Stickman Readers' Submissions August 13th, 2020

A Covid Impact Story

Let’s call her Gift, though that’s not her real name. She is what is known to punters as a freelancer. Her usual beat is on Soi 4, from the Nana Hotel parking lot to the south side of Hooters. Like other women in search of customers there, she sometimes strolls up and down the soi, while other times picks someone’s parked scooter and plants herself on it while she waits, and hopes, for a customer. This has been her routine for a while, though she used to work in a Nana agogo before becoming a freelancer.

This is her Covid story.

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Just after restaurants could serve alcohol again, I was enjoying a cold beer in Hooters, in the seats lining Soi 4, with a view of the shuttered former Hillary 4. Though the food at Hooters is overpriced and under-flavored, I was too lazy to walk back to Sukhumvit and search for another open restaurant. Besides, it was hot and muggy, and I had a gurgling fan above my head keeping me relatively cool, provided I chose to stay put. Hooters would be good enough under the circumstances. I ordered a meal and another beer and was content to sit in that comfy perch and watch the world pass by, what world there is in the Covid era. Nana Plaza, not yet re-opened at the time, remained in the dark, as did most of the soi. Foot traffic was minimal. And shadowy. Rats scurried along the curb in and out of drain openings. I tried to remember what the street looked like when times were less bleak.

Gift was out there on this night, perched on someone’s motorcycle at the lower end of Hooters.

Sitting next to me in the bar was a young Scandinavian man, already three sheets to the wind. He looked my way and started up a conversation, commenting on the many women plying their trade in front of the bar. He did not mention Gift, but rather a few others with whom he said he had already dallied.

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“I fucked that one”, he slurred, pointing to one woman, “And that one in the tank top over there, too. Fucked her good.” The f-word probably did not hit his ears the same way it strikes a native English speaker. He stressed the ‘f’ too much, where for someone like me, it’s the harsh ending consonants that give it value as a cuss word. Of course he was using it as a verb, not as an exclamation, adjective or plain old epithet, so could be forgiven.

“Good for you”, I said, not really knowing what an appropriate response would be. I just assumed he wanted some sort of acknowledgment of his carnal conquests.

“See the one buying food from the cart?”, he asked. “I fffucked her, and she has a bigger dick than me!”

“Did you know she was a ladyboy”, I asked him, trying to make polite.

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“Not until I saw her dick, but I fucked her anyway, ya.”

I didn’t really need to know any more details, so I was thankful when his mate, perhaps slightly embarrassed, paid their bin and escorted his drunken friend back into the street.

Now alone at the front rail, I looked right and caught sight of Gift on the scooter, bathed in the overflow light from Hooters. She’s a tiny thing, with huge brown eyes and skin a good shade darker than even the typical Isaan woman. Her face was bright and smooth, with high cheekbones, and it was quite attractive in that light, but she had the look of someone who had been living rough or at least having trouble getting through the Covid shutdown. Maybe it was her tattered, cut-off shorts that didn’t begin to cover a pair of surprisingly powerful-looking thighs. Maybe it was just the heat she’d been subjected to for the last few hours. She had the look of the street. Even from a distance I could see the underlying anxiety she wore on her face. Her eyes, darting about, hinted at desperation.

She eventually smiled and waved in my direction, albeit in a manner that suggested an acquaintance which I know I did not have with her. I turned and looked over my shoulder, assuming she was greeting someone else in the bar behind me. When I turned back, she pointed her finger at me and smiled anew.

I gestured for her to come over, hoping once she got a closer look at me it could clear up what I thought was a misunderstanding or misidentification. When she stood on the street below, I felt it rude just to tell her I neither knew her nor was interested in what I thought was on offer, so instead I asked her to come up the steps and join me inside. I offered her the meal she looked like she could use. She said thanks and accepted the offer, taking the seat recently vacated by the departed Swede.

She had overheard his comments to me and confirmed, though I didn’t ask, that the third woman the Swede had bedded was indeed a ladyboy. She said she thought he knew, but he was happy to engage regardless. With a closer look myself at the ladyboy, now passing right below us, I agreed the drunk did not really go into the tryst unaware. To each his own. Besides, everybody has to make a living.

Gift told me her name, and I quickly found she had much more than basic English. I asked where she had picked it up, and she began to explain the trajectory of her career, during which she had become rather skilled in the language, because she regularly dealt with foreign men. It might not have been schooling in any traditional sense, but it had been an effective teaching tool.

Her meal was served along with a cold beer. I found I was enjoying our discussion, as she had a lot to say, said it well, and had quite the sense of humor. I immediately took a liking to her. She was either naturally endearing or knew how to make herself so when chatting with a man.

Among the many things she shared with me during the meal was that she had given birth to a daughter a few months previous, and the baby’s daddy had run out on her. She had only recently come back to Soi 4 to work, but had yet to pull a customer, as closed borders made for a small pool of potential clients. Gift wasn’t even sure her postpartum body was ready for her job.  She was there because she was down to her last one hundred baht, which was not even enough to get her home, should she be unsuccessful landing a gig. Fortunately, she had already paid the neighbor woman who was taking temporary care of her daughter, but she was going to arrive back at home penniless if no client stepped forward.

Her story seemed genuine, but I admit to being less cynical or suspicious during this Covid era, so I offered to spot her some baht to get home plus get some things for her child. We exchanged LINE IDs, I put her in a cab, and sent her off.

She messaged me thanks and asked if we could meet again on another day. I was smitten enough with her after our hour or two in Hooters that I agreed to meet up again for a meal.

We met that second time, enjoyed a meal together, and we became friends. She still continued with her business, but from time to time she would visit me, use the swimming pool at my hotel, and we’d go to dinner together. She was very matter of fact about what she did. She didn’t call her work by any of its given names, but merely would say she went to try to get a customer. It wasn’t working out, but not for lack of trying. It wasn’t working out for any of her street friends either. Supply greatly exceeded demand in closed border Thailand.

The women who work that part of Bangkok tend to be regulars and know each other. They are friends of sorts, or of convenience, perhaps because they share so many things in common. Almost all are mothers, many used to work in agogos, they all live hand to mouth, and most have tales of assignations gone wrong. They’ve all had a bad customer. It is anything but an easy life, and an outsider like me cannot imagine any such life ending well. These women might have shared in the mistake of getting pregnant, but once they decided to usher the life into the world, they committed themselves to do whatever it takes to care for that life. They will be middle-aged when that commitment ends. They are focused on the here and now, which is a kind of blessing, because realizing in a few years they will lose the appeal on which they currently count would be depressing. Gift is early twenties; she conceivably could do the same work for a while, depending on how she ages and how much she can take care of herself.  Some women wear the work and the years on their faces and bodies, while some endure the lifestyle with more ease.

Sometimes, however, the pressures and strains of the present, without even thinking of the likely bleak future, are too much. In the Covid era, those stresses are multiplied tenfold. Not everyone can handle it.

Eventually the virus began to take an unseen toll on those in Gift’s life.

Women who live so close to penury, as many in Gift’s position do, can sometimes be desperate. Actually, they’re often desperate, even in the best of times. Their business is somewhat mercurial; they can be extremely in demand for a short time, then suddenly all goes fallow. That periodic desperation makes them vulnerable, and there is a segment of society—other than freelancer customers—who take advantage of vulnerable women in the position of Gift. She and her ilk are a demographic easy to exploit. These accidental mothers can become a prime target for scammers, because bad people know the women need money. Some end up running drugs and get caught being a mule. Other schemes are more elaborate.

One day Gift and her friend named Kung were approached by a woman who ‘needed a favor’ from them. The woman asked them to open bank accounts in their own name, but give all the details to the woman, such as the PIN needed to withdraw funds. Gift and Kung, if they agreed, would be given ten thousand baht each for their trouble.

Gift and Kung knew full well there was something untoward about the offering. Gift wisely declined, but Kung, her better judgement clouded by immediate need, agreed. She couldn’t, or simply did not want to see, any downside to the transaction.  She regularly took chances with total strangers as part of her job, and this offer did not even seem as potentially dangerous. Kung signed on and got her ten thousand baht. At least she was street smart enough not to put the baht in the new account.

The bank account Kung set up subsequently was used by some petty criminals to receive funds they pulled in some unknown scam or embezzlement scheme. Some of the people who were cheated called the police. The police investigated and went to arrest the owner of the bank account. Kung, who lived in a cheap flat with her two year old daughter, was handcuffed, charged, and taken away to jail. She had no idea what crime had taken place, only that she had been duped into being the only accomplice police could identify. She was going to pay for her desperation-driven foolishness.

Kung was put in a temporary jail in Bangkok, but soon she was transferred to a jail in Ubon Ratchathani and has been told she is likely to get five years for her ‘crime’. Her child was taken in by a neighbor upon Kung’s arrest, but social services, aware of the child’s current locale, has plans to put the little girl in an orphanage.

Gift herself got a visit from the police shortly thereafter, but it was unrelated to Kung and the bank scam. The police asked her if she knew a certain woman who lived a few flats down in the same complex. Gift said she did, as the woman also worked the street outside Nana Hotel and Hooters, and they had sometimes commuted together. Gift went with the police to the nearby flat, where the woman lay dead on the floor. They asked Gift to confirm the woman’s identity, and whether Gift knew of any family. Apparently, the difficulty resulting from the Covid border closure, which had slashed the potential universe of customers for what the deceased woman offered, was too much to bear. An empty jug of drain cleaner sat next to the body. Her death could not have been without pain.

That death, along with Kung’s jailing, hit Gift hard, but like many Thai women, she chanted “su su” which as far as I know is a phrase that conveys a commitment to persevere and push forward.

Just today, as I write this, Gift visited me in my hotel. Again she was down to virtually no money, and needed everything from diapers for her daughter to food for herself. She told me another friend from Soi 4 had just tied a sheet to a railing and to her neck and hung herself. Gift wondered if that wasn’t to be her fate, too, in the near future, as business prospects were dim but expenses never went away.

We had a long chat, she emptied some pent-up emotions, and then we went shopping. Gift will be okay for a while.

This is the world of Covid, invisible to the lucky, but the grimmest of reapers to many. The virus kills in a host of ways, not all of which are direct. The dead, no matter the cause, are just as dead. Gift’s friends never caught the virus, but it killed them nonetheless.

I am not writing this to advocate an opening of economies or borders, because I do not pretend to have the answers. It is a delicate calculus that must weigh the impact of direct death due to the virus vs the indirect pain, suffering, and death resulting from the economic fallout of lockdowns and border closures. I’m not sure I would welcome the power to make that decision, but I am sure that every death is a sad one, whether it’s a result of the virus’ effect on a body or the lockdown’s effect on everyone’s mental health.

Gift has lost three friends, two by their own hand and one to a bad decision. She is dealing with depression herself. She still has a 3 month old daughter relying on her. The two are okay, temporarily, but for how long? What is the lifespan of a pandemic? Ideally, Gift might find gainful employment and meet her financial obligations with more ease, but in this environment, with millions also out of work, that is not going to happen. The one skill she thinks she has to offer goes for naught because there are not enough customers to go around for all the women trying to make ends meet offering the same service. It’s a situation unlikely to end soon, and it will get worse before it gets better, as more people join the ranks of the unemployed every single day. Some will be women who will choose the same path as Gift. Their numbers will grow while the customer base is static. Supply will continue to exceed demand.

I wrote this piece to put a human face on something that is now all around us. We’re in unprecedented territory no matter where we are in this world. My story is about Thailand, because that is where I’ve been for the last four months, and because Thailand and the nightlife industry are a focal point of this website. Many readers know well Soi 4 and have at minimum seen the women who ply their trade on that street. Should a familiar face or two suddenly be missing, this piece might explain the sad reason why.

I also hope to make a general appeal to those who might be in a position to help folks now suffering. Gift and her friends are but one small piece of one industry in one country, but there are undoubtedly similar stories in every sphere of life around the world. All sorts of jobs have been lost, from the oldest of professions to the newest. People everywhere are desperate, hurting both financially and emotionally. Many need help, lest they ‘solve’ their problems with a bottle of drain cleaner or a taut bedsheet. Lend an ear, open a wallet, give a hand to those who could use it, or seek help yourself if you’re one of the ones teetering on the edge.

If ever there was a time for all of us to be a little more human, it is now.

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