all strangers in the night, but seemed united for a second.

Grandmother and Brian outside the cells

For whatever reason, her face is now indelible to me: an old face of innocence in an age of malfeasance. We’d made a small, intercultural connection. The next day was a new year. We were, if not for a short while, in the same boat.

You shouldn’t drink and drive…and listening to Mobb Deep at an obscene volume at my age? Tut tut. Grow up, man.

You’ve got to move on, transcend, reinvent. Character assassination is a fine thing when it’s suicidal. I was a teenager the first time I crash-landed (thrown head first, resulting in a jaunt to the hospital the day after) into a drunk cell. Resolutions, resolutions. Grow up, man. At least this time I was on the outside. I guess that’s a small improvement.

Resolution, Reinvention, Transcendence

Thailand’s “Seven Days of Death” were just as deadly this year as they were any other year, despite crackdowns that made police presence a sudden matter of importance to almost all of us. The deadly days were still deadly. It wasn’t really a new year, it was just as old as the last one, just as predictable.

Maybe it was just a bad year, or maybe crackdowns take time to diminish terrible statistics, a slow-acting treatment to a chronic malady. Or maybe, maybe pulling over drivers and fining them for not having all the requisite papers, or grabbing little girls at lights for not wearing their Hello Kitty hard hat, is not the answer to traffic tragedies in Thailand. It may be the law, but it might not be the solution. It could actually be part of the problem.

My friend told me the judge was a nice young man, “about 30, came to court in sunglasses and an Armani suit.” The money in enforcing morality is good, make no mistake. According to my friend, around 150 people were being fined around 5,000 baht each on that day alone. I’m sure the drink drivers have all learned their lesson now, under the influence of this homemade justice.

Accidents and dangerous driving are not a consequence of someone leaving their plastic card at home, or a result of a Scoopy knocking a bus over a bridge. Accidents and dangerous driving are a problem that can actually be attenuated without the use of law enforcement and fines. Campaigns and education help, as might the regular maintenance of vehicles (especially buses) and roads. The roots of the problem need to be treated. If implementing crackdowns is necessary, then they must be implemented fairly and evenly. The plaster over a gaping wound kind of treatment, that includes odious phenomena like wars on drugs: if you deconstruct them, you’ll find fiscal or selfish imperatives are their driving force, not ones relating to social progress. If you get rid of problems, you put a silver bullet in a cash cow’s head. Why would anyone who milks the cow kill it? Only when we realise and understand this dodgy maintenance of mankind’s foibles can we look directly into the heart of the matter and transcend.

Hardly anyone likes the police. In Thailand, England, USA, anywhere. In the Chiang Mai police cell where my friend was being held I saw someone had written ‘Anarchy – Fuck the Police’ in English. I imagine many police don’t like the police. It’s a tough job in Thailand, not only when directing traffic in clouds of deadly invisible dust particles, but when taking orders, subdued by rank, or in mean cases racked with guilt if you have a sensitive heart. That hierarchy, like a slippery children’s slide ascended by competing snakes, slithering and fighting amongst each other, can’t be much fun.

Did you know the police suicide rate in Thailand is extremely high? Who wants a job (bar a psychopath) in which much of your time is spent hurting people, physically, financially, mentally and emotionally? 

I don’t want to fuck the police, I pity them. The police that night were nice enough, if not a little grumpy at times. My friend told me the next day, after he received his (my) bail back, they shook his hand and wished him Happy New Year. That’s all all of us want really: police, cellmate, grandmother, bailer, intern, filmmaker. Just a happy new year.

Have a good one.


James Austin Farrell