Saturday, September 23, 2017

50 States of Hell

Hawaii is the happiest state in America. New York ranks as the unhappiest. It is my state and I wish that I could be with my children in Thailand. Holding my son and daughter is paradise for me. Maybe I can fly to Asia in two weeks.

One good sale would pay for the R/T ticket and I had two new good customers.

Several years ago I was speaking with an older woman in the diamond exchange. Everyone else had early closed for the Rosh Hashana. The nickname for the high holiday of repentance was 'rush-a-home-a' and people get very religious when it comes to getting out of work early.

Only our store and Marsha's were open.

My boss, Manny, was busying with paperwork. His son, Richie Boy, had left at 4 with his Brazilian wife and older brother. They were dining with Manny's ex-wife. Hilda had invited both of us to her table. Manny said the same thing as me.

"Thanks, but not thanks."

Neither of us wanted to schlep back and forth to the island.

Across the aisle Marsha was also in no hurry. She was meeting her good friend for dinner. Marsha had millions. Much more than Manny. Her wealth came from the hard work of her husband and herself. Marsha's wrist was marked by a tattoo. The work of the Nazis. Her late husband was a friend. We shared the same taste for good things. He could afford them. Not anymore.Paul passed away the previous year, leaving Marsha everything.

Marsha's children had begged for her to come to dinner. She wasn't going to the suburbs. She liked sleeping in her own bed.

Me too.

"Tomorrow I'll go to Long Island," Marsha spoke the two words as if the suburbs was purgatory. She had been brought up in Berlin. Her family had lived on Behrenstrasse. The good life. Even three years in a concentration camp had not destroyed her love for Europe. She knew my history of living in Paris and said, "It's not Ile St. Louis."

"Nothing in New York is Ile St. Louis." I had lived on Rue des Deux Ponts with a Vogue model during the 80s. She slept with many men. Never me. It was better that way. "I loved waking in the morning and walking to the cafe opposite Notre-Dame."

A cafe, croissant, and Calvados.

"This city is for animals. I'm sorry, but no one here has any class." Marsha adhered to the old ways and was appalled by the lack of dignity in America. "The people are good, but they are slaves to TV. No one reads anything. They speak about trash and the way they eat, feh."

Her tongue clucked with a disdainful hiss.

The city's restaurants were crowded with wealthy hedge fund bankers. They were the only ones with money.

"The reason that I don't get a laser operation is to avoid seeing the ugliness of this city." A 100 mph storm had devastated my neighborhood the previous evening. "After the tornado I looked at the sky. The end of the storm was beautiful. We have to enjoy these small moments. They make the ugliness forgettable."

Marsha shrugged with surrender.

"Three weeks ago I was in Switzerland. The mountains were everywhere." Her voice softened with the memory. She had been a widow for over a years I had offered to marry her on more than one occasion. Her laughter each time made us both happy.

Almost happy as Hawaii.

And that was a good state of mind.

Especially after Manny said that it was time to go home before 5.

It was most certainly 'Rush-a-home-a."

Tannah Shova.

I Blew The Shofar

Last weekend I was out on Montauk with Richie Boy. His summer rental of his shack had finished the previous Sunday and his beach house was his again. We worked around his cottage in the morning and played with his twins, then hit Ditch Plains at noon. The waves were ankle-high, but the surfers in the water discussed the upcoming swell on Wednesday.

"There's a hurricane out there." Richie eyed the ocean.

"Potentially the biggest waves of the season." Another surfer said sitting on his board..

"I'm taking off the week for Rosh Hashanah."

Nobody argued with Richie's choice. He was almost a local. We spent another hour at the Ditch Plains break, then returned to his shack for a BBQ.

Later I caught the last train to New York and slept in my own bed.

This morning I woke up thinking that today was the High Holy Day of Awe and said as much to my landlord.

"No, it's next Wednesday," AP told me.

"I blew it."

"Better than blowing the chauffeur."

I made a mistake, but what can you expect from a goy?

ps the ocean was flat last weekend, but lovely all the same.

ROSH A HOMA by Peter Nolan Smith

Last night I sat in Frank's Lounge with Vince. The owner's nephew and I were discussing a teaching position as a creative writer. The offer sounded good and the Fort Greene native said, "Hell, I have a four day weekend thanks to Rush a homa."

"You mean Rosh Hashanah?" My boss from the Diamond District also called the Jewish holiday 'rush a homa'.

"Yeah, and I bet no one in this bar know what the holiday is? It's not like I have an extra holiday for Martin Luther King Day." The school administrator was right. Frank's Lounge was a black bar. I was the only token white boy in the place. It was a quiet night for a Friday.

"It's the Jewish Day of Awe, celebrating y'shim creation of Adam and Eve." I knew the High Holy Days from working twenty-odd years on 47th Street. "It's also the Day of Judgment and Jews have ten days until Yom Kippur to repent for their sins. Of course I don't believe in that shit, because I'm an atheist."

"Atheist?" Vince rocked on his stool with laughter. "I'm always amused by you atheists. None of you believe in God until you need him."

"Not true." I stopped praying to God years ago.

"You ever hear about this atheist rowing at the lake, when suddenly the Loch Ness monster attacked and grabbed him from his boat. He panicked and shouted "God help me!", and suddenly, the monster and everything around him just stopped.

A voice from the heavens boomed "You say you don't believe in me, but now you are asking for my help?"

The atheist looked up and said, "Well, ten seconds ago I didn't believe in the Loch Ness Monster either!"

Several of the nearest drinkers chortled at this joke.

"This isn't about atheists. This is about Rosh Hashanah and the sins of the world."

"Well, here's to Rosh Hashanah. I got two days off with pay and my next beer is to Yom Kippur. I love a holiday to fish." Vince ordered me a beer too. I was glad for his hospitality. My money was down to $10. I may have sins, but too many to count on a Sunday night.

Shana Tova everyone.

Beyond The Border

My friends’ sons and daughters suspected that my travels are connected to the CIA or some criminal enterprise. My denials only confirmed their opinions mostly because they viewed their parents as strictly 9-5 straights.

Recently one contacted me on Facebook and asked if I was in Thailand to transport drugs. Thai police are very strict on traffickers and I have never entertained any business enterprise involved the shipment of drugs within or outside Thailand, however back in 1994 I was motorcycling north of Chiang Mai with two Italian friends. We reached the northernmost point of Thailand, Mai Sai, and stayed at the idyllic Mai Sai Guesthouse. Butterflies floated over the tropical flowers and young Burmese children swam in the river. I was content to drink a Singha beer, but they wanted more.

“More?”

“Si, opium.” They chorused this mutual desire.

“Don’t say that too loud.” Undercover Thai police specialized in entrapping westerners. I tried to deter their obsession, but they were relentless and I said, “I’ll see what I can do.”

I set out for the mountain crest demarking the frontier on a 250cc ATX.

No police patrolled the road.

No passport control either.

I spotted an old manfrom the Yao tribe. I asked him if he knew where to find ‘fin’ or opium. He nodded with a toothless grin and pointed into Burma. I thumbed behind me and he jumped on the back of the trail bike. We drove several kilometers to a small village of thatched huts and runny-nosed kids. He spoke with several men and came back with five fingers up.

“$50?” I asked and he smiled once more.

The money was the Italians, so I wasn’t losing anything if he disappeared into Burma.

I handed over the cash. He and another man drove off in a pick-up . I sat in the village watched by everyone like I was a TV showing an American sit-com without subtitles. After 20 minutes I started getting nervous. I was in Burma without a visa looking for drugs.

Potentially big trouble.

I heard a truck coming up the hill. I got on the bike and started it in case the truck was the police.

It was the old man.

He got out of the truck with a garbage bag of pot.

Five pounds at least.

I shook my head.

“Not ganga. Fin. Opium. Horse. Ma.”

None of this filtered through our language barrier, but he lifted a finger for me to wait. He went into a hut and returned with a bag of white powder.

It looked familiar. It tasted familiar too. Chinese # 4 Heroin.

This was the deal. Dope for money.

I thanked the old man and stuffed the cellophane bag into my boot. Thais are very wary of people’s feet. They consider them dirty and my boots were caked with dust. I drove back to Mai Sai through several Thai police checkpoints without any incident. In my room I showed the bag to the Italian.

“This is not opium.” They were disappointed until we chased the dragon.

This was the real gear and I explained that opium was tough to find now that the DEA was waging its war on drugs along the border. The growers refined the opium into heroin for easier shipment. The Italians could have cared less. They were in oblivion and by the end of the week they were hooked to the gear. They wanted more, but I wasn’t pushing my luck. I gave them directions and headed back to Chiang Mai.

I never saw them again.

I explained this my friend’s son.

“Right.” He preferred to believe his own story and I was guilty as charged by a teenage mind. Better than the real thing, because I like my freedom and I know better than to do something that stupid now I’m a grown man.

Across From Burma

Throughout the 90s I biked up from Chiang Mai to Mai Sai on the Thai-Burma border. A small river separated the two countries. The people on both sides looked the same and the houses were built in a similar fashion. I stayed at the Mai Sai Guest House to the left of the Friendship Bridge. They offered clean A-frame bungalows for 100 baht a night or about $3.

Butterflies flirted with the flowers and a pleasant waitress served breakfast in the morning and beers at night. The guest house never hit full capacity during my visits. I traveled strictly in low season, but the owner said, "High season. Many farang. Smoke opium. Sleep too much."

Smoking Ma or Horse was a ritual of the Golden Triangle and I liked a pipe once in a while.

Young Burmese boys swam across the river at night.

A ball of O was cheap.

I slept late every day and rode a Triumph through the hills.

It was a good place to be.

1994.

I was 42.

Sleep Sweet Sleep

Tourists in Northern Thailand flock to the convergence of the Mekong and Mai Klong Rivers in expectation of experiencing the notorious Golden Triangle. Most express deep disappointment that there aren't any opium dens from which they can watch the flow of the Mekong River. A few harass the riverside shop owners for a taste.

"Four hours on a bus and all I can buy is a tee-shirt."

"Tee-shirt good. Say you come here."

Bann Sop Ruak was a tourist trap, although years ago you could sit in the bungalows of Chiang Saen 10 kilometers to the south and smoke yourself into a narcotic coma for weeks on end.

In 1991 I stayed at a guesthouse along the Mekong. $5 a night for a bamboo shack. I was writing a novel about pornography. The owner supplied opium. It was good for my dreams.

A Japanese tourist hadn't emerged from his room for two weeks. The owner and I thought that he might be dead and knocked on the door. A groan was followed by footsteps. The door opened with a creak. The Japanese backpacker was whiter than a mushroom. He smiled and said, "Mai pen arai."

"No problem." The owner shrugged his shoulders without the slightest sign of condemnation.

It was low season. I don't think the Jap ever got to Baan Sop Ruak. He had found his Golden Triangle in a 100baht/night bungalow.

I'll find mine again when I'm in my 80s.

Brown Mixture


800 kilometers north of SriRacha is the Golden Triangle. Tourists tend to identify this fabled name with the confluence of the Mekong and Ruak Rivers. The term more accurately referred to the opium-growing regions in Burma, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand, where once most of the world's opium was grown by the tribesmen living beyond the law.

Back in the 1990s the highlight of many backpacker's mountain treks from Chiang Mai was a night's stay at a remote village, where the headman offered opium or fin to the farangs. More enterprising westerners attempted to ship the narcotic back to Europe. Some only made it as far as a Thai prison. One of the world's worst destinations this side of the grave.

Viktor Bout, infamous arms dealer most recently extradited to the USA from Thailand said, "Prisons in the States are like mental hospitals and here they're like a zoo."

Even money won't save a farang, but this doesn't prevent westerners from challenging the gauntlet of police snitches, DEA, and custom inspectors.

I haven't seen opium or 'fin' in years, although last night I went to the local pharmacy and asked the chemist for medicine to cure a persistent cough of the last month.

The druggist gave me a small bottle labeled 'Brown Mixture'.

20 baht or 60 cents.

I figured for a generic drug and returned home, where I took a slug, then read the read the label. The last ingredient was 'tincture of opium'. In other words I was drinking laudanum. The drug of choice for the 19th Century. I finished the bottle in one go andI slept like an angel. A good destination for a man my age and my cough was gone too.

Good old Brown Mixture.

Nothing like it in the States.