Volume 8 | Spring 2018
by Frank Light
You didn’t ask me to join you; may I?
The prerogatives of age.
If I sat by myself, I’d be talking to myself. You wouldn’t want that. I might get loud.
What options do I have? That gentlemen in the corner? In a suit? In this heat?
He wants to read his paper. His ministry must have been sidelined. Or he’s a banker without a bank. A few of those in town. And a few banks without bankers.
Shirt sleeves will do, right? A frock for the lady. I mean we’re Americans, aren’t we? I could tell the way you walked in, hushed voices, matching this – would you look at it – to expections, that flickering chandelier an uneasy crown, glad you’re not under it.
Did you hear the noon bells? Another legacy. The cathedral’s also worth a visit.
Most tourists like their history ancient. They go to India, or Thailand: choice of hotels and the visa lasts for more than a week.
What you get here is history in the making. You don’t know where it’s going, and you two like that. It’s obvious. You can barely contain yourselves. That used to be me. Now I have to give myself a pep talk. Works better when there’s an audience. American to American. It’s been a while. Thank you.
If I don’t quite sound American, chalk that up to my youth. And adulthood.
Flush cheeks, glistening foreheads, go on, let the smiles out. You beat the storm!
Feel it coming, the barometric collapse? Makes me shake like a wet dog, ears popping like on the flight in.
I’m here for a reminder, not memories. Things to do, appearances to maintain.
Hong Kong tailor. Notice the vents. It breathes, I breathe. Sometimes I vent. Even at your age I wanted a monogrammed shirt. I chose to eat instead. Now I can do both.
If I were rich or important, I’d have an assistant.
I have a sponsor. It’s not the same.
Four of us, counting our banker. The empty chairs have us outvoted. A landslide.
Good thing this is no democracy.
Even the waiters have us outvoted. They’re getting up the nerve to give us the news.
They’re afraid I’m some old Burma hand tight with the generals, or I’m plotting against the generals, and let’s face it, you two don’t look typical. Not for the Strand.
Pardon me for asking, but are you staying here?
It sounds so wholesome.
If you’ve come to see how the upper crust dines, sorry, their villas are air-conditioned now. Neither mad dogs nor Englishmen, they know if the sun doesn’t get you, the downpours will.
I asked when the airline office opened and the concierge said yes. It’s closed. I asked the headwaiter what time is dinner and he said twelve. The waiters say twelve-thirty. Twenty minutes to go. Or maybe the chef will tell us one. It’s the Burmese way.
World-famous curry dinner here on Sundays. Everything from today’s menu and more. Another era, condiments of your choosing. Time to be determined.
I have to ask – young man, where’d you get that hair? It’s you who’s scaring off the waiters. Haven’t you heard? The Sixties are over.
You’re saving on barbers, aren’t you? The shampoo alone must cost you a fortune.
And that mustache. It’s topiary, isn’t it?
You’re too wet behind the ears to know about Burma shave.
Made driving a pleasure. Shaving not so much.
Some day that bird’s nest’ll turn white like mine. They call me the snowman.
I’m not going to talk about the lady. If I can’t speak ill, I’m speechless. Now there’s a smile. You’re melting my butter, ma’am. You, sir, are a lucky man.
I was last here in the Fifties. The bellhop remembers me. The concierge, the headwaiter. Was I that bad?
Same fans, furniture, menu. Even the flies are the same.
Don’t look but here comes our waiter. Same fellow for breakfast, must be low man on the totem pole and just as stiff. Wouldn’t talk politics, strictly business.
The vindaloo’s not too spicy. Unless you ask for it.
Here’s a tip. Don’t ask for it.
You have to try the mulligatawny. World renowned.
Then splurge. Dutch treat makes it half the cost.
I told a friend when you’re dead you can’t take it with you. He said well then I won’t go.
I’ve crossed Asia nine times. This makes ten. Five on tour, three just traveling, the first too young to object, the second not much older than you. I knew nothing.
I’ve learned it rains in this country. A lot!
Depends on the season, of course.
This is the season. You may have noticed.
Rule Britannia left its mark. Nowhere more obvious than the Strand. The dining room, the bar. The waiters. Fortunately not the kitchen.
The Brits have fallen back to Singapore, which they can no longer afford, or Hong Kong, where they think they’re still running the show.
Until the Chinese tell them their lease is up.
The Yanks saw Burma as a back door to China; the Japanese imagined it a side entrance to India. Mountains, jungle, earthquakes, cyclones, disease – what’d I forget? insurgents? bandits? tigers? vipers? mosquitoes? – must not have shown on their maps.
The door out became the neighbors’ door in.
Burma road? Oh boy. What country wants to be a highway to somewhere else?
The sun had yet to set on the empire, but the Raj itself never set well in Rangoon. India was enough. More than enough.
The locals hoped the Rising Sun meant Asia for Asians. Co-prosperity, ha-ha. Not if you were Burmese. In retrospect the Brits weren’t so bad. They just wanted to be comfortable. Respected if not admired. And there weren’t that many of them. Scots, mostly. They brought Indians in to run the place.
Now everybody’s free. I mean the governments are free – to do what they want. To the people. Not for them, or by them. Free to make money. Money gets you friends. Making it requires friends. Friends in need.
The Chinese used be to ours, some of them and sort of, the Japanese our enemies, no ifs ands or sort ofs. We called them Japs. Nips. Or worse. The Thai were their friends. Friends of convenience.
The Chinese – theirs and ours – are the new puppet masters. You won’t see them in the dining room.
Back rooms where the deals get cut, assignments arranged, arrangements assigned, the pattern as predictable – and changeable – as the monsoon.
Stuff moves, one thing inside another, inside always more valuable, like a present you unwrap. Music’s that way. It’s how you interpret it, the connections you make.
Ruby. A beaut, huh? In weaker moments I like to think I’ve earned it.
Band’s got to be broad to hold the stone. Need size to bring out the star. See? Six-sided, like a snowflake. Star of David mineralized.
From the hill country, up north with the tribals. Golden Triangle – visions of opium, right? Who sees the shrouded valleys, rushing torrents, pythons, leeches, and pits? Can you hear monkeys scampering, frogs croaking, the natives speaking a language you don’t understand? Nobody does. Downstream we see only the teak that comes out, rubies like this. Pigeon-blood red, they call it.
A gift, not something I’d buy. Too many stories.
I hear what I hear. See more than I hear. Sense more than I see.
No different in New York City. But I notice Asia. I live in Asia. Don’t do anything useful. Just take it in. Collect chits. Make certain people nervous.
Others I entertain. There’s an overlap.
I’m playing here Saturday – unless management backs out. My greatest hits.
Mark your calendar.
You’re looking at the alleged virtuoso who gave the Strand’s first and only concert. They must have said never again. Until now. I blame it on the acoustics.
Did you notice the piano? A grand. Or used to be. Like the hotel.
Tuner’s coming tomorrow. They told me that yesterday, tomorrow being today.
Did you see him?
Same as I didn’t.
It’s hard in this climate. Energy’s under the surface – like a volcano.
You think this is hot? May is hot. This is humidity, Bay of Bengal reversing the flow. The Irawaddy’s revenge.
First I took off my jacket, then my tie, then they mopped the puddle of sweat at my feet. The ceiling fans thumped like dying turtles.
The generals were there. I said don’t shoot. I’m only the piano player. The one with the most medals laughed – after a long, painful moment while he thought about it – and then the others did too.
And that’s when Burma was a democracy.
Four months later the Russians went into Hungary. A coincidence? Just a fact I happen to remember. Not really the Russians. They had their Mongolians do it.
Mum’s the word. Say no evil.
Or blame it on the Chinese. And the Communists. Or the tribals. The generals do.
Publicly. Privately it’s wink and nod.
Unemployment? You must not have read the report.
Hunger? The government has a plan.
Black market? Why? – when price controls can get it for you wholesale.
As long as you know somebody.
If you converted at the official rate, young lady, you’re as innocent as you look. And the poorer for it.
The government wants our dollars but not the culture that produced them.
In the streets they want it all. A piece of it, anyway. They’ll bend your ear. It’s the one thing we outsiders can do – listen. Nod.
Don’t wink. Don’t blink. You’ll miss your shadow.
Shadow, tail, every foreigner has one. I’m guessing mine’s the headwaiter. Or our waiter, pretending he doesn’t remember me.
I won’t ask what brings you to fair Rangoon. Yes, I will. Ladies first.
Oh oh, hold it right there. Should you be telling me this? I mean, Ma’am, Miss, Your Grace – what should I call you? – you can see I’m flustered. When the bells tolled twelve you didn’t know me from Adam. Am I what I say I am and what did I say, actually?
You want to go there by train?
You are innocent. Or brave. Oh my, you’re both, aren’t you?
A wonderful cover. That in itself will get you a tail whether you see it or not. You’ll start to sense it. Like religion.
You won’t get called in. Your contact will. They’ll have a conversation.
Like you, like him – don’t know about you, Sir Galahad; you’ve yet to declare – the tribesmen are Christian, and they’re up in arms. Up to their armpits in arms. A word to the wise.
Here comes the soup. Change subject. Listen: the crescendo! A rhapsody in rain. It sneaks up on you. Like your shadow at high noon. That shadow.
Love it – old pokerface asking how we knew each other. Were you batting your eyelashes, miss? Something brought him out of his shell. Must have been put up to it.
And you, young blade, asking if you worked for the government.
Whose? I’ll have to remember that. Turned that pokerface to stone.
So – nosy me – how long have you two known each other?
Almost as long as the headwaiter and me if you add up the hours.
Green eyes, rosy cheeks, Grandma’s bible, and – most important – an American passport. No, you weren’t the usual airport shakedown.
The police know the regulars on that flight. They can count them on one hand.
I mean what law-abiding traveler boards a plane for Rangoon? From Bangkok! Present company excluded.
The land borders are closed, and try arriving on a cruise. Or a freighter.
I flew in from Delhi. No problem finding a seat. Like here. I had my own aisle.
They served curry. Not like here. It was tired.
There are many types of mulligatawny soup. This one is cream style.
Mm, smell it. Mulligatawny and rain. It roots you.
Speaking of which, where are you from? Which states?
I used to give concerts there. A tough crowd.
Classical, no boogie-woogie. Sorry.
Now that you ask, I grew up in the world’s largest lunatic asylum. Run by the inmates.
New York, where else? Don’t let it get around.
Been moving westward ever since. Four years in Santa Barbara until I saw it was all newlyweds and nearly deads. Then eleven years in Hawaii until the high rises and high prices got to me. Japan for the last four.
True confession: I have a Japanese wife.
We met on Waikiki, a club I was playing for milk money.
At the break she asked if I was Liberace in disguise. Liberace! In disguise? Was that a joke or was this gal serious? She was with a teachers group, all wearing the same tropical-fish-colored tee-shirt.
Your hair, she explained. As blond as yours in those days. Liberace dyes his black. Maybe she mistook me for Jerry Lee – what’s his name: Lewis? God forbid.
And you so funny, she added.
A few differences, I informed her, skipping over the hair. Just a few. One, he has money. Two, he’s on TV. Three, he’s vaudeville; he’s schtick. Four, he dresses like a vampire. Five – am I over my limit? – I like women.
She asked for “Moonlight Serenade.” Barely spoke English, how did she know that? Jazz club at the school where she taught. The moon happened to be full, or so I recall. How could I resist? One song led to another. I was funny. She was too. Naïve funny.
Still is. She speaks Japlish, same as me, hers better than mine, my cranium crammed with Chinese, Burmese, obscure dialects, and high-school parlez-vous. If it ain’t English, my mouth fills with taffy, my tongue flips. It flops.
Eighty percent of what we say to each other passes on by, like butterflies in the garden. That’s why it’s lasted. She speaks and I say what did you say? She says you no understand English.
Somebody tells a joke and everybody laughs and then she joins in, a marvelous laugh, diva at the opera. Later she asks why everybody laughing?
That gets me laughing.
Patient, tolerant, trusting, bubbly as those tonics you’re sipping – she keeps me on track more or less and sane, no easy task.
We enjoy each other, even when apart. Especially when apart.
Our countrymen did terrible things to each other. Now we’re lovey-dovey, my wife and I living proof. I mean, they play baseball. They love jazz.
Think they got it from us?
Filipinos. Those folks are born to it.
Now the – whoh! that was close. Thunder’s supposed to announce the rain, not upstage it. Chandelier’s wobbling as much as the fans.
All the lights are flickering. If it’s a coup, headwaiter’ll let us know. Included with the meal. I wouldn’t worry. The watched apple never falls, as Mr. Newton discovered. Better you pick it time of your choosing. But – wait till it’s ripe.
Look at Bangkok, Hong Kong without a lease. The secret? No secrets. The appearance of no secrets. That’s their secret. The money pours in.
So do the problems.
The generals won’t make the same mistakes.
They’ll make their own.
Siam, sayonara, buried in a back lot, a spirit house, a ring. Bangkok reinvented itself, outwardly. The rest comes later.
I should know. I was born in Singapore. Left in diapers, my father a shipping agent from York, mother from New York. First to Hong Kong, with our Chinese amah, then London, amah included. Daughter of Irish immigrants, my mother had it made. Tea and crumpets, amah to nanny. I wish I remembered more.
My father could have returned to Hong Kong. But duty called. Off to the Western front, never to return.
Amah-slash-nanny married, and my mother retreated to the Lower East Side, where my father first spied her working in a jewelry shop. She got her old job back.
Roaring Twenties, the boom before the bust.
War widow meets Spanish-flu widower, a gemstone trader. The usual: marriage, kids, move to Long Island. Move again. Bigger house. Market crashes. Smaller house. Soon no house. Hello again, East Side.
Through it all she kept the piano, her sense of humor. Taught me, my half-brother half-sister, kids from the neighborhood. Food on the table, roof overhead. Life was good.
Too good. The security made me insecure. I had to break out, develop immunities.
That’s what you do when you’re young.
And then you come home.
You’re not there yet, either of you, or you wouldn’t be here.
You’re searching. Or running. Often one and the same. You, squire, where did you escape from?
No! I gasp. Is this chance? Or fate? I just gave two concerts there, including the first ever at Kabul University.
The other was for the Kabul Music Society. At the Hotel Intercontinental. The French and Italian ambassadors attended. Not the Soviets.
The Minister of Information said he was going to put me on the radio. He said he’d give me a call as soon as he got back to his office. Did he call you?
Same way he called me.
Two days later his deputy called, said they wanted my picture for the paper. I said the Minister didn’t call like he promised how come you want my picture in the paper?
He said His Excellency just returned to the office. I was first on his list.
Explains a lot. This was day three of the work week.
Don’t get me wrong. I liked the place – everybody working a deal, slowly, slowly until – boom! strike like a cobra. Embrace it. Beats the waiting, and what works for them works for you.
They’re clever. Have to be. It’s a desert split by treeless mountains. No rubies, rubber, papayas, or yes apples waiting to be plucked. No China to concentrate the mind, fill their pockets. Or pick them.
They live by the three Rs – relatives, religion, retribution.
And I thought Burma was stuck in the mud.
Peace Corps volunteer severely beaten while I was in town. Maybe you heard.
Tried to protect a tourist girl, threw her guide down the stairs. The guide said he’d get him and I guess he did.
You take the bad with the good. I loved their music.
Drummer at the Spinzar Hotel – such rhythm! He’d been to Moscow four times and Peking, too. I slipped him some of the local funny money, one artist to another.
He wouldn’t be happy in our society.
Afghan men were dancing with each other. One asked me to join in. I said no thank you. I’ve got three feet and wouldn’t know which ones to use.
I collected music there – Hazara, Tajik, Turkman, Uzbeki. I’ve got Mongolian music. Eskimo, Aztec…
I went to Bamiyan. What they did to those Buddhists! The violence!
I knew I’d gone far enough. Pianoman, I said, it’s back to the middle way.
Hah! Rangoon’s on the way to the middle way. The other Burma road.
We’re expatriates. Home is where we find it, hiding in the in-between.
Either you liked that vindaloo, both of you, or you belong to the clean-plate club.
You left your chutney, milady. That’s the ticket. Wouldn’t want to hurt the chef’s feelings. He’s the sensitive type. You’d be too if you made as little as he does.
Smoke a cheroot if you’re hungry. They all do, women included. Smoldering ropes everywhere you turn.
Oh, you got one of your own. Two! No thanks, your lordship. It clashes with my aftershave.
Don’t light it, please. It might disturb the flies. I’m a Buddhist, no offense.
If I came back as one of these, it’d be fitting, wouldn’t it? Upside-down and buzzing. So fat they’re falling off the ceiling. Put him out of his misery, please.
Hey, I wasn’t born a Buddhist.
Is it farther from us to the fans or from the fans to the ceiling?
The architect must have thought we’d run out of hot air. In Rangoon!
Ceilings with flies, walls with ears. Welcome to the Strand.
Tough? They steal cheese from the rats. Swoop like vultures, dive like hawks.
At least the tablecloths are white, or they used to be, never mind the stains.
And real silver. They must count it every night.
I miss the crowds. Twelve years ago this place was packed. You couldn’t get a table. It was exciting.
The government’s done this, its attitude toward Westerners, toward its people. It owns everything, including the Strand. The Burmese road to socialism.
Hush my mouth. Lesson we’re learning in Vietnam is pick your battles.
Sometimes they pick you. Which is how our fearless leader sees the world. Tricky Dick’s trying to do the Russian, Chinese, and Japanese national dances at the same time. Better watch he doesn’t break a leg.
And to think it started with ping-pong. Back and forth, back and – gives me a crick in the neck.
They have it at the Y? Burma could be next. If anybody cared.
I’ll let you in on a secret: Ping-pong is China’s game.
No Peace Corps here, nosirree. They know what happens when you open the door. The only former colony not to join the Commonwealth. Except Ireland. And the US. Think about that.
You have to lull them, or stun them. They might like it. Money gets boring once you have more than you need. Same with power. They’re looking for something else. Aren’t we all?
Why not try music? The universal language. The generals think it’s our idea. I think it’s theirs.
They’re curious: what kind of performer plays Rangoon? On tour, direct from Kabul. The borscht belt it ain’t. They suspect a hidden agenda.
If only they knew my sponsor. My agent. My burden. My friend.
I turn it around on them – why the green light after all these years of red? They smile. I smile.
Is China our enemy? I can’t keep up. India? Russia’s friend. So we’re Pakistan’s. Genocide? Don’t ask.
Thailand’s our friend. Like its old friend Japan.
Kissinger, the American Rasputin, is in Tokyo as we speak.
His boss thinks he can bomb his way out of Vietnam.
Well, it worked with Japan. Germany, too. West Germany. Another new friend.
Notice I didn’t ask you about our president, knowing how young people can rant. Is it true eighteen-year-olds have the vote? Did I vote for that?
You must visit. Here’s my card, cards. I’ll introduce you to my wife.
She’ll make you laugh. Then she’ll make you tea.
Kyoto’s a lovely city. Tokyo spelled backwards. Temples and winding streets. Historical. My wife and I will show you around.
Buddhism has gone downhill in Japan. No different than Christianity in the States.
Here the government plays along. The monks too. It’s a dance, a pas-de-deux. No cutting in.
Buddhism is the world’s most tolerant religion. It hurts them. Look at Bamiyan.
Don’t get me going on Islam. East Pakistan, the army massacres what the cyclones miss. What can you expect from a president named Yahya? Former general. Eyebrows point up like a coat of arms. Like horns.
Survivors making tracks for India. Not even refugees want to come here.
Communism’s every bit as bad. A religion without admitting it. Anti-communism its equal.
Hippies in the Delhi airport pulling beads, chanting and prancing like a new year’s dragon gone wrong. They’ve rejected the old values but haven’t found any to replace them.
Hinduism’s complicated, so they want it in pieces: yoga, Hare Krishna. Castes, schmastes. Fake it with a Beedi.
Free love isn’t free. What is? Lunch?
Not at the Strand.
When I rebelled I went in another direction. As long as they’re happy…
Head waiter whispering to our server. They’re looking at you, pilgrim, worried I’m a bad influence, afraid you won’t tip.
Every kyat counts when you get so few. Even if they’d rather have dollars. Or pounds. Yen. They’ll take what they can get.
Plead ignorance. Wait, that’s no excuse. Put it on my tab.
Maybe they’re speculating about your shadow. Might be our dark-suited friend. He’s also looking our way.
Well, he was. Indian, I bet. Or Pakistani. Definitely not Sikh. Waiting for a message, wondering if he recognizes me, or I him, and is that a plus, minus, or wash, and what’s my connection to you? Perfect strangers don’t add up. We’re throwing them off the scent.
After all this time I don’t recognize myself.
I must find the airline office. First stop Mandalay. By air or bust, trip’s over before you know it. Train takes away the element of surprise.
Maybe they’ll declare me non grata, spare me from any more victory tours.
Old accounts, new reckoning. Remember the ruby. Here, touch it for luck. Mainly it’s a distraction.
No chance we’ll run into each other. Not upcountry, no ma’am. And we shouldn’t.
In town, what your shadow sees is what they get. Nothing to see, nothing to overhear, they’ll make something up. Or insist it never happened.
You’ll spend more time in your carriage than at your destination. No worries. Your seatmates will look out for you. Do what you have to, catch the next train back.
Mandalay – romantic how it rolls off the tongue! Kipling wrote, and Sinatra sang, about it, but neither actually went there.
The Brits looted it. The Japs leveled it. Rangoon’s too big for that. Too squishy, sprawly. It’s physical. Sociological. Spiritual.
Possibilities are endless. By comparison.
You like Chopin? Tchaikovsky?
It’s different when you know the performer. Context is everything.
We’re starting from the same place, and what keeps the conversation going is you can’t do anything for me and I can’t do anything for you. Except in extremis. In this case nothing is everything. It’s the world.
Beg or borrow a tie, bring your accomplice, she’s already dressed for it, and come back Saturday evening. Seven PM.
Or, miss on a mission, you can bring him. Go on, ask him. Grab him by the ear.
Careful. You know how one song leads to another.
Of course I’ll take requests. No Jerry Lee, please. No Liberace. I still don’t have the hair.
Sunday dinner’s on me. We’ll swap notes, expect the unexpected.
I consider that a commitment. If you’re not in the front row clapping, who’d be the wiser?
You’re looking at him. I’ll notify the authorities. I mean the embassy.
If there is no concert, no snowman tickling the ivories, cracking dumb jokes, asking why the hell the piano’s still out of whack, don’t stay for the Pimm’s punch. Just go. Get out of Dodge. Tell the embassy. In Delhi, with its 4-Hs: Hindus, hippies, horns, hassles. Is that four? Henna. No shadows. You’ll have the crowds, motorbikes, shouts, diesel, and dust all to yourself.
First call my wife. Collect. She might have already heard from me. If not, tell her everything. Slowly. She’ll know what to do. I made her a list. It’s on my desk.
Meanwhile, take in Rangoon – leafy parks, mirror lakes, sleepy markets, architecture as the Brits left it underneath twenty-plus years of grime. Whole city’s a museum. Diamond spire on a golden pagoda. Precedes the British and in far better condition. You can’t miss it. Don’t know how the lightning does. Take off your shoes, contemplate, meditate, chat with a monk. Ask about their great bell, the world’s heaviest, disappeared when the thief’s boat sank in the river.
Compare it to the cathedral, a place that doesn’t like to let things go.
Men in lungi, women spitting betel. Eat on the sidewalks. Eat with your fingers. Bargain. Smile, frown. Let them know how you feel.
People you see you can trust completely, but you won’t see them after dark – no lights! – so keep on the lookout.
Middle of the day, do you hear any cars? The put-put of a ferry? Any motors at all? Just like I don’t. You hear the flies, the fans. There’s that turtle, still limping. A city of two million, you hear the rain, the thunder. In-between, the jungle. Frogs, crows, sounds you’ll never know. What does that tell you?
It tells me we have to stick together. Even when apart.
Let’s steal a march and call ourselves friends.
Friends of inconvenience. Us, and them.
Oop, there go the lights, the fans. Last night it lasted for hours, and unlike the rest of the city this place has a generator. From the Brits. Each year maintenance gets harder.
Like machine, like human. If you’ll excuse me, your favorite ivory tickler needs his beauty rest. And there goes our banker friend! Needs his, too. Must be too dark to read. Or nothing left to read.
Seems to know the headwaiter. Whisper, whisper, shadows in shadows. Are they waiting for me? Or you?
Only the shadow knows.
Nobody listens to the radio anymore. Except in Afghanistan. And the BBC wherever you are.
Don’t get up. I insist. Finish your tea, make eyes, make plans. When the storm passes, move. Another’s coming. Always is. And faster than you think. Trust me.
Ta-ta, as they say in the old country. Until Sunday, I mean Saturday. Cheerio