“Do you remember me?”

Whenever I receive a text from a bar girl I haven’t heard from in a long time, it’s safe to assume money is the motivation. I mean, if they were truly interested in me, they would have stayed in touch. It is only now, with the bars looking to be locked down for a third month, that the women have become desperate and are trying to reconnect.

The latest example of this appeared a couple of days ago in my inbox:

“Hello. I am Su from Beer Garden. Do you remember me?
How are you? I hope you are not sick with the Covid 19.”

This was baffling as I could not recall anyone by that name. She was not on my list of “friendlies”, so there must have been something I did not like about her. To try and get some help, I emailed my barmaid friend Sumontha, who did remember Su, but could only confirm I had not been interested.

I decided to do some digging. Whenever I have a special date with a lady, such as going out to eat or maybe hit a nightclub with crap music, I often make a note of it in a document on my laptop. And it was there I got lucky: it turns out that three years ago, Su and I visited Gulliver’s Tavern over on Soi 5 to have some drinks and get to know each other better. This was the only time we got together. When I discovered she had a daughter in her early twenties and a two year old baby, I backed off. Supporting three generations is not something I’m into. Eventually I stopped saying hello when I would see her at Beer Garden. (Which was too bad, really; she was nice looking and easy to be around.)

I did not reply to her message.

The atmosphere was nice.

Food Line

Every day starting around 11am, people queue up near the corner of Soi 8 and Sukhumvit to receive the Thai equivalent of a boxed lunch (rice and veggies) along with a bottle of water. This place is one of many food outlets set up by various organizations around the city to help those Thais particularly hard hit by the economic shutdown. Having witnessed few acts of genuine kindness during my time in this country, this large scale generosity has surprised me.

The story behind the Soi 8 venue, according to my friend Joy, is that it is being funded by a wealthy couple who want to help others:

“An old man and woman have a lot of money. So they buy the food.
They give out every day. Good time, noon. A lot of people. Customers
are very quiet. Not tasty enough to eat every day.”

Out of curiosity, last week I had Joy take me to see this. As she said, it was indeed a silent affair with little talking. A couple of policemen were kind of meandering about, but they were not needed. No one was trying to cut in line. There also was a fellow with a camera who took a picture of each person just before they got their food, presumably to discourage them from coming back for seconds. (Something Joy had no interest in doing, even with the nice dessert.)

Seeing so many people patiently waiting for a meal was a stark reminder of the hardships Covid 19 is causing and I could not help but think of all the food sitting in my cupboard back home. It made me feel both very fortunate β€” and very uncomfortable.

Checking Up

One of my Beer Garden friends, Chom, visits the bar every few months when she comes down to Bangkok to stay with her daughter. On the rare occasions when our paths cross, we always enjoy a nice time together. But I’ve never become as comfortable with her as I have with my other drinking companions. She is quiet and reserved, making it a challenge to establish any kind of connection.

Despite this, I decided to get back in touch last month to see how she has been doing (I had not seen her since just before Christmas). This is such a bad time for everyone here in Thailand; I hoped she and her family had not gotten sick.

The news was good: everyone is in fine health, at least as far as I can tell. Only a few people in her village have contracted the virus. Chom did not sound worried. I suppose it helps to be living on a farm and working in the fields, where you can maintain a comfortable social distance.

With our birthdays a month apart, we have decided to exchange gifts. I have sent her some money (of course) to help make ends meet while she is weaving a colorful mat for me made out of papyrus β€” a project that looks like it requires some serious time and effort. Am looking forward to seeing the results.

The more I get to know this woman, the more impressed I am.

The Latest Chapter

My ex-girlfriend Sontaya and I have a convoluted history that goes back over seven years, although we were only serious for the first two months. Since the long-ago breakup, there have been sporadic attempts to at least be friends, but these never worked. The problem, if that is the right word, has always been about behavior: Sontaya is at heart a decent person, but does things I simply do not agree with. To further complicate the picture, there have been times when she has genuinely needed help, such as her father’s mental breakdown.

To try and handle all this (and maintain my own sanity), around three years ago I began communicating only through emails and text messages, helping out when I thought it appropriate while keeping my distance. No face to face meetings unless the circumstances demanded it. And when I needed extended time off, I would block all communication for a few months β€” or longer. This puzzled and hurt Sontaya (who nevertheless exhibited an almost eerie patience waiting to hear from me again), but it was important that I be fair to myself as well as her.

I guess I should not have been surprised when I ran into Sontaya in mid February. We were overdue for another go-round. She had begun work at one of the cluster of bars on Soi 6, a few blocks down the street from where I live and always walk by whenever I go out. After almost a year it was admittedly nice to see her and catch up, but I could not help wishing she’d ended up at a place beyond my Beer Garden migratory route.

Because there was no easy way of sneaking past Sontaya’s bar, I began keeping an eye out for her and saying hello whenever I passed by. Not an onerous task, really. She’s nice-looking and very pleasant to talk to; it’s only after we are together for more than two weeks that things always go sour.

Covid 19 may end up nudging us out of our rut. Because Sontaya has problems with her lungs, contracting the virus might be the end for her. So, at my suggestion, she quit her job (the bars closed soon afterwards anyway) and has been staying at home while I provide support. This has brought us back together, electronically speaking, and we’ve already had our first major disagreement, right on schedule. But unlike before, we seem to have worked our way through it. Sontaya has backed off trying to manipulate more money out of me (improvements for her parents’ house), while I have resisted the urge to throw in the towel. Maybe we are both coming to realize the importance of having a friend right now.

Healthy Housekeeping

I look forward to Monday mornings when the maids, Lek and Saega, arrive to clean my apartment. When I first moved here, I’d make myself scarce while they did their work so as not to be underfoot. Later I began hanging around and helping out. My current duties include gathering up the used towels and sheets and leaving them in a small pile outside the door. Then after the maids bring in the new linen, I wrestle the pillows into their cases while they unfold the pressed sheets and smooth them over the bed.

At this point I’m in the way, so I lie down on the fresh sheets and watch them sweep the floor, clean the kitchen countertop, and wipe the tops of the tables. At some point Saega gives me a damp cloth to run across the top of the headboard (hard work, to be sure, but someone has to do it).

The girls are usually in good spirits, especially considering it’s the start of their work week. (I was never like this.) To help maintain morale, I turn on the air conditioner and keep two containers of orange juice in the refrigerator. For entertainment, I try to repeat, in my mangled Thai, bits of their conversations (which is always good for a laugh out of Saega)

I am one of their favorite residents.

The coronavirus trouble initially dampened the mood. The first week, after the government requested everyone to stay at home, when things looked especially grim, the girls wanted me to just stay on the sofa and not handle anything they would be touching. (I finally went out on the balcony.) But after a few weeks passed and I did fall deathly ill, I was allowed to reassume my responsibilities. In deference to the virus, the three of us wear masks and rigorously wash our hands when the work is finished. (Ironically, the pair are my only social contacts these days, meaning they are far more likely to infect me than the other way around.)

A word about using a mask. My masseuse friend Pam had given me a miniature collection for my birthday, but it turns out I did not know how to properly wear them. When the maids first saw me with one strapped to my face, Lek pointed out I had it on upside down (how could she tell?) and that it should cover my nostrils (well duh). Saega showed me how to pinch it around the bridge of my nose to hold it in place. I felt more than a little stupid, but now is a good time to learn.

This guy is clueless!

And Another One…

Before the coronavirus arrived, my friend Joy could be found camped out opposite the 7β€”Eleven a block beyond Nana Plaza on Soi 4. I often ran into her when I decided to take the long way home after an evening at my bar. A businesslike woman who knew my drinking habits, she would often ask how much wine I had consumed. If I was in the middle of one of my exercise fetishes, she’d compliment me on my lack of a paunch. Then I’d get a brief update on how things were going on the Soi before being sent on my way.

I know nothing about Joy’s background. The couple of times I asked only produced vague answers about how she’d had troubles just like everyone else. Always kept a certain distance. And when I on occasion handed her a one thousand baht note ($30), she found my generosity puzzling since she had not done anything to earn it.

It was therefore a real surprise when one afternoon earlier this month I received the following message from the woman:

“Can I borrow money first? Can I pay the room fee tomorrow? 2500
baht. I am not (have) a customer. If I have, I will repay you. Sorry for
the disturbance but I really can’t find it.”

Another victim of the economic hardship caused by the virus. I grabbed my bank card, donned a mask, and went out to the ATM to send her some money. I provided four times what she was asking; only covering the rent would still leave her struggling. Of course this was more help than she was expecting:

“Why do you transfer to me? Ten thousand baht. So much. Thank you
very much. If you have any problems, send me a message or call
anytime. I click to pay for (t)his room. The rest I will pay for another
month. Thank you very much.”

And a couple days later…

“You’re fine. I paid for the room yesterday. I thank you very much for
helping me take care of myself.”

Knowing that Joy still visits Soi 4 on occasion, I’ve told her I’ll see her there sometime. While this was really just an offhand remark, it wouldn’t hurt to give her a heads up the next time I’m down in her area. It sounds like she’s now keeping an eye out for me. Perhaps I’ll be getting to know her a little better.

Bringing people…closer together?

“I don’t know what to do”

After giving Bia three thousand baht (@$90) last month, the final night that the Beer Garden bar was open, I didn’t give any more thought about her situation. Like everyone else here in Bangkok, I was busy stocking up on food and worrying about how to survive the coronavirus siege. Nor do Bia and I stay in touch with messages or phone calls.

That is not to say I’d forgotten her! All I had to do was glance over at my dining table, where the classy wine glasses she gave me for Christmas still stood. (It seemed wrong to hide them away in the cupboard.) This was a woman who would not be dropping off my radar.

I got back to her in early April, after I’d paid the support for the two barmaids plus a couple of other friends. I sent her a short message asking how she was doing while adding I’d be happy to give her more money. Although knowing nothing of her life outside of the bar, with the local economy ravaged there was a chance she might be hurting.

And indeed, that was the case:

“Hello, how are you? I haven’t been working for a long time. I don’t
have money. It’s difficult. I don’t know when the Beer Garden will
open. Can you help me a little? I don’t know what to do.”

Fortunately I knew what to do. In fact, I’ve got the rescue routine down pat. First I got her bank account information, then went to an ATM and sent her enough to last the rest of the month. She texted me a pleasant thank you.

A week later I decided to contact her again as a kind of follow-up. This was unusual for me; my modus operandi is to provide the funds, then back off. No entanglements. But the coronavirus, as I was coming to realize, was forcing people to face a plethora of concerns. Bia’s response was a good example of this β€” and of why I should be staying in touch:

“Hello, I’m very stressed about when the store will open, how long it will
take. If for a long time I would have to go back to my home in Ubon.”

In other words, she and her kids would be uprooted. After giving this some thought, I told her I’d provide more help next month to stave off the move.

“Thank you. You very good to me. Miss you. Take Care.”

I told her I missed her too.