It was a battle of epic proportions. Not a knock down drag out Mike Tyson bites your ear off type of fight; it wasn’t so much about blows being traded. At least not physical ones. But ego, face, status – those all suffered damage as did the psyche. And even when it is mental not physical damage being inflicted, in Bangkok, when blood is spilled someone has to pay. It’s amazing how often that someone is my wallet.
The battle between good and evil is the stuff of legends. The story, as on-going as it may be, is as old as the hills. It is the basis of the myths we’re taught as religion, the fables we’re told as children to teach us right from wrong and the consequence of choosing the wrong path. It is what moves every piece of literature ever written, it serves as the basic story structure of every play ever performed. Hollywood has never awarded an Oscar to any movie that failed to triumph good over evil, and dressing the good guy in a white hat and the villain in black is always a must to ensure the audience knows who to root for. It is the storyline of every war ever fought, and thanks to the victor being blessed with the right to write history, good always prevails while evil slinks off to lick its wounds waiting for its next opportunity to do the devil’s work. It’s America and apple pie versus Islamic extremists who are only interested in the virgins they will be rewarded with in the afterlife. It’s Wall Street versus those strange Occupy folk; Newt, Michele, Sarah, The Donald, and Hannity against the man from Kenya. And on a tiny street in Bangkok where the gods of consumerism hold sway, it was the story of an angelic bar boy and the draconian black heart known as the Dragon Lady of Khaosan Road.
Noom – my bar boy friend and current love of my life – for the record, is not into wearing hats. So even for literary purposes I can’t dress him in a white one for this tale. But then Thais have never made convincing cowboys, and Noom’s skin tight T-shirt, hugging every muscle in his chest and arms to show off a build that could only be wrought with the gods’ blessings was blinding white, a dazzling apparition reflecting the rays of the hot afternoon sun. So the vision still works. And since all heroes must have a fault, Noom allowed his T-shirt to do double duty with its bold black print proudly proclaiming ‘I’m Not Gay But My Boyfriend Is’, a joke that I knew he wouldn’t quite get but would succumb to displaying out of the fondness for English that he shares with his countrymen regardless of any slogan’s meaning or lack thereof. Sidekicks to The Man in White, at least according to Hollywood, are supposed to be on the side of good too. In real life, sometimes they are demented and a necessary evil. But then what farang isn’t?
When I hit town and hook up with Noom he moves in for the duration. Whether that is for a few days or a month or more, we pretty much spend 24/7 together. If I have places to go and people to see for business, which I almost always do, Noom tags along. Unless shopping is involved that can be boring for him. But he’s a trooper. And being bored to death is part of what he feels is his duty in taking care of me. I suspect as honor bound to our relationship as he is, that 80% of my business does in fact include shopping has a lot to do with his constant attention to my needs. Still, I try to get a lot of that work out of the way within the first day or two of a trip, before we hook up and he no longer has a choice in the matter. Doing battle with the Dragon Lady is almost always a part of my business, though when the two of us go head to head it isn’t so much about good versus evil as it is about our never-ending effort of agreeing to a lose-lose proposition. Ours is a dysfunctional relationship with both of us viewing the other as the parasite on our respective back. But it familiar and it works.
The Dragon Lady owns a small wholesale silver shop on Khaosan Road. Staffed by minions of the devil, and overseen by Her Surliness herself, the establishment doesn’t exist to turn a profit but rather provides the Dragon Lady with a lair in which to maul her prey out of eyesight of the passing hordes who nonetheless from some basic atavistic instinct tend to steer clear, often inexplicability crossing the road to safe passage on the other side of the street. Rumor has it that she served as the model for the witch in Hansel and Gretel.
Even a willing as I am to deal with the devil when it comes to turning a buck, I too would avoid the Dragon Lady like the plague that she is, but she carries a small silver bead that no one else in town stocks, and unfortunately, by accident, it became an integral though largely unnoticed part of the line of jewelry I manufacture. I have no doubt that in her succubus form she visited me in my sleep one night, implanting that cruel design in my head where it would fester until it forced me to her small shop’s doors. Too late now, the devil’s pact was agreed to and every visit I make to Bangkok includes paying homage at her self-built shrine. But that’s my bad karma. To date, Noom had lucked out. Though he had accompanied me to Khaosan on several trips in the past, he’d never had the joy of feeling the Dragon Lady’s talons encircle his heart, had never experienced the blackness of her heart that was so deep it made midnight jealous.
Perhaps it was the Dragon Lady’s version of a siren’s song, an other worldly enticement that could only be heard by soi dogs and the foolish, a plea born from the depths of hell for fresh meat and new souls to ravage that caused Noom’s first visit to her store. Maybe it was some failing of his in a previous life that finally demanded to be tallied. I’d hate to think my karma is so bad that it would suck those I love to their doom too, but there is always that. More than likely, because the gods are neither good or evil but endlessly bored and enjoy watching the tribulations of mankind, it was probably nothing more than a cosmic joke that would allow fate to determine who would be the punch line. A bar boy and a Dragon Lady walk into a bar . . . somehow you know slapstick will be the comedic device chosen, that as yet unnamed in the prank it’d be my ass that got bitch slapped.
Being known by sight by a demon is never a good idea. Unfortunately, the Dragon Lady knows me. Or perhaps just scents a familiar fear when I walk through her door. On good days my appearance on her door step is met with indifference. But those days are few and far between. More often my greeting is the sight of her aged mouth scrunched into a disapproving pout, her entire face puckered like a dog’s ass sucking on lemons. If we are to do business, rather than waste her vocal chords on the undeserving, she waves me in summoning me to her perch behind an ancient desk overflowing with invoices that is tucked into the darkest recess of her narrow store. Where she will rape my wallet into an inch of its life. If not, when my money is of little concern to her world, she stops me with a banshee’s cry, “You no shop here today!”
But that’s a story I’ve told before.
On this fateful day before she could decide which version of fucking with me would be the most pleasurable, The Man In White (With The Gay Slogan On His Chest) stepped out from behind me and let loose with one of his more dazzling smiles, the one in which his entire face takes part in bestowing a welcoming benevolence on all in its path. And with a simple, “Sawadee kap!” the Dragon Lady was fucked.
Goodness, even in its bar boy from, was not something the Dragon Lady was used to dealing with. Being forced to consider respective status while in her own domain was a foriegn experience for her. And it fouled her mood even though as with all Thais her ability to assign this strange creature’s role in society moved at a speed that would make a Cray computer weep. But it was a tough call nonetheless. She had him on age (though that was always a given since true evil existed even before the creation of the earth). As a businesswoman, even if that was only a disguise, she probably ranked higher too. Her wealth surrounded her and certainly was of higher value than that displayed on his every finger and draped around his neck (though those disturbing flashes of gold in her world of silver gave pause). His trump card however was that he was with a farang, a feat the Dragon Lady could never pull off since most farang are taught the dangers of ugly old crones as children. Worse yet, in the world of Thai the lesser creature always takes the initiative to pay honor when it is due, and this strange apparition was just standing there beaming out that accursed light that was causing her minions to quake and giving her the mother of all headaches at the same time.
Ambivalent over the lack of greeting he’d received, with bling on display Noom got busy pouring over her store of riches looking for the choicest pieces to plunder. The Dragon Lady’s devil spawn in their guise of shop clerks followed closely at his heels mindful of their fate should a dastardly customer pilfer their good lady’s riches. Noom, who usually makes best friends for life with any store clerk at any shop ignored them until he found a piece he liked. Then, turning to the closest one, he dropped the piece into her hand and waved her off in a manner so imperious the Dragon Lady was stunned, speechless and gazing in awe and admiration.
One of her minions tittered. The Dragon Lady shot her a withering glance that caused her to burst into flames, sending her soul back to the bowels of hell where it had been born. Noom casually selected a second piece of bling and dropped it over his shoulder, assuming one of the surviving devil spawn would make a life sacrificing dive to catch it and add it to his growing pile of goods. Game on.
Noom and I have rules regarding his shopping while I’m conducting business. We’ve never discussed them, never laid them out, never acknowledged they exist, but both studiously comply with them nonetheless. There is a limit on how much of my money he can spend, based on the amount of time I take and the amount of goods I purchase for business. And the bling we buy to adorn his body instead of my store’s shelves is all about me, not him. Because the more I buy for business, the cheaper his bling will be. So it’s not about buying him stuff. It’s about me saving money. And saving me money is what he’s all about. We had not spent that much time in the store, and while the pile of silver I’d picked out wasn’t small, Noom had certainly watched me buy much more on other occasions. Regardless, from the amount of bling he’d picked out for himself it looked like he planned on saving me a hell of a lot of money that day.
The one rule we have that we have discussed, which took every ounce of tact on my part in establishing, is that when it comes time to barter over price Noom is supposed to make himself scarce. As inbred as haggling over a purchase as it is in Thais, as shoppers they suck at it. Big time. So Noom allows me to indulge myself as long as we both acknowledge that he could get the better deal. Even though he can’t. But when you are operating inside of a black hole, all bets are off, the normal rules do not apply. When it came time to settle up with the Dragon Lady, Noom stepped up to the plate.
“How Mut?” he asked sweetly with yet another blinding smile while flicking his hand in a circular motion over our respective piles of silver, a casual indication of indifference that could have meant all of it, or the desk too, even possibly the entire shop and the Dragon Lady’s lair to boot.
Silver at wholesale pricing is by the gram; it is a discounted price by weight in recognition of quantity bought. No problemo. Except Noom’s pile comprised single pieces, which too would be priced by weight but at a much higher rate. The Dragon Lady reached down, separating the two piles while her mind fulminated on a price to quote that would bring the most profit while not scaring the sale away. Noom wasn’t buying it. At least not in the sense of one from column A and one from column B. He pushed the two piles back together before she could come up with a starting price. And flashed the Dragon Lady a smile that should have caused the scales on her back to shudder.
Nostrils flaring and so upset at the affront that she forgot to hide the smoke spewing forth from them, the Dragon Lady sputtered out a baht per gram price as ridiculous as those charged foolish backpackers out on the street. My heart dropped in anticipation of the damage about to be inflicted on my wallet. From past experience, and the reason why we do not allow Noom to barter, I knew his countermove would be to agree to that price. But he didn’t. Instead he picked up the most expensive piece of bling he’d selected, set it to the side and then indicating the remaining pile of silver asked again, and just as sweetly, “How mut?”
The Dragon Lady reared back in astonishment. What kind of black magic bartering was this? You don’t get a better per gram price by buying less, you get it by buying more. She looked at Noom, hoping for a clue and completely flummoxed over his odd method of bargaining. She looked at me, hoping I’d be a source of reason and explain to The Man In White that this was not how it was done. She looked at her minions, daring any one of them to find the least bit of enjoyment in her predicament. And Noom calmly removed a second costly piece of bling from the pile, goading her with another polite enquiry, “How mut?”
The temerity of Noom’s move left the Dragon Lady feeling more frustrated than an Amish electrician. Looking as happy as a bulldog chewing on a wasp, she fell in line with his unusual form of negotiations and lowered her asking price. With an expression as blank as a dead man’s mind, Noom ignored that she’d even made an offer and moved even more of his bling to the side, asking once again, “How mut?”
David took on Goliath with nothing more than a small rock. Little Red Riding Hood trounced the big bad wolf despite the big teeth that he had. James Stewart fired a single shot to kill Lee Marvin (even though it was John Wayne’s bullet that did the deed). The basic goodness of the Autobots will always prevail over the Decepticons despite Shia LaBeouf being an ungrateful little bitch with a not very impressive penis. I routinely went one on one with the Dragon Lady and still always overpaid for my goods, at least when she would allow it. Noom fought the good fight never acting as though he was doing anything other than making a routine purchase. The pricey pile of bling we started with slowly diminished with each offer the Dragon Lady put forth until none of the jewelry Noom had picked out was left. And I ended up scoring the best rate I’d ever gotten out of the Dragon Lady for the silver that we did buy from her that day.
“Why you buy from her?” Noom asked me as we strolled away from the Dragon Lady’s store, leaving her to take out her displeasure on the minions who served her in hell. I started to explain about the bead she sold that I couldn’t find elsewhere. He wasn’t interested. “She not good,” he said, the first inkling he’d given for his motivation in bartering with her. I’ve seen Noom upset over being slighted, both imagined and real, but he had not felt his ego had suffered at her hands. I’ve seen Noom incensed when some fellow countryman of his failed to treat him in the manner he expects Thais to treat Thais, but that wasn’t the case either. “She tink you too easy,” he informed me, the fault possibly mine but the slight as much of a blow had it been directed toward him.
“You not shop here witout me now,” he said settling the matter for any future dealings I might have with the Dragon Lady. And for once I wisely followed his advice. I do as much business with the old bitch as I ever had, but my participation is no longer required. I take Noom with me when I visit Khaosan Road, and then patiently wait out on the street while he deals with the devil on my behalf. Ours is still a dysfunctional relationship, even more so now. And it works even better.
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