Give these guys credit. The farm sale proceeds hadn’t been in my savings account but a few days when I received an urgent email from a Wells Fargo Customer Service Representative. He had some fancy-sounding, touchy-feely title and wanted me to call the local branch ASAP to set up an appointment with an Investment Banker. You see, I was undoubtedly in need of sage advice regarding my newfound riches and Wells Fargo would be more than happy to provide some guidance: Investment Man-agement, Estate Planning…why, there was even an Affluent Customer program that I might be interested in.
How thoughtful of them.
Keep in mind that this was a half year before the scandals came to light, which showed that Wells Fargo’s true expertise lay in forging customer signatures on sham accounts and then hitting them with fees. I, however, found my own reason for declining their generous offer.
A month before, when it had become clear that the farm sale was going to close and I would no longer need to be eating street vendor food every day, I visited the Wells Fargo website to do a little research. I had found a Vanguard no-load mutual fund I wished to put some of the anticipated money into. If I went through the company currently handling my invest-ments (Vanguard), there would be no fees or charges provided I could come up with a $3,000 minimum — an amount I was reasonably sure I could swing. Wells Fargo, on the other hand, was going to ding me $35 for each online trade. And this was only one of the many schemes they had to pry open my wallet: Account Maintenance Fees, Transfer Fees, Termination Fees…hell, I think they even had a Transgender Fee.
No surprise, however. Wells Fargo is a bank which makes a tidy profit nickel and diming customers (both real and made up) who elect to use its investment services. But the associated costs simply do not compare with a real investment company such as Vanguard.
I declined to respond to the Customer Service fellow’s email. The farm money was only in my account another week before I moved it out, and I really did not have anything pleasant to say to the guy anyway. I might be considered an Affluent Customer, but I am not affluently stupid.
Selling the Farm
Let it never be said that I forget old girlfriends! Probably because there have been so few in my life. Anyway, it had been over five years since I’d last set eyes on Rasamee. The actual breakup came soon after that and though we still stayed in touch via email and I continued to help her, I eventually broke that off as well. The unending requests for money wore me out.
I had never removed Rasamee’s personal information from my laptop. Usually the parting of ways between me and a Thai lady leaves me in a vindictive mood, which I give expression to by deleting her from my files. But Rasamee was not that way and I’d always felt a measure of goodwill towards her. This meant I still had the woman’s bank account number and with her fifty-first birthday coming up a month after the farm sale closed, making me a rich man, a special present seemed like a fine idea.
As noted in another post, here in Thailand one can transfer money from their savings account to another bank through an ATM. So in the week leading up to Rasamee’s birthday, I did a number of transactions totaling three hundred thousand baht (@ $8,500) to be deposited in her account. It was all done anonymously as I had no interest in having her back in my life, reprising her role as a dogged, slightly annoying email buddy. How-ever I doubt she had any trouble figuring out who was behind all this. I only regret that I could not be there to see her face when she noticed all the money. In the past when I’d “flashed my cash” I never got much of a reaction from her, but I suspect this time around it would have been a little different.
But why give so much? Three hundred thousand baht is akin to receiving a second prize award in the national lottery. It is because Rasamee is a decent person, someone who is good at heart. More than any of the other women I have befriended in this country (and after six years that number is now approaching the half century mark), she deserves the help. Being over fifty with two children, it’s unlikely there will ever be a man in her life again and Thailand can be brutal on single mothers. I am just making it a bit more pleasant for her.
This would turn out to be perhaps the easiest of my acts of generosity.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America through its many programs does a number of fine things in the world. Though I am admittedly no longer a church person, I was raised in this faith and continue — despite living in Bangkok, the Southeast Asian equivalent of Sodom and Gomorrah — to subscribe its basic beliefs.
It therefore seemed fitting and proper that I donate a portion of the farm windfall to the ELCA. After all, someday I would be going to that great Go-Go Bar in the Sky (which features vintage Rock & Roll; the one in hell plays Hip Hop) and would have to answer for my undeserved riches. In late March I accordingly emailed them, inquiring how I could go about this.
In my message I did not mentioned a specific amount, only that it was the result of selling some Iowa farmland — which is not going cheap. Now one would think that an organization in perpetual need of funds like the ELCA would salivate over an opportunity like this and get right back to me. Instead it was almost two weeks before I heard from them.
Their tardiness made me angry. My no-nonsense Norwegian-Lutheran grandmother had instilled in me the importance of doing one’s chores in a timely manner. No screwing around. Maybe things in the church have become a bit slack these days. I mean, if it had been me in their position, dealing with a potentially huge amount of money, I’d have gotten off my butt and responded (in the immortal words of my fifth grade teacher), immediately if not sooner.
Somewhat reluctantly, I decided I could not work with these people. If I go to the trouble to contact an organization and offer to give them money, I’m not going to wait, hat in hand, while they take their sweet time get-ting back to me. They will either accord me some priority, or they will go without.
However, I am not a total Ebenezer. I have since added the ELCA as a beneficiary to a portion of my estate. (No point risking an eternity of Hip Hop.) But unless a wild Tuk Tuk driver runs me over, it’s likely going to be a few years before they see anything. They kept me waiting, so I am returning the favor. An eye for an eye.
Selling the Farm
For the five years that I have lived here, my friend Nicky has managed a combination travel agency and coffee shop just down the street. I used to go there often to browse the internet until I purchased a laptop, which allows me to surf from home. But I still try to stop by on occasion to say hello. In the past year or so I’ve started to bring cookies on some of my visits, a treat the staff — in particular a cute girl named Gan who’s quick with a smile — looks forward to. Call it staying in the good graces of my pretty neighbors.
I have come to admire Nicky (pictured below), a Thai businesswoman who unlike the bar girls who haunt the Soi is not looking for some rich Westerner to support her. She has never asked me for money and runs a pleasant place to hang out in, which I’d recommend:
Travel Bookings, Marriage Visa, Coffee Shop & Internet.
095-245-5159 or 095-245-5195
Located on Soi 4 a couple hundred meters beyond world-famous Nana Plaza. On the left, next to a small 7-Eleven.
Why not see if she could use some help?
Since Nicky’s English is very good, I stopped in and sat down with her one day to explain my offer. I told her about the farm I’d inherited and how I had sold it a couple months back, leaving me with ample means. However, my mother had left instructions that the money could only be used to help others — no spending it on myself. (In actuality mom never would have done something like that, but I’m quite sure she would have applauded the idea.) So, how about a little financial assistance to improve the business? Not wishing to sound like a game show host, I refrained from tossing about any outlandish figures. Instead, I tried to convey my sincerity in a friendly, low-key manner.
Throughout the course of my “pitch” Nicky seemed interested, perhaps as much in the story about my mother as the actual offer. It being Friday, she said she’d think about it over the weekend. A few days later, when I returned with my bank book, she surprised me by saying no.
This was a novelty: a Thai actually declining money from a foreigner! My estimation of the woman, already high, went up another notch. But I was at a loss as to the reason. By Nicky’s own admission, the past couple of days had been difficult as she wrestled with my generosity. Maybe I should have assured her — in good humor — that my helping out did not oblige her to sleep with me.
In all seriousness, I think this was too much for our friendship. Time and again I have noticed how Thai women tend to view love and financial munificence as all being part of the same package. From that perspective, my money-only proposition was confusing. Did this mean I was now interested in her? Or had I just slipped a cog? Whatever the actual reason, I did not take it personally.
I wish I could say that Newt, a lady masseuse who works at Friend’s Thai Massage in a nearby hotel, is a person I have a good rapport with. Like so many single Thai mothers, she is struggling to raise her children while working in a field bereft of glamour or good pay. Yet despite knowing her for over four years, things between us have never advanced beyond brief hellos and semi-annual massages in my room.
I think it stemmed from the second time I had Newt over, way back in 2012. As described in Making the Rounds, she wore a seductive dress and coyly let me know what the rate was for a beyond-the-rubbing roll in the hay. I was of course tempted — a woman does not get through the door of my apartment without having some physical appeal — but this time I hesitated. My lover-to-be hadn’t shown any real affection or desire during the massage and was now viewing me in a rather cold, calculating manner. Waiting to see if the mouse would take the baited cheese.
I ended up declining, though it was a close call, and from then on kept a certain distance. Our rare massage sessions remained pleasant enough; at times I found myself enjoying her company. Things just never advanced beyond that.
It was during one of our get-togethers back in June when Newt showed me a sore bruise on the back of her head. Apparently she has an abusive boyfriend who had slammed her up against a wall. Knowing the limits of what I could do in this situation, I nevertheless provided her with some extra money in order to return to the doctor. After we talked a bit more, I also decided to include cash earmarked for her son, advising her to go to a bank and put it into a savings account. During my half-decade in this country, I’d heard far too many unhappy stories about negligent Thai men and what absolute turds they could be. Better to keep any windfall out of his sight.
Two weeks passed. Then late one night, well after midnight, there was a soft knock on the door. It was Newt and a friend, both holding grocery bags filled with clothes. Newt had decided to leave her boyfriend as well as her dead-end job and was stopping by to bid me farewell. She was also clearly hoping I would provide some more money to help facilitate what sounded like a courageous move. No hay problema! I got dressed, took her down the street to an ATM, and withdrew twenty thousand baht (almost $600). She then hailed a cab to the bus station at Mo Chit, on her way out of the city.
Before she departed, I got Newt’s phone number and asked that she text me the number of the savings account she’d opened (at Siam Commercial Bank). It was my plan to provide her with special assistance once she had resettled with her family(?) out in provinces. She obviously needed time to get things sorted out.
And that’s when it all got strange…
When we’d last left our hero, I’d given Newt a hefty sum of money to allow her to escape from a violent boyfriend and leave Bangkok entirely, returning to her family and friends upcountry. This was of course only a temporary solution and with no job, her “vacation” would not last long. Therefore, the day following her departure, I transferred thirty thousand more baht ($850) into her bank account, hoping this would allow ample time to get her life in order and decide on the next move.
Though we were never close, Newt had always struck me as a down-to-earth, reasonable person, which is why I was helping out. After I’d taken care of the money, I texted her the details, expecting maybe a thank you in response with a brief update on how things were going. Instead, I get this desperate message saying that she now, suddenly, really missed me and “needed to hear my voice”.
Yeah, right. Being boyfriend-less, Newt was clearly going into overdrive to recruit yours truly, Mr. Generosity, as a replacement. Perfectly under-standable. However, the tactics being used were comically divorced from reality. There never had been anything the least bit romantic between us and her clumsy attempt at manipulation guaranteed there never would be. In fact, I decided right then and there that, having done my good deed, I was through assisting my former masseuse.
I have learned from long experience that there is no real reasoning with a Thai woman. The (Western) guy may think he’s making a point when in reality he’s only wading deeper into a quagmire. It is more than cultural differences; these ladies are just plain tough and never lose sight of what they are after. Therefore, I elected not to respond to Newt’s declarations of newfound affection. Nothing I could say would have any effect.
A few days later a trio of text messages arrived, having been sent at the ungodly hour of three in the morning. The first was the standard “miss you” missive. Not unexpected. However, the other two were rambling narratives that I could not make any sense of whatsoever. It’s like they were written by some alien who knew the rudimentaries of English, but was clueless about how to use them.
For the next three weeks, I maintained an uneasy silence while batches of bizarre, stream-of-consciousness texts continued to show up at irregular intervals. At times Newt seemed to be talking about some guy she once knew, but I could not follow the story at all. This woman seemed to have wandered off the reservation. And what, do you suppose, was going to happen once the money ran out? Would I need to start looking over my shoulder?
I had predicted to my American friend that Newt would be showing up at my place as soon as the money was gone. The way she’d been behaving suggested someone unable to get her life together and who’d inevitably be seeking another infusion of cash. (I’d had an aunt who was like this.) What shocked me was how soon what turned out to be the grand finale took place.
If I had not been up late watching a movie, I would have missed the soft, tentative taps on my door. As I peered through the peephole, I could only make out a dark, bedragged figure that must have mistaken my apartment for that of another fellow. (My neighborhood being the sleeze center of Bangkok meant there were often women coming and going at odd hours.) Opening up, I took an involuntary step back. Before me was Newt with greasy, unkept hair hanging down over the shoulders of a rumpled, dirty blouse. On the verge of tears, she pointed to a large bruise on her upper leg while mumbling in a self-pitying voice. Destitute and helpless.
What the hell had happened? That large sum I’d transferred into her bank account a while back when combined with my prior “donations” meant Newt had enough to comfortably get by on for three or four months. Yet now here she was, barely four weeks later, in dire straits all over again. Suspecting that the money had been wasted, and more than a little pissed off, I firmly shut the door. While not denying her wretched misery — like a character out of a Dickens novel — this was also an attempt to wheedle a knee-jerk reaction out of me. Something like Newt…? Oh my God! Come in! Unfortunately for my visitor, I am a veteran of Asian woman mini-dramas and had no interest in following the script.
Temporarily repulsed, Newt slumped to the floor next to the door, out of my sight. There was no thought of admitting defeat. Rather, this was the next act: to try and make the soft-hearted guy reconsider the plight of the forlorn woman huddled on his doorstep. Someone with nowhere else to go. (Cue heart-wrenching music.)
I didn’t even bother to peek out as I reached for my shoes while trying to keep my mind clear; I knew she was there, playing the game. Yet despite my experience in these situations, Newt had nevertheless shocked me — this was not the woman I thought I’d known (ah, and how many Western men here in Bangkok have uttered that lament?). It was time to put some distance between us.
OK, then. The first step in these predicaments is to remove the lady from the premise. Stepping out past my supplicant, I motioned for her to come with me, which to my relief she did, no doubt anticipating another trip to the ATM. (If she had remained, I was prepared to head out on my own and leave her there.) As we descended the second flight of stairs, Newt re-engaged her Oliver Twist persona, stepping with her good leg, then painfully dragging the injured one down beside it, all the while grasping the railing. The performance was so compelling that in a better mood I might have applauded.
At the gate to the apartment complex I suddenly stopped, mentioned the amount of money I had given her so far (some $1,500), then crossed and uncrossed my arms like an NFL referee signaling an unsuccessful field goal attempt. I wanted to make it clear that nothing more would be forth-coming, that this…was…the end. I then quickly turned and headed back to my apartment, leaving her standing there, silent. On my way I stopped and asked the guards not to let that woman through again.
After banishing Newt from my apartment, I’d hoped I’d seen the last of her. The best explanation for all the unpleasantness is that my generous financial help had caused her to go goofy on me. There must be, beneath that calm exterior, an undercurrent of weirdness that the well-intentioned money had somehow brought to the surface. It baffled me that I’d never sensed this before. Usually I can tell if a Thai lady is somewhat off kilter (especially if she’s had a few too many). But not with Newt. She became a completely different person. Kind of scary.
Three weeks passed with no more surprise visits or messages. It seemed I was finally free of the craziness. Then Newt fired off another round of incomprehensible SMS texts. Huh? I would have thought she’d gotten the point during that apartment scene when I emphatically explained I was through helping her. The Thais after all place great value on main-taining face; shouldn’t this have caused her to reconsider and not risk another (and likely more vehement) rejection?
This time I decided to send a brusque reply, having grown weary of the unending gibberish: Leave me alone!! Unable to let things go, Newt responded with another batch of messages (which often seem to come in threes for some reason). The first two contained the usual indecipherable garbage. But the third was a brief (and surprising) apology, which I found mildly encouraging.
Soon after that exchange, I left Bangkok for my annual U.S. vacation. As one of my pre-departure tasks, I turned off my cell phone and removed the SIM card, leaving it along with some other items with a friend. This meant that any attempts to contact me would result in a “not available” response. If Newt wanted to bang her head against this electronic wall for over a month, she could go right ahead.
Perhaps that did the trick. In the almost three months since I’ve returned to the Land of Smiles, there have been no further mystery texts. But to my dismay, my tormentor ended up back at her old job at the massage shop, a couple dozen paces from the entrance to my apartment complex. I was not completely surprised when I saw her there, however; in fact I could have predicted this sad trajectory once there was no more support forthcoming. I forced a smile and a friendly wave, then rapidly retreated to put some distance between us, all the while biting my tongue least I spit out the f-word. At least she can no longer make surprise visits to my room — the guards will not let her by.
All in all, it’s a messy, exasperating ending to what began as an honest effort to assist someone in real need. Instead, it turned into another lesson in how things in this country can unexpectedly go awry.
One nagging question remains: What happened to all the money? This woman burned through over one thousand and five hundred dollars in less than a month — an exorbitant rate by Thai standards. If I had to speculate, I’d say she saw this not as a lifeline, but rather an opportunity to live the high life off of my largesse while assuming it would continue. Or, to put this another way, that she could cajole me into keeping the cash coming. This strategy might actually have worked to some degree if she had acted in a sensible manner.
Ultimately I am never going to know what she was thinking — or if she was just acting out of instinct and not thinking at all. It will have to go down as one more Thai Woman Mystery.
🎄Holiday Notice🎄 Next posting will be Sunday, January 8, 2017.
Beer Garden is located a couple blocks off of Sukhumvit Road, on Soi 7. It is what is known as a “freelancer bar”, a meat market in other words, where Thai women go to find a foreigner willing to part with some of his baht for a brief interlude of intimacy. With dimensions resembling that of a warehouse, there can be two dozen girls lounging around the maze of counters some nights, chatting with their friends while keeping their eyes peeled for a “customer”. If there is a heaven for lonely old men, it surely includes a place like this.
I ended up sitting next to Bam one July evening purely by accident. We swapped looks, but with her square, rather plain face and tiny figure, she didn’t make much of an impression. After awhile, to kill time, I got out my language notebook and begin practicing writing Thai characters. This is the way I meet women over here and it works amazingly well. When they see the pages I’ve churned out, demonstrating my seriousness, they practically fall over each other attempting to give me instruction. It’s a natural, nonthreatening way to make a connection. Soon Bam had joined the nearest barmaid in writing down Thai words that I’d comically mis-pronounce, which kept them both entertained.
Where Bam and I hit it off was when I had her write the words in Thai for “zero baht”. I copied them onto a small piece of paper then, reaching over the bar, took my running bill for the evening from its wooden cup and replaced it with my scratchings, all the while keeping a straight face. The audacity of this had Bam in stitches for the next ten minutes. (The barmaid was somewhat less amused, being responsible for the bill, but was a good sport once she realized I wasn’t trying to pull a fast one.)
This was the first of what became three consecutive evenings of at times uproarious fun. Bam would try to teach me some Thai while I looked for ways to send her into semi-hysterics. Although I like to see myself as a composed, somber individual, at heart I’m a comedian and am delighted whenever I find someone whose sense of humor is on the same wave-length.
When I showed up later in the week for what I hoped would be a fourth night of frolics, Bam informed me and the barmaid (who had become part of our little gathering) that she could not join us. Though I had been tipping my petite instructor five hundred baht each night ($14), this was not enough to pay the rent and she needed to find a serious customer.
If had half a brain, I’d have seen this coming. This was a freelancer bar, not a nightclub, and it was naive of me to expect a lady there to welcome my rib-tickling company night after night only to be left with a pittance. On the other hand, shelling out more baht for the company of someone I was having such a super time with might be a worthwhile outlet for my new riches.
Not being interested in trying to find another lady to entertain, I soon left for home. The featured music that night was grinding electronic garbage and I needed some quiet time to consider my next move.
It took me only a couple of days to decide I’d up the ante in order to continue the fun I’d been having with Bam. Not being interested in half measures, I gave her a thank you card with ten thousand baht ($300) in appreciation of her efforts to teach me some Thai. This was also a signal that I was to be taken seriously, that I wasn’t just some funny but stingy foreigner. Soon after that Bam came home with me, spending the night when the wine I served proved to be too much for her beer-soft alcohol tolerance.
My decision to actually begin supporting Bam came from a visit I made to her apartment — something she insisted I do after she’d been to my place a couple of times. I’m still unclear as to why the invitation came. Did she want me to spend the night, or simply to witness how she was barely scraping by? Probably the later. Regardless, I was saddened when I saw her cramped accommodations — reaching out with my arms, I could almost touch both walls. On the left side was a worn dresser fol-lowed by a tiny table with a single plastic chair. On the right was the TV. Bam slept in front of this, atop a thin cushion which seemed to offer little relief from the rock-hard floor. A narrow street ran by the rear window and the roar of passing motorbikes drowned out any conversation.
Up to this point I’d been on the fence regarding this woman. Yes, we’d been having a blast when we were together, but her English was poor, which limited conversation. (Not that I should be complaining — after a half decade in this country I should be speaking her language.) And, horror of horrors, she preferred beer over wine. But the sight of her sad little room decided me. I would begin providing what is called Safety Money so she would not have to be scrounging for customers at the bar anymore. Perhaps find a less miserable apartment.
I only stayed a half hour at Bam’s before she hinted that maybe I should return home. Being escorted from her place through dark alleyways out to a main road, I stopped at an ATM and withdrew my first Safety Money payment of fifteen thousand baht (over $400). As I handed it over to her, there was none of the teary happiness that usually follows my largesse. She simply stood there, silently counting the bills without even a thank you. Then she made a request: was it OK with me if she continued going to the bar? Understanding that Beer Garden was where she hung out with her friends, I had no problem with this. But…would she still be going out with customers? The thought didn’t occur to me at the time and if it had, I would not have cared. As things turned out, I ended up detonating the relationship for a far more mundane reason.