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.
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.
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.
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. 😉
The ten thousand baht that Pawn unknowingly turned down a few weeks back ended up being redistributed to a trio of friendly, hardworking bar-maids 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.
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…