From Najran to Bangkok to Las Vegas: My Time with NSFWCORP
When I heard that NSFWCORP was going to issue a collection of War Nerd columns, I went back and looked at what I’d written since I started writing for NSFWCORP in September 2012.
Back then, my wife and I were planning to go back to Najran, in southwestern Saudi Arabia, to earn some money teaching ESL to “The Empty Quarter,” as a colleague of ours used to call our male students.
We’d planned to return to Najran in August 2012, but the Saudi visa agency messed up our Iqamas (resident visas) and we were treading water and bleeding cash, wondering when, if ever, we’d be granted the tremendous favor of returning to one of the bleakest, most repressive places on earth.
We were in Bangkok, mainly because it’s cheap there, emailing our boss at Najran University every day and watching our little cash cache dwindle by the day, when Mark Ames called and told me there was a chance that NSFWCORP, the new online journal he co-edited with Paul Carr, might want to hire The War Nerd, with a side order of Dolan now and then (Dolan’s never been as popular as Brecher, which makes total sense to me; even I like Brecher better than that pompous windbag Dolan.)
We were wary; if you do this web journalism thing for any length of time, you get so jaundiced about “possible” job offers that your mind’s eye turns yellow. But we didn’t have a lot of other options; the Saudi visa bureaucracy makes the Russian one seem as quick and efficient as a Mossad hit team, which meant we might wait for months in that Bangkok hotel. And about that hotel… See, I trusted TripAdvisor. Went to their site, typed “Bangkok hotels,” and looked in the top ten for one that had a high rating and a cheap rate. The one I found was called the Dynasty Nana.
Now, I’m sure some of you worldly ol’ degenerates out there—and I mean “degenerates” in the most flattering sense of the word—are already hooting at me for booking a Bangkok hotel with “Nana” in its name. But I’m—jeez, this is going to ruin my image, but it’s the truth: I’m a lot less decadent than people think, and though I’d been in Bangkok several times before, I didn’t go there to pick up prostitutes, so I didn’t know that Nana is what our euphemism-loving elders used to call “the red-light district” in Bangkok. Which is like saying it’s whoredom squared, the whore-y part of the whore-iest city on the planet. I didn’t know that. Hey, I’m a war pundit, not a whore pundit. Not my field, as the farmer said when his least-favorite neighbor’s crop got napalmed. I just went with TripAdvisor, which rated Dynasty Nana #3, the only one in their top ten that fit our budget.
Truth is, I was feeling kind of proud of myself, all this unwonted efficiency I was displaying as a trip planner. A regular Rick Stevens, or whatever that epicene Canuck who does travel peep shows calls himself. We got a taxi from the airport—the driver did look a little surprised, and kept squinting back at Katherine to see if she had hidden depths of depravity he hadn’t noticed at first glance, but he knew the way to Dynasty Nana, all right. Oh, he knew that route! Every taxi driver in Bangkok has been putting his kids through private school by shuttling a certain type of middleaged European divorced male to that address. We didn’t seem to fit the profile, but he had probably long since consigned Westerners of all genders and facades to the same Buddhist Hell of those who are slaves to the flesh.
We were still expecting to pull up in front of a cool, inexpensive boutique hotel, the kind where you maybe have to walk up a few flights of stairs, but the teakwood and ceiling fans and such-like atmospherics make it all worthwhile. Instead, the driver zips across a wide street into a landscape of such ridiculously exaggerated debauchery that I thought, with a last desperate hope, that it had to be a joke or a film set, some bad Hollywood movie about expat Nam vets going to the dogs and dope in Bangkok.
Nana is a little street, a Soi (sidestreet) off one of the big boulevards. Not a big neighborhood, but that just means that a huge volume of Thai prostitutes and Northern European bulk buyers of Cialis have to transact their business in a single block. To get to the Dynasty sign we could see down the block, we had to trundle our heavy suitcases past some of the dirtiest, saddest bars I’ve ever seen. And I’m not one of those liars who calls porn “boring” or affects pity for women who make a living at sex. No, a lot of decadence is wonderful, glorious, a credit to the order Mammalia—clever primate tech embiggening our mammal lusts, shining up a basic drive.
Not Nana. Nana is honestly depressing. Of course it was mid-afternoon, and bars are always pretty sad in bright sunlight, but the bars that formed a gauntlet between us and our hotel—they would have made Sade take Holy Orders, they were so awful. These bars are like filter feeders on a reef; they have wooden balconies pushed far out over the filthy sidewalk, so the prostitutes can grab at potential clients as they pass.
So they all crowd the edge of the balcony, and they all try to get your attention with English phrases, which don’t improve by being processed through Thai inflections. The only way I can describe it is how a tired duck would sound, trying to get a bigspender’s attention while jostling for position among other hungry ducks (as it were), all of them doing a really bad job—a REALLY bad job—of miming lust for the aging white men who pass. “Hey Mister” was popular, as was “You want to have fun?” I very much did not want to have fun, actually. I wanted to get the goddamn suitcases down the block, and they kept catching in the broken, wet sidewalk while big loud Aussies and sad pale German bachelors pushed past us, all of them making me instantly ashamed of belonging to their gender.
There were more of these men in the lobby of the Dynasty. They never left that lobby for the long month we spent there, waiting for Saudi to get around to issuing our visas. They had a look I’ve never seen before. They all seemed to be North European, German or Dutch or Scandinavian. The youngest were in their forties, the oldest pushing 70, trusting to Cialis and some pitiful notion of Asian eroticism to grant them one last tango in Bangkok.
They looked at us as we trundled in off the street; they didn’t seem embarrassed, which surprised me—I sure would’ve been—but they were so pitiful, so blank, that they could’ve played extras in Houllebecq’s “Elementary Particles” without makeup. They were zombies, corpses from the death of Europe, the death of maleness, the death of whatever the fuck you want—and yet they were sitting in that lobby waiting for the evening, so they could go out and pick up another single mom from the impoverished Isaan provinces, where a girl can either pick mangoes in the heat for basically nothing, or go to Bangkok and learn a few flattering lies in English, the—as they say—“world language.”
That set the ol’ tone, all right, that glimpse of dead Europe wandering around the Dynasty’s lobby like senile, vaguely lustful carp. They weren’t even ugly, these men; they were well-preserved compared to Americans their age, which made me think more fondly and respectfully of my fellow fat American men, who whatever else they may do, don’t infest the lobby of the Dynasty Nana waiting for zombie sex.
Zombie sex is impressive when salmon do it; on primates it’s just awful. Yes, “awful” is the best word here. Not sad, not shocking, just awful. The porter showed us up to our room, with that same mild, polite surprise that I’d brought an attractive Western woman with me: “This guy’s a real weirdo,” he must have thought, which was not exactly true; not a weirdo, just an idiot. The room was like a fish-gutting stand on a public pier—it was that straightforwardly designed to facilitate the quick evacuation of bodily fluids. Bed, toilet, shower, door. All ready to hold a moaning old white man and an Isaan peasant’s surplus daughter, squeaking and moaning according to the script.
After that encounter with the men in the lobby, we stayed in our room as much as possible, calling the Saudi embassy, emailing our boss in Najran, with no result but a lot of Inshallah’s. We knew what Inshallah means. It means don’t count your Islamic chickens, sucker.
But we had nowhere else to go, so we waited, tried to find other districts to visit, and remembering to walk as fast as we could through that lobby, and past those bars. Thais are very polite, so the prostitutes weren’t aggressive, but they were desperate, and they had to get your attention to make a living, so the duck-calls of fake lust never stopped. And you couldn’t get to the end of the block without making inadvertent eye contact with one of those horrible living-dead Northern Europeans. It would have been more decent and merciful to have wiped them out, I remember thinking as we pushed through the crowds in horror, more decent to extirpate them, these poor pale superfluous old Euro men, than to castrate their whole continent and leave them with nothing to mount but a poor Thai peasant girl in a goddamn glitter disco blouse and hot pants from the seventies—and why doesn’t that fucking pineapple stand guy move his fucking cart off the sidewalk so I could walk faster and not SEE this stuff?
It got us down pretty badly, and we’re not wimps. Did a year in Najran, mofo, and that’s like a year at Pelican Bay. But Nana, Nana really hurt us. Fucking TripAdvisor ratings—like your Hitler, your Pol Pot and your Stalin, TripAdvisor has a lot to answer for. We’d been living, or rather steeping, in the Nana miasma for a month when Mark called to tell me about NSFWCORP.
Which is why, though we both knew how shaky a tentative offer is in this crumbling profession, we didn’t even have to think about our decision. We jumped at it. We’d have been willing to return to the grim bleakness of Saudi, but Nana was too much. Even the slight chance of a job in the first world was better than marinating in the suspension of geriatric male ego and inept come-ons any longer. We took the first flight out, and I signed on as NSFWCORP’s own War Nerd.
It was a glorious fifteen months we had of it, too. I’ll always remember NSFWCORP with gratitude. I honestly liked everyone I met there, which is not exactly my usual response. Paul Carr is the smartest, bravest, most honest editor I’ve ever met. Mark Ames—well, Mark and I go way back. Had our ups, had our downs, but—this is where the sentimental stuff would go, if I were to include it. Yasha Levine, who started at eXile and made himself through sheer ferocity one of the best investigative writers alive; David Forbes, the quietest and most modest kick-ass brilliant mind ever to come out of North Carolina (the bastard corrected a reference in one of my articles on the War of 1812, a chastisement that stung badly but left me with a profound respect, verging on hatred, for Forbes’s erudition); Leigh Cowart, the most adorable science geek ever to tag bats in a cave; James Aylett, a droll and unassuming comedy vet and tech star, without an ounce of side to him, as you Brits used to say a million years ago.
I’ve probably left some proud NSFWCORP vets out, but I can honestly say that there wasn’t a dud in the entire outfit, and that is very, very rare. Well, unless I was the dud, a possibility one must always consider. But you know, I looked over the articles I did for NSFWCORP, and to my surprise I got most things right. I’m not one of my biggest fans, and I was honestly surprised by that. Pleasantly surprised, obviously.
It was when I looked over an article I wrote about Syria, way back in October 2012, that I realized I done good in my time at NSFWCORP—and also that being right doesn’t seem to matter much in American media. I did my job well, Paul did his gloriously, Mark and Yasha slashed and burned through America’s pious, lying murk, and the North Carolina contingent made us Yankees look like hicks, while having more fun than such rock-solid researchers ought to be allowed. A great team—and it lasted what, not even a year and a half? Something is wrong when something as good as NSFWCORP can’t last, while sludge like the NYT drones on and on.
For me, one man exemplifies this weird habit of rewarding those who are consistently wrong: Max Boot, or “Das Boot” as Mark likes to call him. I’m thinking of Boot right now, because as part of preparing to write this, I’ve been reading old NSFWCORP articles of mine, and the one I remember best was an October 2012 piece called “The Syrian Boot,” an analysis of the Syrian war in which I used Max’s idiotic remarks on Syria to set up my own predictions. As it turns out, I got that nightmare dead right, and Boot got it utterly wrong.
It’s no shame to be wrong, though Boot does it more often than mere random chance would allow. What’s depressing about Boot’s career is that he still has one. No one holds his disastrously wrong predictions against him; Hell, no one even remembers them. He’s still got his cushy job, and NSFWCORP is gone, ignored by most of the mainstream drones while it was around and starved to death for lack of cash.
Isn’t “the Market” supposed to weed out incompetents like Boot? And reward competence like we showed at NSFWCORP, if I do say so myself? Well, it didn’t. The Market for punditry wants something way different from accuracy, I guess. It’s a damn shame. But I’m proud to say that I was one of the voices in the glorious ragged chorus called NSFWCORP.
Gary Brecher's War Nerd Dispatches will be published by Pando next month. You can read The War Nerd columns here on Pando.