It Started with a Paper Towel
Rhythm and blues cover songs from the '70s escaped from a corner bar. I did not find the encroachment of familiar Western culture particularly reassuring, but the bar was one of the few venues on the block without tabletop dancers in sequined underwear, making it a kind of novelty, so we entered. The all-Thai five-piece was working through an accurate but uninspired take of Marvin Gaye's "Got to Give It Up," cigarette smoke obscuring them into the background. I would imagine that a smoking ban in Patpong would be heretical. On the pink stages one floor above us, even vaginas have a two-pack a day habit.
I enjoyed a respite from the smoke upon entering the restroom. The attendant didn't acknowledge my entrance, but stood ready to hand off a paper towel. I've always felt an unquantifiable sorrow for washroom attendants: working in a room without windows, they are made to feel invisible as they perform a job free of rewards, save a few cash tips and perhaps a Herculean immune system.
It is also difficult for me to encounter a washroom attendant and ignore the inherent close-quarters intersection of two worlds, two perpendicular gears of society, those working and those partying, an amplified version of the city's own divisions. Since attendants work in nightclubs and restaurants, they're on the clock when everyone else plays. I experienced the same cozy interaction when I used to bus tables in restaurants, watching evenings, weekends, and holidays disappear into the bottom of a dirty glass, and I wondered how nights disappeared in the attendant's eyes.
I took the towel from him. He had a low, stocky frame with an inescapably comical barrel shape. He looked up and revealed his smooth, boyish face, a mask from which his adulthood poked through via a patient stare. I smiled and gave an obligatory nod. He continued to study me.
I don't recall how he managed to spin me around. I was now facing the wall and he was rolling his fingertips into my shoulders. Any kind of physical contact in a public bathroom can be unsettlingly awkward, especially when shot through the confounding prism of a language barrier, and especially in the bowels of the carnal emporium that is Patpong. But I reflected on our height differential, and on his service job predicament. I decided I'd let him earn a few extra baht for loosening up my shoulders that could always use a little help.
His knuckle probed the taut, rope-like meat around my spine, as if hunting for something. And then a percussive run resembling the noise made when stroking the ridged backs of wooden frog souvenirs: d-d-d-d-d-deet!
Just as I realized what had transpired, he grabbed my chin again and twisted it in the other direction, like a commando silently assaulting a perimeter guard in a bargain-bin action movie. The noise had come from my neck. I became my own musical souvenir.
Commando, Chiropractor, or Bathroom Attendant?
The move felt strangely similar to what my chiropractor would do during an adjustment. Which means that a chiropractor could kill someone with a heavier hand, or a commando could fix his enemy's nagging neck problems with a lighter, helpful twist. I wiggled my toes to make sure I still could.
He grabbed my left hip and right shoulder and twisted me in a shearing maneuver. My silently gasping mouth served as a resonance chamber to amplify the pops. I managed to instinctively squeeze out a few words, something like "OK, that's enough," knowing that he would never understand them anyway.
Could I just leave the bathroom? The idea seemed reasonable, except that his squat, unyielding arms had already gripped the insides of my elbows, my back on his back, and he began lifting me off the floor. As my thoughts of self-preservation flailed for a solution, I tried to remember the defensive maneuvers the boxers had employed. Digging for an escape plan, my honeymoon-sweetened mind somehow dialed up the rhythm of the ringside drummers instead. Pounding louder, churning faster. Hopelessly uninterruptible. "Hee!"
In mid-lift, he collapsed his body into a crouch. My back landed on his, and the impact released a hearty — and inexplicably painless — snap that radiated out to every limb. "Huay!"
We ended up facing each other as I reunited with the reassuring solidity of a motionless floor below me. The drumming stopped — the round was over. While I wondered how he had leveraged his little body to accomplish what he did — and across the span of what must have been only a few savage seconds — I noticed that, just as with a decent chiropractic visit, I could breathe more easily. With no HMO authorization, no co-pay, and no claim rejection.
He returned to his deceptively humble barrel stance, but this time he spiked it with a tight quarter smirk, as if to shame me for attempting to wrap up a visit to Bangkok without making time for a massage. Invisible washroom attendant? I don't think so. He chirped what was probably the only word of English he knew. "Tip?"
I rejoined my wife at our tall cocktail table and said into her ear, "You should go to the bathroom. You'll feel a lot better." She returned without encountering a masseuse in the lady's restroom, denying me of corroboration (and denying her of a massage). But I could not escape the affect the attendant had had on me, drawing me closer to my own service job past, to the attendant's present. Had a momentary connection materialized?
The chorus of "I Heard It through the Grapevine" droned from the stage, feeding the stammering dance steps of an American man and his Thai girlfriend half his age. The engines of Bangkok's hospitality kept grinding away. As I sucked in the cancer of the Patpong air with newfound ease, I knew that the attendant was already tossing around his next patient.
Darrin DuFord's book Is There a Hole in the Boat? Tales of Travel in Panama without a Car won the silver medal in the 2007 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Awards. A past contributor to Perceptive Travel, he has also written for Transitions Abroad, World Hum, GoNomad, and Matador Nights. Read his latest ruminations on travel and food on his blog, www.OmnivorousTraveler.wordpress.com.
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When in Jordan... by Shari Caudron
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Other Asia travel stories from the archives
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