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.
Each December the girls in the Apartment Office have baskets of goodies delivered to some of the tenants. But last month’s gift (with its amusing holiday greetings), was noticeably smaller than usual. Nor had there been any Christmas lights strung up on the trees next to the swimming pool. Upper management is getting stingy.
But this did not diminish my desire to provide an evening of good cheer for my three female friends at the Sports Academy Pool Hall down on Sukhumvit Road. One of them, Lat, was leaving in a few weeks to spend three months in America with her Illinois boyfriend, so this would also be a bon voyage party of sorts.
While Sport Academy (like most bars) does offer wine, it comes in a box, whose vintages are labelled by month instead of year. Fermented mouth-wash. To avoid this packaged purgatory, I brought with me bottles of an Australian Shiraz and a tame Cabernet Sauvignon from the snooty Wine Section of the Villa Market grocery store a few blocks away.
Since Lat was playing Nine Ball with another customer for much of the night, the festivities centered on the trio of myself, Fone and Nui (both pictured below). Fone’s French boyfriend would not, alas, be making it to Thailand for the holidays while Nui’s relationship with her Thai husband seemed to be on the rocks. These were two women in real need of a good time.
I had not expected the girls to go into raptures over my “refreshments”, but was pleasantly surprised nonetheless. I had initially poured partial glasses for each, but these were emptied before we’d played but a few pool games of “Killer”. Thereafter I made it my job to keep the vineyard open. (Fone assisted by liberating the second bottle from my sidebag on her own initiative.)
The Aussie grapes worked their magic. After an hour nobody really cared what the score was or even whose turn was coming up. Limiting my own intake, I played the jovial role of the Ghost of Christmas Present, adding sunflower seeds and cookies to the party while exchanging affectionate holiday hugs. As things began winding down, Fone and Nui kissed me on each cheek, then Lat came over and topped it off with a smooch on the lips — a pleasure denied the fabled ghosts of A Christmas Carol.
Having all three girls at my table, I decided it was a good time to present them with their Christmas gifts: an envelope each with three thousand, ninety-nine baht (@ $90; the 99 baht was for good luck). This represents more than a quarter of their monthly salary and earned me yet another round of happy embraces. But even before I showered the money upon them, it was clear they were having fun. In fact, I don’t recall seeing all three in such good spirits.
It was the best of times.
My Christmas gift to Nui almost did not happen. Back in early October, she had cornered me and asked for five thousand baht (around $150) to purchase a gold necklace. I just smiled and shook my head. Only a few weeks before, after returning from my U.S. vacation, I had given Nui and two other girls who worked at the pool hall two thousand baht each. It had been over a year since I’d last visited Sports Academy — got out of the habit — and the money was my way of apologizing for the extended neglect. To have Nui trying to finagle even more struck me as greedy and for a while had me considering cancelling my planned Christmas gener-osity. Fortunately I was able to get back into the holiday spirit.
Nui and I go back a few years. I first met her in 2011 when she worked at another pool bar. The woman then dropped off the radar for a long while before surfacing at Sports Academy. I’ve found her to be a capable Eight Ball player, making (and missing) the same kind of shots I do until she becomes annoyed, at which point I’m in for a thrashing. Always serious, she’s my opponent of choice whenever I stop in for a few games.
There’s never been anything more than casual flirting between us, Nui being married. However, it now sounds like she is on her own. Because I appeal to Thai women who have troubles, our recent Eight Ball matches have been sprinkled with playful hints advertising her availability. For example, instead of going home with me for the night (a favorite joke of ours), maybe we could spend a full month together? She even seems to have developed a crush on me, confessing that she arrives at work every afternoon hoping I’ll show. Sad in a way.
Becoming involved with a married woman in a foreign culture is both messy and dangerous. It’s near impossible to tell where one stands vis-a-vis the husband, who might decide to show up at said suitor’s door some night in an unpleasant mood. Since I prefer to keep my teeth, I’ve found it easy to resist Nui’s overtures.
On the positive side, Nui’s feelings have provided me with a handy tool to discourage money requests. After I’d gone the rest of October without stopping by, she came up to me, a little upset, and asked where I’d been. I replied I didn’t have five thousand baht, so I couldn’t make an appear-ance. Translation: pester me about paying for that stupid necklace, and our Eight Ball matches will become few and far between. Soon after that the solicitations ceased.
Nui used the Christmas money I gave her to get some special medicine for her mother. Or so she says. Regardless, it smelled to me like clever PR work. Wanting to be back in my good graces for the next time she passes a jewelry store and something bright and shiny catches her eye.
It was one of those slow afternoons in July, when there wasn’t much cleaning that needed doing, that the two maids and I for some reason got started looking at jewelry online. It’s not an area I have much interest in but the girls (Lek and Pong) were enjoying themselves, so I spent a good half hour showing the kinds of rings that could be purchased in the U.S. As we repeated our little ritual the following week, I noticed neither of them cared much for the fancier, pricier pieces — the ones with multiple diamonds inlaid amidst twisting bands. (Some of these looked to be a challenge just figuring out how to put them on.) Instead, they seemed to prefer small, dark colored stones such as green Amethyst or blue Sap-phire. This gave me an idea: why not buy them something along these lines when I went back to the U.S. for my summer vacation?
This turned into a minor project as I began getting ready for my trip. Emailing an old friend of mine back in Seattle, I followed her advice and visited the websites of some local jewelers as well as larger retailers such as Walmart and Fred Meyer. I then bookmarked rings I thought might appeal to my special friends and showed these to them the next time I had my room cleaned. After some back-and-forth, eventually the list got narrowed down the above mentioned Amethyst and Sapphire stones with blue, green and red the favored colors, all with modest gold bands.
The correct size proved trickier to figure out. I did know that both Lek and Pong were a “17”, which presumably meant seventeen…millimeters?But this did not cleanly convert to a U.S. equivalent. I had to print a sheet of little circles representing ring sizes, then put their rings on top of it and try to line things up. It was an imperfect process but the best I could do, the alternative being to take one of them back to the U.S. with me and do a fitting at a jewelry store.
After arriving in Seattle, my friend and I went to a Fred Meyer north of the city where I showed the lady in the jewelry section pictures of what I was after. But none of them were in stock at that location. So I decided to take a gander at what they did have. Here I got lucky: within the first five minutes I had found a light purple Amethyst that, after some discussion with my friend and diligently looking over a few other pieces, became the choice. I ordered two in size 7 1/2, which were ready in a few days.
The big presentation came a month later, on my first day back in Bang-kok. I sought out my two princesses after lunch and magnanimously gave them…a chocolate cookie each. Nothing was said about the rings, which were hidden below the cookies in small jewelry baggies. I simply stood back and waited for the discovery.
Lek found hers first and it became perhaps the only time I witnessed a Thai woman totally forget about finishing a chocolate treat. Pong soon followed and in a span of a few milliseconds both had pried their rings out and were trying them on. Since these were not a surprise, there were no squeals of delight or cartwheels, just broad smiles as they moved their hands back and forth in the light from the patio door, trying to catch a sparkle. Of course I received some grateful hugs, but the real pleasure was making a pair of Thai women happy with gifts as opposed to simply handing out a wad of thousand baht bills. For almost five years Lek and Pong have been changing my sheets, sweeping the floor and cleaning my toilet. They deserved something extra special.
Honest Working Women
One of the first impressions upon entering Swan 4 Laundry is boy, these people must work hard. Washers rumble away in the back and the floor is strewn with baskets of clothes. Near the front a trio of large dryers jostle each other, chewing the moisture out of their loads. A fan positioned next to them does not so much disperse the heat as it relocates it.
The routine is always the same. I hand over the heavy bag of laundry I’ve lugged down the street to the proprietor, Wan, who empties and sorts out the contents. An inventory is made of the t-shirts, shorts and socks that comprise the wardrobe of a tropical retiree. With a few quick keystrokes this all gets entered into the PC atop the counter, which responds by spit-ting out an invoice.
Tomorrow, she always says, handing me the bill.
Tomorrow, I always agree.
The next day the clothes, nicely pressed and folded, have been placed in one of the “squares” of the checkerboard shelf by the entrance. On only a single occasion has anything ever been lost (a white sock — I managed to get over it). The only trouble I sometimes have is finding my scruffy belongings amidst all the other plastic packages of shirts, underwear and jeans. Business, it appears, is good.
I cannot recall when it was I began giving Wan more than a token tip for her services. For a long time her serious demeanor had me slightly off balance, making it difficult to gauge her reaction to anything more gen-erous. Eventually I decided that didn’t matter. The paltry ten percent or so I’d been adding on top of a two hundred baht bill ($6) was niggardly. The woman deserved better.
I started by simply not accepting any change. If the cleaning cost one hundred and seventy baht, I gave her two hundred. If over two hundred, I handed out three. From there I advanced to five hundred baht (@$15), regardless of the bill. (It’s so much easier to pay with a five hundred baht note rather than ransacking my wallet trying to pull out one hundreds.) Soon Wan’s grim demeanor began to thaw, with brief smiles surfacing on occasion. (Later I would realize the woman was simply shy.)
Which brings us to the first week of January. During the holidays, I had made it a point to give extra large tips to the “working women” in my life such as Lek, who cleans my room, the bar maids in Beer Garden, and the girls at Sports Academy Pool Hall. All part of the program to share some of my new wealth. Wan would be treated the same way. Stopping in to pick up my laundry, I paid with a one thousand baht note ($30), wishing her a Happy New Year in Thai — a phrase I’ve been able to master after a half decade in this country.
I was not prepared for the reaction.
“Thank you, thank you,” she exclaimed, suddenly stepping forward and wrapping me up in an extended embrace. “You are a good man.”
For a moment I thought she was going to cry, this woman who had never been overly friendly with me. That would have been a shocker. As it was, the response was still a surprise, being one of the most heartfelt thanks I had ever received. And compared to the money I’d doled out over the past year trying to improve the lives of a few Thai ladies — usually with dubious results — the thousand baht was but a pittance. For the first time I began to wonder if maybe I’ve been helping the wrong kinds of people.
In the past few months I have become a regular at Beer Garden on Soi 7 — a freelancer bar mentioned in an earlier post. It’s not a very long walk from my apartment, and on occasion they actually play songs from my bygone era. The women there are friendly, if a bit on the shy side, and a fellow is less likely to encounter the barracuda attitudes that infest the upscale go-gos of Nana Plaza and Soi Cowboy.
A good place to hunt for my next charity recipient!
I had noticed Pawn sometime late last year. She almost always sits in the same general area I do. One night, when she ended up nearby me, I paid for her drink (a glass of water) and gave her one hundred baht for the taxi. Nothing special; just getting her attention. The next time around we talked a bit and I found out about her family (one son) and what she does for a living (works at a factory). It’s the same sad story of a decent Thai woman struggling to raise a child on her own, freelancing to help pay the bills. That night she’d been sitting in Beer Garden for some three hours and I was the first guy to talk to her.
I gave her two thousand baht ($60) and told her to go home.
It’s always entertaining to observe a woman’s reactions to this. At first there’s disbelief — a guy she’s barely met giving her “short time” money without expecting sex. Has he lost his mind? Then, when they see I am more or less sane (and maybe sense my kindheartedness), I often wind up with a hug as they get ready to leave. That is what happened here.
My next surprise gift, for the same amount, was handled more discreetly. When I arrived one evening around my usual time, Pawn was already sitting next to a not-too-ugly, grey haired gentleman and it appeared the pair would soon be departing for his place, or maybe one of the nearby short time hotels. Looked like I had missed my chance — arrived a half hour too late. Not so! I plopped myself down just around the corner of the bar from Pawn. Then, when her special fellow made a trip to the rest-room, I casually slid over the money. Why? So she could take a night off from this depressing routine. Spend it with her son.
At this point, it looked like Pawn was going to be my next project. True, I did not know her, but she struck me as an easygoing, simple person who deserved a bit of good fortune. (Most of these women live hand to mouth so even a little assistance can be a huge help.) I began to ponder what might be the best way to get started. Maybe with a big upfront payment like I did with Sontaya? Or perhaps it would be more prudent to opt for moderation and see how she handled things.
All this thinking turned out to be premature. The very next time I came across Pawn in Beer Garden, I got rebuffed. She was sitting near her usual place, alone, and I ambled up with an envelope, which I had her put in her purse. Obviously it contained money and I said (once again) that she could head home. Turns out she didn’t want to do that and politely gave me the envelope back.
Now it was my turn to be shocked. This lady was choosing to spend the evening at the bar — drinking water — rather than taking the cash and leaving early. Try as I might, I could not get a handle on her reasoning and have since decided I’d best move on to someone else.
Funny thing, though. That envelope did not contain my usual present of two thousand baht. Instead, it was filled with ten thousand baht (@$300) — the first installment from my new Aid Package. Without knowing it, Pawn had chosen to forego what amounted to an entire month’s wages at the factory. Oh well.
Later in the evening, after flashing a few smiles in my direction, Pawn walked over and asked if I wanted her to sit by me. I smiled in return and said no thanks. These days I am not into having a companion with all the attendant complications. I just want to give these women money.
Every few months I like to invite my long-time acquaintance, Mistress Kat, over. If memory serves, she specializes in S & M, Role Playing and other assorted kinkiness. Not your average Bangkok Soi 4 streetwalker. Her English is very good and she’s always outgoing, an easy person to like. Also one of the smarter ladies I know here in the Land of Smiles.
I have never partaken of her services. For me, a perverted act would be drinking American beer. Her world is therefore quite beyond mine. But it can be entertaining hearing about her work. Such as the time she and a German had sex on the weight bench in the exercise room of my apart-ment complex. Talk about risky business! I still end up laughing anytime I think of this.
I had not seen much of Kat over the winter and was missing her tales, so a couple weeks ago, by the dawn’s early light, I tracked her down on the Soi. She was getting some breakfast after another long night of trolling for customers. We returned to my place and I eagerly settled in for story hour. The topic this time was her streetwalker friends. Kat had come to an amusing part of someone’s recent misadventure when suddenly, she began crying. And not the usual few stray tears that Thai ladies at times shed, either — this tough woman was letting go. Shocked at seeing the levee break, I got up and fetched a Kleenex, then sat back to hear more.
Kat had hit a rough patch: a few of her “friends” had taken advantage of her, customers were scarce this time of the year, and she’d run up some serious debts. So what’s new? In a halting, timid manner, she asked if she could borrow ten thousand baht (@$300), promising to come by every few days and repay a portion of it. Touched by a request from a person clearly struggling, I assured her I’d be happy to provide the funds and did so a half hour later, via an ATM transfer to her bank account.
My recipient was of course very grateful. Besides promising to return the money, she offered to buy me fruit, sew my clothes…any way in which she could be useful. It felt like I might end up with a friend out of all this.
Two days later, any notions of closer relations went right out the window.
Kat had come by to inquire about borrowing an additional eight thousand baht to pay off the rest of her creditors, thus consolidating her entire debt with me. Sounded like a good plan and no, I wasn’t concerned about the repayment schedule. Compared to what I’d lavished upon Sontaya, this was chicken feed. But then my Mistress began insisting that I take her old smartphone. Partly as a way of thanking me, but mostly because she was getting a new one and couldn’t bear the thought of just tossing it away. Now, I loathe these devices and informed her — with increasing firmness — that I didn’t want the damn thing. Finally, I tried to lay down the law and said if she didn’t back off, she could forget the 8k. Yet she stubbornly persisted until I finally reached my limit and sent her packing — with nothing to show for her visit. Wisely, she chose not to protest the expulsion.
The Mistress now had to wrestle with the twin burdens of excess debt and dual smartphones entirely on her own. Not sure what to expect, I got a text from her a week later. But not about the eight thousand baht. To my astonishment, she wanted instead to set up a date to begin paying off the original ten thousand! A streetwalker with a sense of honor. I told her not to bother, it was a gift — which caused her to exclaim that she’d “never forget me anymore”. A few days after that, she stopped by my apartment with a gift of her own in appreciation: two apples (fruit, not iPhones).
These I accepted. 😉