So Little, So Much

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 spitting 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 generous. 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.

She did smile at me once. Honest!

Pawn’s Sacrifice

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 restroom, 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.

Is that too much to ask?

Moola for the Mistress

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 apartment 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. 😉

Anyone want a used Samsung?

Financial Futures

The ten thousand baht that Pawn unknowingly turned down a few weeks back ended up being redistributed to a trio of friendly, hardworking barmaids at Beer Garden: three thousand each (@$90). It’s fun chatting with them when things are slow, and they help me with my Thai anytime I ask. Like I did with Pawn, who was by coincidence sitting at the bar and may well have noticed, the money was handed out in envelopes — only this time it was happily accepted. With the Songkran New Year’s Festival starting in two days, the girls now had the means to visit their out-of-town families.

Happy Campers

I kept the remaining one thousand baht to cover my future bar tabs and stay on their good side.

I’ve now given money in the form of help or special gifts to nearly all of the women I’ve come to know here in Bangkok. Or at least I tried to. It’s been a real pleasure witnessing their delight and gratitude. With the three Lucky Ladies, however, where I thought I might make a difference, the results were not as heartwarming: While Sontaya after receiving my help went out and found a new job, Bawn only wished to continue her nightly boozing at Beer Garden and Newt slipped her moorings. A mixed bag of experiences. But I’m not complaining; all this has helped me learn about myself by providing an outlet for my kindness. To be more aware of others and how I might, if not solve their problems, at least give them a reason to smile. 

So what’s next? Although I’m wrapping this blog up, I plan to continue my generous ways. However, I will be more cautious. A good example is a masseuse I recently had over, Ann. She was very professional and did a fine job, so I included a one thousand baht tip ($30 — which was very much appreciated!). Ann has a fifteen-year-old daughter entering high school next month, meaning some worryingly large bills for the new uniform, books and tuition — items I could cover with no trouble. But I think I’ll pass on playing the hero here. During the massage, Ann had “audited” me, asking what I was paying for rent, whether I had a pension or — and this was amusing — if I was worth a million dollars. Viewing Western men as winning lottery tickets. How charming.

Other, less greedy, women will fare better. Because I have gotten into the habit of providing my two Thai ex-girlfriends with birthday money, I am going to make these annual events. Then there are the girls working at the pool hall down on Sukhumvit, who receive extra large tips from me for raucous evenings of Eight Ball. Happy to keep that tradition going! As for Nicky, the cafe owner who declined my original offer of help, I’ll be on the lookout for a way to change her mind.

And of course I shall not forget Wan, my laundress. Toiling seven days a week in a place with no air conditioning. More than anyone, she deserves a little extra.

It’s all an adventure…

This is also true for money!