Tuesday, May 07, 2013

A taste of what I'm working on

L'amuse bouche ...

         Begin by accepting the fact that everything you ever heard about Saigon in the late ‘60s is wrong. 
Okay, it started out as a bit of a shit hole, what with the war going on and all, but around 1966, when a couple of JPMorgan geniuses came up with the idea of collateralizing Vietnamese real estate debt, hiding it in packages of otherwise investment-grade securities, and selling it like glassine packets of crack in the south Bronx … well, let’s just say the lid blew off the top of Vietnam.
         Saigon was the center of it, but the money flowing through all of French Indochina defied description.  Not just Saigon.  Hue, Bangkok, Phnom Penh, Mandalay, Hong Kong -- hell, even Hanoi was blowing up.  The war, by and large, was squeezed to the perimeter of the major cities by what else?  Irresistable amounts of cash.  Once the big banks moved in, the war moved out.
         Before long they weren’t even bothering to hide the bad stuff.  So long as they could get a triple-A rating it didn’t matter.  They were selling it so fast there wasn’t time. Wall Street looked like a backwater.  Likewise London.  The money, the power, the excitement, the place to make your fortune?  About ten square blocks of Saigon just west of the Imperial Palace called the Bank District.
Restaurants sprang up everywhere.  Brooks Brothers.  Van Cleef & Arpels.  Larry Gagosian opened a huge gallery.  Beautiful women walked the streets, shaded from the sun by parasols.  Crappy apartments were suddenly worth millions.  It was like half of Carnaby Street had been transported ten thousand miles and set down on Tu Do Street.  Think New York during the ‘80s and ‘90s.  Vogue Magazine opened an editorial office in ’67, and within six months more beautiful women than you could imagine were sucked into the vortex of money and excitement. 
And yes, sometimes the war intruded.  The odd monk might set himself on fire.  A woman in black pajamas might walk into a Citigroup branch, say in perfect English, “I’d like to make a deposit,” and blow the entire building to smithereens.  Donald Trump once made a big fuss about being the first man to build a skyscraper in Indochina, but a bomb blew up under his car one night when he was dining at La Caravelle.  He was unhurt, but it was thankfully the last time anybody heard anything from him. 
Quick to take credit for the bomb were the CIA, the Viet Cong, Pol Pot, the North Vietnamese, the Treasury Department, the Chinese, and some crackpot Green Beret gone-bad named Willard. 
Combatants and non-combatants alike walked the streets in relative harmony most of the time.  I imagine Paris during the War was something like this.  That didn’t keep the smart people from remaining armed at all times, but most of the time you had to get in a chopper and fly someplace to get your ass capped.
Did I mention the women?  Caucasians were a bit thin on the ground, but women don’t stop being beautiful just because they aren’t white.  And the strip clubs!  God almighty, the strip clubs were an industry unto themselves.  I met Feebi at a strip club.  Her stripper name was February Hung but everybody called her Feebi.  Big Pat introduced us, in a manner of speaking.
As I tell you this, I’m in the back of an air-conditioned Jag on my way to have lunch with Feebi’s father. 
“To see her in sunlight was to see Marxism die.”  I’m not sure where I read that but it was, in this case, absolutely true. 
“Look at her,” Big Pat whispered one night as we sank into one of the low banquettes in the shadows to the right of the stage.  Three sheets to the wind we were, and all too ready to share our American dollars with the ladies.
The VIP Club was one of the more elegant places in town.  All the girls wore long dresses.  They didn’t dance on poles, they just sort of mooned around on a mirrored stage the way girls sometimes do with their eyes closed and headphones on.  Except these girls didn’t have their eyes shut.
The routine was the same for every girl.  When she first came onstage she danced one number fully clothed.  For the second one she detached the top of her gown from her neck and let it hang down so you could see her breasts.  For the third one she took the gown completely off -- tossing it either across the stage or into the lap of some goggle-eyed onlooker in the first row -- and danced in just her g-string, which always matched the gown, and her six-inch stripper shoes.  When the third song was over, another girl walked onstage as the first girl put her gown back on, stepped off the stage and went hunting.
The key, as near as I can tell, to being a good stripper (other than a healthy appetite for plausible deniability) is the ability to make sharp, solid eye contact with your mark during the second song.  Then, all through the third song, while you proceed to strip down almost bare, you never take your eyes off the guy.  He may spend some time rolling his eyes down the inside of your thighs, but eventually he comes back up for air … and there you are, staring right at him.  You fix him with a stare that would make the Ancient Mariner jealous.  And when your shift is over you step off stage, walk right up to him and sit in his lap. 
Multiply this by X and soon you’re rich.  The coast of Thailand is thick with thirty-something ex-strippers who danced in Saigon for just the right five years and made enough money to get the hell out and buy a small place by the sea.  What else were they going to do?  They couldn’t go back to their families.
Look at her.”
The redoubtable February Hung had just come onstage for her first dance.  And when she fixed Big Pat with her stare it was as if he’d been pole-axed.  The look on his face alternated between a kind of glassy-eyed numbness and a puppy-dog yearning for a num-num.  It was, frankly, revolting.
The song the DJ played for her third number was, if my memory serves, Lady in Red.  Because, hey, they play some cheesy fucking music in strip clubs.  By the half-way point, the big man had spilled what looked like half his French 75 down the front of his tunic.  I leaned over and hissed, “Pull yourself together, man.  You’re drooling out of the side of your mouth.”
But it was too late for Big Pat to pull himself together.  He was a dead man.  Seconds later the third song was over.  She was on her way.  A panther sliding through the bush.  Silent.  Purposeful.  An assassin with long black hair in a long red gown.  I could tell she wasn’t packing.
No need.  She didn’t so much sit in his lap as pour herself into it.  Based on my cursory inspection she managed to fill every cranny of it.  The she looked at him, looked at me, looked back at him and plunged a hand between his legs.
At which point the puppy dog look was replaced by what strippers call the thousand-yard stare.
But he shook it off.  It couldn’t have been easy, but to his everlasting credit my best friend, my best friend in the entire world, Big Pat McLanahan, shook it off.  He pulled her virginal hand out of his spacious crotch, lifted her off his lap and put her in mine. 
“This is my buddy Jeb,” he said.  He then got up and announced,  “I think I need a blinky,” and headed unsteadily towards the bathroom.
I wouldn’t come to call her Feebi for weeks, but sometimes, when I think about it, nothing in my life mattered much before then, so forgive me if I call her Feebi now.
“I love your jacket,” she said in a kind of clipped, British sort of a way.  Which was a surprise, since she looked like she was half-Chinese, half-Vietnamese.  But if you sweated details like that in Saigon, you were never gonna get any traction.
“Thank you,” I replied in my kind of honey-poured-over-a-sharp-knife, last-flower-of-the-Southern-aristocracy sort of a way.
Did I tell you we were in our Sergeant Peppers phase?  Outlandish, quasi-military outfits with floppy hats?  We had them custom made at Gieves and Hawkes, the bespoke tailors. They had just opened a store on Dai Lo Street, over near the Chinese Pavilion.  
These are the guys who made Lord Nelson’s uniforms so, I mean, they were truly the real deal.  Fantastically expensive, though, but dropping some acid and wandering around Saigon dressed like the front of a Beatles album was like nothing else in the world.
I was wearing an 18th century naval tunic.  Heliotrope, with gold piping and a matching pair of fringed golden epaulettes.  She wore a dark red gown that looked like it had been spray painted on.  She parted her hair in the middle and it fell to about half-way down her back, with a little bit of it near her left temple gathered into a thin braid.
The rest, as they say, is history. 


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