Monday, May 9, 2011

Chapter XXV The Nana

      Once again, one of my readers has requested 
      that I skip a few years and write about a 
      particular period in my life. This request 
      is the hardest so far to fulfill as I am asked to 
      write about the present, the here and now of 
      my life. I am not a diarist, though in many ways a 
      diary of my life with its many famous and 
      eccentric characters would be a fascinating 
      document. I have chosen instead to feature a 
      few characters and incidents from my past 
      and my reactions to those situations I found 
      myself in as a means to manifest some sort of 
      composite self portrait. For once I will identify 
      that reader making the request .
      George Lehner is one of the fascinating characters 
      to be found at certain times in the year lounging 
      in the lobby of the Nana hotel in Bangkok,
      one of the great hotel lobbies of the world.

      I am sure George's host, the Thai Chinese Mr. Ping 
      would be surprised to hear of such a rating since he 
      never intended his hotel to be considered in the same 
      class as other, more famous Bangkok hostelries as
      the Shangri-La, Oriental and Dusit Thani, let alone have 
      his lobby compared favorably by the author to that of 
      the Carlton in Cannes or the bar of the Plaza in New York. 
      And to be sure his hotel though almost always fully 
      occupied, low season or high, fails to compete on grounds of
      unadulterated luxury, it wins bottoms down in atmosphere.
      Some have described the Nana as nothing more than a
      whorehouse. To say so is to be both crude and inaccurate;
      to be sure, there are stories of gentlemen checking in for
      the fortnight and never needing to set forth outside its doors
      to satisfy their carnal desires nor any other. 
      But as any observer would note, there are families to be found
      dining in its notorious coffee shop, even the odd middle aged
      European couple to be found among the predominantly single,
      Caucasian male overnight guests.

      The women who visit vary in age from under aged nubiles
      passing as 18 year olds to veterans well past the age of
      menopause.  The older ones tend to be elegantly attired
      and fluent in at least one European language; the younger
      ones are fresh from up country, jean clad, predominantly
      farm girls seeking to make their fortune in Krung Thep,
      City of Angels, Bangkok. They are indeed walking
      cliches of how girls succomb to what is termed in Thailand
      the "easy life" of selling their "oyster": some claim
      to have been abandoned by their Thai husbands for even
      younger wifes after bearing children, others abused :
      the economic fact remains that a good factory job in
      the distant corners of Thailand may only pay monthly the
      equivalent of a modest night's work for a reasonably adept girl.
      Coupled with the reputation that western men enjoy for love
      making skill as compared to Thai men, and it is easier to see
      why there are smiles on both the faces of men and women as
      they leave the Nana lobby together.
      The action is non-stop; there are ladies sitting and chatting with
      one another in the coffee shop and lobby around the clock.
      They are expected to purchase a coffee or tea for about a dollar
      and are welcome to nurse it until good fortune strikes. As well,
      there's a TV lounge showing  recent Hollywood movies which
      attracts it own late afternoon and evening crowd. Younger
      ladies, more sure of their charms, tend to congregate
      there as a refreshment will cost closer to $2. The main attraction
      of the Nana is its in-house discotheque officially named Angels
      but known to all, Thai and farang alike as the Nana disco.
      By 11 p.m. of an evening 100 or so stunning young girls will be
      there, mainly freelancers, though a few will be on their own
      version of a busman's holiday, dancing on their nights off from
      their jobs as go go dancers in nearby clubs.

      It is with some surprise that the western males happening by
      for the first time come to realize that every single one of the
      girls dancing is available for extra curricular activities.
      Closer to 2 a.m., the room will fill up considerably with girls
      who, having been bought out of their clubs by a short time
      customer, will seek to enjoy themselves with some of their
      new found lucre and, perhaps, score again. Then after
      2 a.m., a veritable deluge of girls will rain down upon the
      disco as girls wander in from clubs all over the city. And where
      there are girls, men will surely follow …
      I should return to the Nana lobby, to its comfortable
      sofas and armchairs and its many gentlemen observing
      the fascinating comings and goings of the day and

      Not everyone is resident in the hotel; your author will
      travel a mile or so from his apartment of an
      evening to find the best social intercourse to be had
      in Bangkok; still others stay at the nearby J.W. Marriott
      and Landmark, 5 star hotels to be sure but with comparatively
      sterile lobbies; many of the denizens actually staying
      at the Nana are wealthy enough to stay in more luxurious
      surroundings but prefer the clubby atmosphere and are
      confident that no matter when they return to the Nana,
      year after year, good conversation will be had
      and old friends met.
      It so happens that one particular group of four
      gentlemen who regularly meet to exchange news and
      pleasantries, including your author, all happen to speak
      German, a somewhat anachronistic attribute for Americans.
      Prof. George (Friedrich Johannes) Lehner alone
      can claim German parentage, this sprightly 84 year old retired
      Professor of Psychology from UCLA and consultant to the
      U.S. Government's most secret arms on management techniques.
      Next in age would be the seventy something Izzy Fishel,
      born in Polish upper Silesia, educated in the camps,
      liberated 29 April 1945 from Dachau. Made his fortune in
      Houston, in the furniture business. Henry Abbott, at 59, a
      comparative youngster, born in Britain now officially residing
      in Connecticut with his German born wife, Gaby,
      a number cruncher for one of the ubiquitous Thai Chinese
      tycoons, formerly involved like many in Bangkok in more
      shadowy work, in more dangerous locales.

       At a comparatively juvenile 45 I, Robbie Fields, feel
      both filial in my affection for my older comrades and awed
      by their life experiences.
      Imagine our surprise to hear on a nearby sofa two
      particularly attractive Thai women chat away in fluent
      German. Upon investigation, we discover one to be married
      to a German and visiting Thailand; she appears to be teaching
      the younger one her new language as preparation for her
      own emigration. They are among the few females sitting
      in the lobby for the orthodox purpose of awaiting their
      kinfolk rather than seeking temporary employment.
      Of course, Izzy has seen it all. When in residence, say
      9 months of the year, he holds court for most of the day
      time hours.  He seems to prefer fixed arrangements with
      his female companions, their arriving sometime after 9 p.m.
      to accompany him upstairs to the room he maintains, even
      during the weeks he spends in nearby Cambodia, frolicking
      with Vietnamese girls.  Therefore, any single western male
      with a degree of civility will sometime or other come into
      Izzy's orbit and receive his home spun philosophy, a finely
      honed guide to living on an emotional even keel in Bangkok.
      Izzy will be quick to introduce a stranger to others living
      the good life. It may have been Izzy that provided the
      introduction to my good friend Henry. It was Henry, in turn,
      who introduced me just a few weeks ago to Dr. Lehner,
      or George as he insists on everyone calling him, in spite of
      his professorial bearing and status.
      I do not think anyone would guess by looking at him his
      birth year of 1914; unfortunately even with the Thais and
      their reverence for their elders, George has learnt to be coy
      about his revealing his age, such is the general bias against
      the elderly. The author, for his part, feels genuinely coy
      about committing to the historical record the extent of his
      emotional attachment to his good friends, Henry and George;
      suffice to say, Henry is big brother like, ever ready to steer
      me into mischief but equally prepared to rescue me; George,
      an amalgam of every teacher and professor that I have
      respected and loved, the surrogate parent I sought,
      his advice falling upon my ears as though I were a child sitting
      on Grandpa's lap and actually taking it in. Or is that role, that of
      grandfather, rightfully Izzy's? A man, who survived hell on earth
      and loves to crack a joke; the ideal Jewish grandfather I never
      had (both of mine died before I had a chance to know them and
      neither of them may have been so amusing a character).
      How fitting it was for the eclectic world of the Nana lobby for the
      younger man to present to the learned one in 1998, at the close
      of the last century, the recently remaindered memoirs of Gore
      Vidal, cautioning the professor of Vidal's propensity to drop
      names at every comma and semi colon. And to find Dr. Lehner
      clutching the tome for the next few days, marveling at how Vidal
      had the opportunity to write at length about George's own hero,
      the fin de siècle philosopher, George Santayana. And how Vidal

      had taught us all the worthless noun, palimpsest, a tissue of lies.
      And taking a leaf from my former hero Gore's restrained work,
      I will not go into details over the "how" of the ladies' business,
      always close at hand, here in the lobby.
      Studying that with an eagle eye, is a new addition to the Nana
      landscape. Khun Somchai; rather than a Thai, the gentleman
      in question is actually a 40 something Saudi, educated at UCI
      (University of California at Irvine), grandson of a Bedouin,
      on one of his frequent extended holidays in Bangkok and
      enjoying the Nana atmosphere. 

      In true Arab style, Somchai, despite his adopted Thai name,
      sits for hours on end, drinking his espresso and inviting
      passers-by, both male and female to join him for refreshment,
      as though still camped in his grandfather's tent. Now that
      Somchai has a steady Thai girlfriend, his interest in others'
      coupling and their negotiations to do so, provides him with
      an evening's entertainment in air conditioned comfort. Alone
      among my friends, Somchai smokes cigarettes; hospitably
      proffering cigarettes, his table by the hotel's main doors
      attracts the chain smoking crowd; on the few occasions
      when the haze abates, I am quick to sit down and share the
      Saudi's merriment with the world as seen at the Nana.
Originally written May 1998

Postscript May 2011

George was so determined to make it to the century mark
but missed by 7 years.  A great innings and he remained
sharp until the end, well cared for at The Nana.
So, too, was Izzy who has also passed.

Strangely, the first to go was "Somchai" who suffered
a heart attack at home in Saudi Arabia.

Henry Abbott managed to re-invent himself in his
dotage as a property appraiser in Greenwich, Connecticut.
He was there for the boom and the bust.  He is still with
wife Gaby as they plan to return to the Far East.

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