Why Helping People Is A Dumb Thing To Do
As we left the needle-horror party I chewed a valium in preparation for the inevitable panic attack i knew was on its way. We re-joined the group after a short while and spent the next hour drinking more beers and cracking jokes. It was a fairly quiet bar, close to the gaudier clubs of the backpacker hell that is Bui Vien. Every 5 or 10 minutes or so someone would head up to Si’s hotel room, which had been unceremoniously converted into a mini-crack-house.
Conveniently located minutes away from the bar in which we were drinking, his hotel was perfect for our needs: Regular, discreet visits to the hotel crack-house ensured a hassle free drug experience, allowing anyone with the inclination to get high in in a peaceful and private environment. Si was getting more and grief from his hotel manager with every fresh group arrival but he didn't seem to care, he had been evicted from so many hotels by this point that it made little to no impact on him whatsoever.
Before long we were all suitably messed up for a night of dancing so we headed to the loudest, sleaziest club in town, The Go2. As notorious for its overpriced drinks as it is for its whores and thieves, Go2 has a reputation among expats as the sort of club you might go to if you either have no idea what you’re doing, or are intentionally seeking out the worst people in Vietnam. I imagine we were probably in the second category.
I refused to buy one of their extortionately overpriced beers, opting instead to chain smoke and pretend to enjoy the bland top 40 remix music. It was horrible. When, half an hour later the music stopped and the bouncers kicked us out the sense of relief was palpable. The noise of the club was unbearable, the volume excessive and the selector was a fucking idiot. The quiet buzz of the street as i walked out had never sounded sweeter.
It was wonderful, right up until Si and his “girlfriend” for the night staggered out screaming at each other: Clearly she was upset about something that I had neither the hearing nor empathy to attempt to understand. The woman looked terrifying and Si was much better with Vietnamese girls. He could speak the language for one thing and, having lived here for years, understood their logic and mentality a lot better than i could. I wandered off to the nearest open bar, leaving them behind.
I wandered back up the street and on our way back bumped into Ben, an Englishman who had joined us for drinks a few times over the last week or so.
Ben was sitting at a table, street-side, looking sweaty and worried. Next to him was Jerry, local wheeler and dealer type, the sort of person who could get you more or less anything you wanted. A widely loathed figure who was generally agreed to be fairly entertaining in small doses but unbearably tedious after 20 minutes or so, Jerry embodied the spirit of Bui Vien. He was always there when you needed him, for whatever reason, but you probably shouldn't stick around for too long.
I waved a cheery “hello” to them as I walked past, heading to the bar. Before I could even get beyond their table Jerry bolted up into my path and proceeded to regale me with a summary of Ben’s unfortunate night: a sad tale of a drunken idiot losing his 18 million dong Yamaha Nuovo IV motorbike.
He followed this quick and boring story with an earnest plea that I lend him my bike so he could drive around and look for Ben’s lost Nuovo. I laughed a hard ‘No’ in his face, assuming–with good justification–that the whole story was nothing more than a fairly elaborate ruse to obtain use of my bike for reasons unknown. “Crime” was my guess. In any case, even if the story was true, it wasn’t my job to help the fucker out. Some cunt had stolen my helmet just that evening; I didn’t make that anyone else’s problem: I moved on.
But then again– I thought as I grabbed my beer and left the bar– 18 million is a lot of money to lose… and he is kind of a friend. And… if I was in trouble I’d appreciate some help. Maybe I should offer some help?
I hated myself for thinking it, but it was the right thing to do. God damn it.
I went back outside and sat down next to Ben. An English teacher like the rest of us, Ben had been here a few months. Not really long enough to be considered a face around town. Certainly not long enough to have completed the infamous Trial And Error Course In The Basic Rules Of Not Fucking Your Own Shit Up In Saigon.
Tonight, it appeared he was being treated to one such important lesson by the ever-informative streets of District 1. Earlier that evening, following an argument of some sort with Bill, Ben had stormed off on his bike to a bar somewhere in the area: taking some time alone to cool his head. A smart move for anyone who finds himself in a situation that might lead to violence.
Unfortunately though, he had not yet learned the equally valuable lesson: that triple checking you haven’t left your keys in the ignition is a must-have skill for the modern Saigon drinker. Some might say it’s the smartest of all the smart moves if you like holding onto your bike.
Another important skill, while we’re on the subject of holding onto your bike: Always try to remember where you park your bike
Having managed to ignore both of these fairly vital rules, Ben’s night was currently running at a loss of one 18 million dong Yamaha Nuovo. A naturally paranoid man at the best of times, this unfortunate turn of events had turned him into a walking time-bomb.
Sweating, constantly asking stupid questions and exuding an air of deep resentment, he ha recently taken to insisting that he was unable to move anywhere, for reasons unspecified: he was freaking a lot of people out.
He remained stuck to his chair, in a bar in the middle of the backpacker district instead of looking for his bike, asking for help, going to the police or, indeed, doing absolutely anything about his problem except sit, sweat and complain.
He had seemed decent enough when sober, and I had chatted to him on a couple of occasions with no incident or ugly scenes, He struck me as just another guy, almost normal, by Saigon standards anyway. He hadn’t said or done anything that made me want to get to know him better, but he certainly hadn’t done anything that had pissed me off in any way. Just another weirdo in a town of weirdos.
Recently I had noticed that he had occasionally been zeroing in on me for some reason- seeking me out for conversations, always about nothing. It had put me on edge but he seemed basically harmless, so I didn’t see any problem in maintaining cordial relations with him: He was bearable and hadn’t caused me any bother so… whatever.
But on the other hand… I had heard stories. Of anger and violence… Of smashed bottles and him getting barred from a number of bars in the fancy part of town. They seemed out of sorts with what I had seen of him, but that certainly didn’t mean they weren’t true. I tend to ignore rumours as far as possible anyway, so they didn’t make much impact on me.
One thing that did put me on guard though: From the first time I met Ben he had always struck me as one of those people who acted just a bit too nice for some reason. It wasn’t over the top, but there was definitely something odd about the way he acted. All compliments and agreeing with everything anyone said.
This kind of behaviour, as far as I have been able to figure so far in my life, is often an attempt to make up for and conceal something within the person that, if revealed, could be truly horrible. Like a killer shark lurking beneath the surface of a calm sea.
Whenever I meet people like that– the over-compensators– I try to remember to tread carefully, aware of the very real danger that there might be a base level of rage down there with the potential to simmer over at any point… to reach critical mass… boil over and maybe even trigger some sort of explosive, serious, violent crime. Maybe I was wrong though. What the fuck do I know?
It was clear that Ben was beside himself. The bike was clearly worth a lot to him… Maybe more than the 18 million dong he said he bought it for. Sentimental value maybe, I wondered? Could a bike hold sentimental value? Could it be symbolic of some sort of cherished memory? Possible…but unlikely. My bet was that he ws more concerned about the money.
I was running extremely low on fuck left to give, and really, all I wanted to do was drink a few beers and go home for the first sleep in… shit… 40 hours now?
But… I had already decided to help the poor fucker so, that was the plan, I began by asking him a few questions and offering whatever assistance I could. Initially this took the form of just driving around the area, checking the bars he could remember, which I was happy to do… drunk driving in Saigon can be extremely pleasurable by night. No cars, a cool breeze…Just delightful.
Having done the rounds with nothing to show for it I was then promoted to counselor and head of crisis management, a more challenging but rewarding role. I do love a good puzzle.
It eventually transpired that, given the bike was probably lost, he needed to get to the other side of town, the dreaded district of Go Vap. He also had to factor in a Western Union transfer he was due to receive that afternoon at 4pm. Some 11 hours away.
Then, in a surprise twist he asked if he could stay at my house. This was thus far the least appealing of all the solutions we had gone through, so I carefully talked my way out of it as best as I could: Mainly by reminding him that he could get his own shit sorted if he just got himself to Go vap.
I had a plan, and proceeded to spell it out for him: I explained that I was broke but, as a favour could ask one of my landlord friends if he would lend me some money on his behalf, when his business opened at nine. He seemed to cheer up a bit and gleefully accepted the offer, but insisted that money for the taxi wasn’t enough: he needed to borrow 300k if he was going to survive through the day.
It sounded a bit ridiculous to me, and definitely something I didn’t want to do but my main focus at that point was to stop him freaking out, so I said something non-committal like “I don’t know about that but look… we’ll work out the details when we know whether I can get the money. No point worrying about that now.”
He insisted he had stuff he could offer as a deposit, money in his flat and a transfer coming in. It was all good! “Honestly man, you know I’ good for it, I never fuck around with debts bro, I’m decent like that” etc.
Man… he really wanted that 300k.
I repeated that I didn’t understand what the problem with just going back to the flat was… Surely he could get a spare key off his landlord.,, Right?
That’s when he explained another, bigger problem.
He owed his landlord for a months rent, a considerable sum of money. It was a debt that he had no intention of paying. Mainly because he couldn’t but also, I suspected, because that is the sort of thing that he does. Anyway, because of this, he said there was no way the landlord would provide him with a spare key.
My suggestion of getting hold of a locksmith in Go Vap, one who could open the door and make a replica on the spot, getting in, getting the money and paying him was shot down for some equally incomprehensible reason.
In fact, it quickly transpired that whatever the solution, he had some sort of pessimistic reason why it wouldn’t work.
I am always amazed at how hard some people find it to organize their lives. Even in a crisis most people pull through and figure out a solution bit there are a few among us who simply crumble. For a while I had assumed Ben was one such idiot, just another poor fucker who hadn’t figured out how to do his life properly. I was starting to doubt my initial assessment after these last few minutes.
It was around then that I started to notice some odd quirks in his behaviour. The regular trips to the bathroom, the absurd amount of valiums he was eating with, apparently, little to no sedative effect. The twitchy, sweaty demeanour. It suddenly all made sense as the pieces fell together, with the all the drama of a sarcastic slow-clap.
The cheeky fucker was higher than… I don’t know… fucking… James Brown hanging out with Doug Stanhope at a crack-house new years eve party. Almost certainly an ice head and, based on his demeanour and prolific valium consumption, I’d say a pretty fucking heavy user.
And…. If there’s one thing you can guarantee about meth heads it’s that they’re probably going to need more meth.
So, this situation suddenly made sense. In essence I was being asked to give this probable junky/recent drinking buddy/relative strange/ basic unknown with a known penchant for skipping on debts 300k. Money which I now knew he was instantly going to spend on drugs.
I decided against confronting him on the truth straight away for a couple of reasons. Mainly because if I was the one who made him face the truth of the situation he would never accept it. He would kick and scream and lie and disagree. And all the time he spent fighting back, he would just be reinforcing the same old bullshit every cheating cunt has to tell themselves all the time, just to look themselves in the mirror. The classic, “I am right, they are wrong, they can all go fuck themselves.”
You should try it: it’s a classic. Works every fucking time.
No, the moment of truth had to come from within… somehow. I wasn’t sure how that might be done, and was pretty sure that half-arsing it would backfire somehow and wind up defeating my main priority here: to keep him calm enough for long enough to figure out a solution for himself.
I had my doubts that any of this would work but… it seemed like it might, it had stopped his whinging for a while and in any case, what the fuck else was I supposed to do? I was still buzzing so sleep was a non-starter of a plan. Fuck it. Let the insanity continue.
There was of course the second reason I decided to pretend I hadn’t figured out his little ruse. Entertainment. This was fucking hilarious when it was so annoying I wanted to break everything in sight. I couldn’t just stop it. There was too much potential for something truly impressive.
While Ben was in the toilet, Jerry had another angle to add to the story. Evidently, the moment Ben realised his bike had gone missing he decide the best course of action was to try and con some tourists out of their money by disguising meth as coke and massively overcharging them. Robbing a stranger to make up or the fact that he got robbed.
Before I had a chance to digest this revelation or gleam more details, Ben returned and conversation switched. Clearly, I thought, he was not to be trusted. But… fuck it, I might still put the 50k on the table just to see if actually gets on the fucking moto-taxi. After all, what’s 50k?
Indeed, What is 50k? Well, in a sense, 50k is nothing… hell, even the 300k he wanted isn’t a huge amount: about 15 pounds or so.
And in any case… Junky or not, maybe he was being genuine to a degree. I guessed I had to keep assuming the best, to an extent…. And if he wasn’t bullshitting me, 50k would help the weird bastard out, count as my good deed for the day, and probably make me feel good about myself. Even if he was a dickhead.
Also, i reminded myself again… if I was in his position I’d definitely appreciate any help offered so I had ample motivation to stick about and see him through this. Assume the best, but observe the warning signs. Remain vigilant but don’t turn my back on decency based on unverifiable rumours. All that sort of thing.
The problem was though, as the night went on, these warning signs just kept accumulating. It was worrying how much of an emotional wreck the man was getting now he had, presumably run out of drugs.
As his high began to wear out his mood deteriorated, first to a moderate, fidgety desperation, then morbid depression… and then a bizarre mix of contrite apologies peppered with the occasional explosively violent threat.
At one point Si reached the end of his patience and went off with one of the girls for a while. Ben, knowing they were carrying some meth was furious, claiming they were deliberately excluding him as part of some personal attack on him. It was ridiculous, but more than that it was fucking tragic. The man had no control over his state of mind or, it seemed, the noise that was coming out o his mouth.
Si called me some minutes later and invited me to his hotel for a smoke which I took as an all-too welcome break from the bullshit coming out of Ben’s mouth. Billy and Ben weren’t thrilled that I was leaving them alone but by that point I really didn’t care. I was running out of money, so getting away from the bar for a little while was probably a wise idea, but more than that- I just wanted to be away from all the complaining for a little while. The situation was making me anxious, angry and frustrated, none of which were feelings one should have at 6 o clock on Friday morning. I felt fairly confident that a little breather- just 10–20 minutes away from the centre of all the drama might be enough to hit the reset switch and give me the patience to see this absurd saga through to the end.
Lighting the pipe in Si’s room confirmed my prior suspicions. I was feeling better already.