What’s All the Hubbub?
Slim and I were talking about it the other day. Slim is an oil rigger who spends six months a year drilling holes off the coast of Sumatra and six months a year drilling holes in the guest houses of Phuket.
He's six-foot-six (that's 195 cm for those readers who grew up playing football with their feet) and fish belly pale except for his forearms and the nape of his neck. He was born in Thalia, Texas, the son of a wildcatter, and H.L. Hunt was a guest at his baptism. When he goes on leave he drives over to Phuket from Songkhla in a rusty GMC pick-up truck with a couple of pipe wrenches on the floorboards. He limps a bit because he lost a couple of toes in a blizzard north of Alberta five years before the boom. He claims to have more than a hundred bank accounts from Galveston to El Paso, and he's poked holes in the ocean floor from Sarawak to Shenzhen. He makes more money in six months than most doctors do in a year, and has no living relatives, except for three ex-wives. Slim has been on top of more women than Coco Chanel's hats and his nickname on the Hash Runs is "The Speculum."
We were talking about it in the library of the Pension Grilparzer, which is also the dining room, lobby and bar of the Pension Grilparzer. Slim was freshly shaved and scrubbed. After a lifetime of rigging his hands are spiderwebbed by the oil embedded in his pores, and he has a complex about cleanliness. He washes his hands twenty times every day that he's on The Rock.
The Pension Grilparzer is on Somtam Beach. The building was built in 1905 by a Chinese tin merchant to house his European engineers. It is a beautiful example of Sino-Portugeuse architecture and was the first building on The Rock to feature an indoor, sit-down toilet. It barracked officers of the Japanese Imperial Army from 1942-45, and was a not-too-successful sing-a-song bar in 1983 when Theodor Mommsen and Gerhart Hauptmann bought it. They paid for the place with Deutschmarks carried in gym bags out of the Vienna bank they had clerked in for fifteen years. It was six-thirty on a Friday evening when they traded their sweaty tracksuits for clean currency; by six-thirty Saturday morning they were in Bangkok and by the time the theft was discovered on Monday morning Theo and Gert were looking at property on The Rock.
I sat with Slim at the enormous teak bar drinking beer and talking about it. The downstairs of the Pension Grilparzer is divided between the kitchen on the landward side and the common room and verandah on the seaward side. The landward bedrooms upstairs have the last of the high season backpackers this time of year, and the ocean side rooms are occupied by more or less permanant expats, a few of whom were sipping beers in the rickety rattan chairs on the verandah. With the exception of the bartender, an obese woman named Ying, Slim and I had the common room to ourselves.
It's not all Slim and I have to talk about. We share a common heritage, and there were plenty of current events in the various newspapers scattered the length of the bar. But living here you almost have to discuss it; it's as present as the weather.
Every week it's in the news; Longman's dictionary describes Bangkok as a place with a lot of it, and Time runs a cover showing a skinny European clutching the bosom of an it-girl who could be this year's Paint Thinner Addiction Poster Child. Newsweek follows up with three Thai teenagers infected with the HIV virus on their cover, and Stern runs a shot of a pot-bellied pedarast hugging a ten-year old boy in a Thai Airways T-shirt.
An Australian gets arrested in Chiang Mai taking photos of naked children inserting religious statuary into their bodies. Phi Lek at My Buddy Color Lab and Batik Boutique says "Yeah, that guy was on The Rock about six months ago, brought a few rolls of film in here. Little girl looked like she was about ten years old."
"Did you call the cops?" you ask.
He gives you a look like you're an idiot. "No Buddhas." he says.
You hear one guy in a Patong Beach bar describe the it-girls as "Angels Of Mercy", and another calls them "Victims." One fellow tells you that it is much cheaper in Moscow these days, but the hotels and the food are still better here. Everywhere a man goes on The Rock someone tries to sell it to him. Leaving my house you pass three places that sell it before you reach any place that sells fresh milk. It with boys, it with girls, it you can watch and it you can have wrapped to go.
I've translated letters for the it-girls, "loaned" them money and bummed cigarettes off of them. I've attended their birthday parties, weddings, and one of their funerals, and I lead a fairly dull life. You can imagine how pervasive it is in the lives of people on Phuket who actually leave their houses in the evening.
Slim was complaining that nobody ever presents the positive side of it in the press. He was trying to convince me that selling and buying it need not be any more sensational than selling or buying any other renewable resource. "I use condoms," he said. "Real high quality American ones, too. I never hurt these here gals, and I'm real careful not to let 'em hurt me none." He threw back the last of his beer and I watched his Adam's apple bob up and down over my head. "I'm generous with mah money and I speak real polite Thai to 'em. I tell 'em they don't hafta rub my feet and I let 'em turn on the TV if they wanna. If I take a coupla them out to Samui for a weekend we stay in nice places and it's room service all the way. I pay the maid and the cook and the laundry to do their jobs, and I pay these here gals to do theirs." He dug under a thumbnail with a toothpick, and then asked Ying for his bill. Before he left he said "Ah like it, thet's all. What's all the hubbub?"
I had to agree with him. What's all the hubbub? I ordered another beer and mulled it over in the afternoon quiet of the Pension Grilparzer. I used to work in the film industry in New York, and a lot of the guys I knew came up through the ranks by working on pornographic films. These guys used to play Gin Rummy next to the bed while the director gave the actors notes. They referred to the performers as "fluffers" and "units", jargon not one whit removed from the words they used to describe the more mundane tools of their trades. They spent most of their free time on the golf course or collecting stamps. Under all that constant abrasion even the much publicized male libido will build up a pearl-like shell, at least to the point that it becomes selective.
I left the bar and walked over to the bookshelves that line the walls of the common room at the Pension Grilparzer. I found a copy of John Steinbeck's novel "Of Mice And Men", took it back to my stool and thumbed through it until I found the scene I was looking for. In the book there is a character named Candy. Candy is an old ranch-hand living out his years sweeping the bunk house of a depression era California ranch. His hand has been mangled in an industrial accident one generation too early for insurance or Workman's Compensation, and he knows that when he's too old to sweep he'll be put out and he'll die.
In this scene the boys in the bunk house are talking about it and one of them says you'd have to be crazy to spend a week's wages for it. Candy tells them about a time when he was a young man working the gold fields. He says that one payday he visited a house that was finer than any he'd ever been in before, with carpets on the floors and a "real Victrola." He followed a girl in a pink dress upstairs and an hour later handed over to her his week's pay. He finishes with "I've worked weeks my whole life, and don't remember one of them. But I'll never forget that girl in the pink dress."
I guess that's the way I feel about it. If I'm not going to remember it for the rest of my life, I'd rather just not bother with it.