Those Were The Good Ol’ Days
Send me back to that Friday eve of sunset when I was basking in the light of a new dawn. Send me back to that post-coital bliss with torrential nostalgia filling the dark. Send me back back back to that golden age which was just over a month ago. For these are many things, but they aren’t the good ol’ days.
Granted, for many of us, things aren’t so bad. I still wake up, sometimes, next to someone with love shining through sleepy eyes. I lost a well-paying job and was forced to take on another for substantially less pay, but I’ve got enough in the bank to get by for a time. The authorities have me in a visa vice, but institutional backing is keeping me out of the covid cauldron of Chaengwattana.
After a good month of having my nervous system back-firing on me, I came to terms with my worst case scenario — going back to America. At some point some job at a gas station will likely be on the way. That’s something of a professional fall but my lot at least pretend to pay homage to an honest day’s work. And despite whatever dusty corner of the road I find myself on to make ends meet, I’m already thinking about Four Roses, family and country roads. Even at its worst, it’s not so bad. After all, I’m alive.
Still, in they snaking couloirs of this red-tape kingdom, I feel I’ve stumbled upon a Catch 22 in Kafka’s castle. And then I have to laugh. For sanity comes, perhaps not in Thai fatalism, but the savoir faire of Niebuhr’s prayer— “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
Or, to not quite surmise the stoicism of Marcus Aurelius — it is what it is.
My return to Bangkok in December started off with a bang. I finally had it, the easy demeanor that had previously alluded me in all of my moralistic static in a hedonistic sea. After realizing what a life in the straight world of America would do to me, I jettisoned the “oughta be’s” and got my ballast on point.
Friends from all corners came out to embrace me.
And in the change the music played. The libations flowed.
Cubanos via Dominica were smoked. And then I met a girl who just got me. And then, it seemed, things were made complete — gold filling the broken places in kintsugi me.
But that bulwark of normalcy was a sand castle taunting the tide. It’s the curse of happy people to start denying the pull of the moon. And perhaps I was still prepared for some ebb and flow. But nothing like the storm that followed.
And with that cyclone’s portentous waves came a toothache shake of the soul. The anxiety buzzed hornet-song under the bonnet. Try as I might, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was amiss. So one weekend I took a trip down to a Thai-frequented tourist town to outrun the hum in my own engine.
An old friend joined me as we packed into a minivan on a Saturday morning. We were donning masks as the creep of contagion was starting to seep in, but by the time we arrived, we pulled them aside. For now, this gulf-wrapped town was leaving free of fear.
We found an old condo by the waterfront renting out rooms. The building was decades-old, massive, half-empty, and half-haunted, which is to say it was just right for me. White-washed walls and breeze in every hall. Large windows in every well letting the light and salt-sprinkled air in.
They didn’t even take passports at reception. Nothing like a joint that allows escapees the option of escape. Even if escape is a lie. Even if our GPS, cell-tower ping, Google tracking, 21st century scribes have made prisons of our own metadata lockdown lives.
As it turned out, neighboring rooms on the 12th floor were free.
They were perched on the corner of the road giving a panoramic view of the promenade and sea. Every inch of my room was brushed in flamingo wing. A power line below hummed. The wind blew eternal. It was everything I had been looking for to escape the Bangkok haze.
The beach, beer, seafood and waves filled the day. Santana, old Thai songs, talks of God and the ghost of our own lives chimed a nightingale’s song. Swallows from the bath rustled pine fronds. A few tears fell for those too-early gone.
Time and again, from mood swing to swung, our oft repeated refrain broke through:
“Will you look at that view. Will you look at that view…”
The next morning I awoke with a heavy head and washed the sand out of my eyes with a swim. Up above the darkening sky unseasonably threatened a downpour. So it was more beer and Abraxas as the rain rolled in, over, and beyond. I cannot say if it was the place or my place in the place, but I never wanted to leave. But leave we did. A world slowly being turned on its head beckoned.
And when we finally hopped off at On Nut and grabbed a few at the Beacon, little did I know it would be my last Bangkok street-side beer for a time … perhaps all time.
Through the following work week, a balcony view, ice-cold beer, morning swims, rainstorms and Santana’s song were on my mind. Then the bars were shuttered for good; the people watching perches for Sukhumvit’s night owls gone. And I certainly gave a hoot. But rather than read the writing on the wall, I took another seaside trip to outrun the langoliers the following weekend.
My friend once again tagged along, albeit on a later ride. But by then that low hum ominous buzz down below had grown to a power line pop. A transformer explosion and sky-spark shower was imminent. There was no relaxing anymore. The nervous undercurrent was running through the streets. You could see it in people’s eyes now perched above masks — the stupid animal fear. Invisible monsters looking to conjure the beast in man.
After a day at the beach, on Saturday night we ambled around a shut down town. Many of the bars were closed insofar as they weren’t taking in customers. But bar staff and friends were gathered around spaces with upturned chairs, meat on the spit and drinks clinking in the smoke. The Thai party persisted, albeit as a familial affair.
And then we found one bar still open in the traditional way. A motley crew was gathered — a pool table in play. It was reminiscent of a French colonial holdout on their rubber plantation denying the apocalypse now. Africans, Europeans, the owners from up north, my Scandinavian friend and American me, all celebrating what would be a final retreat into the night.
I smoked a cigar and tried my best not to flirt with the spunky pint-sized tender of the bar — a Chiang Mai import named “Shrimp” — who clearly had eyes for me. Those you avoid always chase — the plight of the taken man trying his best in love-inspired fits of honesty. A jigsaw man with a broken body turned out to be an absolute pool shark, besting my symmetrically long-limbed friend whose game was poorly executed under a Leo and SangSom sea.
And we partied well past the witching hour, until I finally closed a door on the conquest I could not let be. It’ll be one of those cases of never my imagination will forever resurrect for me.
Then came a long walk down the nearly-abandoned promenade. Just the waves, the dark, and that growing undercurrent of dread.
We sat out one last night with exhaustion in our bones. It wasn’t the same. So we retreated to our rooms and slept the troubled sleep of drunks.
The following morning, twice hungover and guilt-ridden to boot, the reality of things hit me like a wet fish to the face. The selfishness, the denial, the unwillingness to see that the whole god-damned world was changing around me.
I couldn’t get back to Bangkok soon enough. So I headed to the bus station while my friend stayed behind, although fears of closing borders prompted him to come back a few days later.
At the bus station, the adjacent mall already felt built on the edge of the world. And clearly everyone was on edge. It was nearly empty. There’s something essentially eerie about temples of consumerism without people. It’s a feeling of space made empty by diminishing function, no more escape into the nothingness of desire — emptiness compounded by emptiness. Perhaps that’s part of their perennial appeal as sets for late night horror film fare. It’s no wonder they inspire the warped vaporware muzak of late night Youtube watchers who these days rarely buy anything but Amazon wares.
And I chose a near empty dinner in that hollowed out temple to eat lunch and kill time. A woman seemingly taken by madness locked eyes on me and refused to break contact for the duration of my meal. Mental illness, wanton aggressiveness at the foreign threat — the gods only know.
With my departure time approaching, I paid as a gaze burned a hole in my back. In the adjoining alley, I boarded a half empty bus back to Bangkok. Traffic was relatively light. I drifted in and out of consciousness, for me an uncanny feat feat, and a testament to the booze imposed prohibition on actual sleep.
I arrived that Sunday afternoon to a near-empty Eastern Bus terminal. I must say, the Thais I did see on my trip home exhibited hygienic habits that told me there was no way this pandemic would just pass.
Public toilet hand pushers throwing two seconds of soapless water right into their faces.
Unwashed fingers prodding noses beneath masks that had been turned into petri dishes through relentless groping. People puling down face covers to let out a cough or sneeze.
And as they shot you, the foreigner, dirty, or nervous looks, you realize that no one’s failed efforts at prophylaxis are even about protecting others. It’s just a bunch of scared kids trying to protect themselves. There’s no sense of epidemiology — it’s all black magic. And that week they were convinced it was “farangs” who had brought the curse on them. Always someone to blame, always a finger pointed in vain.
Just ask that gentleman in Phuket turning his spotlight on violence. Violence against us, the other he secretly always hated. And now that the money is gone, so is his patience. And he is legion…
The one group of people not afraid were the fare-less drivers, who clearly had been laying about for a while. They called out in a lackadaisical way — stuck between the frequency of Thai “mai pen rai” and far more universal defeat.
But I wasn’t even interested in the skytrain, a mere stone’s throw away. Rather, I opted to walk home to take in the new air of the city.
The entire stretch of Sukhumvit I traversed seemed nearly abandoned. Nothing but drawn shutters in one segmented row of shophouses after the other. And the specials played in my head:
“This town (town) is coming like a ghost town
All the clubs have been closed down
This place (town) is coming like a ghost town…”
More steps down the uneven pavement and the only eyes above masks looked on in fear.
“Do you remember the good old days before the ghost town?We danced and sang, and the music played in a de boomtown.”
And for the first time I picked up a coffee in a table-less cafe. Finally I made it home. Soon thereafter my lady turned up. I felt relieved to see her, and daft for skipping town when I should have stayed. Then came the guilt, for seeking out the party as the world slowly shut down. For not keeping my distance in my late-night revelry.
Later stories came of Moon Bar revelers who had not been so lucky. Coyote dancers and other late night prancers had finally caught a new disease. The growing infectious explosion at the military controlled 8-limbed dancehall of death turned up yet another story of corruption and greed.
No, I wasn’t just putting myself in harms way. I was endangering her too. And that was the only cheating I did that night. And that was crooked enough to scare me straight for a spell. And then my life got smaller by the day.
First it was working from home. And then the gym was closed. And I found relief in a park run, but the cities few green spaces have since been shut down by the boys in brown. And then the curfew came, though that at least provided some poignancy to match the discomfort the overfed call pain.
Two lovers perched on a bed in the dark, taking in the silence for the first time ever. The heavily-trafficked Sukhumvit thoroughfare had transformed from eternal traffic jam to utterly bare. Though the occasional late night outlaw blazed a rocket trail down the street. More often, it was cops needlessly blaring sirens and flashing red lights to abuse their privileged place in the lock-down metropolis. And finally the last skytrain home.
And in the throes of what goes on behind closed doors, the best of being a life was mine once more. But cavities grew around the golden repair. And with it the fight against those feelings of despair.
Talks of the 24 shutdown loomed. And all us too-oft drinkers live in constant fear of the impending ban on booze.
And I’ve been drunk or half-drunk nearly every day. And I keep thinking of all the things I should be doing with my time rather than phone fucking and pickle-braining my life away.
And then the Pope’s sagacious words about a deeper closeness rang through. And I have found new depths in my girlfriends eyes, the quiet streets at night, and all the rooftop refugees of my condo all dreaming of those wild Bangkok nights.
And then it hits me: I’m so god-damned lucky.
I’m not scraping the slums of Klong Tuey alongside Ratchani Cheausuwan to find one more satang before desperation pushes me to lose my mind. I’m not in a 10 meter shack without running water running alongside blackwater canals with the millions of marginalized in Metro Manilla.
I wasn’t among the tens of thousands of migrants making the Myawaddy rush back to Myanmar, their brethren in displacement camps, or the denizens of that dictatorial state where some townships have one doctor per 80,000 damned.
My home wasn’t welded shut in a Wuhan home-sized tomb, left to die of starvation and disease in 21st century Count of Amontillado doom. I wasn’t one of millions let go by the master of capital, helping the megacity makers and breakers “extrude their working class like so much unwanted accrual,” as Roy painfully, and elegantly put it.
I was not part of the social distancing lie that meant keeping the poor off the streets and even more tightly packed into the public squalor and disease incubators, free of running water, and topped off with sun-baked corrugated coffin lids. Let the masses huddle in shit and face Dutertes bullets, least they think of clogging the streets.
The real cost of this pandemic will fall on the millions of untold victims with no blue check marks to multiply the force of their virtue. In the poor places, there will be no Netflix blanket after dark. Just that same wild-eyed animal fear and rapid beating heart, waiting for the divine ecstasy and extreme horror of the big mort.
And you see a lot of ugliness coming from la petite mort chasers. Expats addicted to release and angry at the prospect of hedonistic interruptus. Epicurus as their lodestar and a cloud of contagion leaving them without compass.
But secret knock on a sun-heated door and you’re back in the blowjob parlor for more. The girlfriends of yesteryear now a desperate whore. You unconcerned for their hell in store. Prayers to the angles of death that this storm claims more.
You’d be amazed how many are hoping and wishing all those broken lives will bring on a new age of desperation-fueled pay for play. What darkness of heart breeds hopes that shattered lives are the source of a new Golden age?
This crowned-king of fear is bringing out the monsters of the Big Mango, looking for their next sugar rush. Though this city is merely the most distilled version of the disease of our age. More. More. More. At any cost. Any cost. Red lining in the red, bloodshot eyes, endorphin highs, cocaine lights and loveless last rites.
And now, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is shuttered for the first time since the Black Death. So grab the reaper by the crotch and engage in the play of breath.
“Squeeze, Squeeze, Squeeze, just a bit harder, just a bit harder — anything!, anything! — but ‘check bin’.”
For the sum total is nothing less than the wages of sin. So they pray they may never live to see the dawn they have ushered in.
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