IN THE DELUGE of unhappy news this week was another airliner crash in Indonesia. The plane was flying from Jakarta to the Borneo city of Pontianak. Pontianak! In the year of living dangerously, 1965, I set out by bus for Pontianak from Kuching, Sarawak, a town in '65 about the size of Ukiah. I knew enough Malay to get around and, being young, stepped into a number of dangerous situations without understanding how dangerous they were. I'd trained myself to sleep on floors because floors were often the available accommodations, especially in the most interesting up-country areas. I spent a lot of time in with the Dyaks, infamous as headhunters up through the Japanese occupation of the Borneo states during World War Two. I stayed in longhouses where bunches of Japanese heads hung in the common hall, some still with their eyeglasses, but shrunken after years of smoke from carefully tended little shrines beneath them. I stayed in places where 12-year-olds had never seen a white person, and the adults thought I was somehow associated with the British royal family. When they initially occupied the Borneo states, the Japanese sent large patrols by motor boat up the Rejang River to ferret out the British and Australian commandos who were organizing the Dyaks to fight them. Those patrols were wiped out to a man by Dyaks hidden in the impenetrable riverside jungle, armed only with blow guns and poison darts. No known antidote, dead in ten minutes, eternal rest in bunches of death grimaces hanging from Dyak ceilings. In '65, and unknown to me and most of the world, the Indonesian generals had begun slaughtering alleged communists, some of whom were involved in trying to beat back the newly formed country of Malaysia, which they accurately regarded as a neo-imperial scheme of the British. So I'm on the bus for Pontianak, a backcountry bus with masses of chickens and old ladies spitting betelnut juice on the floor as we jounced along, children remarking on the length of my nose and the hair on my arms. At a place called Bau the bus was stopped, a young Englishman backed by a pair of Ghurkas, all of them armed, told me the border was closed, and that no one was going to Pontianak because it was unsafe, a state of anarchy. I remember him asking me, “Why do you want to go there?” I told him I was curious, that I'd read about the old sultanate and wanted to see what was left of it. He said, “Well, I'm sorry. Not for now and probably not for a long time. It's very bad over there.” I was the only person ordered off the bus, but I suppose my fellow passengers lived in the border area. I spent that night on the floor of a Chinese shop house. I could sleep anywhere in those days.
MOST TRAVEL was by boat in Sarawak at the time. There were only a few miles of paved road. Living there, as the first wave of Americans unleashed on the unsuspecting neo-Malaysians, I was agog much of the time at what was still an unvisited part of the world, an area of virtually untouched Asia as it had been before the modern world rushed in. Two sights among all the sights I've never forgotten: I was having a plate of fried rice one late afternoon in a flooded bazaar of about thirty shop houses on the banks of the Mukah River. The flooding had come into the premises to about three feet but the kitchen remained open for business and all the customers, me included, just went on eating with our flip-flops caressed by the tides. I'd watched a gang of Chinese longshoremen (still called “coolies” in that place at that time) unload a small boat, walking on and off with large, heavy sacks of whatever it was — and try that all day in equatorial heat. When they knocked off they sat down around me, pointing at me and laughing, a reaction I still seem to inspire, while they knocked back glasses of brandy after — the faint of heart better not continue reading here — after swallowing live baby mice wrapped in bean sprouts, the mice furnished by the kitchen. Chinese macho! Another memorable occasion occurred when I visited the home of what I recall was described as a bomoh, or person with special powers. To demonstrate her gifts she first spun an egg which, being uncooked, flopped over as uncooked eggs do. She then picked up the egg, closed her tiny, bony hand around it, muttered something and voila!it spun like a top. Mysticism was much in the air. The government was trying to bridge a smallish river near Kuching whose pilings kept slipping away. A rumor began that the authorities had hired a Dyak to take a human head to plant with the foundation, thus ensuring that the structure would stay standing. That rumor was so pervasive that the government had to go on the country-wide radio to deny it, but for a week the night time streets of the town were deserted.
LONG BEFORE this garrulous old coot was a garrulous old coot, he functioned, in exchange for free rent, as building manager at 925 Sacramento Street, San Francisco, a building long ago demolished, and a building then teeming with deadbeats and, ah, unconventional persons, among them a showbiz star of sorts, The Nude Girl On A Swing. An undemanding gig, I should think, and one she performed at a nightclub in nearby North Beach. It was an act as advertised, and an act that packed the place with voyeurs, all male of course. As advertised. Cynthia, nude, swung out of the ceiling as the male audience below twisted themselves in scrambling piles for better views. When she got me and a friend free passes to see the show one night, I remember wondering to myself as I sat with the rest of my pathetic gender gazing upwards, “Only a stone degenerate would be here.” I rationalized the visit, as we all tend to rationalize our more embarrassing moments, by telling people, “Hey, she lives next door to me. I didn't want to insult her by refusing to go.” Cynthia was also a junkie, my first direct experience with a drug addict. (I thought she was just sleepy all the time). About 3am one night, I heard this terrific back and forth yelling, accompanied by thuds and breaking glass coming from Cynthia's apartment, and soon I was pounding on her door with the vague intent to stop some terrible mayhem. I was the manager after all, the in-charge guy. It was time to do my job! The door was suddenly thrown open by a frenzied-looking young man who told me to “Bleep you and mind your own bleeping business.” Cynthia stood behind him crying. I said I was calling the cops, and both of them told me to mind my own bleeping business, with him adding, “You do and I'm coming back to kill you.” The next day I hustled down to the Gun Exchange which, as I dimly recall was only a block south of Market on either Second or Third Street, where I bought a shotgun and some ammo. Later that same day, after I'd armed up, I looked out my window and there they were, the two lovebirds arm in arm strolling along Stockton Street. They waved up at me, big sarcastic smiles on their stoned faces.