True story about living across from a gay sex club in Thailand.
Every night, Nature Boy beckoned. On my walk home I passed its modern, rocket-ship glow, which somehow sanitized the fact it was a gay sex club down a Bangkok alleyway. Across the street, The Golden Cock had less to brag about. One lone man sat out front wearing the posture of a girl wanting desperately to leave the prom. Nature Boy's outside boys were of a much higher caliber, with their cute, monosyllabic nicknames ("My name Pae, you come inside!") and skintight sailor whites. Each evening, the sight of my sundressed body rounding a corner would set off a flurry of excitement among them, as though Cher herself had just materialized on the road to the opening notes of "Believe," and from that point until I entered the parking lot of my apartment, they would do whatever it took to get me through that terrifying white door. I assumed it was because I was a novelty. There were precisely zero other white girls living on my street. Perhaps to them I seemed glamorous or something, though I'm fairly certain, looking back on my relative lack of style, this was not the case.
The ploys to get me inside would start off simple, "You come in?" Oh, no. Off to bed with me! Have a lovely night though.
Then they'd take it up a notch. "You want drink?" Always. But no thanks.
Then came the pouting, "Why you never come in?" they'd ask, lower lips jutting in a rehearsed seductive manner.
One night Pae got crafty. "We talk about girl things," he said plucking at my shoulder strap. I hadn't talked girl in a very, very long time. Maybe we could discuss my hair and where I could go to get my roots touched up. Then this drink would be productive as well as illuminating, not to mention neighborly. I hesitated, and they knew they had me. Before I could change my mind they grabbed my wrists and sashayed me into Nature Boy.
The stark neon-lit interior carried on the white and titanium-theme of the façade, the only difference being that the boys inside wore only Calvin Klein boxer-briefs — but with such confidence! The strange smell male flesh takes on when it has been slathered with too many grooming products permeated the air. Among the tanned torsos, I could see only one other actual patron, a burly man with a beard who appeared to be from the Lansing, Michigan division of the Hell's Angels, flirting with a be-Calvined youth in the far corner.
My posse took me past a long glowing bar and a raised platform where several performers wiggled around in their skivvies to Britney Spears, and sat me at a white table. The outside boys crowded around asking questions, giggling to each other in Thai, waving for drinks from the bartender. It turned out that I and a bunch of Thai "sometime" male hookers had less in common than you might think. Beaming and giggling at one another gets tiresome after a while. As my fabulousness wore off, some of the boys dispersed and went back outside to their jobs as man-bait, and I began to talk to Pae about his family, who lived in a rural part of the country. He told me how hard it was to be hustlin' every night. Amen, I commiserated, without having any clue how hard hustlin' was. It was — as I would come to realize — the classic sex-seller-talking-to-someone-who-obviously-isn't-buying conversation. We had just had a shot of something pink when he leaned over and plaintively whispered in my ear, "We not gay."
I walked back to my apartment trying to figure out the logistics of this and shuddering at the indignities of selling one's body. I was repulsed. I was attending Evergreen College, an especially liberal brand of liberal-arts college that allows you to travel freely while completing "contracts" drawn up with a professor whom you pray is as lazy as you are.
My semester was to be spent completing a photo-documentary project. This was mid-college and after a few deviations (lawyer, archeologist, illustrator), I was planning on becoming a photographer, National Geographic style. While I was good at taking pictures, I had not yet admitted to myself that I wasn't really cut out for sinking knee-deep in leech-infested waters or huddling in my hotel room as people threw Molotov cocktails outside (both facts that I eventually learned the unpleasant way), and Getty didn't really hire young journalists for their pictures of cute children.
While my affable but inattentive boyfriend volunteered in a slum, I wandered around in the spongy Bangkok heat with my camera. Sometimes I'd take a three-wheeled tuk-tuk to Chinatown and look at shops filled with fake gold coins, firecrackers, and cakes with characters stamped into the tops. I was achingly lonely most of the time, and lethargic from heat and lack of conversation, so I ended up spending most of the semester I was supposedly working on school projects eating street food alone and hunting for t-shirts with funny English phrases on them. (On the Bangkok Skytrain I once saw a hunched elderly woman wearing a t-shirt with a picture of the globe on it that read "All I want is world peace…and a blow job.")
By the time evening came I would almost always be depressed. One can only wander alone for so long. I would walk from the Silom Skytrain station through the streets surrounding Patpong, Bangkok's oldest — and when compared to its competitors, least offensive — sex district, on my way home. Women sat fanning themselves at open-air bars, calling out sharply to the men who walked by, just as my neighbors at Nature Boy did to me. Shakira songs played from tinny speakers. The neon faces of Connect Four boards glowed from rickety bar-tops staffed by young women wearing cheap high heels, lycra-blend dresses, and hardened expressions.
If Bangkok's bar girls were able to legitimately monetize their Connect Four skills — start a league and travel around the world, perhaps — there would be no need for them to ever sleep with an octogenarian again. They are without a doubt the shrewdest, quickest draws the game has ever seen. One minute they're all giggles and demurely lowered eyes, the next you've lost 500 baht. That we can be lured into brothels by children's games shows how little technology has really advanced us as a species. If you are like me, you will be unable to resist the deliciously perspiring bottles of beer, and you will be mesmerized by the satisfying click of hard plastic discs. You will sit down on a stool and order a Chang beer. Next to you an old white man in a floral short-sleeved shirt and orthopedic sandals will lose to a woman who has been simultaneously texting on a Hello Kitty cell phone. As a bartender named Rat hands you your beer in a foam coozie you will think, I bet I can win at this. If you are a man, this is the first of many stupid ideas you will have during the course of the evening.
I started going regularly to the bars lining the side streets of Patpong, thinking I would make the girls and boys and transvestites working there into my photography project. For a few days I did just that, and then Rat, always looking out for my best interest, told me, "I like photo, but they will give you bad time. Maybe you get hurt." The look she gave me suggested that she was not referring to an emotional kind of pain. That effectively ended my documentary project. I may have been the lone white girl — and looking around, the lone white person under the age of thirty — hanging out in a place where women wore numbers, but I wasn't asking for any trouble. I looked around the bar smiling brightly as if to say See how I only look, no touch. No photo, just wiping the lens off. See! No break my kneecaps please.
I put my camera away, but kept going to the clubs and bars. I was fascinated. From my perch at the bar I watched the men sidle up and play a game I liked to call "Let's pretend this bar girl is really not a prostitute but a nice young lady and that I have the charm of Fred Astaire, who incidentally was born in the same year as I was. I am now going to use my masculine charms to pick up this classy woman in this fine establishment." These were actually the nicer, if much more deluded, subset of men who at least treated the women well. Others walked in already drunk off their tits and touched everything in sight, feeling the girls up as though the lights had gone out and they were trying to find their way to a switch. They said disgusting things. The whole experience played out like To Catch A Predator except nobody ever popped up from behind the bar and said, "What do you think you're doing?" It unfolded like bad reality TV, when in fact it was just bad reality for everyone involved.
Pae, meanwhile, had moved on and up to another job, which was down a much busier side street. His new uniform involved a tight T-shirt, with his name printed prominently across the front in white English letters, and perpetual jazz hands. With the career move, Pae had decided he was not just gay but flaming. When I stopped by on the first night, he had transformed himself into a character somewhere between Miss Teen USA and Tootsie. He wiggled seductively in front of the bar's outdoor café-style tables for crowds of Western men who winked and whistled appreciatively. His frosted lips parted to display a beauty-pageant smile and his hand made small, tight-fingered waves appropriate for the queen he had become. He was no longer hustling — he was performing.
With all of the sashaying and the groups of western trannies in glittery headdresses, the atmosphere was definitely more festive in the gay Soi than a few blocks away in the hetero-dominated bars around Patpong, which made it easy to forget that some of what was going on was actually just as sleazy.
One night, Pae texted me to come visit him at work. It was late when I arrived, and appreciative men at the tables had already bought him many drinks. He wobbled toward me when he saw me round the corner, and took my hands in his. In front of the men he showed me the walk that I would be doing all of the time if I were better at being a woman. The balls of my feet, he explained, should leave the ground as though I were wearing invisible high heels, and then move in front of one another. This was to be augmented by swinging my hips from side to side and looking down and up through my eyelashes in a seductive manner. We had made it from one side of the bar to the other in this fashion when a large bald man in a cotton tank approached Pae and touched his waist. The man smiled to expose a row of crooked teeth, and whispered something in his ear. Pae hesitated and then pressed a hand on the man's waxy-looking chest and smiled through his eyelashes. He didn't look back at me at all when he followed the man up the alley. I stood watching them for a moment, then turned and walked on flat feet to my empty apartment.
I sat on my balcony for a long time. I was lucky, I realized. I would never be in a position that required me to sell myself. Below, migrant workers returned to their temporary home of tarps and pavement and shared dinner, passing food to one another, their crouched bodies lit by the bluish flicker of the television they kept running from a generator. Sitting alone, high above them, I felt a huge emptiness pass through me and out into the humid night.