Heaven And Hell
Two guys in a go-go bar waiting for their change, which seems to take forever. While they wait here’s a fashion note. Chuck, in his forties, MASH moustache, looks like Elliot Gould, is wearing a Hawaiian shirt, a tasteful mixture of tropical fruit and skulls in pastel colors. James is younger, Chinese/American, dresses like Tiger Woods but with…ah here comes the change and out they go into the noise and lights of Nana Plaza.
It had been Chuck’s idea to hit a few girly bars so James could check them out. Now it’s around midnight and James seems tired…or bored…hard to tell. Obviously not a big go-go fan anyway.
“Doesn’t do much for you huh?” Chuck asks as they thread their way out past the bars to Soi 4.
“It’s interesting,” says James, “are all the bars the same?”
“Pretty much…some seem to have nicer looking dancers than others. They pay them more I guess…let’s try something else.”
They take a taxi to a place called NEWbar, a two storied building on a side street all chrome, vinyl and subtle lighting inside, like being in an aquarium. A very mixed crowd of young hip Asians and Westerners. It reminds James of an uptown New York bar. They make themselves comfortable on a black vinyl sofa and order vodkas.
“Like the music?”
“Not sure. What is it? Trance?”
“Could be funk.”said James.
“Funk that.” said Chuck who wasn’t sure what it was.
Neither was James. “What’s your book about?”
Ah…the Question. The one that never goes away. OK, they’d only known each other 12 hours and already he knew about the book. Chuck guessed James was just making conversation.
“Ohhh…my book? What’s it about? People are always asking. It’s not about a heck of a lot really,” says Chuck. “no that's not right. It’s about everything…or maybe nothing. It’s about life.”
“Set in Bangkok?”
“Mostly in Bangkok. James I don’t want to be rude but could you ask me later OK. I’m tired of thinking about it.”
But he’s thinking about it now. What is his book about anyway? He would like to know the answer himself. The thing is constantly changing, evolving, transmogrifying, going off on tangents getting more complex by the minute, new settings, new situations, new characters showing up…look out, here comes one now…
“Hey man,” says a voice, “cool shirt. New trademark?”
“Hi Bobby baby.”
Chuck introduces Bobby to James. Bobby is from New York…late forties, starting to put on weight, Armani suit over Lakers T-shirt, Killer Loop Wraparounds ™, “Bobby,” says Chuck, “owns this place. He’s the only guy who really knows what’s going on around here. This is the place to come if you want to keep an ear to the ground.“
“ Pleased to meet you James. You from New York?” says Bobby, obviously happy with the build up.
“Jersey. Is that close enough?”
“Close but no cigar, “Bobby laughs, “So Chuck. How’s things at the Embassy…catching lots of bad guys? And how’s the book coming?”
“Oh man. Busy, busy. Catching bad guys is the easy part. The book is driving me nuts. How’s the bar business?”
“Great. What’s the problem? Writer’s block?”
“Time. Never seem to have enough of it. Also I’m trying to do something different. It’s not easy.”
“Tell me about it.” Says Bobby pushing his shades on top of his head, “ Same in this business. You have to come up with a new angle or people drift away somewhere else.”
“What’s your angle?” James asks.
Chuck says, “Celebrities. This is where people come to mingle with the stars. Right Bobby?”
“ Right. Jackie Chan was here last night. Sat right there as a matter of fact.” Bobby indicates a bar stool which looked, to James anyway, much like all the others. “Always someone interesting passing through the Big Mango. And business is OK even with the 2 o’clock closing. The Bali thing hasn’t hurt as much as we thought it would. We took on some extra security after that of course…now it’s the war, SARS…we roll with the punches. This is Bangkok. People still got to go out.”
The three of them sit drinking. Chuck and Bobby talked about things that don’t mean a lot to James. He studies the other drinkers. Young, beautiful, occasionally with an entourage of admirers. This must be Bangkok’s hip crowd he thinks. It’s interesting to try figuring out the pecking order… Just before they leave James turns and takes another look at Jacky Chan’s stool. After a few vodkas maybe it did have a certain aura.
It was all down hill after that. A smooth segue from air-con to street to taxi, another short ride, and they were back on the main street outside a hotel. Thermae Coffee Shop said the sign and they went down a few steps and into a basement area packed with people unlike any coffee shop James had ever been before. People, mostly girls, were seated in alcoves or at tables or milling around a large central counter. There was a jukebox somewhere pumping out Thai pop music.
“My favorite place,” said Chuck, “heaven or hell. Beer OK with you?”
He stopped a passing waiter, a little guy with a Fu Manchu moustache who somehow immediately produced a couple of Heineken bottles. They were cold too. James wanted to ask how the trick was done but Chuck was off, plunging through the crowd. He seemed to know a lot of people down there. The background noise, conversation combined with music and laughter, was constant. Every now and then Chuck would stop and share a word with a group of men here, a couple of girls there, slapping a shoulder, patting a bottom or two along the way. It was like a party where everybody seemed approachable.
“ It’s a pick-up joint, “ said Chuck, “ in case you hadn’t already figured that out.”
They find a couple of chairs to sit in. A place to watch the action.
“Lot of writers come down here.” Chuck said.
“They find it stimulating I guess. There’s a lot going on down here. A lot. It’s a great place but it used to be better. Used to stay open until 4 or 5 even 6 a.m. so the dancers could come here after the go-go places closed. Now it closes at 2 along with all the other bars.”
“Regime change. The new government wants to clean up Thailand’s image and keep school kids home in bed. Not that any school kids were ever allowed in here. Stay here I need a piss.”
Chuck stands at the urinal looking at the familiar stickers on the wall. Ads for bars, mostly, discos, some forgettable grafitti. Behind him Thai girls are giggling and chattering away. Was there any point in trying to explain it to James? The guy seemed pleasant enough but he probably found the place seedy. He’s a well brought up young man, normal, a keener…no dummy for sure. Chuck liked bringing newbies down here…it was a kind of test…see if he could work with them. James’ background was in software and finance so Chuck planned to put him with Deepak…start him off tracking Al Quaida funds…hacking websites…see how that goes…then move him up the line…one good thing…he seemed to have a sense of humor…
Chuck gives himself a shake, zips up, rinses his hands in the unisex section and rejoins James who is now surrounded by a bevy of attentive Thai girls. As Chuck had known he would be.
“Found some friends I see…..”
“Must be my aftershave. So ….ready to tell me about your book?”
“Seriously? Here? Now?”
“What you want? The 25 word pitch or the 1000 word synopsis? Be careful what you ask for…you could get the full length screenplay complete with margin notes.”
“Uh…just pitch it to me. Imagine I’m a Hollywood big shot you just ran into in the men’s room. You helped me find a contact lens. I owe you one. But be quick. I’ve got important people waiting. Backers.”
“OK. Basically what you got…it’s a bunch of different guys…I’m thinking they all arrive in Pattaya around the same time. You got the sex tourist, the CIA guy, couple of neo-hippies…girls of course…”
“Hab girls?” asked a girl who had been listening in to the conversation.
“What? Oh hello Nok…didn’t see you there. Here take this,” Chuck gives the girl ten baht for the jukebox, “Where was I? The book right. So I get everybody to Pattaya…”
“Show them a good time…what else? Lot’s of action and a happy ending. Good clean family fun. We want this movie to sell don’t we? Or maybe one of them is a serial killer…I don’t know…it’s always changing.”
“It’s a thriller?”
Oh it was a thriller alright…an emotional roller-coaster…pleasure and pain…Thailand could be a paradise if you were in the mood…purgatory if you weren’t…
“Oh yeah. A thrill a minute. Just figuring fact from fiction is pretty thrilling right there. I don’t know which is which half the time and I’m the guy writing the stuff. Thought I’d tell you that since we’re going to be working together. Here let me give you an example of what I mean. Last night I’m having a chat with a go-go girl. Turns out she’s the reincarnation of a Cambodian temple dancer…”
“No not really. Metaphorically. She spoke Khmer. I asked her how come and she goes,‘mai sap.’ She doesn’t know. That’s what I’m saying. It’s all fiction to me. Can’t tell the difference anymore.’
“Are you taking anything for it?”
“Very funny. We should probably leave soon. They put the lights on and it gets real very fast in here. Might be too strong for you…unless you’re into Hieronymus Bosch?”
“Sure let’s go,“says James,“ it’s been fun. I guess I’m still jetlagged.“
Cut to exterior. They are on the sidewalk. Chuck helps James find a tuk-tuk, gives the driver directions and says, “See you tomorrow. On second thoughts why not take the day off? Walk around a bit. You’ve been through a lot lately.” The tuk-tuk putters off. Chuck takes a look around.
And there they are. The street people…sitting on plastic stools at folding tables, drinking beer and eating noodles. Some clearly enjoying themselves…some looking totally wasted.
* * *
Chuck liked sitting in the Bangkok streets, waiting for the dawn, watching the night people, the amazing bunch of insomniacs who ended up there just as day was breaking. After a night of drinking he usually felt friendly and relaxed, open to whoever and whatever came along. It was the people who found their way to these all night food stalls that made Bangkok such a fascinating city to live and they were constantly surprising him. Somebody with all the exotic accoutrements for instance, the pony-tail, the beads and tattoos could turn out to be boring as hell whereas the guy with the goatee who just sat there saying nothing could be Elmore Leonard on holiday or some guy who’d just got out of prison. You could find yourself talking to someone who’d quit a job as a stockbroker in the City of London say, then maybe he’d gone on to start an orange juice factory in Kon Kaen, but that hadn’t worked out, and now he was married to a Burmese General’s daughter and making hemp clothing in Pai. You just never knew with these guys. Some might take one look and say that these people had gone off the rails but Chuck knew better.
Visa problems didn’t faze them. They could be broke one day, flush the next…everyone had a story to tell. Some slipped right off the ladder into oblivion but most just didn’t quit. Always coming up with new ideas, angles, ways to survive. They loved freedom, personal freedom, didn’t like being screwed around by anyone…these were the people he had signed up to serve and protect, and at times, like tonight, he felt, (without getting too sloppy about it) a wave of compassion…not just for the down and outs and the beautiful losers, but for the bullshit artists too…the hustlers, the chancers, the misfits, all of them. These were people who followed their inner voices, who didn’t give a shit for convention…but how to blend so many separate stories into a cohesive whole? It was like an ever-changing jigsaw puzzle and he hadn’t even begun to assemble the pieces.
And now the first streaks of soft gray light are seeping through the skyline, mingling with the neon and the distant noise of garbage trucks. The uglier night creatures are scampering for safety. This is rock bottom and Chuck revels in it. His favorite time, not one thing or the other…the gray area between night and day. Heaven or hell? Fact or fiction? He couldn’t care less. It’s all become one to him now. He just likes being there.
Two young ladies from Buriram or Sakorn Nakhon or someplace are sitting at the next rickety table and doing their best not to look bewildered by all the sophisticated nocturnal denizens of Sukhumvit …and clearly they are broke because they only have one meager half-empty bottle of Pepsi and two straws between them and starvation…chu alai kap? What is your name?