6. A Bout of Bangkok
"Ta, this Thai silk is beautiful," Charlie Speight said.
"I have some for Roy's wife too. I wasn't sure what colors
each of your wives would like so I just bought two of each," Ta
"Hey Ta. Check it out," as Bobby boosted out his hip showing
off his new crocodile belt.
Roy walked in. "Charlie that shipment of cars for Avis is
here. Ta," Roy wheezed, "Thank you for the silk. This silver
cigarette case with a crocodile covering is wonderful."
"Oh, that's not from me. I only bought you the silk. That's
from Tom," she said.
"Okay, Tommy." Roy yelled, "What's the catch?" Still bouncing
the cigarette case in his hand and looking around to see where
I had gone.
"Miss Ta, they are always like this," Charlie said as he held
up a finger and reached to answered his phone.
Mike couldn't resist a quick spin with his thumbs displaying
his new belt, "Thanks Ta."
Murphy walked in with his new silk tie and pushed everyone
out of Mr. Speight's office, "Come on. This is still a car dealership.
Unless you're flying to Bangkok next week go sell something. Hi Ta.
Thanks for the tie."
"Murphy, it suits you," Ta said.
I was back in the parts department with the Opel mechanics. I
was buyiny two of everything that my car might need in the next
25,000 miles. If I was going to Thailand my car was coming with me.
And my trunk was going to be full of hard to find spare parts
before I left.
I hope Roy liked the cigarette case, I need to borrow a demo
truck to get 30 cases of Carlo Rossi rose wine down to the docks,
Jack and Ethel sat across the table-Jack with his can of
beer-Ethel with her glass of wine. They listened to me tell Ta's
story like they were watching a block buster film. We were leaving.
I at least owed them the trailer.
"Well, if you're eventually coming back, you don't have any
furniture. The room behind the laundry room is vacant. You can ***112
store your stuff there if you want. What about Ta's car?" Jack
"I sold it. The guy's coming with a certified check tomorrow,"
"And your fish, I'm sure Ta can make a fine stew before you
go," Jack added.
I just stared at him.
"Okay, just leave them. We'll consider them last month's rent.
I'll put the fish in my 120 gallon tank until I can move your tank
down into our bedroom," Jack said.
"Into our bedroom?" Ethel asked."The sound of the water is
going to get you waking me up every 15 minutes to head to the
"It might be every 15 minutes but it won't be to get up to
go to the bathroom," Jack said as he slid his hand between Ethel's
Ethel and I both blushed.
Bobby, Mike, Ta and I met at dock 4 of the Long Beach harbor
terminal. We had spent most of the day together packing up our
apartment and loading up the demo truck. Our cargo had all been
checked in and our shipping documents were all in order. All that
was left was our air flight bags in the back of the truck waiting
for our airport taxi to arrive.
Ta hardly knew my friends. I knew this was the last time I
would see them. Remembering the ride to the airport to pick up Ta,
I pulled Bobby aside. There was something I had to tell him. With
my arm around him he thought I had something profound to say. He
bent down to reverently hear what it was, "Call Chloe and Ginger
Bobby looked at me like he was in shock.
"They surf Malibu and Venice Beach," I said.
"How did you...?" the sound of a taxi horn cut him off.
There wasn't time. Our flight to Thailand was leaving that
night. I tried so hard to hold on to what I knew was the love of
my life but I was giving up a lot tonight. I was giving up people
who were true friends. Friends I would never have a chance to see
"We'll be landing in Bangkok in 35 minutes. The local
"TJ, you've hardly said two words this whole flight. What's ***113
wrong?" Ta said.
"Life," I said.
Ta didn't say anything. I think she understood. I just knew
I'd better snap out of it if I was going to survive another round
of living here.
But I didn't have time to readjust. We were met at the airport
by sub-lieutenant Prakam, nicknamed Ed who played the guitar and
had a thing for Elvis. He had been one of the police cadets
that I used to see walking down the street with their boot-camp
haircuts carrying black briefcases in their right hands their eyes
always forward in their white pressed dressed shirts, green pants,
and high-polished boots.
They were the elite of the Royal Thai Police Academy. And Ed
had been at the top of his class until he got demoted twice for
insubordination. He was also captain and the best player of his
alumni tennis team. Two minutes after I met him I knew he wasn't
anything more than an arrogant bully. Thailand was a police state
and anyone not wearing a uniform he looked down on and tried to
He was the first virus to result from Khun P.'s indiscretions.
The police had been called in when the situation between Khun M.
and Khun P. turned violent as Ta progressed to starting fights with
Khun P.'s mistress who was a 33 year old actress and lounge singer
with an affection for older rich men. Only the highest bid would
win her bed. In her eyes, Knun P. thought he was special. His money
was. He was not. And Ta would do anything to snap him out of the
siren's spell and get her father back. Ed volunteered to help out.
Nobody asked for it. He just started coming around on his own.
My being there only made him more jealous of my relationship
with Ta. Before I was just someone she talked about. Now that I was
cutting in on his quality time he did everything he could to try to
keep us apart. If he wasn't at work patrolling the streets he would
be at the office. Even when he was supposed to be at work, he dropped
by whenever he could. He just couldn't stand seeing Ta and me spending
time alone. He tried to justify his behavior by saying that he was
only trying to help Khun M. That was my first week back.
Ta and her mom weren't living at home anymore. They had turned
Ta's two shops into an office and living quarters. The office was
a constant progression of meetings- meetings with friends-meetings
with bankers-meetings with lawyers-meetings with fortune tellers.
Usually, I was out the door early with a lounge chair, a pair of ***114
sunglasses, a bottle of tanning lotion, and a Time magazine. Thais
didn't understand that. Especially, the security people who had
moved over from the house to look after Khun M. They were all
sitting in front of the entrance in the shade with Ja.
I remember meeting him the first time I arrived at Ta's
house. I remembered how he cowered under Khun P.'s scolding and
thinking why don't you stand up for yourself. He walked over and
offered me a drink. I nodded. I couldn't understand what he said.
I smiled. He motioned me out of the sun and started to give me a
massage. But it wasn't a normal massage. He pushed in a muscle
and flipped me around. I wondered how he did it and motioned for
him to do it again. He just laughed and went back to joking with
Then as the days went by he came up and offered me more drinks
and pulled me out of the sun for different kinds of massages. It
wasn't long before I understood that he was teaching me Akido. I
knew because he started to push me while others cheered and he
waited for me to react. He would readjust my hand as I tried to
grab him to make sure I did it right.
He enjoyed that I wanted to learn. Pretty soon as soon as I
woke up I'd go out and sit with the security detail. I forgot all
about the sun. But I couldn't understand what he was telling me.
I could only understand the action and reaction.
One day he took me into Daeng's utility closet. Daeng was the
resident mechanic and handyman. I always thought he was a bit hard
to look at because he was crosseyed. Ja said something to Daeng.
Daeng called in a couple of the security team and they hooked up
a punching bag. But Daeng didn't hit it. He kicked it. And he kicked
it so hard it barely moved. Ja started motioning with his hands
He motioned for me to try a kick. I was wearing sneakers.
What the hell. This won't hurt. I kicked. It was so soft compared
to Daeng's snap everybody started laughing until Ja scolded them.
He walked me out of the room massaging my arm and made a wide arc
with his arm around the sky like he was saying he'd see me tomorrow.
I'd never asked Ta before; now I wanted to know. She was at
her desk doing accounts. Khun M. was in the other room sleeping.
Ed had just left for the night shift.
I just sat down in front of her leaning on my elbow. I didn't
say anything. She looked up and smiled. She continued to write for
a stretch before dropping her pencil massaging her temples and
asking me, "Okay. What is it? I know you're thinking of something." ***115
"Ja and Daeng, tell me about them."
"Professional fighters. Ja was military martial arts before
he won five Thai boxing belts. He retired undefeated. That's why
he's the head bouncer here. Daeng, he fought up north, I think he
got hurt, something about his eyes. Why?"
"Ja must be sixty and he can hardly see and you're letting
him work as a bouncer?"
"Hairy, Ja doesn't need to see; he feels. Look at him. He's
the same height as you but he's twice as wide and twice as thick
and he has no fat."
"Yes, maam. Want some seafood chook? The kitchen is just
about ready to close?"
Ta nodded with a smile. I finally knew what I was going to
be doing for the duration. It's one thing when you go looking for
a teacher but quite another when a teacher comes looking for
I started setting the alarm for 6am. It was time to get back
into running. Out the front gate from Chavala, I'd cross the street
dodging cars making my way for the railroad tracks that traced a
perimeter around the inner city. The railbed stones crackled like
crushed ice as I ran past day laborers on their way to work. At
first, it was just the frying spicy peppers that blew tears in my
eyes and scratched at my throat until I had to cough. Then it was
the competing smells of Thai cooking and human sewage emulating
from the shanty town that had grown out from both sides of the
tracks. Northern farmers had traded in their thatched grass-roof
houses, stilted barn-board floors, and clean fresh breezy air for
the dream of a better life. What they got was a jungle of corrugated
steel cages with dirt-packed floors. Every time it rained they
had to worry about a flood carrying away their meager possessions.
Every time it didn't they had to risk getting their drinking water
from the canal.
But every day, naked kids with dirty faces continued to run
around with sticks-laughing and screaming like they were imaginary
super heroes with golden lances or glimmering swords. Ocassionally,
they'd chase after me like I was a villian who needed to be run
out of town.
A family that was fortunate enough to have a tv and skilled
enough to tap into an electrical cable looming overhead could open
a makeshift restaurant and be sure of a steady clientelle.
This was a place with all its down to earth activity and charm ***116
I'd have to explore some day. After I get tired of taking all those
touristy pictures of temples and monks, I'll be back. I'll sit on
one of those old milk crates, order a coke, watch tv, and get
some honest shots of real Thai life.
After two miles and a left turn I was back to a sidewalk and
the facade of the city. Even though it was still early the walkways
were all ready starting to choke up with an ever growing number of
people. I didn't mind. It was good practice weaving and bobbing and
thinking quick on my feet. I'd make the mile run to the horse racing
track with it's adjoining golf course and deserted walkways in no
Passing the statue of King Rama VI facing the business district,
I'd smell the green of Lumpini Park as I slipped down one of its
jogging trails. Away from the smog, the crowds, and the noise, I
could enjoy the quiet and the calm of its paddle boat lake. A lap
and a half later-two miles-I'd be on Wireless Road facing the
American Embassy. With its rows of interlocking Oak trees, it was
a floral tunnel in the middle of the city.
Close to home and by now soaking wet, I'd run alongside a
canal still being used as a taxiway by long boats speeding their
fares from the outskirts to the city. With its banks overgrown
with vines reaching up into the trees, it was a forest trail until
I reached the stairs and the bridge.
From the bridge, I could see the last intersection and the
road leading home. The shop owners had extended their awnings out
over the sidewalk and tied them to the four foot railing along
the curb to block out the sun. I couldn't see them but I could
smell the venders wares cooking in the shade. This part of the
run I had to walk but that was okay because I was looking for
something to eat. Grilled squid, a six inch toothpick, a leasurely
walk, and my run was done.
I don't know how he knew but Ja was waiting for me with a
towel that first day I decided to start running again. He nodded
like he knew I finally understood. Every day I ran he taught me
something new. Every day I didn't he was nowhere to be found.
The punching bag was in Daeng's office but Ja considered the
whole compound his gym. The Turkish bath didn't open up until 4pm
so he had lots of time to torture me before he had to go to work.
And he wasted no time in introducing me to the four flights of
stairs next to the elevator. With a bucket of water in each hand,
I walked up and down those stairs until my thighs burned and my ***117
calves cramped up.
He taped my ankles to a massage table with me bending over
backwards at the waist. This was his idea of a sit-up. All the way
back to touch the floor; all the way forward to touch my toes.
It took a few months but my stomach got as stiff and as flat as
an ironing board.
His ideas on stretching were medieval. He thought pain was
weakness leaving the body. But getting my knee up to within six
inches of my nose with my leg outstreched, even I was impressed.
Still, it had been almost three months and he hadn't even let
me near the bag. I kept pointing at it and he kept pointing at his
watchless wrist while he shook his head. Finally, two weeks later
he pointed at the bag.
"TJ, I just got a call from the port authority. Your car is
here," Ta said.
"Great. It's about time. Let's go get it. We can be back by
"Sorry, but you can't go today. You have a 1:30 pm appointment
at immigration. Your visa runs out tomorrow. And unless they give
you an extension, you'll be in for a 12 hour train ride to Malaysia
"Not Hong Kong?"
"Sorry, I have no time to travel."
Looking at the appointment card, "Who's in room 317?"
"Oh, that reminds me. Give him this tin of Macadamia cookies."
"Great-a cookie bribe-I'm sure that will work."
The immigration line stretched around the corner of the open air
three-story police building. A multi nationality of faces eyed me
suspiciously, ready to protest violently, if I dared to cut in at the
front of the line. But I used the other door and headed up the flight
of stairs to the third floor. A police woman was sitting at a desk
arranging papers in front of the closed door stamped with the number
Looking up, she held out her hand, "Passport please." After
thumbing through my passport she picked up the phone. She nodded
several times and hung up. "Please follow me."
I couldn't believe it. It was Joey sitting behind the desk in
his well-pressed major uniform. He had come out of his six-month
coma and was back at his old job as head of immigration. Except for
a scar on his forehead receding into his hairline and his holding ***118
his left arm as if it was in a sling he looked the same. He had even
gained about 20 pounds.
"TJ, you can close your mouth now. How are you? Take a seat."
"Wow. Joey you look great. Those nurses at the hospital must have
taken real good care of you."
"Yeah. One in particular did so well I married her."
"How's she been taking care of you now that you have tied the
"Better. She's two months pregnant."
"TJ, I see here in your passport that you have a three month
visa. Didn't you know that after three months you're supposed to
leave the country to come back again?"
"Yeah. Ta told me I might be on the train to Malaysia tonight."
Joey pointed to the medal on his shoulder, "I guess I can make
an exception just this once. But the next time you leave you're going
to have to check in with the tax department first." He handed my
passport to the police woman who had been standing by and told her
to fill out the paperwork for me to sign
"The tax department? Why? I don't work."
"Anyone staying over 90 days without leaving the country has to
report to them. They charge you 15% on the money you brought into the
country to spend."
"Do you have any friends over there?"
"Sorry. We're the police. They are civilian."
"Oh, I almost forgot. Ta says these cookies are for you."
Joey reached over and after opening the tin and offering me one
he dug in and popped one whole into his mouth, "I love these things.
When I was studying in the states, Ta used to bring these back from
Hong Kong for me all the time." Joey munched and thought for a moment.
"TJ, tell me something. If I didn't give you this extension were you
still going to give me the cookies?"
"Hell no. I was going to save them for the train ride to Malaysia."
"Sign here please," the police woman said. As soon as I did she
handed my passport back to Joey who, cookie in hand, stamped it for
another three months.
As I started to get up, Joey had one more question, "By the way.
How's your friend Mike?"
"Last I heard, he's still working as a steward for TWA and has
gotten serious with a stewardess. He's thinking of getting married next
year,if you can believe that's possible with Mike." ***119
Joey shook his head.
As I walked down the stairs I kept thinking. No wonder Khun P. is
acting crazy, Joey got married.