THERE ARE TWO KINDS OF PEOPLE in the world; me, and all the lunatics. At least it can seem that way after a few months in Bangkok. Just the other day I was walking through the hotel lobby when my friend Jake called me over to introduce a fellow American he’d just met in the dining room.
“This is Pierre,” he said. “He’s staying here at the Troc.”
The Troc was the New Trocadero, an old hotel on Surawongse Road in the Bangrak section of the city. Opened in 1922, it was sturdy and stylish in a rundown kind of way. Its cavernous halls were carpeted and the porters wore uniforms, but most important was the price. It was cheap. The Troc had seen better days and would probably not see its hundredth anniversary because, according to my friend, “All this will be gone in five years”. He wasn’t just referring to the hotel either, he was talking about Thailand as a bargain destination. “This is the future,” he would tell me. “Soon, Bangkok will be like Tokyo: prohibitively expensive and modern.” He was mad of course, like the rest of them. Like Pierre. Although I wasn’t sure about Pierre until he showed up at my door, peering over my shoulder into the room and wordlessly demanding an invite.
“Do you want to come in?” I asked.
He came inside and sat down on my bed, then began his tale of woe. He’d arrived in Bangkok from Orange County, California with a couple of friends who’d given him the slip and headed for Ko Tao in the south. He’d either had his passport stolen or had given it away in a moment of Truth.
“I laid all my belongings in front of me on the sidewalk,” he said before launching into a stream-of-consciousness monologue that seemed more appropriate to a Jungian’s couch than my unmade bed.
“I was in Happyland,” he continued, “and then I left. I walked for miles. My feet are wrecked.”
He poked at his feet and I prayed that he wasn’t going to remove his socks to show me.
“Can I tell you my vision?” he asked.
His head, which was shaved, made his eyes look enormous.
“Just a moment,” I said, and picked up the phone.
Jake arrived a few minutes later and I told him to take Pierre to the American embassy because he’d lost his passport and perhaps his mind. They left together and I thought, “The blind leading the blind”. Then I bolted the door and reached for the bottle of whisky.
Most of the crazy people I met in Bangkok were friends of Jake. They were hustlers, mostly, some of whom had reached the point of desperation and wore a predatory look that signaled their intentions. One of them, a Sri Lankan boy in his twenties, sat on the couch in my room and took pictures of my girlfriend. I looked over at Jake but he just smiled indulgently as if to say, “Let him have his fun.” But none of these characters could hold a candle to Jake. Even at eighty his madness gave him more energy than a man half his age. Each morning he would roll out of bed and head for the restaurant in the downstairs lobby with his mini baguette and danish. He would always sit at the same table and demand his usual; a small bottle of milk and a cup of tea. The ladyboy behind the counter would know to bring some butter as well so he could slather it over his bread. He also knew to bring a glass full of ice because my friend liked his milk ice cold. Thus provisioned Jake would dive into his meal with abandon, stuffing bread and butter in his mouth between slurps of hot tea with cream, spilling and spitting as he went, nearly gagging as he forced it all down. Whenever I shared a meal with him I’d be careful not to sit across from him, avoiding the line of fire as food would fly out of his mouth like sparks from an overcharged furnace.
Now he is reprimanding me.
“You never listen to me! I sent you an e-mail about the Pondok Hotel in Kuala Lumpur but you went and made arrangements elsewhere. Why didn’t you check with me first? You could have been in the middle of everything, but no! You stayed at some place way out of town!”
The fact that the hotel where I’d stayed was indeed centrally located made no difference to him. Nor would it have made any difference if I had told him that my lodge offered the same amenities at a better price. Such details would only have irritated him and left me open to charges of pedantry. Trying to reason with Jake was as fruitless an endeavor as Starbuck trying to talk sense into mad Ahab. Besides, he was already off on another subject.
“I was shocked, shocked when I learned that you’ve never read anything by Somerset Maugham. ‘Willy’ to his friends. And here you are in his old stomping grounds! He stayed at the Oriental with his lover who he treated outrageously. Oh, and speaking of the Oriental, did you read about the hotel manager? He’s been there since the 60’s and he just retired. There was a story about him recently. He spilled the beans about Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, how she would send him off for bottles of vodka and then stumble around the lobby making drunken, tearful scenes. ‘She was horrible,’ he said. Somerset Maugham was like that, too. A terrible person. He treated everyone badly, but he wrote that wonderful book based in Penang in Malaysia called Rain. I suppose Maugham’s greatest work is Of Human Bondage, about a club-footed doctor in London who falls in love with a prostitute; the worst kind of prostitute. Bette Davis played her in the movie. But Rain is set on the island of Penang and it’s just a fifteen minute ferry ride from the train station. I told you to make a trip to Penang, didn’t I? And did you? No you didn’t. You never do anything I ask…”
And I would listen, sipping my beer contentedly, a little bored perhaps because I’ve heard his monologues so many times before. The pained, accusatory rants and the endless books and movies that I need to see, must see, should have seen already. At the bottom of it all was a desperate need to be heard, to be told that despite his relative poverty, his slovenly appearance, his whoremongering, he was a meritorious person.
“I’m eighty!” he would lament, but it was as much a cry of defiance as a lamentation and would usually only enter the conversation after a night of excess.
“I just can’t do this anymore; the beer, the boys, the money… I’m spending like a drunken sailor! But oh what a time we had in my room last night. But my stomach, my head. I’m burning the candle at both ends here and I’m eighty.”
After a particularly bad night (or good night) he made the proclamation that this was the end of an era.
“I won’t be coming back to Bangkok next year. My body can’t take it. When I was sixty-eight, sixty-nine, all right. Even at seventy I could still pass for fifty-nine, which is what I told everyone was my age because you don’t want tell these kids you’re eighty. But now I’m showing my age, I’m feeling my age and I can’t keep up the pace.”
Then the indigestion would pass and the hangover would go away and the bawdy talk would recommence.
“What a time I had last night…!”
He had a constant string of Indian boys coming to his room, most of whom he would bring upstairs to my room for a post-coital visit. They were quiet, lacking English skills, and would scan the room with furtive, assessing eyes that made my girlfriend fearful of our belongings. Some of them had already taken Jake for hundreds of baht, but he didn’t care, as long as they put out. Once he’d given a trick 500 baht in advance and the guy had bolted out the door with the money. That was unforgivable.
“I saw him on the street a couple of days later,” Jake recalled. “He smiled at me and said hello. I just scowled back and told him to fuck off.”
But Jake had his moments when he could be generous. He would sit quietly with a beer and a cigarette outside the Winlong Hotel, one of his favorite pick-up spots, and a smile would come over his face.
“Where else in the world can you have all this?” he would say, waving his cigarette. “Cheap beer, good times, no one caring if you walk down the street in your pajamas. The Thais just think there goes another crazy farang and they don’t give you a second look. Look over there! Oh, you missed it. A lovely girl. Beautiful! Why don’t you like Asian girls? You’re missing out on so much. But I know, that’s never been you. You’re different. Artistic. Which is good I suppose. You’re like Christopher Isherwood, I am a camera, always recording… You’ll come back to Bangkok, won’t you? Without your girlfriend. You come alone next time. Oh don’t look at me like that. Do you want another beer?”
He was my oldest friend, in both senses of the word. All my high school friends, my college friends, had gone by the wayside. They were all married, had kids, careers, other concerns. Jake would never be a part of that world and neither, it seemed, would I. We drank our beers and wiped the sweat from our faces until tea-time was over.
“I’ll see you later, James,” he said as he started down the street. “I’m getting horny.”
And it was getting time for me to leave as well. “Bangkok,” Paul Theroux once wrote, “is a city for transients.” Those words, written well over a generation ago, were no less true today, and I was ready to heed their call and leave this cuckoo’s nest.