I Had a Friend
I’ve always prided myself in my ability to judge character. I find it easy to recognize people of good heart, and just as easy to divine true assholes hiding behind a façade of practiced appearance. I’ve screwed up only twice in my life (so far). This is about one of those times.
Hearken back about four decades as I was floating happily through my salad days in the midst of hippiedom. It was a gorgeous summer day in the pristine city of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, my home town. I was walking in Bessborough Park near the iconic hotel of the same name, accompanied by one of my erstwhile wives. Near the riverbank I saw a young man sitting alone on a park bench playing a guitar. On a whim I decided to approach him.
My wife had an errand, so I introduced myself, listened to a song or two, went home to pick up my guitar and a few joints, and returned to join the young man. He was bespectacled and rotund, with brown stringy hair that fell haphazardly halfway down his back. He was pure hippie, and immediate compatriot. He had a pleasant and unique singing voice, and in a short time we became friends. It turned out that he was from Winnipeg, and was hitchhiking his way to Edmonton. Life and happenstance change events, and he decided to stay and reside in Saskatoon. For some time he lived in a pleasant attic room in a heritage home at Five Corners, at the top of the Broadway bridge. Later he and I built a room in the basement of the home of my wife and myself, and for a year he resided there with us, our young son, our dog, and a few cats. It was a most pleasant time. (Later Connie Kaldor (http://www.conniekaldor.com) would rent that space while she developed her music career.)
At the end of the year he continued his postponed trip to Edmonton, where he began a long career as a social worker, married and divorced a couple of times, and eventually retired from the icy chill of northern Alberta to live in a trailer park on Vancouver Island. During all those years we remained friends. Often one or the other of us traveled between Saskatoon and Edmonton, visiting each other as welcome houseguests. Music was always a major interest during those years, as was sharing our mutual love of Thai food. After his retirement and my move to the Canadian west coast we continued our visits, and I was frequently a guest – albeit a slightly uncomfortable one- in his trailer home. In order to have a toke or three the house rules were to do so outdoors, which was certainly acceptable to me despite the fact that it meant sitting or standing (especially in poor weather) just outside his front door where there was a literal canopy of spiderwebs and bugs and flying insects. Once when he was not present I took a broom and swept clean the entire area, ceiling, walls, and porch. He, of course, never noticed.
It is of importance that friends accept those aspects of each other’s personalities that we may see as faults. Certainly many of my friends saw through my asshole characteristics of arrogance, egocentrism, impatience (ad nauseam) to the more important qualities of my personality – empathy, gentle nature, intelligence, sense of humour, love of animals, generosity (more ad nauseam).
I accepted what I saw as my friend’s faults. Basically he is a fat, unclean, untidy, unchanged hippie. His stringy and greasy hair is now kept in a period ponytail, sweeping back from his receding forehead. He goes to lunch at a white-tablecloth Thai restaurant in his usual daily attire – shorts, sandals and a sleeveless collarless neckless tanktop that reveals all the unsightliness of aged skin, moles, and hair growing from odd places. Slovenly and unattractive, he is an embarrassment to be seen with in public places, let alone as a dining companion. Nevertheless, I have always accepted his faults – his appearance, his dodolike life of the past and the filthy conditions in which he lives. (He does own a small computer, but he uses it only for music, as he refuses to accept the current electronic age of the internet and the cell phone). Like me, he loves to “suck on the Glass Teat” as the great Harlan Ellison once said. (http://www.harlanellison.com/ ) His living room is covered wall to wall and floor to ceiling with cases filled with old Beta movies, videos, DVDs and CDs . The dust on some of them is measurable. In the age of inexpensive flat screen TVs he had a decades old box that he stubbornly refused to replace until he had to. He is, frankly, true “trailer trash”.
But I accepted him, because I was his friend. And I thought he was mine.
In 2009 I took my maiden trip to Thailand, something my friend Jason Schoonover (see http://www.jasonschoonover.com/) had been imploring me to do literally for decades. I have since been metaphorically kicking myself in the ass for not listening to him! Today I am in the first week of my fifth trip to the Land Of Smiles, and this time for a six-month stay.
A couple of years ago my friend informed me that he had to undergo a great deal of dental work that would take months of treatment at a five-figure cost. His lifelong habits of uncleanliness had finally caught up with him, at least so far as his mouth is concerned. I suggested he go to Thailand for the work, as both the dental and the medical professions there are first rate – better that those in North American society – and at a fraction of the cost. What could be finer? He could have a great vacation for a few months, get all the work done, dine on Thai food, and get laid as if one were back in the seventies. Not only that, but he could return with half his money still in his pocket! To my mind it was a no-brainer. I regaled him with tales of the good life, but they fell upon deaf ears.
He refused, but would not say why, and I could see no logical reason. But, as they say in Thailand, “up to you”, so, like the Beatles, I “let it be”. After all, it was his business, not mine.
Over the next couple of years I continued to visit him. While I was away he agreed to pick up my mail from my local post office box and hold it for me until my return. But something had changed.
“Little” things became apparent. When we talked his replies to me seemed terse, almost impatient. I sensed something in our relationship was “off”, but I didn’t know what it was or what might have caused it. If I asked him what was wrong he dismissed it. I began to worry that perhaps he had a serious health problem and was reluctant to reveal or discuss it. Respecting his privacy I did not push the issue. Nevertheless the feeling was always there, like a “Joe Btfsplk” cloud hanging over the relationship.
One day, like a pregnant pustule, it burst.
My friend has a friend, a talented musician of ill health. Over the course of a couple of years I had become acquainted with him, and as he was “on the net” I occasionally sent or forwarded to him items of which he might find interest. He virtually never replied to any, until one day he returned an email with a commentary that was nothing short of racist and anti-Semitic. I was shocked, and replied to him that I would no longer be visiting him nor sending him any further emails. I immediately phoned my friend to report the incident to him.
And my “friend” interrupted me to defend his friend! Then he said, with vitriol spilling over the airwaves: “You know, just forget it. Forget everything. You can pick up your mailbox key and mail and get out of my life. I don’t ever want to see you again. You are a moral pig!”
If the anti-Semitic comment of his friend was shocking to me, these words he spat actually rendered me speechless. For those who know me that was shocking in itself.
A few days later I paid my final “visit” to his “home”. Standing on his doorstep – neither invited in nor wishing to be so – I was handed my mail and my key. I had to ask him why he had called me a “moral pig”.
In amazement I watched him draw himself straight up, squeezing his elbows to his side like a self-righteous evangelist with a broomstick up his nether region. His chin tilted up and forward and his lips pursed like an indignant octogenarian who had just witnessed a Mort Sahl temper tantrum.
“Because you go to third world countries and exploit the people!” he sputtered, actual flecks of spittle shooting from his lips.
“I what…?” I managed to say. Shock and surprise and disbelief are complete understatement.
“You heard me,” he said, literal hatred and disgust in his eyes.
In that brief moment a dozen ways in which I “exploit” the people of Thailand flashed through my mind. How I perform at a weekly charity jam with a dozen assorted expatriates (or even ex-patriots) who sing and play onstage in a restaurant courtyard with the proceeds going to a local orphanage. How I carry a wad of twenty-baht notes so that I may pass one to those I see daily in need: beggars, limbless veterans of a long ago war caused by an American money machine, single mothers with babes in arms, etcetera. How – in a society where tipping is never expected – I tip generously for the slightest service. How I show respect for the people by taking the time and effort to learn the basics of their language and culture. How I take the entire group of housemaids of my condo building out for dinner at a seafood buffet (and am one of only two farangs invited to their annual Christmas celebration). How I frequent the food carts and pass out extra helpings to those nearby in need. The list goes on, but I am in danger of breaking my wrist patting myself on the back.
I thought about how “third world” it is, at least here in Pattaya/Jomtien where I reside, and where I have spent all but eight days of the eleven total months I have so far spent in Thailand over the past few years. How the medical/dental professions put those in North America to shame with their competence and care. How the local Central Festival mall and the high rise condo buildings mushrooming along the seaside resort are every bit as modern as anything in farangland.
I thought about how incredibly ignorant was the obnoxious fool who was standing before me, ironically living in nothing less than third world squalor himself.
“Look around yourself,” I said. “There’s only one pig here.”
And, both hurt and angry, I turned on my heels and left him forever.