Thursday, August 24, 2017
Walking to the Empire Hotel I spotted a badly-lit statue before Lincoln Center. I wandered onto the grass and was surprised to see a plaque for Dante, the legendary poet of The Inferno. The Middle Age Tuscan poet has been credited with the creation of the modern Italian language.
I love his description of Satan.
he had three faces: one in front bloodred; and then another two that, just above the midpoint of each shoulder, joined the first; and at the crown, all three were reattached; the right looked somewhat yellow, somewhat white; the left in its appearance was like those who come from where the Nile, descending, flows.
Oh, great Satan.
And oh, Dante, may you stand forever in New York.
In the late-18th Century Marie Antoinette' coiffeur sought to camouflage the queen's baldness by upsweeping her thinning tresses to cascade over her ears. The femme fatales of the ancien regime imitated 'le bouffant, until the royal coif lost its popularity with the Marie's final haircut by the guillotine.
Almost two centuries later Jackie Kennedy, JFK's wife, reincarnated the fashion during her tenure at the White House.
American women idolized the glamorous First Lady regardless of their politics.
Overnight millions of housewives hit their local hair salon to acquire the look.
Movie stars such as Audrey Hepburn and Kim Novak further popularized the rage and within months the only women rejecting the coif were Durgin Park's gang of crew-cut bull dyke waitresses and the nuns at my grammar school, Our Lady of the Foothills.
The bouffant died out with the advent of the hippie era.
Young women grew long hair and coif was once more threatened with extinction, except for brief respite from the lead singers of the B-52s and the late English singer Amy Winehouse.
Last year Jamie Parker and I were happy-houring at Solas in the East Village. We had the Irish bartender to ourselves. Moira liked a good laugh and Jamie told her stories of his go-go bar in Pattaya.
After our second margarita an attractive woman walked into a shadowy bar. Her bleached blonde hair was stacked high on her head. Stiletto heels added another five inches to her Amazonian height.
"A model." Jamie Parker smirked at the passing beauty in designer drag.
"Probably coming from a shoot." The actresses in TV show MADMEN had revitalized the early 60s, although few woman in present-day America could pull off the time-travel make-over.
"She looks like a 1960s transvestite." The lanky ex-con squinted down the bar.
"And that's a bad thing." I caught the scent of Chanel No.5. She was high-class.
The goddess sat at the end of the bar and Moira went to attend to her need. She was into girls.
"Not in this light." It was almost night that deep in Solas.
"You don't like the bouffant?"
"Not at all."
"And why not?"
"Because the Mr. Kenneth who re-invented the hair style for Jackie Kennedy was queer."
"You have something against gays?" Back in the 60s gays were feared by young men, unless they were looking for a good time. This was the modern times. Gay-bashing was not in fashion.
"Me, I love gays, but gay hairdressers used the bouffant hair style as a strategy to turn straight men gay."
"What do you mean?" I wasn't following Jamie's line of thoughtlessness.
"Just that it's not a really natural look and women refused to have sex to avoid ruining the helmet of hair on their head, so men sought release elsewhere."
"With other men?"
"The sexual revolution freed us from our chains." Jamie was a couple of years older than me, although he didn't look it.
"I had a girlfriend with a bouffant in 1965." Jo and I met in the Mattapan Oriental Theater. We were both 13.
"And you went all the way?"
"Not even close." Steel-rimmed bras safeguarded against any attempts by unschooled boys to reach 'second base'.
"It had nothing to do with the bouffant."
"You're from Boston. Men from Boston love Jackie Kennedy's bouffant. You probably went to bed jerking off to the First Lady."
"Not that I can remember." Jackie O rode horses and spoke French. Women like her were destined to marry rich regardless of their hairstyle. "Jo was my muse. I know my place."
"Don't we all." Jamie was in the States visiting his mother. She lived in the Bronx and thought that he was teaching school in Thailand, instead of running the Pigpen A Go-Go featuring fat pretty bar girls and skinny ugly pole dancers.
"My mom had a bouffant."
"It had them feel like a queen."
"Better than knowing your place."
"Send the princess a drink on us," Jamie told Moira.
"Happily." Moira played for the other side.
"Do you like the bouffant?"
"It's very Kim Novak." The blonde had mesmerized Hitchcock in his film VERTIGO.
"Wasn't she gay?" Jamie asked eying me.
"I think so." Moira played for the other side. She was holding the model's hand. They looked like a nice couple.
If only for happy hour.
"Ah, here's to the bouffant." Jamie raised his glass.
"And Jackie O."
At my age I might think about her once in a while.
After all she was the mother of the modern bouffant.
Last summer a friend from the Rockaways was selling a camera collection.
Leicas and Hasselblads.
They had cost a fortune in the 70s.
I offered him $500.
He said no and sold them for $600.
I should have upped my bid, because nothing is better than real film.
Just take a look at these photos by Helen Levitt.
Helen Levitt was a high school dropout from Bensonhurst, but in the 30s discovered the enigmatic chalk drawings of Harlem children and shot them with a Leica.
Jean-Michel Basquiat must have seen her work.
Oh, for those years of then.
FAMOUS FOR NEVER is a semi-fictional recounting of a ne'er-do-well living in the East Village during the 1970s, Paris through the 1980s, and Asia into the 1990s. Peter Nolan Smith's ping-ponging around the world has ricochetted him through the ranks of the famous and near-famous such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Klaus Nomi without his ever having achieved success to threaten his firm grasp on failure, because there is no failure greater than premature success.
Quitting was not an option for the writer.
Also included in FAMOUS FOR NEVER are stories about Jack Flood, a legendary Harlem gangster, Andy Warhol, the actor Vinnie Gallo, and Mr. Cool taking place in New York of the 1970s and 1980s.
To purchase FAMOUS FOR NEVER for $1.99, please go to the following Kindle URL
It was all history in the making back then.
And still history now.
Tuesday, August 22, 2017
Back in August 1972 I attempted to reach the bottom from the South Rim.
My friend and I left the south rim at 7am. We had two full canteen. Nick and I ran out of water around Skeleton Point.
The Colorado looked so inviting, but we were parched by the summer sun and quit our quest.
Near the top I ran into someone from my hometown. Moon Marco, who had bullied me incessantly with Joe Tully.
He was friendly and remarked how strange it was that we ran into each in the West. I agreed and after he departed carrying two gallon bottles of water, I related the connection to Nick, who pointed to Moon and asked, "I didn't hear him say sorry."
Punches, kicks, and slaps.
Never knowing why.
Throwing or rolling rocks or other items down hillsides or mountainsides, into valleys or canyons, or inside caves was prohibited by the National Park Service.
Moon was still within striking range.
"Me, neither." so I rolled a rock down the slope at Moon.
The bully ran for cover, as I rained more boulders at him.
After I stopped, Nick asked, "Are you feeling better?"
"Yes, and about a lot of things." We got in Nick's BMW and continued west to California.
It wasn't very far away from Arizona.
Wilbur Harrison had a hit with KANSAS CITY. My friend, Joe Fielder, traveled there in 1965. The police caught him in St. Louis. He escaped through the bathroom window. The 14 year-old reached KC the next day. He ordered a steak and then rode Greyhound to the South Shore of Boston. His parents were relieved by his re-appearance and asked why he had runaway.
"Because they got some crazy little women there and I'm going to get me some," Joe quoted from the song. His parents grounded him for the summer. He later told me that KC had no crazy little women.
"It was all a lie."
Back in 2009 I drove through Kansas City. The song was still a lie. Most of the cities of the Midwest are shells hollowed out by a neglectful government, but not so Iowa City.
This town was the campus of Iowa U. My good friend James Rockford lived on a farm twenty miles to the west. He grew marijuana. My Scottish friend and I rendezvoused with the elder statesman of the hippie era at the Deadwood, the city's #1 dive. We drank beer, rum, smoked a joint, talked with coeds, and at the 2am closing James suggested that we go to Riverside.
"Riverside." My Scottish friend thought it was another bar.
"It's not a bar. It's the future birthplace of James T Kirk."
"You're shitting me." I've been a devout Trekkie since episode one.
"Nope, it's waiting for his birth." James smiled with the knowledge that nothing could stop me from where no one I knew had gone before. We bought two six-packs of Tecate and flagged down a taxi.
"No sense in getting DWI'ed on a mission of such importance." James wasn't called 'the colonel' for nothing. The taxi driver thought we were crazy, but said it wasn't the first time drunks had given that destination.
"Nobody in the world would know about Riverside if it wasn't for James T Kirk. Less than thousand souls. No reason for anyone ever to go there. They even have an annual event. Maybe two."
We followed the English River to the small town. The driver stopped at a park. A marker welcomed us to the future home of James T Kirk. I breathed in the night air thinking this town made James T Kirk, the captain of the USS Enterprise. I was drunk enough to believe that.
"How you feel?" James asked, as my Scottish friend smoked a cigarette.
"Like I went to Jerusalem."
"I thought you would, now how about going back to your hotel for some serious drinking?"
"You got it." James lived out here most of the year. He didn't speak to outsiders much. His wife would hate him tomorrow, but none of that mattered because he had brought a Trekkie to the Holy Grail.
Live long and prosper.
In 2010 Thailand's The Nation reported on a growing castration (lopping off the testicles) or gaan dton trend amongst young wannabe ladyboys without funds to finance a complete sexual transformation. The castration operation costs $130US or 4400 baht and in most cases requires parental approval.
These young boys are convinced that ridding themselves of their testicles will soften their masculine features much like a eunuch of the royal courts of China, however a leading homosexual support group has called on the Medical Council of Thailand to curtail this selective surgery for under-18s, since the youths might be succumbing to peer pressure rather than acting with a true desire to join the 3rd sex.
Thailand is relatively ka-thoey friendly with gorgeous ladyboys competing on national television for beauty pageants, although the Thai TV way of life drives many ladyboys to work as streetwalkers on the sidewalks of Pattaya and Bangkok to purchase the drugs necessary to maintain their female appearance. It’s a tough life and few 16 year-olds can foresee the future before they irreversibly remove their offending manhood to achieve a dream of beauty.
Castration is not only an Asian phenomena.
In the 17th century young boys were castrated by church choirs to insure the salvation of their angelic voices. Klaus Nomi strove to re-enact these castrati soprano songs in the late-70s without undergoing surgery. He was a hit with David Bowie and in the back rooms of the West Village.
Not all castrations were for beauty or art.
The Skopsi of Czarist Russia created a blasphemous sect under the belief that the road to heaven was achieved only through castration. Numbering in the hundreds of thousands the sect appealed to the common man with Utopian communities based on Christian redemption on Earth. Their leader asked the czar to castrate himself. Peter III was a little mad, but not that mad.
Neither are the young boys of Thailand.
The boys just want to be girls.
Of course this operation would not be covered by any insurance company in the USA.
But neither is the common cold.
The mere mention of Bangkok's Nana Plaza at a New York dinner table peaked the male guests' interest of men and heightened women's antipathy toward me. To the former I was a Don Juan and the latter regarded me as Gary Glitter come to life. To be honest I can't recall ever bar fining a go-go girl out of the notorious three-story sex complex on Sukhumvit Road Soi across from the ever-infamous Nana Hotel. I was more into Patpong in the 90s and by the 00s and Nana Plaza was too mercenary for my tastes.
The other night the Old Roué and I finished dinner at La Monita, a trendy Mexican restaurant. A meal with Coronas for two came to 1200 baht or nearly $40 or the price of a bar fine in Nana Plaza. It was early and the Old Roué suggested that we retire to a ground-floor bar at the wicked entreat.
"We can watch the changing of the guard."
I was glad to get out of La Monita. The clientele was too farangs for my taste. At heart I was a race traitor.
I sat behind the Old Roue on his motorcycle and he expertly snaked through the parking lots and hotel garages and sidewalks to Soi Nana. Nine year in Krung Thep had etched the short-cuts of Bangkok into his brain like a sailor's tattoo. He parked his Honda 250 next to a cart selling sum tam.
The owner nodded to the Old Roué.
They had a long-term relationship.
We entered the complex with flecks on rain dotting the pavement. The entrance bars had been moved back from the portal to provide access for fire engines. Nana Plaza was almost synonymous with fire trap. If a fire starts there, it will only because the property as a condo building was more profitable than the sex trade, but for the present Nana Plaza was safe since the sex entrepôt churned out more money than the Belgium steel industry.
The two of us sat at the first bar. We were the only farangs in sight. It was about 7. Post time for the go-go bars began around 8.
"This is better than TV." The Old Roué ordered us beer. The interiors of the go-gos blared white light, as the staff hurriedly stocked the bars with beer, ice, and liquor. Mama-sans stood at the door awaiting their flocks. A few early arrivals wandered into the plaza and wai-ed the Buddha blessing their arrival. They laid flowers on the altar and proceeded to their respective places of employment.
"I like the transition." Nana was coming to life with hundreds of succubii seeking farangs.
"Newcomers are the first to arrive." The Old Roué had watched this ritual countless times. The spectacle never tired him and discreetly pointed to three older and dumpy farangs in shorts.
"They've left mother at home for the first time in decades to have a sex vacation with their friends. I make them for social workers or garbage men."
"I see them more as English railroad workers." The sweep-overs of these forty year-olds laid odds in my favor, except they passed us speaking an unknown foreign language.
"Serbs." The Old Roué wrinkled his nose. "Momma's boys to the man."
"Better this than becoming sex predators."
"Little danger of that from these boys. Look at how they walk."
The Old Roué was right. He was 65 and I was 60. The trio shuffled with apprehension. The two of us could have beaten any of them in a 25-yard dash.
"Ah, the first beautiful girl of the night."
"Wrong." Old Roué shook his head. "Check the way she's hurrying and fussing with her hair. That's a kathoey. Big hands too means big feet."
"Meaning big shoes." I picked up my camera. The ladyboy would have stopped traffic on 5th Avenue for blocks. Her heels were five-inch spikes. The dress revealed a goddess body. Long curls serpented down a slim back. I recognized her from a ladyboy website. Her name was Areeya.
"No photos. Not here." Old Roué admonished my absent-minded behavior.
"I know, I know."
Nana Plaza had rules and we observed the influx of wasted and aged farangs. Hope and despair mingled in their eyes.
I ordered another beer.
Kathoeys showed up in clumps and I asked, "Where are all the girls?"
"It's a Tuesday night. Most of the best girls have been barfined for the week. They're sleeping with some old git, but they'll desert him on Thursday to grind out money from the weekenders." The Old Roué was right and I started to count the ratio between females and ladyboys. It was about 50/50 and I mentioned the numbers to the Old Roué.
"It's all the same thing in the end. Farangs come here to answer a dream. Ladyboy or go-go girl. A young body makes them feel immortal at the gates of mortality."
The two of us turned our backs on the show. A fat heavyweight fought a well-muscled boxer on TV. The butterball had to weigh over 350. His reach prevented any offense from his opponent. We made a 20-baht bet with the cute bartender. She lost and actually paid me. I gave it right back. 20 baht wasn't what it used to be, but she could buy a coconut.
The stream of late-comers faltered and music blasted from the scores of bars lining the Nana Plaza.
"You feel like a go-go?"
I said no.
"I don't want to make a mistake and end up with a ladyboy."
Scores of the man-ladies were thronging into Nana Plaza. Their beauty shone in the flashing lights. I had drank three rhum-cokes. Even I felt handsome.
"You have something against shims?"
"No, they're a lot of fun until your wife finds out." The Old Roué knew Junior Mint. He thought she was special.
"And how would your wife find out your transgression?"
"I don't know, but Thai women have an uncanny sense of a man's willingness to be naughty."
My cell phone rang. It was Mam.
I answered the phone.
"You at Nana?"
"Yes, have many ka-thoeys."
"Suai at night. Naki-at in morning."
They were beautiful at night.
I haven't woken with one in the morning, plus I was faithful to Junior Mint.
I hung up and the Old Roué said, "Uncanny is right."
It was time to call it a night on Tuesday night.
Maybe on Friday night it would be different.
I am not scared of ka-thoeys.
Every year international transvestites flock to Pattaya for Miss Tiffany World Beauty Contest. The event was televised on Thai national TV and hosted by the reigning Miss Thailand representative to the Miss Universe contest, something like this would never happen in the States, because Miss America is too much of a square to deal with a man more beautiful than she is.
"Dear, Jesus, there's a she-male on stage."
Actually Jesus had long hair and wore a dress.
Could the son of god be a she-im?
Here the kathoeys or ladyboys are genuinely gorgeous. They spend thousands of dollars to sculpt their bodies with plastic surgery. Breasts, noses, throats, butts. My wife thought many were more beautiful than women and said they are usually prettier than the Miss Thailand rep.
Many men first-timing to Pattaya found it hard to discern if they are women, but once they opened their mouths and squeak like a crow sucking helium, "Hey, handsome come here.", then there could be no doubt about the gender of this gender-bender.
Some friends ignored the obvious. You have a choice here. Do I tell him or not? In the end you have to realize that he was a big boy and had heard the Kinks' LOLA.
Walks like a woman but talks like a man.
There was the famous story about a French diplomat in China who lived with a TV for years. When their story became public, he said, "I didn't know."
The frog knew all right and so does your friend, so what's the sense of telling him the obvious.
What weirded me out was a friend who had a katoey mia noi or TV second wife and said, "You should see her on Viagra. What a sex devil."
"You actually want her to have an erection?"
"Yeah, and you know why?" His eyes gleamed with keen wickedness.
I fled before he could provide the answer, because some secrets are best left behind closed doors.
Back in my youth we brought novice skiers to the top of the mountain and pointed them down the black diamond course. Their terror was met with laughter and we skied down the slope to watch their progress from various vantage points. No one died or was sent to the hospital from this vicious gag.
In Pattaya a similar gag has been played on newbies by setting them up with a kathoey or ladyboy, especially after they've had a lot to drink.
It might seem cruel, but a good mate will take a friend's valuables before sending to this fate.
A good laugh for the tomorrow.
Of course there are some warning signs that your date isn't all she appears to be;
1. If her hands are larger than yours, then there's a good chance she is not only a she, but has a bigger penis than you.
2. Adam's apple belong on men, not women, but after a few drinks, who's looking at Adam's apples. Girls don’t have them, not ever.
3. If she's taller than you and more beautiful than any woman that you've ever slept with in your life, then there's a good chance that she is not a she.
4. If she speaks like a crow on helium, color her a shim.
5. You could try and tickle her so she uses her own voice, but remember ladyboys are tough as a bag of nails and getting knock-out cold by one is a dead giveaway that she is twice the man you'll ever be.
But in the end most newbies know what they're doing and give into temptation.
Once is experimentation, twice is preversion. - Gore Vidal
Several years ago Jamie Parker came over to my house to see the injuries from my motorcycle accident. The gash on the arm was vicious, but he was more concerned with my big toe. "Looks like a bean bag chair."
"The doctor said that I've a 50/50 chance of losing it."
I wasn't sure that I heard him right the first time. The second time I didn't want to believe I could lose my little toe. It has been with me more than 55 years.
"Better that than your dick." Jamie wai-ed my wife who had come down from the country to nurse me. She didn't mind him since he was only a drinking companion and wai-ed before returning to the kitchen. "You hear about the ka-toey gay war?"
"Yeah, ka-toey gangs have been fighting on the streets and gays too." Jamie related the story under his breath, knowing my wife's view on bad behavior. "I haven't seen any TV combat on Pattaya TV News."
"No they have to think of the city's good image."
"And #2, who in their right mind would want to be between two ladyboys flailing at each other with high heels. Remember that fire-bombing of a karaoke bar. It wasn't over an old lady but a ka-toeys fighting over a customer. Other fights happened over the weekend between gays and katoeys. A gun was supposed to be shot at someone."
"The facts and nothing but the facts."
"I read in the paper that British tourists have fled the area."
"What paper?" I scoured the internet wire services very thoroughly and hadn't stumbled on this story.
"The Sun?" Yellow journalism at its best.
"And they claimed that most of the gay bars are British owned."
"Nothing but the facts again. did you see anything like a ka-toey war?"
"No, but I don't go where they are."
"What about Soi 6?" About 30 lady-boys worked the short-time boulevard for back-door enthusiasts.
"Very quiet there."
"So no war."
Not really, but it sounds good."
I later googled ka-toey bar fights and found nothing.
Tried 'Thai school girl fights' and got plenty.
Bad girls to the bone.
In Late July President Donald Trump tweeted an announcement banning transgender people from serving in the U.S. military.
"After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow ... Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military."
And he added later, "Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming ... victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you." According to military.com there are between 1,320 and 6,630 transgender troops currently serving on active duty, which amounts to between 0.1 percent and 0.5 percent of the 1.3 million-member active component, and between 830 and 4,160 in the Selected Reserve, according to a 2016 study by Agnes Gereben Schaefer, a senior political scientist at the nonprofit. Advocacy groups, meanwhile, put the estimate at closer to 15,000 transgender troops in the ranks.
Nazis had great uniforms.
They were all murderers.
And the faithful liked following orders.
They numbered in the millions.
Nazis come in all shapes, sizes, and ages.
The Nazis of the 90s were skinheads.
They were loud.
Leather and tattoos were their uniform.
Many of the Fascist marchers in Chancellorsville wore a white polo shirt with khaki trousers.
Just like their leader.
Trump likes his own kind.
And he doesn't have to say he's sorry.
To no one.
Sunday, August 20, 2017
Spice dominated the trade between Asia and Europe for centuries and the oriental lore of processing roots, seeds, and bark into food enhancers inspired western travelers to seek various detours around the Arab middlemen profiting from the lucrative East-West trade route.
Adventurous voyagers stood to reap fortunes from their success. Failures were many.
In 1493 Christo Colon returned from the New World with tobacco and slaves, but the absence of spices disappointed the Spanish monarchs.
Seven years later Vasco de Gama rounded the Horn of Good Hope for the King of Portugal, however the Arabs retained the monopoly on the Spice Trade.
In 1521 Ferdinand Magellan and a fleet of five ships sailed west from Spain destined for the Spice Islands of the Moluccas. The voyage across the Pacific tested the sailers' endurance, as scurvy, starvation, and murder ravaged their ranks.
Their commander was killed in a battle on the Philippines and only fifteen expedition members out of the original 237 crew survived the circumnavigation. The two returning caravels were wrecks, yet the cargo of spices enriched the survivors, because they stopped at the famed spice isle of Tidore as well as Ambon in the Moluccas.
Over the next centuries the Dutch, French, English, Portuguese, and Spanish fought numerous wars for control of these islands.
Manhattan was exchanged to the Netherlands for a small island in the archipelago and considering that the Dutch had acquired that foothold on North America for 60 guilders or the price of several thousand tankards of beer, the trade seemed like an even swap at the time.
In 1991 I sold a 5-carat diamond to a well-heeled couple from the Upper East Side. My commission bought my second round-the-world ticket from PanExpress on 39th Street for a one-way journey of JFK-LAX-HONOLULU-BIAK-AMBON-BALI-JAKARTA-SINGAPORE-BANGKOK-PARIS-LONDON-JFK.
My friends and family were worried about this voyage.
During the Iran-Iraq War Kuwait had been slant-drilling into Rumaila oil field. Iraq's ruler Saddam demanded compensation for this theft and massed 300,000 troops on the border. The US ambassador had said, "We have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts."
Saddam considered that comment as a green light for invasion and his army overwhelmed Kuwait within days.
The Saudi rulers feared the invaders' threat to its rule over Mecca and President Bush had amassed a coalition to oust the Iraqis.
I tried to explain to my friends and family the difference between Indonesia and Iraq, but their sense of geography had been ruined by the IT'S A SMALL WORLD ride in Disney World. Iraq, Iran, Israel, India, and Indonesia were all I-nations. None of my friends could finger Indonesia on a map. My father was more than familiar with the region.
"Your Aunt Bert sailed through those islands at the age of eight." Her father had been a whaling captain in the 1870s.
"There wasn't a war on the horizon." My mother wanted nothing bad to happened to her second son.
"That war, which isn't a war yet, has nothing to do with Indonesia."
"It's a Muslim country. They're all connected same as the Irish." My mother was a Catholic and even more so a devout Hibernian. We understood fights.
"Iraq is thousands of miles from Indonesia. Don't worry, I'll be fine." Kuwait was 8000 kilometers from Jakarta.
"Biak is my first stop." I had free-dived its pristine reef the previous year.
"I was out there in World War II and fought off Biak in the Battle of the Sump. Japs wouldn't surrender, so the marines burned them out of the caves. Nasty business," my Uncle Dave said at a goodbye dinner at the North End restaurant. "There ain't nothing there."
"That's what I like about it."
"You be careful. Those people don't value life the same way we do."
Uncle Dave coughed hard. He was seeing doctors for a chronic cough. His choice of cigarettes was Pall Mall.
"I'm a lover not a fighter." I had been a peacenik throughout the 60s. 70s, 80s, and 90s.
"I know different." Uncle Dave had bailed me out of a Quincy jail after a fight with a gang from Southie. Boston in the late 60s belonged to the tribes.
"I've changed now. All peace and love." I couldn't remember that the last time I fought someone. "Plus those people are nice."
"All headhunters and cannibals, if I remember correct."
""They don't eat people anymore."
"They'll eat anything they can get their hands on, if they're hungry, but have a good time." Uncle Dave cuffed me $20. "Have a good drunk on me."
The next day I returned to New York and packed my bags for my trip. I arrived at JFK three hours before the take-off and the Pan-Am 747 took off on time.
In LA and Hawaii my friends expressed their concern about traveling to the world's most populous Islamic country. I told them, "Tidak apa-apa."
It meant no problems in Bahasa Indonesia. They were impressed with my knowledge of the local language, even if I spoke with a Boston accent.
The next leg was from Honolulu to Biak.
In Biak no tourists offloaded the Garuda flight from LA. I booked a room in the Dutch hotel across from the airport. I was the only guest.
That night I listened to the news on the BBC World Service. My Sony World Radio received news of US troops and their coalition allies massing on the border of Kuwait. I was betting on the West. We had better tanks.
The next day I sat at the hotel and watched scarred Japanese veterans of the Pacific War wandered through the graveyards of their fallen dead. They stayed one day and flew back to Tokyo. None of them spoke English. I nodded with respect.
At night days I drank cold bottles of Bintang and smoked kretek cigarettes laced with cloves. The aroma lingered on my fingers. The cough lasted a little longer.
This was the tropics. The water was clear and warm. The coral cliffs began twenty feet beyond the shore. Sea turtles and parrotfish fed off the current. I snorkeled for two weeks. I tried calling my Uncle Dave twice. There was no answer at his house in Quincy.
Ambon, the capitol of the Moluccas, was my next stop. A diplomat attached to the Indonesian consulate in New York had suggested a lay-over with his uncle, a government official on the Christian Island. I gave the older man a bottle of Johnny Walker Black. No one in Asia drank Johnny Walker Red, unless there was no Black.
"You have wife?" James asked with an unsparing directness.
"No." I was used to this line of questioning.
"You have baby?" Asians regarded bachelorhood as a curse.
My mother agreed with their opinion and I replied no wishing my answer could have been yes, but then said,"Maybe one day."
Indonesia was 95% Muslim. Ambon ran against the grain, but everyone on Ambon was a mixture of Malay and Papuan except for the Javanese deported from their overpopulated island. They worked as pedicab drivers. A few jeered at me. I was the only white person within a thousand miles.
"Saddam # 1. Bush no good."
I agreed with their second sentiment and I considered myself in exile from the land of the GOP.
James lent me his car and driver for a tour of the island. We visited an old Dutch fort, giant eels eating eggs in a river, and a beach on the north coast of Ambon. The driver pointed to mountains across a broad channel.
"Seram. Have big magic. Men fly in sky. Bad magic."
"Bad magic. No tourist go that Seram."
"Tidak pagi. I not go." Bahasa Indonesian was an easy language. No articles. No tenses. Bagus was good. Bagus-bagus was very good. "Pagi ke Tidore."
"Tidore. No mistah go Tidore. Banyak Muslim. Go to Bali." The driver was dumbfounded by my choice. The young wanted off this island. Jakarta was their dream. Not another island forgotten by time.
"Saya ke Tidore." Dropping the verb to go was a common linguistic trait in Bahasa.
"Semoga berhasil." Good luck could always trump magic..
We returned to the city to drink the Johnny Walker with James. He mixed it with honey and ice. It was their way.
Afterward James took me to the chicken farm. Young girls served older men beer. This scene was played out everywhere in Asia, Europe and the USA. We drank to Rambo. No one toasted Saddam or Bush. Religion and politics were off-limits in brothels.
I showed the girls pictures of Manhattan. None of them believed the pictures were real.
Around midnight I returned to my harbor hotel. The Bugis sailors were preparing for a morning departure. Ropes creaked on the masts. The design of their prahu dated back centuries. Indonesia had thousands of islands. The prahu were the connection.
I was overcome with deja vu and blamed the honey and then the whiskey.
My Irish grandmother had come to America on a ship.
The sea was in our blood.
I entered the quiet lobby. The hotel staff was watching the TV. US and Coalition soldiers loaded bombs onto jets. Saddam had been our ally during the I-nation War between Iraq and Iran. The dictator hoped for a reprieve. He should have been packing his bags for exile in Switzerland. I tried to call my parents.
No one answered the phone on the South Shore. I thought about my parents. They had to be worried about me. I hung up the phone and returned to the hotel.
The next morning I took the morning flight to Ternate. James and the driver waved good-bye at the terminal.
I was the only 'mistah' on the plane. The flight stopped briefly at Bata, the old prison island, continuing its flight over the Molucca Sea. Small boats cut wakes of white. The stewardesses served sandwiches and beer too.
I had two and showed photos of my family.
One attractive stewardess asked if I had a wife.
I was embarrassed to say no.
The pilot announced our approach. There were no delays in landing. Our plane was the day's only arrival.
After arriving in Ternate I picked up my bag from the carousel and walked outside the terminal.
Volcanoes dominated the horizon. The air was fragrant with spice. The taxi drivers were surprised to see me. Their faces were Javanese.
Several hostile words were muttered under their breath.
It meant 'dog'.
I pulled out a $10, which bought a smile from a driver.
He took me to the best hotel on the island.
"Here safe. No problem for mistah."
He was happy to hear a 'orang asing' speak his national language,a though none spoke Tidore, the Papuan tongue of the Moluccas.
I was the only westerner at the hotel. The manager's name was Mohammad and he said, "You can stay, but please do not leave the room."
"Why not?" I had a good idea why.
"Ternate people like Saddam. He is Muslim. No one like Dutch people." Mohammad had been on haj to Mecca. He had seen the world. His belief was for the good of man, but he remembered the rule of the Netherlands.
My room was on the 2nd floor. I stood on the balcony. Minarets silhouetted the early evening sky. Moonlight bathed the volcanic cones. Magellan's successor, Juan Sebastián Elcano, had admired the same vista in 1521.
Joseph Conrad had written about these islands in VICTORY.
Jack London haunted his books with blackbirds, pearlers, and beachcombers.
My uncle Dave might have smoked a cigarette on the deck of a battleship off these two islands. The BBC was broadcasting a quiz show. I was hungry.
The manager was surprised to see me in the lobby.
"Mistah no go."
"Makan-makan." Eat was an easy word to remember in Bahasa.
"Okay, but go eat fast. Come back faster."
Mohammad arranged a motorcycle ride to the harbor. The fat driver knew a good harbor side restaurant.
Warungs lined the beachfront. Men walked with men. Women walked with women. The driver stopped at a stall with stools. Pop mixed with traditional Indonesian music blared from tinny speakers. I sat down and the waiter spread dozens of plates across a table. A one-armed man in a salt-stained shirt drank a beer and pointed to a plate of black meat.
"Terima kasi." I accepted his advice. The meat was a little tough, but delicious. I ordered seconds.
A murmuring swelled at my back. People were gathering behind me.
The one-armed man hid his beer.
This island was 100% Muslim.
I ate the second plate with dispatch and ordered the bill. "Rekening."
"Saddam # 1." The chant was loud on the first try and even louder on the second.
I figured the crowd numbered about 40. Their eyes were red. Amok came from the Malay language. It meant going crazy. A man with one arm stood at my side. Someone called him Baab.
Twenty more men joined the anti-western mantra. The waiter delivered my bill and moved aside with speed. I stood slowly, as if nothing was wrong and turned around to face the odds.
100 to one.
An old man stared at me. His clothes were in tatters. He had been waiting to hate a white man for decades and I was the target for his spittle. It was time to go.
My hand went to my wallet and then I picked up the rekening to read the order.
One word stuck out on the bill.
I had seen the word before.
'Beware of the dog." I held up the bill to the old man. In Latin it was caveat canum.
"Saya makan angin?"
"Angin." His eyes focused on the bill. "Dua angin?"
"No, I did not eat 'angin'." Two plates, and I would have ordered 3rd if the crowd had not interrupted my dinner.
"Mistah makan angin," the old man announced to his followers and pointed to heads in the kitchen.
"The crowd laughed with mirth. No mistahs ate dog. "Kamu makan angin."
The mob's blood was up. The temperature was in the high 80s. Only magic could save me and I cast a spell with my next word.
The crowd of men had not expected a compliment for the cuisine of the island. They laughed and the one-armed man pulled my hand.
"We go. Now."
I exited through a gauntlet of hands clapping my back. They followed me back to the hotel singing the chorus, "Angin # 1."
I said nothing about Rambo and the hotel manager asked the mob to disperse.
They chanted 'angin, angin' into the night.
Mohammad was happy nothing bad happened to me.
It had been a close call.
Back in my room I listened to the BBC. US fighter jets were hitting Iraq positions. Allied Air superiority was countered by missile attacks on Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Te next morning I took my breakfast at the hotel.
Mohammad advised against a sightseeing tour and I wrote a few more chapters of NORTH NORTH HOLLYWOOD in my room. My female protagonist was sculpted from old memories of my ex-girlfriend. I couldn't remember her phone number, but the hotel managed to secure a connection to the USA.
My mother and father were relieved to hear my voice. Uncle Dave was in the hospital. His lungs were shot. I asked if I should come home.
"No, but Uncle Dave will be happy that you asked for him." My mother and he had been friends for over 40 years.
"Tell him I'm staying out of trouble."
Over the next few days my forays from the hotel were few.
In the afternoon I ventured around the island and across the straits to Tidore, whose hills were blanketed by clove trees. The people on that island seemed to be ignorant of the war. Only a few houses sported TV antennae.
I swam at a beach at the end of the road. The current was too strong to snorkel.
The Moluccas stretched north into terra incognita.
Across the sea lay Manudo. Rough Guide said that the diving off the nearby atolls was exceptional. A ferry crossed the strait in two days. I booked passage. It was the end of January.
The Battle of Khafji went badly for Saddam. His troops had been pushed back into Iraq. F-16s pounded their positions. The men in Ternate no longer chanted his name. No one likes a loser. Only the old man carried the flag for Saddam. I called him the anti-Rambo.
The one-armed man and I ate dog together. He drank beer with ice. Baab was the first mate of the ferry across the Molucca Straits and took me to his ship.
"Pagi ke Manado." Baab reserved a sleeping berth of the ferry. It was in his cabin. The price of this luxury was $3. I bought beer for everyone. A big bottle of Bintang cost a half-dollar.
"You not same mistah." Baab didn't like the Dutch, but he hated the Javanese. Jakarta was far away like Amsterdam. Japan was closer. Distances still mattered on Ternate. His two wives lived on opposite sides of the island.
"You eat dog. Dog make strong. Same bull."
"I like dog."
"You have wife?"
I was tired of saying no and pulled out a photo of an old girlfriend. Candia had been the love of my life in 1985. Baab held her photo to the light with his one hand.
The French-Puerto Rican had been too beautiful for words. We lasted over a year.
Baab thought that I was human.
We drank until midnight and I walked back to the hotel guided by fireflies. Magic was in the air accompanied by the drift of cloves. Sleep was a maze of dreams centered on me and my children.
I woke thinking of diapers. The manager knocked on the door.
"I have phone to America."
I ran to the desk. It was my mother. She had bad news.
"Uncle Dave is dead."
"Dead." The cigarettes had killed him.
Dave would have loved to hear about this trip. This sea had been part of his youth. I thought about him on a destroyer off Biak. We shared that view. Mine had been in peace. His had been in war.
I expressed my condolences and told my mother that I was fine. I said nothing about tomorrow's ferry. The newspapers in the USA frequently published reports of their sinking.
"130 dead in the Java Sea."
Better she think I was flying to Bali. Planes made more sense to her western mind. Her mother had crossed the Atlantic in a cattle ship. Boats were bad luck to Nana. Her daughter thought the same.
I spent the day writing my novel about pornography in North Hollywood. My ex-girlfriend's character was a virgin. I never fantasized her a whore.
I listened to the BBC. The outcome of the war was written by the West. The Iraqis were in retreat.
I gave gifts to the hotel staff; a baseball cap to the manager, postcards to the waitress staff, and a tee-shirt to the fat motorcycle driver.
He drove me to the harbor. The ferry was warming up its engine. Baab stood at the stern.
A big ship was unloading cargo. Its destination was Jakarta.
I climbed up the gangplank. Baab hovered over the motor. He was the engineer. Our cabin was next to the wheelhouse. The room smelled of oil and unwashed sheets. It was better than the sleeping quarters below deck.
The islanders shouted from the pier.
"Tidak suka Rambo." Baab grasped the railing with his one hand, as the ferry pulled away from the port on a calm sea under a clear evening sky. The volcanoes of Ternate and Tidore dominated the ocean. The 3rd-class passengers sought a comfortable position on the deck.
"I like Rocky better." Baab excused himself. He had duties.
I walked forward to the prow. The ferry chopped a swift vee through the waves. A strong wind blew from the east.
I pulled off my baseball cap and stuck it in my jeans pocket.
Uncle Dave had steamed through these waters. His ship had been a destroyer. Mine was a ferry. Joseph Conrad wrote prose in my head.
The captain studied the clouds in the sky. He shouted orders to the crew. They battened down the cargo. The volcanoes were shrunk behind us and the waves swell in size. Several passengers got sick. The sun dropped in the furrows of the western sea. The sky turned black red. Baab stood by my side.
"Bad sea tonight," he said these words in English and explained, "I work ships everywhere. Europe. America. Asia. All my life. I lose my arm in a storm. Most men stop the sea after accident. But I love the sea. She is my wife. My real wife. You must think much about your wife."
"All the time." My ex- had no idea where I was and we hadn't spoken in two years, but what I told Baab was no lie. I thought about Candida from time to time.
"Good." He looked over his shoulder at the passengers spewing rice over the railing. "Seasick. It like plague. Spread fast. Only two cures for seasick."
"What?" I was feeling queasy. My Nana must have felt the same. Uncle Dave and Aunt Bert too.
"Land and death."
The ferry buried its bow in a keel-shaking wave. Before us was a horizon of storm.
"I hope land come first."
"Land come first." Baab patted my shoulder. We were traveling friends. ROCKY was his favorite movie. His first wife's name was Bellah. # 2 was Amina.
"Good." I fought off seasickness.
Baab was pleased that I wasn't like the other passengers.
He was a man of sea. We were people of the world. A war thousands of miles away was unimportant. The sea was all that mattered and more important than the sea was land.
But Sulawesi couldn't come soon enough.
Death was for someone else like my Uncle Dave and he was not looking for me to join him for a long time.
Until then I was at peace.
Tidak apa apa.