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In Saipan at the moment. For starters a few facts about the island which are pretty much par for the course in this situation. Saipan is part of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, (which hold U.S. citizenship,) and is located at 15-15' North, 145-45' East. Other islands in this chain include Guam, Tinian and a few other little joyous islands that a whole shitpile of people died fighting over. One of the primary tourist attractions on the island is "Saipan's World Famous Lagoon," where you can take glass bottom boat tours to see fish and the artifacts left behind by a shitpile of people dying to take over a small island. Also, in a fit of irony, submarine tours are also available to view said trappings of invasion forces. Weather on Saipan ranges from muggy, to goddamn hot and muggy to muggy and unpleasant, with a rumored occasional interruption by rainy and muggy conditions. The primary business in Saipan is selling things, whether that be to drunk ass American sailors or to Japanese tourists attempting to reach catharsis with dead relatives at such aptly named sites as "Suicide Cliffs." (That and the "Banzai Cliffs" seem to be hotbeds of Japanese activity.) Other than that you have the usual, lots of imported cars, beer and which I am just getting to, Filipino strippers.

Normally I am up for damn near any manner of unorthodox activity: go do this, see that, bungee jumping from some tower in Mexico that would make any OSHA inspector worth half a shit to go into immediate cardiac arrest. Since the primary activity of the Saipan locals seems to revolve around buying gas and beer at a huge number of Shell or Mobil stations located throughout the island and then consuming said, we rented two vehicles and promptly commenced to do as much. (Note on the Shell and Mobil stations: Price wars over six and twelve packs of beer? Yes. Price wars over gas? Uhh, no. I don't fucking think so. There are the ONLY two varieties of gas dispensaries on the island; so it's either blue or yellow but you're still going to get screwed in the end.) So here we are standing around staring at each other wondering how it is that you manage to remain sane when this is apparently the only creative outlet available for nigh onto a thousand miles when someone suggested a viewing of everyone's (note male chauvinist overtones here,) favorite organ: the mammary, preferably plural. Of course this was at the time mentioned something along these lines: "You know what? I wanna see some tits." (Quote if you like, I think it may come in handy during meetings and so forth. As in: "Yes, I can understand the potential ramifications of your proposed addendum to the changed revision promulgation master index schedule, but you know what? I wanna see some tits." It's stupid. But it's so stupid that it might get you kicked out of there early.) So we piled into the back of one rented Toyota Tacoma, (AIR, P/S, TINT, TAPE) since that is legal here and commenced to bombing about the island looking for an establishment whose purview was the public viewing of the mammary. After taking a detour through a hastily erected town of some kind or another we arrived at a Mobil station where the driver began interrogating locals for information concerning mammary viewing. Actually, he said in a brash but slight southern accent: "HEY! You know anywhere where we can see nekkid wimmen around here?" The nice man pointed us in the right direction and had a good laugh with his friends as we drove away. We arrived at the "Nagoya Star" (bad art on the side of the building depicting a semi-naked woman with her foot in a mug of beer,) and began walking up the stairs to gain admittance. This thing was on the second floor of one of those rectangular office-building constructions, and shared the floor with of all things a "Reformed Christian Church of the New Salvation." This made me wonder for a moment if the church and the strip club take turns protesting each other's presence. One week the church babbles off about the wages of sin being death and so on and the strip club takes the next week yammering about lightening the fuck up for the first time in twenty centuries. We walk into the place, past a Saipan policeman about the size of some moderately significant stellar body and into the club proper. First thing first, about fifteen dollars was spent on the lighting. Second, change from the lighting was spent on lawn furniture for chairs and tables. Third, flash photography of 'dancers' is permitted so long as they are clothed. I for some reason left my camera in the truck. (Uhh, duh.) The place is a haze of cigarette smoke, best intentions gone wrong and the smell of sweaty flesh pressed into some tired erotic duty. The dancers have the sexual appeal of paste at some points and grind away on their victims in various states of undress as lifeless dolls brought out of the closet for an evening's entertainment. No better than anywhere else, the track marks are the same, the bruises covered over in hastily applied makeup bleeding away from sweat are the same, and the pallid expressions instantly recognizable. No different from anywhere else in the third world, not better, not any more impressive. The final resting place of the innocent girl bought out by the lure of American money and the dream only viewed through the flicker of a lens and the reflection of a silver screen stained with the blood of those that went before her. If there was enough money in the world, no one would work like this. If there was enough money in the world we wouldn't be at silent war, and I wouldn't be in Saipan. The smell of beer, cheap perfume and stale smoke rides over all of this to create a patina of momentary disorientation on the surface of the newcomer's brain. Once over it, the nature of the place comes into painfully sharp focus. Meat for sale, no better than the stockyard. I think to myself, this could be Korea, it could be Thailand, and it could be anywhere else in Southeast Asia. However it isn't, it's an American protectorate. It's America goddammit.

We sit and negotiate the price of expensive domestic beer served in lukewarm cans and glasses of Coca-Cola mixed half-and-half with tap water. Girls begin to swarm around us, pressing, touching, looking for the victim who will provide them with their rent and their minder's an excuse not to find someone younger and better looking. They know who we are; they know what we are here for. Whether or not they care I cannot tell. Suddenly to me this isn't some annoying trip to some strip bar that I cannot stand but moment of stupid clarity, and for a split second I am on the other side of the equation. Ever tasted your own innocence burning away? This was the look in their eyes. Despite the hellos, the almost recorded comments on visible tattoos and clothing, this is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. The Nagoya Star is suddenly the nexus of all of the places I have been and will ever be, and a few I hope I will never be again.

My sudden attachment we will call Michelle. She is from somewhere in the northern end of the Philippine islands and has been in Saipan for eight months. She doesn't 'dance;' she hates the woman that she works for. She applied at the 'company' and received a work permit, (under what auspices I do not want to even guess,) to come here and work. It turns out that after a year the 'company' evaluates how the girl is doing and then makes a decision. They either get bumped up to the major leagues or they are shitcanned back to the P.I. where hopefully whatever it was they were doing before is still there. She asks me why I don't buy her a drink, I tell her: "At twenty bucks for a five ounce glass of tea, it's a little steep dontcha think?" I ask how much the house gets out of the twenty that would pay for the drink, she sheepishly replies after a nice little clearing turn: seventeen. I am tempted to ask what the salary is like but I imagine it's below minimum wage. Somehow I think that the Department of Labor hasn't made it through a tour of Saipan recently. (I ask a few of the people that came with me the same question later and receive about the same number. One of them said: "In a place like this, probably three, maybe four bucks. Now in P.I.? Shit." Followed by a shaking of the head.) Michelle, like every other girl in the bar is here under the same status, non-resident aliens working in an industry I don't think the U.S. government is exactly going to come bopping happily on out to publicly sanction. They have the option at the end of a one-year contract to 'renegotiate' (the actual term used,) with the 'company' to see if they stay on or they can attempt to get rehired by another 'company' for another year. Michelle is hoping that at the end of this year, (four more months to go,) that she'll get picked up for a job in Hawaii. I don't ask about family, to be honest I never really thought of it at the time. Another of the women in the bar that gloms onto one member of the party who we'll call Laura was in a band that went under. Without a job and nowhere really to go, this apparently was the only place to turn with decent money. Better doctors at least than at home, she says. All of their faces hide beneath smiles a question that cannot be asked and the same dream. That someone will fall in 'love' with them and take them beyond being used as objects. None of us can. They know this and the question is never asked, never even hinted at.

We spend a couple of hours there watching the off kilter gyrations to American pop music played through cheap speakers, others come and go in the time span. A few, slightly ruffled, return a few minutes later. Backroom deals which the house will probably take the lion's share of are made and met in silence and under the watchful eye of the grizzled mama-san standing watch behind the bar. Michelle drifts back and forth between tending to the new arrivals and answering my questions. She's puzzled by this one; this American who asks questions and doesn't drink liquor. There is a conversation between two of them at the bar and it comes time that if I want to ask more questions, the piper must be paid. I pull a twenty from my wallet and drop it on the table, listening to the sound of my own hypocrisy rustling among those bills. With all of my altruism, all of my good intentions, all of the soul and passion that I pour into everything else I am no better than anyone who will ever come through the door of that bar. I am using them, getting what I need and then walking out of their lives.

This gnaws at me as I sit here, listening to Barber's Adagio in D on an expensive CD player. My future secure I make grand and vast pronouncements about my perceptions through a computer so far out of reach of the people that I am writing about it is difficult to fathom. I do it in language given to me by an education system that never tells us how to deal with things like this or that it even exists. All of this collects to cast a gaze at the American flag hanging on the quarterdeck of the ship I rode here and will leave here with. Bathed in sterile, pure white light and drifting slowly in the humid breeze it is the symbol of freedom for our nation. Within view of this same flag the 'liberators' are confronted with slavery on our own soil, and we are powerless to effect change. All of the statements made by those above and beyond, the policymakers and pundits who ceaselessly talk of human rights and basic freedoms are blind to this crime. As they always will be. Power rides on the backs of broken humanity. However without the policymakers and the pundits the dream would be even less of a reality than it actually is. I suppose the end here is that the greatest good must be done for the greatest number, and that a minority will always suffer. You can help most, but not all. This still offers little consolation to me. The means and the ends that are reached justifying each other, this is a circular argument that can be answered no more easily than finding the number of angels that can sit on the head of a pin.

Our time exhausted we drift out of the bar and into the humid air, the door closing behind us and promptly cutting off any tie with what had just transpired. Tires hum on pavement a short time later as I am jostled back to the ship in the back of the truck, thoughts drifting through my head about what I had just seen. Was this an epiphany? Or more simply than that a new way of looking at something that had always been there? We left nothing behind save the memory. No new hope, no new dreams. No empty promise of rescue and redemption. I am sure though, seething in the corner of the Nagoya Star, like every other dead end I have ever been in before, Death waits to claim a body or simply to snip away at the soul until there is nothing left but the doll. I haven't the power to stop it either.

(Time Magazine from April 23, 2000 statistics sidebar indicates that 50,000 women are currently in the U.S. under the same conditions as Michelle, Laura and the rest of the 'dancers' in the Nagoya Star.)

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