Big John, Nahm Jai
I’d like to tell you about a good friend of mine – John. Or, as he’s known to everyone, Big John. Big John was certainly large. He stood 6’4, close to 300 pounds, all muscle, even at his older age. Big John looked mean – bald head, shoulders as wide as a truck, legs as thick as tree trunks, a barrel chest, and arms larger than most people's thighs. But his infectious smile let you know that he was really a gentle giant. Most huge people are, and Big John was no exception.
He was a cop in Chicago for the better part of 30 years. He worked in the roughest neighborhoods, dealing with the worst of the human population. He had seen his share of murders, stabbing, brawls and other destructive things that humans do to each other. But he seldom got into fights nor did he have much trouble with the “civilians”. This was not only due to his imposing size but to his belief that if a person showed proper respect, it would be paid back. He was of saying to me “Calvin, I’m a lover, not a fighter” with a smile and a twinkle in his eye. When I worked with John, it was evident that the people really did like and respect him. The younger cops learned the proper way to treat people, regardless of who the people were or the situation they were in.
Big John did have his failings – mostly dealing with women. Not that he ever mistreated them or physically hurt them – no, he was a “typical” cop – he liked to play the field. Perhaps staying in one relationship for too long became boring. He was married twice, the first marriage resulting in 2 sons. The second marriage brought a daughter. Both times the women left because John had been just a bit unfaithful. Ok, a lot unfaithful.
When Big John retired, he vowed to get his butt out of Chicago. The winters were long, cold, and brutal. The young, beautiful women did not show interest in a 55 year old man, and the older ones were not attractive. So Big John searched for a place where he could relax, be warm, with a low cost of living, surrounded by beautiful young women. He made several trips to exotic locales – the Philippines, Costa Rica, Brazil, and lastly Thailand.
When he made his first trip to Thailand, he immediately fell in love with the country. He decided that this was the place he was going to spend the rest of his life. But where? Bangkok? No, he had had enough of big city life. Pattaya? Too sleazy for him. Hua Hin? Too many old people, just like himself. Phuket? Too expensive. Chiang Mai? YES – that was it!!! He took a trip up to Chiang Mai and within a week he knew this was the place. It wasn’t too small, still had quite a bit of Thai culture, it wasn’t too hot, not polluted. This was his new home. He rented a small, one room air-con apartment. That was all he needed or wanted. He walked everywhere. No way was he going to risk his life on the insane roads of Thailand.
Big John soon settled into a routine. In the morning, he would work out. Then it was off to Thai language school, followed by a Thai massage. He always told me he felt sorry for the Thai masseuses trying to move his giant limbs around. Then it was off to the bar – not just any bar – but the same bar on Loi Kroh Road. He would walk in with his adopted soi dog following right behind. The bar wasn’t much. It was open to the street. As you walked up the steps, the bar was in front of you, to the right was a decent pool table, and off to the left were several tables. Big John would always plant himself at the same table in the front corner and order a Heineken, “his” dog passed out at his feet. He would attempt to study his Thai, surrounded by 3 – 4 beautiful young Thai ladies. They tried to help him but spent most of their time in fits of laughter at Big John’s attempts to speak the language. After a couple of hours of “studying”, Big John would end up playing pool the rest of the night. He became an excellent player, yet always ended up losing to the young ladies when money was involved.
He became a surrogate father to the ladies and they became the daughter he had lost. Remember how I told you that Big John had a daughter from his second marriage? When she became a teenager, she started to get involved in the drug scene. She would come home late, then not return for a few days, and eventually left for good. Big John told his buddies to keep a look out for her. They eventually located her and put her in jail for possessing heroin. When Big John went to see her, he could not believe that the creature in front of him was his daughter. She had been full of life, long blond hair, beautiful blue eyes and perfect skin. This “thing” had sores on her face, her eyes were vacant and her hair was matted to her head. He cried for the first time in uniform. She was found dead later that year, in an abandoned apartment building, surrounded by needles, empty booze bottles, human waste and rats. That was the second time he cried while in uniform.
Big John looked after the ladies and vice versa. The ladies treated him like he was their father. If they had troubles, they would come to him and he would listen with an open mind and offer advice. When they were short on cash (pretty much a weekly scenario,
due to gambling and partying and the inability to save money), he would give them a few hundred baht. No, they never did pay him back directly. They tried but he never accepted it. They would give him a free Heineken and when they went to get
food from the street venders, they made sure he got plenty to eat. He told me he never paid a dime for dinner. He never barfined the ladies from this bar – there were other bars he would visit for that.
Big John became a fixture in the bar. The owner, an Englishman named Stuart, bought a lovely oversized wooden chair and inscribed “Big John” on the backrest. When he lumbered in, there was a Heineken on the table before he even sat down. There was a picture of Big John, his two sons, and the ladies working the bar directly behind the chair. No one was allowed to sit at the table except John. He was the de facto bouncer at the bar in case there was trouble and on the odd occasion that a farang would become obnoxious and / or too bold, he would be put in his place quickly enough. And if the farang still didn’t get it, he would land on his backside on the street.
Big John’s two sons did very well in life – one followed his father into the police force and the other became a prosecutor for Cook County. Like their father, they enjoyed the company of the ladies. They made yearly visits to paradise and spent many nights drinking in the bar and sharing stories, laughing and joking, having the times of their lives, early into the morning hours. One Christmas, they took a picture – Big John in the middle with a Santa beard and Santa hat, his arms hugging his sons, surrounded by the ladies of the bar dressed in skimpy elf uniforms. That was the picture hanging behind the chair at his table.
Whenever I came to Chiang Mai to visit John, he always seemed more content than the last time I had seen him. It got to the point where I didn’t think it was possible to be any more content than he was. He would pay for all the beer and food, and we would go to other bars so that I could have female companionship for the evening. On my last visit, we were hanging out at the bar and drinking cold beers. He told me “Calvin, if I died tomorrow, I would be ok with it. I’ve lived a good life, had a lot of fun, made some great friends, and I can honestly say I’ve never been happier. Life is good”. Then he hugged me and said goodnight. I had to leave the next day and told him I’d be back in a few months.
A week later, Lek, the oldest (at 30) lady working the bar, came in crying. John called her over and asked what was wrong. She informed him through sobs that her oldest son had been hurt in a motorcycle accident and he was in the hospital. She could not afford the bills and she could not get time off to see him. She barely made enough money to cover the rent, pay her own bills, and have money left for food and drink. He gave her 500 baht, telling her he knew it wasn’t enough but hoping it would help. She smiled through her tears and hugged him around the neck, telling him that he had a good heart and thanking him.
The next day, he was sitting at his usual table, his Thai language book open, a half empty Heineken in his hand. The ladies were busy with customers that day, so he sat alone and was actually getting some studying done. Lek came into work again. He called her over and asked how her son was. She told him he was ok and then she broke down again, telling him she could not afford to take time off work to see him. “It’ll work out, don’t you worry” he told her. He asked her for another Heineken. She left and was soon back with a full, cold bottle. He thanked her (in Thai, of course) and put a small wad of money in her hand. She smiled and said she would be right back. She walked up to the bar and opened her hand, thinking he had given her a few hundred more baht. But it was more than that. Much more. When she finished counting, she had 10,000 baht in her hands. She could not believe it, nor could she accept such a huge amount of money from him. She turned to go back to the table. His Thai book was still there, as was the full beer, but John and his dog had snuck away. She smiled and thanked him under her breath. When she went to pay Stuart for a few days off work, Stuart smiled and told her that John had paid her barfine for the next five days so she could visit her son.
Big John did not come back to the bar the next day. Nor the one after that. As a matter of fact, he never returned to that bar again. He had passed away that night in his bed. Some believe he had a heart attack. Not me. His big, warm, wonderful heart would never let him down. I know he gently passed away in his sleep, the angels guiding him up to the heavens…
Let’s go wander down Loi Kroh Road. Here’s a nice bar. Go on, you first. Up the steps you go. Look ahead at the bar – aren’t those ladies beautiful and friendly? Yes, yes – you are a handsome man. Aren’t we all? Look over to your right – that’s a pretty nice pool table. We’ll have to play later. Let’s try to find a table over here to our left. It’s packed, but no one is sitting in the one open table in the corner – the one with the dog sleeping under it, the closed Thai book on top, the full Heineken standing next to it, the big wooden chair with the inscription “Big John” on the backrest. There’s a picture behind it – let’s see what it is. It’s a picture of the ladies here at the bar, dressed like elves, surrounding two handsome happy men, sitting on either side of a giant man dressed as Santa, with twinkle in his eyes and the most content smile I have ever seen…
Very sad. What happened to Big John? Was there an autopsy? Perhaps you left some things out but a guy who works out and is genuinely happy usually doesn't just pass away suddenly.