Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Take a Letter, Maria
Soi dogs yawping, people chattering - their voices mingling with the mynahs and other birds - and most of all the rhythmic thrumming of thousands of frogs woke me again this morning at 6. Outside Thailand was beginning to stir, oblivious to the fact that the Colorado Rockies were shortly taking the field against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway for their first World Series. I was unusually jazzed for a Thursday morning and stumbled down to the TV, fired up the tea water, found the remote and hit the switch looking for the ESPN feed.

Four hours, five innings, one Rockies, and 13 Red Sox runs later it was clear my optimism for Game 1 of the 103rd Series was entirely unfounded. I surrendered the remote to R who was obviously and pathetically grateful that he could now watch WWF wrestling ("A real sport!") and began my daily "death commute" to work. Thailand can be an idyllic and overwhelmingly beautiful place when you have nowhere to go and nothing much to do. but I am one tense, sweating, uptight white knuckled, white skinned mofo everytime I have to cross a road and/or ride on the back of a motorcycle cab.

I often think of a guy I never met on these journeys. He was an English journalist who held the same position I would later inherit in Hua Hin for only about six weeks until he died when his 115CC Suzuki and crash helmet didn't get the better of a truck load of migrant workers and sacks of concrete mix that pulled suddenly in front of him on a badly paved rain-slick road.

According to office lore, the only relative they could locate was a sister in the UK who had no interest in claiming and burying her wayward expat brother, who had also had the bad form to expire with only a month's salary to his name. In addition to a paucity of traffic laws and lights, and minus an efficient and incorruptible police force, Hua Hin also lacks a public morgue, so his remains were stored in a refrigerated locker owned by the local "wat" (monastary) for such purposes for a fee that was three times the standard rate because the dead guy was a "farang" and thus could presumably afford the fee hike. More overseas queries were made...

Then the monks pulled the plug prematurely in an apparent attempt to wrestle more baht from his dwindling bank account ... Suffice to say, I don't want to end up like this guy mourned hastily by coworkers who barely knew me and cremated quickly because I was beginning to smell.

Which brings me to the office where the decaying stench of a new batch of Letters to the Editor awaited me. I have a new duty due to a series of abrupt, unexpected staff changes here and it is overseeing, editing or simply deleting without comment the 12-20something pithy editorial missives e-mailed to us daily from around the world. Most of our 100,000-plus daily readers are in the US, but there are equally devoted and/or outraged voices in Europe, England, China, India and Pakistan - as well as the daily pleas, prayers and promises we receive from the Australian Defence Force, helpful Nigerian banker Mr Eibraham Soto and from "陳蕙菱" concerning 讓清純可人的妹妹解開....鈕扣!! and the ever popular, "MAKE MONSTER BIG PENNIS FASTEST!"

We have a core group of correspondents, however, many of whom don't seem to have jobs, social lives or any other interaction with the world beyond firing off passionate, generally political prose regarding current events, as well as real and imagined intrigue, in their backyards. Some of most heated comes from India and Pakistan where they employ a unique English language style that combines mangled cliches and metaphors not heard since the British occupation along with their local idioms. For example:

Editor Sir, Please to promptly publish my letter! It is something of a sticky wicket we are finding ourselves in lately! I blame Benazir Bhutto for the aftermath of stomach churning carnage of the early hours of 19 October resulting in the death of over 140 innocent Pakistanis. I do not believe she has her horse in gear and further evil meddling on her part puts a distinct chill where the sun does not wish to rise and shine! We have a saying in Pakistan: "Billi soo chuhae kha ke haj to chali!"( A cat after eating hundred rats went to perform Haj for redemption). Thank you! Sincerely, KJ, Karachi.

And there are the stone crazies; one in particular who - apparently depending on his medication ingestion writes daily either about the US government's mind control experiments and why they won't give him a passport or ... this.

Dear Editors, The year 1808. A constitutional provision was also were laid out. Soon enough the kaurava hero hundred thousand cooks to distribute excellent behold anything, for with human eyes nothing can into the roaring river several hundred
feet below moments. I was ready to barter my whole life for for you to assure you that i had no knowledge alive to the slightest violations of decorum.

Of course, I can relate. When I find I am on a sticky wicket, I merely remind myself that even in Thailand with the Rockies in shambles on the other side of the planet, I have no knowledge alive to the slightest violations of decorum. Or as they say, "Billi soo chuhae kha ke haj."

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Romeo and Juliet

Some of my more discerning readers have learned that my roommate is a convicted murderer, a Cockney, whom I'll call "R". Not that this has anything specifically to do with Thailand, but it's part of my current reality and it occurred to me that you might want to follow a recent evening timeline I'll call: R Goes on a Date

Friday, 6:43pm. I arrive at Faulty Towers II from work. On the couch watching
WWF Wrestling on TV is R clad only in the same black nylon bikini briefs he was wearing when I left him watching WWF Wrestling from the couch at 10am. The only difference is that the pile of empty 32oz Singha beer bottles has gone from about four to eight or nine. R is talking to himself and the wrestlers in incomprehensible Cockney gibberish (ICG). The room reeks of Tiger Balm which he applies liberally to himself about every 20 minutes. Empty tubs of it dot the pile of empty Singha bottles.

Me: "Hey R, did Triple H get his title back, yet?"

R: "Hey, my son...lapses into ICG...bastah, ya know?"

Me:"Uh..yeah. Me, too." I go to the kitchen and begin preparing my dinner. Returning to the living room where I see R has risen and is now intently focused on assembling and loading what looks like a large handgun. "Uh, expecting trouble, R? And, uh, that's an air pistol ... right?"

R: "(ICG)...You didn' see anythin'...(ICG)...Meetin' a lady." Slams banana clip looking thing into pistol handle with a smack. Sights down barrel at a soi dog outside. "Yeah...air gun, C02, bloo'y powerf'l."

Me: "Lady? A date? You're going on a date with an air pistol?"

R: "You didn' see anythin' my son." Sits down on couch, changes channel to Cinemax offering of Steven Seagal Under Siege on Deadly Ground IX. Smears more Tiger Balm on his knee, thighs and stomach.

7.15pm, R smokes a joint, snorts some white powder, drinks half a 32oz Singha and makes call on cell phone, apparently to his intended. "You come ride me take you same-same but different?" More Tiger Balm. More beer. More powder.

7:53pm R rises and wobbles to his Bat Cave with pistol and beer. Slams door.

8:17pm R emerges in old white Ralph Lauren knockoff dress shirt and same nylon black briefs. Sits on couch, finishes beer, calls Steven Seagal "a bloo'y stupi' bastad" for no appreciable reason, though I can't say I disagree.
Me: "So, what time's your date, R?"

R: "Seben thir'y."

Me: "Uh, it's almost 8.30..."

R: Grunts. Picks up air pistol. Puts down air pistol. Lights another joint, offers me a hit. I decline. Picks up cell phone and after two or three mis-dials has his lovely on the phone again. "Hey luv. You take me ride you boom-boom number one same-same, but different...(ICG)." Hangs up.

8:53pm. R rises and disappears in Bat Cave again. Emerges at 9:20 with dirty jeans to compliment the clean fake Ralph Lauren white shirt. His balding hair is wet. He begins rubbing more Tiger Balm on under his shirt. Rattles through a cabinet drawer, plucks out an old electric razor and plugs it in. It doesn't work. Unplugs razor, throws it on floor cursing and disappears into Bat Cave.

9:15pm. R reappears with another electric razor and begins shaving his ratty goatee off in front of a hallway mirror. His whiskers fall to the floor and mantle. Examines himself in mirror, appears satisfied. Grunts. Finds some hair gell and greases down his newly washed bar code-like combover with gell. Sits on couch, changes channel to Oprah rerun.

R:"Bloo'y bitch."

9.40pm. R finally heads out the door, air pistol stuffed into jeans at the small of his back. I hear his motorbike cough and roar, the rusty gate rolls back. Love is in the air.

10.57pm. I hear the gate again and R's bike chocking to a close. Looking up from my book, I see him walk in. Shirt torn, limping, no air gun. "How was the date, R? Little rough?"

"You didn' see nuttin'."

Monday, October 8, 2007

One Night in Bangkok/My City Was Gone

Waking up in the torn and frayed 500 baht/night "Royal Hotel 28" just outside Bangkok's notorious Soi Cowboy sex alley at 10.30 Sunday morning I felt a bit like Martin Sheen's Capt. Willard in Apocalypse Now. Like Sheen/Capt Willard I was alone, hungover, under a barely wheezing fan in a rat's nest, sweating and well, let me play on some of the Apocalypse dialog, though there was no ominous Doors' The End playing except in my aching head.

Mitchell, voiceover Bangkok ... shit; I'm still only in Bangkok ... Every time I think I'm gonna wake up back in Boulder, or maybe Hong Kong, Lincoln, Nebraska or Shenzhen, I'm still here. I'm here a night now... waiting for a story assignment, maybe even a decent blog item ... getting softer; every minute I stay in this room, I get weaker, and every minute my editors and creditors squat in the bush, they get stronger. Each time I looked around, the walls moved in a little tighter.

The walls were a real problem. Bad silver and red MC Escher cubes, the kind that if I'd been under the influence of anything stronger than beer would've driven me screaming off the 6-foot balcony to permanently disable - but not kill, unfortunately, myself. Instead I contented myself with phony kung fu moves, dancing around like a wobbling fool, breaking a glass, cutting myself and then wrapping myself in the dirty sheets, no, wait. No sheets. No glasses either. Whattaya what for 500 baht/night? Toilet paper, too?

Snatches of the night before were, uh, making me wish the squid fishing expedition I'd originally planned at an unspoiled fishing town about 25 klicks south of Hua Hin had succeeded, but weather had put the kabosh on that and I'd taken Plan B. Meet a coworker from HK who has been reassigned to Hua Hin, spend the night, hit some sleaze pits and go back to Hua Hin on Sunday afternoon. We'd contented ouselves with his Thai wife in tow at one fetish bar that catered to Japanese tourists who got their jollies gaping up through a clear plastic floor at exposed lower sections of Thai women in school girl dresses. Then to a live lesbian show and ... well, not much else to say. Fade to black.

Bangkok had changed a lot since I was a child, though I had enough time and one family-friendly, semi-culturally redeeming idea that didn't involve Japanese voyeur fetish tourists or lesbian stage encounters to play with. I'd learned that my Bangkok boyhood residential soi was within walking distance of Soi Cowboy and I was determined to see if anything I recalled circa 1963 or so remained.

I'd been braced for the worst. A couple people who'd been here previously and who had tried to find it had said nothing remotely residential remained. One had reported it was now a mega mall called Emporium. Another had been less specific but just as discouraging. I'd also learned that I'd mispronounced the address I'd thought I'd remembered so well and so had some hopes that something, anything might still be there.

The soi itself was there, about as wide as I recalled though the main road outside it seemed to have shrunk in width and grown in height as Bangkok's transit system SkyTrain now ran above it. The site of our old house was also there - Bahn Nung (House No. 1) though no trace of a home remained, only an enormous, gated sterile office complex of sorts called "Lighting Centre."

Looking down the soi I saw no homes but a posh Novitel hotel and plenty of restaurants and bars my parents would've given their passports to have dined in in 1963. Italian, Japanese, British ... "New Managment, New Girls!" said a sign outside one club. I remembered that our school teacher friend, a young, sophisticated, English fluent woman named Vitchitar had lived somewhere close to "New Management, New Girls," just down from other bars inexplicably named after artists: The Dali, the Monet, the Van Gogh-Go, the Goya... My late mother, an artist herself, would've laughed and then puked, though she could never abide Dali.

I misted up a bit still looking for something, anything that might've survived 40plus years when I found myself up a side soi along a route I thought might have led to the one western-style restaurant we favored at the time, a Filipino place called Nippa Hut. Kind of bamboo and log style building that I recalled was decorated with an enormous python skin nailed to a wall upstairs and some old entertainment posters. Good cheeseburgers, too. I stopped in front of a small Japanese restaurant, housed amid some newer apartments and so Japanese it had no English or Thai signs.

It was open, there were English menus and I ordered a ramen and pork lunch, a bottle of Asahi and began to look more carefully around. It was logs and bamboo. The layout was smaller than my Nippa Hut memories, but similar and amid the Japanese motifs were framed vintage posters for ancient US R&B acts such as Etta James at "Shirley's Orbit Room," Jimmy Reed, and Lowell Folsom and old movies, Law of the Tropics, Paris Underground ("Where a kiss can be more deadly than the sword!")and Hell in the Pacific. No snake skins, though.

I asked for toilet directions and was directed up some steep, rickety wooden stairs to a small closet toilet area amid what had been a dining room and was now storage for a staggering amount of old restaurant equipment and furniture. Then I saw it. Nailed a wall blocked by several stacked malfunctioning gurneys was a long, almost rotted-into-the wood, faded black and yellow boa or python skin. Not the 20-foot long, 4-foot wide wonder that my 10-year old memory had enshrined. It was about 5-feet long and a few inches wide. I walked quickly over and leaned almost painfully across the stacked gurneys to try and touch it without toppling them and alerting the bored wait-staff below. My fingertips brushed a few scales; virtually dust they crumbled and fell.

"Hello, again," I said to it. A foreign idiot talking to a decaying snake skin. "It's been a long time. Rest easy."