«1 James Dean In Saigon (or The True Story of the Clods) By Richard Turner Copyright 2008, All Rights Reserved Presented by: Silverfox Company – ...»
Deux Chevaux taxis, the tin-can cars, sputter in the mellow din, sleek black Citroens looking like gangers’ getaway cars move in stately procession through the eddies of bicycles, scooters, and cyclos. Drab military vehicles punctuate the otherwise colorful flow of traffic. Women perched delicately on the back seats of Vespas and Mopeds glide by dressed in peach, rose and azure tunics that float over white rayon trousers. They wave to schoolmates, sisters and friends strolling the tiled sidewalks. The heels of the women’s lacquered shoes click in occasional syncopation with the rhythms of the slow tangos and cha-chas floating out of the cafes, milk bars and boutiques that line Rue Catinat. Groups of cowboys congregating at intersections, slouch over their cycles and survey the crowd. ARVN soldiers in immaculately tailored and pressed camouflage uniforms move with self-important authority past the sidewalk vendors selling black market cigarettes, toothpaste, condoms, sunglasses, perfume, dolls and buffalo horn carvings. A few clean-shaven American military advisors are laughing at the rear of the café across the street.
We never go near them. They’re M.A.A.G. Farts, Pear Shapes. A sound truck blaring a message in harsh Vietnamese and accented French goes by. It carries a crude painting of James Dean and Natalie Wood.
“Hey, look at that, he’s everywhere!” “Dean would like it here.” “Yeah, what would he do? He’s just a country boy from the Midwest,” Dick jokes.
“So what. We’re from the Midwest and we like it here. He could do just what we do.
We’d pick him up after school, go to the Sportif, swim, hang out, and drink beer. Come down here to the Continental some evenings, get laid out in shantytown, a few parties, the Olympic on Saturdays, the usual. What we do all the time.” “That sounds pretty boring for a guy who’s lived in New York and Hollywood. He hung out with some pretty weird people there, Vampiria Queen of the Undead for example.” “Well, we could introduce him to some Saigon weirdoes. He could go along with Roger Teidt the German attaché’s son and roll drunken sailors. He could cycle with Mr. Bodybuilder himself Dominoe Nguyen, Mr. Vietnam of 1959. We could take him out to Cho-Lon to meet that Chinese magician who suspended the guy in mid-air right in front of our faces at Hollie Choi’s rooftop party.” “Or take him to the bookstore down the street where Hanh and her friends read poetry and play guitars.” “Kerouac would like that place too, its’ the closest thing to a coffeehouse we have in Saigon.” “If we knew where they were, we could take him to one of the opium dens out in ChoLon. I read that he smoked pot. He’d probably go for some of the big O.” “So would Kerouac. Maybe we could take both of them at the same time.” “I’m sure they’d both like it here in Saigon, but the guy who would really be at home would be Elvis.” “Elvis! Come on! He really is too much of a country boy to like it here.” “Unless he brought his hick friends along that he always travels with.” “No, I think that even if he were here by himself he’d have a good time.” “OK, what would Elvis do in Saigon? You plan an itinerary and a schedule for Elvis when he comes to perform at the Circle Sportif.” Paul and I had first developed the fantasy of inviting Elvis to sing at the Circle Sportif, one drunken evening after having seen Jailhouse Rock at the American theater. We were on one of our long walks around nighttime Saigon, drinking red wine and smoking Salem’s, when I started feeling pukey. We were across the street from the Circle, so I cut over into the shadows of the club and threw up against the wall of the judo pavilion. Since I knew the guards there, I thought it would be OK if they saw us. But no one did. Feeling better, at least I did, I don’t know about Paul, although he said that he liked watching me throw up, we wandered over to the swimming pool, a grand structure of yellow stucco, dressing rooms with heavy slotted windows on the ground level, above, an Olympic size pool with a high diving platform surrounded by a colonnade topped by a trellis of untrimmed vines. The cirque, particularly the pool area, was the locus of our days in Saigon just as the Olympic Bar was our home in the evenings. Fancy dress balls were held there a couple of times a year. M. Vatin, the swimming instructor would produce a water ballet for the entertainment of the elegantly dressed French, Vietnamese, Chinese and American diplomatic crowd. Afterwards the pool would be covered over with a dance floor and a long evening of drinking, dancing, and dining would commence.
None of that was going on now though as I stood beneath a jacaranda tree looking up at the arcing strings of party lights hung between the capitals of the columns and the shredded remnants of paper lanterns forlorn beneath the unkempt tangle of vines in the trellis. There was just Paul and I standing there breathing heavily, me lighting up another Salem, inhaling the filtered smoke in the hope of changing the chemistry of my vomit etched mouth.
We had been to some great parties at the Sportif, the French balls, Sunday afternoon tea dances, a farewell party in the lounge above the billiard room, but the party that we now wanted to see was the one at which Elvis would perform. Elvis at the Sportif! It was an idea that ranked right up there with Kerouac on Catinat. True, it didn’t have the same alliteration but it was a much more exiting event than a book signing. Actually it was the barhopping and the whoring in shantytown and the drive to Cambodia with Kerouac afterwards rather than the book signing itself that received the most detailed treatment in our continually evolving versions of the tale.
We were as possessive about Elvis as we were about Jimmy Dean, although not in such a morbid way. Elvis after all, was alive. We all thought the tai baos were jerks for imitating Elvis.
Elvis like Jimmy Dean was our property. American citizenship was a prerequisite for legitimate Elvis emulation. Our only concession to the cowboys, one of whom dated my sister, was that at parties when Elvis’ records were played there was the tacit acknowledgement that the Vietnamese guys knew that we were cool because we were from the land of Elvis. Which meant to us that they wanted to be like us. Which was crazy. I think they mostly hated our guts for even being in their country. But they did like Elvis and if we had had any sense we would have acknowledged this international brotherhood of Elvis fans.
The French guys at these parties were not a part of the brotherhood. Some of them, like Jean Claude and Bernard, who openly disdained Elvis, would walk off the dance floor at parties when Elvis’ records were played. They liked The Platters and some of the other black groups, but they were more into the cha cha cha, jazz and Billie Holiday, Yves Montand and musical styles we identified with our parents’ generation. Jean Claude, who was literally tall, dark and handsome, danced the cha cha cha with beautiful nonchalance and was known to have slept with all of the best looking girls in the French community, including Marie Claire who Joe was trying to make. Watching him on the dance floor, we had reason to suspect that le jazz cool was something we ought to know about and that le cha cha cha was a dance we should be learning.
After all James Dean was supposed to have listened to jazz a lot and Elvis does some pretty fancy dancing in Jailhouse Rock. But our images, for the moment, were too firmly fixed.
Kerouac would lead us from rock to jazz, later, not now.
Now it was Elvis singing at the Sportif, and Jean Claude - for all his disdain for les choses Americaines – he probably also hated our guts for being in the country that generations of French had considered their possession - would be in the crowd with Michelle on his arm.
Dominoe, Pham, Tran and the other cowboys would be down in the front dancing with their sisters. Paul and I, Larry, Roy, Joe and Dick, would all be leaning up against the rail around the pool back by the bar, impassive in the knowledge that in a matter of hours Elvis would be drinking with us at the Olympic. Judy, Jeannie, Little Mike, Mouthless, Big Bad Bob, the Wenie brothers, S’Ellen, the Skanky twins, Cowlegs, Garage Mouth, they could all get as excited as they want. We are the ones who brought Elvis here. We’re the ones who will be partying with him all night.
Over our Biere 33’s and roasted peanuts – one of the reasons we liked the Olympic was that it had a good peanut vendor who crisp roasted and salted the nuts instead of soft roasting them like the Vietnamese preferred – we superimposed the image from Jailhouse Rock of Elvis singing Baby You’re so Square, snaking around in front of a cabana at the end of a swimming pool onto the colonnaded expanses of the Sportif. The hoods with heavy rings and drinks in their black and white celluloid hands became trim French rubber planters and diplomats wearing loose blue slacks and open necked white shirts with the sleeves rolled up. The women in modest swimsuits or cocktail dresses were transformed into Marie Claire, Michelle, Annie and the rest in flower print sundresses fluffed out in airy poofs by layers of crinolines or skimpy bikinis that held their breasts high and dove between their legs. Da da da do da da, da da da do da da, I could hear that amplified bass line throbbing through the crowd of kids from the American school, M.A.A.G. farts, agency spooks in seersucker suits just there to keep an eye on things and Holly Choi and his Chinese girl friends in gold cheongsams. All heads turn expectantly toward the bandstand at the end of the pool. Dum da da da do dum, dum da da do do dum. Then the drums crash in, Elvis starts to sing and the crowd explodes.
“OK, so what would Elvis do here, Joe, you’re the Elvis expert.” “That’s easy. He would do the same things I like to do, except he would do them more and better. First we’d pick him up out at the airport. Have a cycle waiting for him, a Harley if we could get one. We’d haul ass directly downtown to a tailor shop where he’d have some wild new clothes made, some charcoal pants flecked with pink, a white silk shirt, some snakeskin shoes.” “Throw in one of those embroidered satin jackets that have a map of Vietnam on the back just for good measure.” “Don’t interrupt, I’ve got this all planned out. We would take him to the Pyramid Bar, the one with the soccer game that all the French guys play and the pinball machine that tilts real easily, Buttons and Bows. Elvis digs games. We would shoot pool, he does that. One day we’d take him waterskiing on the Saigon River. He could eat at the military clubs, the B.O.Q. or the Dai Nam or Five Oceans. He wouldn’t even have to eat Vietnamese food once. Steak, baked potatoes, beer, ice cream. I’d get him peanut butter at the commissary so he could have his favorite sandwiches. If he wanted to he could perform at one of the military clubs for the M.A.A.G. farts and their girlfriends. He’s probably doing that over in Germany right now.” “Well, I guess you’re right. Elvis would have a lot to do in Saigon, but it sounds like a lot of entertaining to me. All I care about is the women Elvis would buy for us, the classy ones we can never afford. Forget Elvis at the Sportif, let’s get him to sing at the Tu Do Lounge, the best nightclub in Saigon. Then we’d have all the women we want.” “All life is not pussy, Larry.” “Says who?” “I know, we could get him to go along on the trip to Angkor Wat, on cycles instead of in a car. Dean and Kerouac would go for that.” “I don’t know, I never read about Jack on a motorcycle. He’s always in a car that someone else is driving.” “OK you drive Kerouac and we’ll cycle with Jimmy and Elvis.” “After the book signing!” “Elvis at a book signing?” “Elvis could meet us afterwards. He could be in the sack with some bar girl from the Tu Do while we’re at the book signing.” “We could get Jimmy to read something from The Little Prince, his favorite book. He could read it in English and Marie Claire could do it in French. Or maybe he could read from a translation of The Stranger.” “And Jack could do a reading from On the Road”.
“Onna load?” “Yeah, ‘onna load, Paul.” The same night that we first fantasized about Elvis performing at the Circle Sportif I had gone over to Paul’s house on Cong Ly. His parents had gone out to dinner at the officer’s club leaving us fillet mignon, French fries and a six pack of San Mig. A meal fit for Elvis himself.
Chi Ba the maid prepared this for us while we smoked Salem’s and drank on the verandah. Stale Salem’s had a hollow taste to them that went well with the move from an air-conditioned room to the street. The menthol was like air conditioning your mouth. Winston’s had a more substantial taste. None of us smoked Salem’s regularly. Sometimes we’d bum one from Peter Rabbit or the Moonlght Gambler at a party. Only jerks smoked Salem’s regularly. Future businessmen and military brats smoked Winston’s, thinking they had some class. Dick smoked Camels, which I also smoked, as well as Bastos and Gaouloises, which were definitely cool but too strong. It’s hard to be cool when you’re coughing. Camels were strong but not as harsh as Bastos or the other cigarettes the French guys smoked.
My father smoked Pall Malls. I could never figure that out. When I would buy them at the black market stands they were always staler than Camels, I guess because they were not very popular. They were always loosely packed so that they burned hotter than Camels. They were also too long, I felt old and uncertain smoking Pall Malls rather than confident like when I smoked Camels or empty like when I smoked Salem’s or world-weary when I smoked a Bastos.
We would rarely buy whole packs of cigarettes, except sometimes when we’d go to parties with the other American kids. Usually we’d just buy a couple from a street vendor. The Rabbit and the Moonlight Gambler, Daddy Del, Mouthless and Bad Bob would pride themselves in having whole packs of fresh cigarettes in the pockets of their short sleeved floppy print shirts, or sometimes bulging out of the roll of their t-shirt sleeve. Fresh cigarettes bought at the commissary. Big fucking deal. I don’t know exactly why, but we all preferred stale ones bought off the street. Sometimes at a party we might offer one of our Bastos to Chuckles or Batman and they would make some smart-ass comment about it not being fresh. What limp dicks! Who wants fresh commissary cigarettes anyway?