Thursday, June 10, 2010

A Well Timed Blessing

Late one night, at a friend’s house I was ushered to go home. I know when I have overstayed my welcome, and being a layabout, I had no business to attend to the next day. My friend Rob, however, worked in the corporate world.

I have always been fascinated by the corporate world, but utterly incapable of functioning within it. What I find most interesting is how people adapt themselves and their personalities in congruence with our economic system. When I go to a store, and walk to the checkout counter I am greeted with a friendly smile. This friendly smile is a job requirement, and not genuine. The clerk at check out is told to smile, in order to emotionally manipulate the buyer, make them feel welcome, and come back again. This showing of false emotion, which becomes habitual, is something I find most distressing. I can’t imagine a check-out clerk being that happy, I certainly wouldn’t be working at that job.

It seems to me that in order to be more successful, and to rise higher in the system, more sacrifices of the natural state of humanity must be made. The interview process is a dance of lies. You are judged by how convincingly your scripted answers match up to the scripted questions. Working in an office, I would see nothing but deranged personalities all around me. Marketable personalities gushing nonsense. I knew there were real people in there somewhere, but their development had been stunted in accordance with the system in which they had to survive and flourish.

I was put off by the light chit chat, always prompted by the three major stories featured in the free papers that people read on the way to work. Expressing any sort of opinion outside this realm seemed to be frowned upon. Whenever I managed to get a job in an office, I learned to keep quiet, lest I build up a reputation of unorthodoxy.

Rob, however, was a master operating in this environment. I found his abilities remarkable. I was in awe of the way he could beam out his fake smile, and engage his fellow minions in the ritual of daily, nonsensical chatter. More than this, he was somehow able to manage to take, on average, three sick days a month. How he got away with this was beyond me. He had the aberrant ability to appear excited and interested in company meetings, and conducted his presentations with a dashing aplomb.

It was late, and I had to get out and let him sleep. Being an unsuccessful, uneducated and unemployable deviation from standardized humanity, I had always travelled by bicycle. I could not afford a car, and no matter what the snow load, would be forced to brave the extreme elements. I found biking, in any what the weather, to be a cathartic engagement. The act steady rhythmic pedaling always cleared my thoughts and with my eyes fixated on the road I would often fall into a trance.

It was in this state of mind that I received a rude comment shouted from a car behind me. Sometimes I am not sure what posses me to do things. Without thinking, I swung my bike around, and pedaled back toward the offending vehicle. I was not upset, or angry in anyway, it was a reflexive, unconscious action.

Seeing that the rear window was open, I rode up and stuck my head in, still mounted on my bike. In the car were four very large, aggressive looking black men.

All eyes were on me, even the fellow in the passenger seat had twisted his head, and was peering at me from behind the headrest. I fixed them with a stern glare, saying nothing. There were a little taken aback, not used to being challenged in this way. I could see that they didn’t know quite what to expect. Did I have a gun? Was I crazy? Tension was building up.

I remained silent, and just kept glaring. It was a standoff. Not knowing what would inspire the courage to motivate a lone man to put himself in this position, they remained still, but tense, ready for anything.

A long moment, passed. Tension was building to incredible levels. Something had to give. Any instant, violence was going to explode, bursting forth from that car. Something had to be done. I had no plan, but for some reason, I had absolutely no fear. I was still in the strange unthinking fugue that hard pedaling always granted me.

At the last moment, at the peak of unbearable pressure, finally I spoke, softly but firmly.

“Jesus loves you”

The looming threat of violence suddenly vanished, replaced by total confusion. The alteration of energy was immediately apparent, although nothing at all had changed. I still had my head in the window, and they sat, unmoving, staring at me. But the threat of brutality was gone, dispersed instantly upon the utterance of my magical phrase.

They had just been ready to spring into action, and now their target had morphed into something entirely different. They were faced with a glaring contradiction and had no idea of how to resolve it.

Knowing that I was safe I pulled my head out of the window and pedaled off, marveling at the power of ideas and perception.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Charity Case

The apartment was barren. Gone were our appliances and furniture. The dust that had collected behind them stirred up in the wake of our footsteps. The stereo, of course, remained unmolested.

Two, easy chairs lingered, set up haphazardly in front of the system. Beer bottles lay strewn about the floor. The phone was disconnected – unplugged but still functioning. We never answered it. When it rang, we would stare at it with paranoid suspicion until it stopped. Our attempt to get an outgoing line only was met with incredulity by the operator upon request. “We don’t……have those anymore sir” she said in bewilderment.

Our doorbell was broken, the only contact we had with the outside world was to be had when somebody actually made the effort to come by. They were required to find a small object lying about on the ground, and throw it repeatedly at our second story window. It was a vein hope that we would be lucid enough to notice, or even hear, over the loud music that would play all night. Surprisingly, some people still actually undertook the effort.

The shelves were empty, a bag of rice and a few boullion cubes were all we had for sustenance. We were broke, and it was obviously our last month in the apartment. Like a fool, I had quit the best job I ever had in my life. And this was the disastrous result.

In the early afternoons we would wake, collect the beer bottles, and look for something else to sell. Our desperate need for beer had to be fulfilled. The thought of sitting there, throughout the evenings, with our mental faculties fully intact was unbearable.

We had somehow always managed to be successful, but on this day another crisis arose. We were out of food, the rice bag was empty. Something had to be done. We sat and pondered. Money was left unconsidered, that was for beer. No, we had to find another way.

“The food bank!” Lee suddenly looked up at me, his eyes glinting with delight. It was a fine idea. I was glad to have a man at my back like Lee. He had saved us for another day, maybe several.

Excitedly, we looked up the address in the phone book, and began to prepare. “Well, we’re not really poor”, I said to him with a hint of reluctance in my voice. Lee dismissed my hesitation with a beleaguered wave. “All that’s needed is a bit of careful preparation, dress poor.” he explained. I went upstairs to find something to wear.

We emerged from our rooms, appraised each other and burst out in wild laughter. I had adorned myself in an old pink ladies hat and scarf, tattered jeans, and three old cotton checkered jackets, each one of them fully stripped of buttons. I wore socks on my hands as gloves and had put on one of my old pairs of broken glasses. One of the lenses had been shattered, and one arm, twisted beyond use, jutted out from the side of my head. Lee was dressed in a similar fashion. We looked ridiculous, far worse than any street person I had ever seen. We were ready.

It was a cold winter’s day. We must have been an odd sight, pedaling down the road to the food bank, on bicycles easily worth over a thousand dollars each. It was a good distance, but the socks functioned better than I had hoped, and kept my hands from going completely numb. But the button-less jackets couldn’t be closed, and my torso was taking the brunt of the merciless, frigid air, driven by the harsh unrelenting wind.

Finally we arrived. We looked up at The Food Bank. Here was our salvation. A reconverted old factory warehouse, with crumbling bricks and broken windows, it towered above us, framed by the gray and sunless sky. We carefully locked our bikes up out of sight, worried that if we were spotted, our precious food would be confiscated. We had no idea what to expect, we had never been to the food bank. I was only vaguely aware that places like this existed.

We paused long enough to scrape up some dirt from underneath the snow and smeared it on our faces, completing our disguises.

Seeing a loading dock, we entered the warehouse and were greeted with a welcome sight. The place was enormous, and there was row after row of canned and dried goods, neatly stacked and arranged. The warehouse seemed abandoned, dead silence hung in the air. We looked at each other in delight. “I guess we just take what we want...” I ventured. My voice echoing through the stillness.

Noticing some empty boxes from the loading dock, we began to fill up on supplies, shouting out to each other in excitement when a favoured item was discovered. I began to praise that such a wonderful service existed.  We hauled our bounty up on our shoulders and began to walk back toward the entrance.

As we were just about to exit the building, a door opened and a man walked out. He saw us and stopped dead in his tracks. We froze as well. We studied each other for a long moment.  I could see him recoil slightly from our wretched appearance.

“What are you doing here?” He asked harshly.

Something was wrong, but what?

“We’re visiting the food bank” I responded, thinking that such a conclusion should by blindingly obvious.

The man, still guarded, but slightly relieved, told us that a process had to be followed. We were to go to the waiting area, on the other side of the building at the proper entrance. There we were to register, show identification, have proof of address and receive our ration. Dismayed, but not undaunted, we left our boxes and trudged out. The previously open door slammed behind us, and we heard the distinct sound of the lock engaging.

Steeling ourselves to the fraud we were about to commit, we opened the door and walked in. The other recipients of charity were there, seated in chairs and sipping coffee, all eyes turned to us and silence suddenly cut through the room. We regarded each other in mutual shock.

These were completely normal people! One man sat primly wearing a business suit, reading the financial section of the newspaper. There is no hint of poverty here, I thought, as I scanned the room.  I moved to sit down.

The entire room unconsciously edged away from us. Nervous whispers could be vaguely heard. Our decrepit appearance was regarded with surprise and disdain. I could see the thought in their eyes “What are these poor people doing here?”

We waited, accepting an offer of hot coffee from one of the staff who rushed over, with concern written on her face. “You have to fill this out” She told us softly, and hesitantly added “Do you have an address?”

I filled in the forms and showed my identification. Lee had luckily thought to bring the only piece of ID he had ever owned, a crumpled birth certificate. That is still all he has to this very day.

We were given a box. It contained some laundry soap, a few cans, some Kraft dinner, powdered milk, and a few other paltry items. Hardly the cornucopia we had in our hands at the warehouse.

We were satisfied. It would be enough to soak up the beer in our stomachs tonight.

We left, and I stood outside and watched as the man in the suit gingerly carried his box to a parked BMW, got in, and sped off.
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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Scams of David Viner, Part 2 - The Investigation

Click here for part one.

I was furious. Not only did I feel outsmarted, but Viner had befriended me, and betrayed my trust. He has stolen my book, and being a micro budget traveller at this point, was counting on reading to pass some of the duller moments. The near nightly ritual of longingly watching friends go out to places that were well beyond my meagre financial resources.

Five hundred baht is not a lot of money, but it was to me at this time. It could have paid nearly a weeks rent or bought endless amounts of precious water needed so desperately in the tropics. Just recently, I had been delighted to discover a water machine hidden in the bewildering market across the street that sold a litre for 2 baht, if you brought your own bottle. The book has cost quite a bit as well, I thought, as I tallied up the damage Viner had done to me.

The more I thought about Viner the more curious I became. Here was a man of obvious intelligence, with all the hallmarks of an upper class education and upbringing. What was a man of his pedigree doing, wandering around the backpacker's slums scamming travellers for the equivalent of $15 dollars each? I started to get very interested in finding out as much as I could about this mysterious man.

I began to wonder if he might be a wanted criminal, on the run for executing high level confidence tricks among the English elite. Perhaps he was being pursued by Interpol, hiding amid the labyrinthine streets of Bangkok, forced to lower himself to conning backpackers to survive. Or maybe he had already worked the richer areas of the city, and was resting on his laurels, keeping his skills sharp, waiting for the heat to die down.

Also considered was the possibility that he was a murderer, affiliated with some kind of mafia or a human trafficker. He could have been operating a boiler room - the possibilities were endless. It came across my mind that he could be a very dangerous man. Sometimes, it's better not to inquire too deeply into the reasons a man chooses to live in the nether regions of Asia.

Admittedly, the trick he had pulled on me was a crude one, and upon reflection, I felt a fool. But he had done it so smoothly and effortlessly that I was sure he was capable of much greater feats in his unusual choice of occupation.

Nonetheless, I had a great deal of confidence in my own abilities, and was determined not to be outsmarted again. I had, by now, ceased to be angry and was driven by curiosity. I wanted to know his story.

I went out to look for Mike, who I hadn't seen since I had met Viner. Perhaps he could provide some clues. It turned out that Mike had gone, and his urgent business downtown had actually been another one of his futile attempts to re-enter Burma, and return to his beloved Mandalay.

I decided to go to the guesthouse where I knew Viner had stayed. In Thailand, to check into any hotel, a passport is required; your details are taken down and are sent off weekly to the police. This was the law. But rules in Asia are seldom followed, especially in Bangkok, whose underbelly of crime was rotten to the core. If one has the money, anything is possible, legal or not.

I walked past the festering mattresses lining the alley leading to the filthy guesthouse that Viner had previously occupied. On entering, I was greeted by the owner who was working the desk. I politely asked if I could take a look at his registry.

“Why?” His eyes were suspicious.

I relayed the story, which seemed to amuse him greatly. He cackled with delight at my determination to track down a man for a mere 500 baht. Giving me a big grin revealing blackened, uneven teeth, he tossed the registry my way. I eagerly opened the tattered book, flipping through the yellowed pages, and scanning for Viner’s name. There, about half way down, on the last page I found his entry, and more importantly his passport number!

I was delighted. Borrowing a pen and scrap of paper, I took it down. I examined his signature, a dignified, looping script carefully penned with a steady hand. I committed it, as much as I was able, to memory. My broken toothed friend was looking on, interested now and eager to help. I asked him if he remembered this man, and described him. He confirmed that he did.

I proceeded to extract the following information from the owner. Viner had checked in with an expired, British passport, which had the corner cut off. The excuse he gave upon checking in was the same story he had told me. He had been carrying a simple plastic shopping bag, and nothing else. He had been a model, quiet tenant, and caused no problems. He had left no information about where he was going, but he had mentioned that his previous lodgings had been on Rambutree, just off Khao Sahn road.

The owner seemed delighted in these proceedings, and was of eager assistance. It amused him to no end that this unusual guest, staying at a place that only the down and out frequented, turned out to be a confidence trickster. He wished me the best of luck, and I left with his jabbering laughter following me out the door.

Armed with this new information, I proceeded to walk to Rambutree. The bus was too expensive, as saving two baht could buy me a litre of water. I didn’t mind, I was pleased to have a project, which cost me nothing, to occupy my time. I strolled down Samsen Boulevard over canals, and past the shops in the sweltering heat. The canals in Bangkok were always of interest to me, as they simultaneously appeared to be choking with both pollution and life. Buying a small steam bun for lunch, I stopped on a bridge. Tossing in a few crumbs of bread and watching the surface explode with hungry fish vying for a meal, I marveled at the sight.

Walking on, I passed what I had nicknamed “The Mysterious House of Purple Stained Cats”. A place owned by an ancient woman, selling unknown dried substances out of large jars. There were always at least a dozen cats outside this establishment, patched with inexplicable purple blotches. I never did find out what she was selling.

Eventually, I reached Rambutree, and started checking guesthouse registries. Most of these guesthouses were staffed with young, overworked and underpaid Thais. They were unconcerned at my request to see the registry, and would hand it over without trouble. I scanned for Viner’s name, and passport number, finding nothing in the first few guesthouses. This didn’t take too long, as I knew his check-in date at Broken Tooth’s. It was easy to follow the entries, and select the appropriate page. However, as failure mounted, I started to get discouraged. Perhaps he had other passports.

The heat was draining me, as I finally stood before a guesthouse that I knew was infamously populated with heroin junkies. I hesitantly walked in; passing a few of the emaciated, hollow eyed denizens, and opened the registry that was sitting on the abandoned counter. And it was there, that I found the name and unmistakable signature of my target, David Viner.

“What are you doing?” shouted the voice of the owner who was returning to his station. He slammed the registry shut. I raised my eyes to see a seedy looking Thai man, who was eyeing me with suspicion and distrust. A few of the residents who were slouching in the lobby looked up listlessly. I attempted to explain my plight to no avail. “I don’t give information on our residents, get out!” I knew that there was no arguing. This man knew full well knew the nature of his guests, and both he and I didn’t want any difficulties. Any further pursuit along these lines could get me in deep trouble, and easily in over my head. There was a distinct probability that this guest house was owned by, or had direct connections with the Thai mafia. There was nothing to do but leave this distressing environment. I walked out, dejected, with the empty eyes of the hopeless inhabitants silently following me.

The trail had gone cold, and there was nothing for it but to splurge, and treat myself to a frosty beer Chang to reward myself for my efforts, and quell my thirst in the unrelenting heat. I had known for a long time where the cheapest beer on the street was sold, and turned heel to the alcoholic equivalent of the heroin guesthouse.

This place was usually busy, and I was forced to share a table with one of the many drunks who could be found here from opening until closing. Sipping my beer, my new companion engaged me in conversation, and I started relaying my tale.

“Viner!” an angry voice exploded from the table beside me. I looked up to see a decrepit, crippled old man, seated in a wheelchair with fire emanating from his suddenly lucid eyes.

“That bastard!”

I had found another victim of the notorious David Viner.

Check back for Part Three - The Confrontation
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Tuesday, June 1, 2010

A Side Dish of Cockroach

We were having dinner below decks, The Captain and I. It was a risk, as we had left the cockpit unmanned. Nobody was present to watch for oncoming merchant ships, but it was our nightly ritual to sit down to a proper dinner in an attempt to interject a bit of civilization into what was a thoroughly uncivilized affair.

The Captain was a gruff old fellow, a no nonsense type of red blooded American with the old can-do attitude one rarely finds in the breed nowadays. Through our journey he had managed to repair or jurry-rig everything that had broken down on that tired old vessel. And a frightful list of things had gone terribly wrong already.

The Captain had purchased the ship for a mere six thousand dollars. A 54-foot sailing ketch that he had picked up in the Caribbean; it had been all but been destroyed in a hurricane. He had proudly showed me some pictures of his new acquisition during our initial first few days at sea. It had a hole in it the size of a Volkswagen bug. It was afloat, and he had somehow patched the gaping wounds and restored the lines of the hull, but it was not much improved from its original condition.

We had had several dangerous encounters with merchant ships already. When you are on a collision course with an oncoming ship, a great number of things have to be considered quickly. As a sailing vessel, We were the slowest and least manoeuvrable thing on the ocean. The law of the sea granted us the right of way, and these giant behemoths were obligated to yield, and change course to avoid us. This had not happened once. Attempts to communicate had failed, every time.

There is precious little time to make a decision upon first spotting an oncoming vessel. From the moment its light becomes visible, you have between three and ten minutes to alert the ship, or fall off course. It was hard to believe when staring out at that endless expanse of horizon. But horrible, crushing death can come upon you that quickly. And we we running dark, without a radar reflector. It was in The Captain's infernal temperment to consider lights and radar useless.

On one occasion, early in the journey, I had spotted an approaching vessel. It was night, and I had misread its trajectory, believing it would pass behind us. Almost too late, I realized my mistake. I flung myself below and scrambled to the radio.

"Merchant Ship! Merchant Ship! We are on a collision course, fall off, fall off!" I was met with silence on the radio, no matter how many times I repeated my desperate message. My cries into the radio had awoken The Captain, and shrugging off sleep, he dashed through the companionway to assess the situation for himself. Immediately grabbing for the ten million candle power beam, he shone it up to illuminate the voluminous expanse of sail. The white sails lit up, reflecting the light, creating a beacon that could be seen from horizon to horizon.

We waited.

Still the Juggernaut plowed through the sea toward us.

"We have to fall off!" The captain shouted.

We had no choice and no time to spare, I could now make out the hull of the ship in the darkness, and hear the sea parting as the great weight of the thing pushed relentlessly forward.

He leaned on the tiller, turning hard to port, mindless of the now wildly luffing sails.

There was always a chance that the ship could change course, or respond to our message too late, creating a new collision course, but we had no option at this point, the beast was upon us.

The roaring of the parting water of the ship's passage could now be heard over our own engine. I watched as a black monolith blotted out the stars to our starboard. It couldn't have been more than one hundred metres away. As it passed I stared up in amazement, shocked at this trespass of the unbroken horizon I had looked out upon for so long.

It left us wildly bobbing in the turbulence of its wake. The powerful engines creating a deep, throbbing hum that sent a violent vibration through our tiny vessel. We watched silently as its roar gradually softened, and it eventually disappeared from view.

"Goddammit!" The Captain cursed. "Asleep at the helm! Or more likely playing cards and drinking below decks!"

"If he had hit us, we'd have been done for!" The Captain exclaimed.

"Well," I asked, "wouldn't he have come back and searched for survivors?"

"Are you kidding? They'd have run us down and never felt a thing!"

Our dinners were hardly a relaxed affair, with this omnipresent threat lurking deep in the inky night all around us.

A large cockroach scuttled across the floor. The Captain paused his meal long enough to lean over and kill it with the flat of his hand. He stabbed at the corpse with his fork, picking it up and scraping it off onto the side of his plate. Undaunted, he turned his attention back to the remaining portion of his food.

“Damn things eat each other and just keep breeding” He grumbled.

It was true, the cockroaches were an invincible force of procreation, and no amount of slaughter could slow their ever increasing numbers. However, it was in The Captain's nature to never give up.

I finished up my meal, and made my way out into the frigid night, to watch.
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