The Peace Corps Thailand Handbook was clear about “outside income.”
You were expected to live strictly on what Peace Corps paid you – $82 a month . Food, clothing, entertainment, transportation, photography, gifts and souvenirs all had to come out of your $2.75 a day allowance. No money from Mom and Dad back in the States either. “You are not permitted to receive money from home,” it warned.
I never asked my parents for money, and I religiously banked in my Wat Bovornives scholarship account the money I earned from my writings. True, I cheated by tutoring Col. Samure but that only earned me $3 a week and now it was over. The Triumph was a steal but it had emptied my savings.
“Billy, let’s get a gig somewhere,” I said. “I need the money.”
Billy had replaced James as our housemate after my drug trip. He brought along a trunkload of great tapes when he moved in – Beatles, Stones, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Blood, Sweat and Tears – and had a good voice. We started jamming and pretty soon we were winning rave reviews from everyone who dropped by the house. I figured we were ready to go public.
“Where are we going to find one?” he asked.
“Patpong. We’re as good as some of the bar bands there.”
Bangkok’s red light district was crowded with go-go bars featuring taped rock music blasted through refrigerator-sized speakers for the benefit of smashed GIs. But the narrow, short alley also included small restaurants offering live music. Filipino singers dominated the business because they worked for cheap and belted out Western hits in passable English. But Billy and I could sell ourselves as the real deal.
“We’re straight from the States,” I said. “I played New York with Peter, Paul and Mary.”
“Well, it’s a bit of a stretch. I once played with Peter Yarrow at an anti-war protest at a church in Manhattan,” I replied. “I had my guitar and he invited me to play along. One song. With some other guys.”
“Hey, you played with him, right?”
“Why don’t we try the Bacchus?” I suggested. “They got a great menu.”
The Bacchus was pretty classy compared to many Patpong bars – you didn’t find ladies up on the bar shaking their butts and knocking over your beer; the urinals flushed; and the menu featured more than just burgers and fries. The fare posted on a sheet just outside the door included Greek, Italian, Southern French – eats you paid a fortune for in Thailand. I was tired of kwaitieo. The Greek bar owner claimed to be a distant relative of Aristotle Onassis.
I dropped by one afternoon and found him sitting at a table smoking a cigarette. He had a singer from Manila he wasn’t pleased with, and was looking for something new.
“Once a week. Ten dollars a show,” he offered.
“Twenty,” I countered, “You’re getting two singers.”
“Get out of here!” He waved me away and started back to the kitchen. Bottom line, ten dollars was pretty good, Patpong was a great place to drink and watch the human zoo, and it offered me the chance to play Bob Dylan – Patpong for Bleeker Street, Bacchus for Gerde’s Folk City.
“OK, OK,” I said. “Ten dollars, plus anything on your menu – and two drinks.”Mr. “Aristotle” walked over to a table, picked up a menu, studied it for a second, put it back down and sighed.
“No steak, no wine, no hard liquor. Otherwise, eat and drink what you want.” I took one last stab at the New Zealand steak. “How about once a month?” I pleaded. Mother of God, he said with his eyes, “Alright, alright.”
We sang at the Bacchus four hours a night, every Friday, for almost a year. We did Beatles and Stones, some blues, folk, whatever people yelled out, and we usually knew half the people doing the yelling. In the beginning, most in the audience were Volunteers. We had one guitar between us, but it was a 12-string and Billy had a great harmony voice for Crosby, Stills & Nash. Girls in the audience went nuts.
Helplessly hoping her harlequin hovers nearby
Awaiting a word.
Gasping at glimpses of gentle true spirit
He runs (dramatic, heart-stopping pause), wishing he could fly-y-y,
Only to trip at the sound of good-bye-e-e-e-e-e.
If people came in stoned, we’d break out Arlo Guthrie:
Coming in to Los Angeles, bringing in a couple of keys ,don’t touch my bags if you please,mister customs man."
Bernard Trink, the Bangkok World’s popular entertainment columnist, finally dropped by to check us out. Trink, an expat from New York, taught English at several Thai universities before making a name for himself as the “Night Owl,” doing quirky reviews of bars, clubs and massage parlors which always ended with the tagline “And I don’t give a hoot.” Trink liked what he heard, so he returned with a photographer and featured us in his well-read, weekly guide as “two singers from Stateside with a sweet sound.” Our upstairs room started getting crowded, and the seats were no longer filled mainly with friends. The Owl had hooted. Aristotle loved it. Business was good.
It took us a while to handle the changed audience. GIs roughed us up the most; they drank hard, half-listened, and ragged on anything mellow or soft. If they didn’t like a song, they shouted catcalls or noisily walked out in the middle. We learned how to keep them in their seats for a few beers with Creedence Clearwater rockers like “Proud Mary” and “Bad Moon Rising,” and anything with a refrain they could belt out with us whatever their stage of inebriation:
“You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant … (all together now)…’cept Alice!”
The house girls started slipping upstairs when we sang the Stones “Honky Tonk Woman” after I translated it for them. They adopted it as their anthem. I spoke Thai so I got along well with them. They knew I wasn’t buying, so nobody hustled, everyone could relax.
The girls moaned through an endless list of troubles and worries; life was hard, the future unsure, which for them it unfortunately was. They constantly worked to appease the gods who controlled their fate.
Like every other bar on Patpong, the Bacchus boasted its own Thai spirit house and the bargirls left offerings of flowers daily. They argued over the relative protective power of the Buddhist amulets each wore around her neck. They spent a good part of their profits visiting fortune tellers of all kinds, hoping to find the future held something good for them.
I was enjoying a plate of Aristotle’s pasta one evening after work when little Nuu (mouse) and her girlfriend Nohk (bird), sat down at the next table. Nuu’s younger sister was going to a hospital for an operation that was very antarai, dangerous, and Miss Mouse was very scared. I could see her dabbing at tears. The fortune tellers were divided in their predictions, she explained to Nohk; one saw success, the other saw shadows, darkness. What if the bad prediction was right?
I felt sorry for her. Nuu shared her unhappy life story with me when Billy and I first started singing there. She didn’t deserve another worry in her depressing and unlucky life. Maybe I could do something about it. I cornered them at the bar the following night.
“Did I ever tell you I read palms?”
“Ching, ching?” Really? They put out their hands.
“Nohk, I’ll do you first,” I announced. I needed to warm up, get some sort of patter going before I did Nuu. I looked around the room. “Bring me a pen.” Thai palmists used a pen to darken lines on a hand to see them better. Everyone in Thailand knew the love line ran across the top of the palm, and Nohk would be interested in that.
I carefully traced the line on Nohk’s hand, angled it towards the window light, and took my time studying it, occasionally sucking in my breath in surprise to build suspense, or scribbling a cryptic word in English on a paper napkin – something important I would undoubtedly share with them later. I spotted something odd on her right hand, rubbed my head in puzzlement, and asked for her left hand. Nohk became worried. I compared the two hands carefully. Aah! Exhaling dramatically, I launched into my predictions.
Nohk would work in Bangkok for three years. Then I saw her getting a letter from someone upcountry, a man she knew as a young girl (yes?)...good-looking, tall, his family owns a shop of some kind – did my description make any sense to her? (yes!). Nohk would return to her village and marry him (YES!) They would have children – at first I though she would be childless, but when I double-checked, comparing the lines on both hands, it became clear children were in her future. Nohk giggled, and Nuu congratulated her.
Then I turned to Nuu. She timidly advanced her hand. I gave her a cheery smile. I remembered what she told me earlier about her childhood, her mother teasing her about being so shy and quiet as a child and how she loved to spend time alone, watching the birds circling above her family’s rice field.
“You are someone who loves nature,” I said. “You dislike noise and arguments.” She nodded in agreement.
I described a French expat I had spotted her with several times. A stranger of that description would be coming to the Bacchus next month with a nice gift for her. Did she recognize the person I was describing? She nodded her head. They both knew who it was – Robert, the fat farang from Italthai, the scotch whiskey salesman who kept coming around the Bacchus to see her.
“October will be a good month for you. You will receive some unexpected ngun.” It was unclear whether the surprise money would come from a relative or a client. Then I slowly traced my finger up her fate line. The rest of the year 2513 was looking equally auspicious – I couldn’t foresee any sadness in her future. Nuu broke into a big smile. I gave myself an out, just in case.
“Remember, I am an American maw duu,” I warned. “Maybe my predictions are different from Thai maw duu.”
A month later, Nuu walked into the Bacchus carrying a small package of sweets for me. Everything had gone smoothly and her sister was back home. She was very relieved. I was even more relieved.When word got around, I was besieged by girls wanting a reading.
I avoided anything serious, lied shamelessly, predicted only good fortune, and everyone left happy.