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A Rare Man


Today three different people sent me the same link. That’s fairly rare. I don’t have many correspondents, other than the guys sitting on bar stools in Thailand who have lots of time to kill and want to tell me how much they hate my politics. The few true correspondents I have are a mixed bag of theatre fans, science fiction fans, medical records clerks, and my mother’s relatives. Most of them are too old to know how to send somebody a link.

Three of them sending me the same link on the same day is like a presidential election, the World Series, and a Game of Thrones season premier all happening on Passover.

The link is available below. It leads to an article in the online Phuket Gazette about the demise of the print edition of the Phuket Gazette. The reason my three friends sent me the link is because the Gazette editors used an old article from The Nation, about the Gazette, to illustrate the Gazette’s article about the Gazette.

Normally I would enjoy it when a media outlet ties itself in self-referential knots. But this time it was weird, because the byline on that old Nation article is, “Wilawan Sophonrat.” That’s my ex-wife, Mem. Back in the 1990’s I had to be very careful about how much money I earned as a journalist because my work permit specifically prohibited me from doing any work other than being the Public Relations Manager at The Boathouse on Kata Beach. So in those days I published a ton of stuff under Mem’s name. And now her name is on top of what is essentially the traditional print Gazette’s obituary.

(The Gazette will continue on line, of course, but I never contributed to the on-line edition, that I can remember. The Gazette I worked for, the one printed on stiff brilliant white paper that you held in your hand, will cease to exist at the end of this month.)

I don’t know. Maybe it’s apt. After all, Mem was present the first time I met John Magee. She and I were recently married, recently pregnant, and recently facing the fact that Steve was not making enough money teaching English in the hotels and writing a couple dozen articles a year for Phuket Magazine to afford family life. I could do that living alone in a cinder block bungalow, paying for nothing but rent, fried rice, sex and bottled water, and for a young man without responsibilities that lotus eater lifestyle was just dandy.

But impending fatherhood makes a man nervous, and when somebody named John Magee tracked me down and invited me and Mem to dinner to discuss launching an English language newspaper on Phuket I was happy to accept because it included a free meal. The bird in the hand.

It wasn’t easy to track down expats on Phuket in 1993. We had no newspaper, and there was no internet. Hardly anybody had cell phones, and the few who had them could never find a signal. Being hard to find on the island was why a certain class of expat had chosen Phuket in the first place.

To find me John Magee had left a written note, in an envelope, at the offices of Phuket Magazine, which sat around until somebody from the office happened to be going past my house.

John invited me and Mem to dinner at a restaurant called Latitude Eight. It was just a greasy spoon on the beach but it was upmarket compared to the places I could usually afford. Mem was excited to go. We showed up and a trim, fit, quietly confident American midwesterner whose age I couldn’t peg greeted us and offered us chairs at his table.

We had a very nice meal and drinks and John explained that growing up he’d always wanted to be a journalist. He had done an internship at Time magazine while an undergraduate, but his Dad had insisted John go into banking. John obediently did that, and ended up, if I’m remembering correctly, working in the American Express investments office in Hong Kong. He was in that position for many years, and while I never asked him outright, my impression has always been that John flew away from Hong Kong under a pretty thick golden parachute.

John was quiet and serious and funny. With his round glasses and dimples he reminded me of a character actor who is always cast as a sympathetic teacher. He told us over local seafood and imported beer that he was finally going to realize his dream of being a journalist. He was going to launch a newspaper on Phuket, and it was going to be, he told us with the confidence I suppose you would need to invest millions of other people’s dollars in the China of the 1970’s and 1980’s, the “best darn small town newspaper in the world.”

I said “Uh huh” whenever he paused to breathe and ordered another plate of crab every time the waiter walked by. There had been many, many others who had tried to launch English language newspapers on Phuket. Many just in the couple of years I’d been there, and I knew that there were only three kinds of newspapers launched on the island in those days.

The first was the most common; a fast-talker would come and show around a glossy mock-up with a photo of a pretty girl eating pineapple on the front page. He’d sell some advertising and then run away with the money without producing a single issue.

The second type of newspaper on Phuket happened when a bored expat would get fed up with the corruption and “the way they drive” and he’d decide that what the island needed was an honest newspaper to pressure the authorities into correcting what he saw as all the problems on the island. He’d produce a first issue in a local print shop, four or eight pages of angry complaints and his own photographs. Then he’d trot this thing around and try to sell advertising. As soon as people read a few words of his sample they’d politely or impolitely show him the door. Finally the dope would give up, having earned nothing more than one more thing to complain about.

And the third kind was the honest businessman who sees a need and tries to fill it. He makes a decent stab at producing a useful product, distributes a few issues, sells some advertising, and then discovers that he has no legal recourse if advertisers do not in fact pay for their advertisements. He contracts to distribute from local outlets only to find that there is no way to audit how many copies are ever sold. He finds that what he considers real journalism is considered locally to be breaking somebody’s rice bowl. In other words, he discovers that there is no way to make a profit with an English language newspaper on Phuket.

I thought John was this last type of guy, honest but naïve, so after he made his pitch, and after I’d eaten my weight in sea bugs, I promised him ten essays at four baht per word. On the drive home, Mem shouted from behind me on the motorcycle, “He seems nice.” I shouted back, “Yeah, his newspaper will never get off the ground, but he’ll buy anything I give him, and I’ve got a desk drawer full of stories. So we’re going to make money off the guy as fast as we can, until he folds up his tents and slinks off into the night.”

Well, as it turned out, Magee put food on our table and a roof over our heads for the next four years. I helped him edit a few issues that first year, and there were a couple of issues early on where I wrote everything in the paper except the tide tables. John was in the black within a few issues, and as of this writing, John is still paying money for words, twenty years after I stopped receiving money for words. He hasn’t missed a payroll in twenty-four years. For many of those years he employed dozens of people and was headquartered in a multistory building that the newspaper owned.

John was unique in making an empire out of local news in a place where people lost track of the seasons and never ever asked “wonder what’s in the news today.” (When I say “he was unique,” I say it knowing he still is. He’s not dead. I just haven’t been in the same room with him for decades so I’m sure he’ll forgive me for speaking of him in the past tense.)

So John was unique in a lot of ways. He was wealthy without being a total prick about it. In the seven years I lived on Phuket I only met a couple of men who could pull that off. He was a conservative who indulged me liberally. He’d let me spout off in his newspaper and never tried to tell me what to write, though I’m sure he didn’t agree with everything I wrote. He provided a soapbox from which I pontificated and lectured and scolded. He’d let me act like I knew something and then he’d make a casual comment that showed he knew way more than I did about how things worked on the island.

I learned that John had been coming to Phuket on holiday for years. He used to drive a big motorcycle around, one he’d driven all the way across China. The trim man in the neat clothes, who showed up at everything important and knew everyone important, managed a big complex organization, deadlines, corruption, poor infrastructure, a language barrier, and the weirdest business culture since the Indians sold Manhattan for a handful of beads without often letting the stress show. He dealt honorably with Thai and farang, with writer and editor and artist and advertiser. He paid in advance when I needed it and never held that over my head.

Even Mem liked him. Mem never liked any of my friends.

After I brought my little family home in 1997 to discover that I had absolutely no skills that anybody in Iowa wanted to pay for, John continued to pay me to write a gossip column about Soi Bangla called “Fashion Victims.” The column was in the voice of an ancient crone of indeterminate gender named Iris Criswell. It was full of zodiac signs and Hindu gods and Nostradamus and the Illuminati, and each week it had a few scraps of actual news from the bars and brothels of Soi Bangla gleaned from press releases that the Gazette received on the fax machine. It was sort of like the column Bernard Trink would have written if Bernard Trink had been a transvestite gypsy fortune teller from Reigate.

John Magee paid me to write a gossip column about Patong Beach from Iowa. He didn’t do it because the paper needed such a column; no newspaper ever published in any language would ever need a column like “Fashion Victims.” He did it because in America I depended on a few tax-free baht to buy groceries for my children.

And when our first Christmas in America rolled around, and I didn’t have money for presents or a tree or a roast goose or figgy pudding, John Magee offered me a thousand dollars for the rights to publish 50 of my essays and short stories in perpetuity. It was like found money, and at the time at least it felt like John Magee was saving my life.

Of course, John didn’t get to be a rich guy by throwing his money at charity cases who could have gone to banking school but instead chose to take a theatre degree. He ran those essays and stories in his paper every issue for about the next four years. One interesting thing about the Gazette was that about 90% of its readers were tourists who would only ever read one issue, so to them these years-old stories were brand new. He got more than his money’s worth out of those stories.

He saved what little self-esteem I had left, but he didn’t go broke doing it.

Finally, in about 1999, I talked John Magee into publishing a collection of my short stories in book form. He hired an editor and an illustrator and invested a lot of time in the project. Hundreds of e-mails back and forth between Phuket and Iowa City.

Unfortunately, I was going through a difficult time in my marriage and in my life and I was difficult to work with. Impossible to work with, apparently, because eventually John threw up his hands, cut his losses and walked away from the whole thing.

And that was the end of our involvement, until Facebook finally caught up with us and we became old friends who send each other Christmas greetings. In a final gesture of kindness, when my Bangkok publisher was going to shred the last 300 printed copies of “Thai Vignettes” John bought them, had them shipped to Phuket, and for a couple of years he included them in gift baskets to new advertisers.

The guy owed me nothing. At no point in our association had I ever done anything to earn such generous treatment from John Magee. I was just a guy with a chip on his shoulder who imposed on his generosity one night in a mid-range Phuket diner. Probably a hundred guys can make that same claim. I wrote for more than fifty publications in those years; at one time I had nine regular columns under four names in five publications. John was more generous, more honest, and more likable than any other publisher/editor I ever served. If we’re being honest, in the long run he probably treated me better than my ex-wife Mem did.

But it’s her name on that damned article.




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