Written by Harlan Wolff
“I’m turning tricks – I’m getting fixed – I’m back on Boogie Street,” he sang as he parked the rusty blue and white Volkswagen bus in the far corner of the nightclub’s car park. He had lived on the road with an old mattress and Leonard Cohen CDs for a very long time and slept and showered wherever he could. Tonight’s venue would give him the staff toilet for half an hour as part of the deal and he’d scrub himself to smelling civilized again.
The seats had long been removed from the back of the minibus and its metal floor was littered with books, water bottles, dog bowls, and packet noodles that he cooked on portable camper gas. There was a heavily creased map stuck to a door panel above the mattress where he slept with the highways and back roads of Thailand crossed with various colored ink as a record of his decades of travel back and forth across the country.
There was nowhere else to go for a white African without a country. He had been on the road when his country, Rhodesia, went all Zimbabwe on him. There was no convenient consulate that he could go to for advice and he didn’t want to go home. Home, that was a joke. He was homeless, more like stateless, the day Britain decided empire was no longer fashionable and decided to pull down the shutters and shut up shop without discussing it with the descendants of its subjects. He just didn’t realize it until 1981 when his passport expired leaving him in a no man’s land of perpetual tourism.
He became addicted to addiction and Thailand had quickly taken a grip and got into his blood. When you have nowhere else to go Thailand is as good a place as any to cease to exist and drift around in. Through the years he had played any beer joint that would let him on stage. He’d played for money but he had also played for booze and fried rice, with an egg on top if he was lucky and could keep it down.
Tonight was a gig in Bangkok and that meant an English speaking audience and they usually approved of his lyrics. The foreigners called him The Poet but to the Thais he was Gandalf because of the resemblance to the wizard in Lord of the Rings. His own songs were hardly poetry but the audience didn’t mind. There was nobody else remotely like him holding a guitar so he was the man.
A few of his songs were well known around Thailand. Songs like, ‘Remember When the Air Was Clean and Sex Was Dirty’ and the most popular ‘Please Stamp Me In Immigration Man Coz I Got a Girl in Buriram’. He wrote songs in Thai too but that was for another audience, not for tonight’s crowd. Tonight’s crowd would appreciate him more; there’s nothing the local foreigner likes more than meeting somebody more fucked up than he is.
The Poet kept his hair long and never trimmed his vast grey beard. The sandals, battered jeans and faded linen shirts he wore were his declaration to being the trail’s last hippy standing. Writing his own songs had got him a handful of followers but made him unpopular with the bureaucrats because he sang about Thailand – warts and all. He moved too fast for them though, and they had better things to do, so they let him be. He was just another elderly tourist rolling around Thailand.
He walked up the steps to the club’s entrance with his guitar in one hand and a toiletry bag in the other, followed by his dog. He had picked up Lenin by the side of a road, unwanted, unfed and unloved. It had been too late to save the puppy from stunted growth and now the squat mongrel beside the aged lanky hippy spoke louder than any Norman Rockwell print. He named him Lenin after consuming half a bottle of local spirit, which had made him forget that his socialist leanings were no longer fashionable. The scruffy brown and white mutt sat patiently waiting for his master outside the bathroom door. Lenin followed The Poet everywhere.
The shower had to come first, he had started to object to his own stench somewhere around Tak and that had been two days earlier. He had learnt to appreciate cold water delivered under pressure but that day he was out of luck. There was no shower just a hosepipe dripping into a clay jar with a plastic bowl floating on the top to scoop the water out. He squeezed into the space between the large jar and the squat toilet. The dip and shiver as he called it because the dense clay of the jar put a chill in the water. It wasn’t what he had hoped for but he filled the plastic bowl with the water and poured it in one rush over his head. Once over the initial shock of cold water in tropical heat he soaped up and used the scoop to wash off the suds until he felt clean.
When he was finished in the staff toilet he went to take a look around. It was afternoon and the club was empty apart from the owner still dressed in his gangster outfit from the previous night. He was sitting at the bar nursing an espresso. Places and people designed for the night never look right in daylight.
“Still alive then?” He asked.
“Alive and dying. Hit me with some caffeine?”
“Sure.” He walked behind the bar and primed the espresso machine.
“Cool. Italian coffee.”
“This isn’t one of your ten-wheel truck stops. There’ll be a thousand people here tonight.”
“I’ve seen bigger.” The Poet said in his hoarse gravel voice. He talked like he sang and how he lived, rough.
The Poet drank the coffee straight, ‘black as a politician’s heart’ as he liked to say. He took his guitar and his toiletry bag onto the stage and sat down to play. He had written a new song in a traffic jam just outside Bangkok. It was called ‘Baby’s Got New Shoes’ and he wanted to hear if it worked as well with a guitar in his hand as it had with a steering wheel. He strummed a few chords and sang, “His whiskey breath was hot and his heart was old – She was limp, bruised and sad, she was feeling cold – Safety’s in gold but your family’s only got bamboo – Tomorrow’s gonna be fine; baby’s gonna get new shoes.”
The owner walked over in his shiny black clothes and told him, “That miserable shit’s OK. Stay off the political stuff like we agreed. I’ll see you tonight.” And he left to find where his door boys had parked his black Porsche Turbo the previous night.
Stay off the politics. Damn right. He’d learnt that down South. Don’t sing anything the northern Red Shirts cheered and applauded to a bunch of southern people wearing yellow. Thailand had changed while he was on the road and he’d missed the signs. They had chased him out of town and the Volkswagen bus was no getaway car. They caught up with him on the highway and it was touch and go if he would get out alive. After some violent intimidation and being told he would be reported and deported they’d let him go.
Satisfied with the acoustics he went to sleep on a sofa beside the stage. Lenin lay on the floor and slept, as always, with one eye open. Somebody had to look after The Poet and Lenin had made it his mission. He had to do it; nobody else had ever played with him and fed him.
The crowd started to roll in at nine and the band was scheduled to start playing at ten. The house-band fed themselves at a wooden table behind the kitchen and The Poet injected his muse in the staff toilet. He didn’t sing on food, he sang on heroin and beer; ‘comfortably numb’ as Pink Floyd had said in a song. The heroin took charge after Sally had left him and Lenin one rainy night in Chiang Mai. Nobody could stay on the road forever. Not if they had somewhere else to go and Sally had California. After that he had fallen in and out of bed with waitresses for a while but the white powder was a demanding mistress and it didn’t like competition. At his age he didn’t really mind, he craved the comfort of a warm body next to him but not what came with it. A society is shaped by the television it watches and all he had seen at the truck stops was extreme melodrama.
He smoked a cigarette in the toilet until he heard the band warming up. Time to go: another night, another car park, and another show. He splashed some water on his face and winked at himself in the mirror, ready. Lenin, obediently guarding the toilet door, sprang up and followed him through the crowd to the stage. The Poet sat on a barstool at the center of the stage and Lenin lay at his feet as he tuned his old road weary guitar. He signaled the band and they started playing.
He warmed up the crowd with ‘Bird on a Wire’ then switched into his own rhymes. The audience adopted him with empathy and sang along when they could. The audience always sang along with ‘Please Stamp Me In Immigration Man, Coz I Got a Girl in Buriram’’. Everybody knew the words to that one.
He saw a uniform lurking somewhere behind the lights and then he saw another one. Was he being paranoid? It wasn’t unusual to see uniforms in nightclubs; they enjoyed a drink just like everybody else. He closed his eyes and kept singing. The two uniforms worked their way through the crowd as he sang ‘Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye’ and they climbed the steps to the stage led by an undercover immigration officer in plain clothes who was acting on a tipoff.
The plain clothes officer asked to see his passport, visa and work permit. The Poet had nothing to say; his pockets were empty. They took him outside and put him on an immigration prison bus with barred windows while the band played on. Lenin wasn’t allowed on the bus and couldn’t go with him. The Poet wondered as the prison bus pulled away, who was going to look after Lenin, the Volkswagen and his old guitar while he was away?
© 2012 Harlan Wolff