Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?
The four of us normally don’t sit together, but this is the hot season on Phuket so we were sharing the table directly under the only working ceiling fan. The Pension Grilparzer was built on Somtam Beach by a tin baron in 1904 to house his European engineers, and judging from their operation today the fans were original equipment. The seaward wall of the bar is open ceiling to floor but there was no wind at all. The fan was making more noise than a helicopter but we could barely feel the breeze.
Seated to my left was Lutz, who works for a company that makes office furniture in Bangkok. He takes his weekends in a corner room on the third floor of the Pension Grilparzer. Lutz was picking ice cubes out of his beer, rubbing them on his neck and wrists, and then dropping them back into his beer.
Opposite me was Shaky Derek. It was early in the afternoon so he looked pretty good, only half-way into the day’s first bottle of Mekhong. Unfortunately what little breeze the fan created was pushing his body odor my way so I was trying to breathe through my mouth whenever I wasn’t taking a drink.
To my right was Wide Wally. He works very late as a DJ at Juggs A-Go-Go so he had just come downstairs from his bedroom and was breaking his fast. His meal spread across the table and pushed my beer glass almost into my lap. They serve Wide Wally on platters, not plates, and they bring him his beers three at a time.
Across the room Kevin was using the snooker table alone, because nobody likes Kevin. His girlfriend Nit was sitting at the bar under the perpetual dark cloud of depression that follows her everywhere. She was knitting baby booties, as she always does, to sell at the Women’s Clinic. She needs the money, because even though she’s lived with a farang for years that farang is Kevin. She had a glass of ice water in front of her, evidence of the generous spirit of Ying the Bartendy.
Between bites Wide Wally was telling Shaky Derek about the Buddha amulets he wears around his neck. “This one is Luang Por Chem, patron saint of Phuket,” he said. With a slotted serving spoon he moved a mass of scrambled eggs the size of a softball into his mouth and continued speaking. “That was the first one I got, when I came here in ’74. Right outta the Air Force. Didn’t know shit, and I figgered I could use whatever help I could get.”
I was trying to get the attention of Ying the Bartendy to order a fresh beer, but Ying was washing glasses. Khun Niti, third-generation owner of the Pension Grilparzer, makes Ying pay for any glassware she breaks, so when Ying washes glasses her concentration on the task is absolute. I had been waving my right hand in the air so long all the blood had rushed out of it and I was losing sensation in my fingers.
“This one here,” said Wide Wally, “is Luang Por Sodh. He was a big teacher in the North. My first wife gave ‘im to me. This one’s a clay Buddha from Sukkhothai, it protects me from bullets. This one’s for snakes, this one’s to keep me outta car accidents…”
Wally’s thick but nimble fingers went around the gold chain, icon to icon, listing their names, their origins, and their magic powers.
“Whatd’ya think ya paid for all those,” asked Shaky Derek. He was listening to Wally, but his eyes were looking over Wally’s bulk to the beach and the sea behind him. Derek’s a deck hand; he’s forever checking the weather. The sun was glaring off the water, but Shaky Derek’s pupils are never bigger than pin holes so he didn’t mind.
“Doesn’t matter what I paid for ‘em,” growled Wide Wally around a bushel of fried potatoes. “They’re magic. Nothin’ to do with money.”
“You really believe they’re magic?” Asked Lutz. His tone of voice said he was not criticizing, just curious.
“Sure,” said Wally. “I wouldn’t wear ‘em if I didn’t believe in ‘em. Damn things get in the way. The girls make ya take ‘em off before sex, ya know. Then ya gotta find a place for ‘em in the room where ya can keep an eye on ‘em while ya do it, or someone will sneak in and steal ‘em. Big pain in the ass.” He wiped his mouth on his sleeve and threw back a pint of coffee in a gulp. He was stacking empty platters at his right elbow and the stack was ten inches high.
Shaky Derek, displaying a spiritual side I never knew he had, produced a Saint Christopher medal from inside his T-shirt. “Me Mum give me this when I shipped out first time. She told me never take it off, and I aint.”
“Do you think it protects you?” asked Lutz.
“I’m ‘ere, aint I?” Said Shaky Derek. “Life I’ve ‘ad, should be dead a dozen times. But I’m ‘ere, right?” He fumbled a bit getting the pendant back into his shirt. Shaky Derek’s only got three fingers on his left hand, and they shake.
“Don’t you believe in the power of amulets?” Wally asked Lutz as he was mopping up egg yolk with a tortilla. “I see a chain around your neck. What’s that?”
Lutz pulled a slender silver chain from inside his collar. Hung from it was a small silver disc. “It’s a dime,” said Lutz.
“Why a dime?” I asked him.
“Because it reminds me of the Buddha’s lessons.”
Apparently he thought that explained everything.
“How?” asked Wide Wally. He pushed away his last empty platter.
Lutz looked up at the slowly revolving fan. He composed his thoughts for a couple of revolutions and began to speak. Slowly.
“I’m a Buddhist,” said Lutz, “but I never felt comfortable wearing Buddha icons. I wore one when I first got here, like a lot of guys do. But I always felt like I was trying too hard to fit in, you know?”
“So why the dime?” Wide Wally said this around a mint-scented toothpick. He steals them from the Holiday Inn next door to Juggs A-Go-Go and keeps them in the pockets of his giant Hawaiian shirts. Drives the laundry lady nuts.
“Well, this dime came to me in my change one day back in the States. Just in a handful of change from the gas station. But I noticed it was different. It wasn’t orange on the edges. I looked at the date and it was minted in 1957. That’s the year I was born. See?”
Lutz leaned toward me and held the coin out. It was a normal dime, Roosevelt in profile, the words “LIBERTY,” “In God we trust,” and the date, 1957.
“So this dime has been on this planet exactly as long as I have. It’s travelled around, coins really get around, you know? In and out of pockets, in and out of cash registers, in and out of banks. A year in a mason jar on somebody’s desk, a year under a sofa cushion, maybe a year under the floor mats of a ‘64 Dodge Dart. This dime has survived God knows what kind of abuse, it’s avoided being lost or destroyed in a thousand ways, it’s been useful to thousands of people.”
Lutz was rubbing the coin between an index finger and a thumb, looking at us very seriously. “And one day this dime came to me, in the course of traveling around and doing its job for whoever needed it. Just came to me randomly, I didn’t seek it out. But I noticed it. I noticed that it was different, and I valued it.”
“It’s just a dime,” said Wide Wally. “What’s different about it?”
“It’s solid silver,” said Lutz. “Today dimes are made out of copper. At today’s prices, as bullion, this dime is worth three dollars. You see? It was worth ten cents when it was made, but in my lifetime it’s increased in value three thousand percent. What else can you name that has increased in value three thousand percent in less than forty years? But here’s the thing: in 1957 this dime could buy you a candy bar. Now a candy bar in the States costs a buck-fifty. So looked at that way, this object has only increased in value one hundred percent, not three thousand percent. But here’s the other thing…”
Lutz had let the dime drop back against his shirt, and was using his fingers to list all these “things” that were important about the dime.
“If you took this into any store in the States and told the cashier you’d give him this dime for two candy bars, he’d laugh at you. To him, it’s just a dime, and it’s only worth one-fifteenth of a candy bar. And any place outside of America it’s not even that. This object is only currency in America, you can’t buy anything with it in Spain or Egypt or Timbuktu.”
Lutz leaned forward over the table and grinned at us. “But we live in Thailand,” he said, like it was the punch line of a joke, “where precious metals are still traded at a fairly public level.” He waved his hand at the three walls of the bar of the Pension Grilparzer, indicating everything beyond them. He smiled.
“I can take this to a jeweler I know in Phuket Town and he’ll give me 75 baht for it. I can eat for a day on 75 baht. Sometimes, in some places, a day’s food can be the difference between life and death.”
Lutz put the dime back in his shirt. Derek took another drink of Mekhong. Wally scanned the empty platters on the table and sighed. The talk of food had made him hungry again. Seventy-five baht would not keep Wally’s fingernails alive for a day. He looked at the bar for Ying but she was drying glasses now, and that takes even more concentration than washing them.
“You get it?” Lutz spoke quietly. I had to lean forward to hear him over the rattle and clank of the ceiling fan.
“The Buddha says everything is illusion. That we can only know the material world as far as our five senses can describe it to us. Dogs smell more than us, bats hear more, hawks see more. We’re like the five blind men trying to describe the elephant. Each of us only perceives a small slice of existence, maybe just a shadow of it. So since we can never know a thing truly, that thing only has whatever value we decide to give it. We decide if this object is one-fifteenth of a candy bar or the difference between life and death.”
Lutz put the dime back in his shirt. “Without our perceptions clouding the issue, it’s just two grams of atom number forty-seven on the periodic table. It has been exactly that, and only that, since the Big Bang. It will remain exactly that, and nothing more, until the end of time.”
Lutz took the dime in his fingers again, and looked down past his chin at it. The sun was hitting the water at an acute angle and the reflection of the dime hit Lutz right between his eyes.
“Some day, just before I die, I’m going to take this dime out of the bezel and buy something with it. It will touch my skin, over my heart, for maybe forty years, and then it will go back out into the world to continue its journey. It will go out there and travel around and do its job and be useful to people. And maybe some little piece of me will go with it, all the way to the end of time.”
There was a sudden ruckus at the snooker table. Because of the brutal heat Kevin had been putting talc on his hands between every shot, and now the green felt was covered in white hand prints. Ying the Bartendy was giving Kevin hell about it. Nit had buried her nose in her knitting, not wanting to choose sides between the man who shares her bed and the woman who gives her free ice water.
“Ya know, thirty silver coins bought Jesus’ life,” said Shaky Derek.
“And silver is supposed to kill werewolves and vampires,” said Wide Wally.
“I don’t know about all that,” said Lutz. “I don’t believe in magic.”