The Go Go Dancer Who Stole My Viagra

Verses Of A Bangkokian Steinbeck

March 21, 2006

Dean Barrett. PhredPhoto

A bit back I was in Thailand and doing a pub crawl with my friend Dean Barrett. Dean is a perceptive writer, highly literate, a transplanted New Yorker, and the Kipling of the bar scene in Bangkok. He gave me his book of poetry, The Go Go Dancer Who Stole My Viagra and Other Poetic Tragedies of Thailand.* Any man who has spent time in Asia will resonate to it.

Dean has been in BKK for a long time. The bar districts are his ambit, or one of his ambits—Patpong, Nana Plaza, Soi Cowboy, Washington Square. They are garish, tinny, exciting, and boring, the girls who work in them willowy, shy, at times feral, and just freaking lovely.

Some of the joints, the ones that seem to be mostly for sex tourists, jump with godawful disco music while a dozen tired and probably drugged-up girls in bikinis circle brass poles. Others, the Takara for example, are more tranquil, popular among the regulars, the expats who have made Thailand their home. The Texas Lone Star Saloon, in Washington Square off Sukhumvit, is a country bar that could be in Texas.

A lot of westerners marry in Thailand and live contented lives. Others have been that route and aren’t about to do it again. Others are just happier unattached. Do you want to eat in the same restaurant the rest of your life, they ask? You see the latter two groups in the bars.

The men who patronize these places are easily described as a bunch of drunks guzzling their pensions. Many call them pathetic, hopeless, shiftless, and contemptible. This misses much that is essential. Most I think are not drunks, though they drink. There are men and men. Each has a story to tell. Usually the expats have more stories than the respectable people back in the world. Some are veterans of Vietnam, some worked the oil rigs, or for the big international contractors. Others bailed out after a nasty divorce, or got sick of the tightening laws back home. The older among them often carry Viagra in their pockets. You can call this absurd. I’m not sure it is.

In judging them, if you regard yourself as competent to do so, it helps to ponder their stage of life. Young expats may have businesses or jobs, but many really are in Bangkok to die. They might not put it that way, but after sixty-five that’s the way to bet. You die young, or you get old and then die. Those are the available options. You have to do it somewhere. Bangkok is somewhere.

Their choice was to age in some boring suburb back home, perhaps with a wife who has grown boring through too-long exposure (though one never, ever says so); or to age in the bars in the company of lovely lasses with cameo skin and glossy black hair and a certain carnal availability, while drinking with their buddies and telling war stories. The decision for many is a no-brainer. Crump we do and crump we will. Might as well do it in a place you enjoy.

It is a mistake to think that such men necessarily lack intelligence, education, or culture. Dean certainly doesn’t. They have simply made another choice.

The ambience of the bars is hard to describer to those who haven’t known it, which is why Dean appeals. He knows the men, the women, the visiting frauds who moralize and then sneak away from their wives, the young westerners who have looked at what western women are becoming and run like hell.

Depending on your point of view, the expats are exploiting the girls, or the girls are exploiting the expats, or the gals are just providing a service, but it isn’t an unfriendly thing. Sometimes it is like the British pub. You have your favorite bars where you know the mama-san and the girls.

I’m not idealizing it, and neither does Dean, who is far too old and wise in the ways of the thing to paint it in roseate hues or to be sniffish. The girls age and have to move on, not always having anywhere to move on to. They have a kid, maybe were working in a fruit-juice stall and decided that they would make more in a bar. It is not always pretty, but then neither are lots of things. The hookers too are people, and they too have their stories. This Dean knows. He knows the scene with all its charm and warts. He knows that some things just are.

And that some things don't change. In his poem “Buffalo Him Die Send Money,” he tells of the bar girl who writes her farang boyfriend, now in the States, that her water buffalo has been struck by lightning and she needs money. The boyfriend reflects how curious it is that that this is the third time this year that her buffalo has been struck by lightning. Yep. Old hands will smile at these stories.

It all comes down to the age-old bargain: Women exchange sex for whatever they want. Men exchange whatever they have for sex. Call it prostitution, or call it marriage, which is just prostitution with compulsory brand-loyalty. It’s how God made us, probably in a moment of ill humor. Some things just are.

* This and Dean's other books are available at Amazon.

“The Silly Old Man with the Young Thai Girl in the Texas Lone Star Saloon”

He must be twice her age at least
With mottled, wrinkled skin
His hair is dyed a bottle-black
His face is wintry thin

Blue veins snake down his bony hands
Like roots of ancient trees
He wears a pair of checkered shorts
Above his scrawny knees.

The girl he’s with is beautiful
Her shoulder-length black hair
Surrounds and frames her dark brown face
Her shoulders soft and bare

He drinks his Mekhong whiskey down
And orders yet again
The girl he’s with just sighs and sneaks
A smile at other men.

They sit in silence, the silly old man
And the girl who stole his heart
Someone should whisper in his ear
“Too many years apart!”

Someone should whisper in his ear
“Your girl is bored to death!
Your eyelids droop, your shoulders stoop
There’s whiskey on your breath!”

Someone should whisper in his ear
That if he didn’t pay
He might just find his lady love
Would soon be on her way.

He wallows in her loving gaze
So puppy-dog serene
Serenity for her of course
His ATM machine.

But he might whisper in our ears
“Well, don’t you think I know?
I made my choice and so will you
With fewer years to go.”

I’m not so sure what to make of him
There is no guiding rule
I wonder if he could be both
A wise man and a fool.

He turns his head to pay the bill
And suddenly I see
It’s a mirror on the wall
The silly old man is me.

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