Back to the Future

Back to the Future is a memoir by Steve Rosse

Books are among mankind’s most powerful inventions. Das Kapital changed the world as surely as the steam engine ever did, and with one small thesis Copernicus changed the whole universe. The list of books that have changed human existence includes Mein Kampf, Mao’s Little Red Book, The Bible, The Koran, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Origin of  Species. But less well known books change individual lives every day. A young man reads All Creatures Great and Small and goes on to become a veterinarian, a young woman reads Dr. Spock’s Baby Book and cancels her wedding. Every serious reader can tell a story about how a book changed his life, and this is mine.

Thirty years ago I was a set dresser in the New York City film industry, and in 1986 I spent 13 weeks in Atlantic City, New Jersey, working on a movie called “Penn and Teller Get Killed”.

Penn and Teller were a briefly popular comic duo who were appearing in their first (and only) feature film.   The director, Arthur Penn, had won Academy Awards for “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Little Big Man” but was finishing his career with sorry little projects starring relative unknowns. In one scene of this awful movie Teller spends the afternoon in a movie theatre, and in order to get the establishing shots of him entering and exiting the theatre the company rented an old night club called the Apollo.

Donald Trump and the Mafia brought casino gambling into Atlantic City in the 1970’s, and in an effort to keep the punters at the tables, they either bought out or burned out every other business in town, turning America’s oldest seaside resort into a ghost town almost overnight. The Apollo was one of the businesses that refused to leave quietly, so one night in 1978 there was a suspicious fire and the Apollo closed its doors forever, after nearly 50 years of operation.

My job that morning was to put the words “Three Stooges Film Festival” on the marquee outside the deserted night club. When I arrived on the scene, I had a key to the front door and instructions to find the big plastic marquee letters in a cardboard box in the attic. I let myself into a beautiful lobby carpeted in moldering burgundy wool, and passed on into the theatre itself. Ten inches of stagnant water, left behind by the long-defunct Atlantic City Fire Department, formed a tideless and stagnant sea. My flashlight picked out rotting cafe tables which still held glassware and ashtrays full of grotesquely bloated eight-year-old cigarette butts. The tables made an archipelago between myself and the stage. On a spectacular but soot-smudged Art Deco proscenium arch, crumbling plaster cherubim looked down with sad eyes at the velvet main curtain which hung in tatters over the bandstand.

The fire had been confined to the theatre, and as I climbed the stairs to the attic I peeked into offices and storerooms which had remained undisturbed since the owners of the building escaped to Florida with their lives and the insurance money. The dressing rooms for the musicians still seemed occupied, with post cards from home and pretty girls’ pictures taped to the mirrors, and combs, toothbrushes and dozens of tubes of hair pomade lining the counters.

When I reached the attic I found it to be an enormous loft room. It was dark and cobwebbed but by the light of my flashlight I could see it was crammed floor to ceiling with stacks of cardboard boxes. It looked like the last scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. Most of the boxes were labeled with a man’s name and a dollar amount, like “Sam Smith $12.34” or “Jack Jones $21.95.” As I tore open box after box in an insane effort to find the needle in the haystack that held my precious red plastic marquee letters, I found them all full of the same sort of things that I had seen in the dressing room. In my frustration I began to kick over the stacks of boxes that had rested undisturbed all those years, and piles of clothing, shoes, magazines, post cards, letters, cosmetics, guitar picks and clarinet reeds spilled across the dusty floor.

It occurred to me that what I had discovered was a sad reminder of the gypsy life led by itinerant black musicians in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. A man would come with the band and play an engagement of three weeks or three days, and during that time he would run up a bar bill. When it came time to go, if his bill exceeded the money he’d earned, the management would confiscate the meager belongings on his dressing table and put them in the attic. When and if the musician returned with the money, he got his things back. If not, they remained in the attic forever.

I had made a shambles of the room and hopeless confusion out of the carefully preserved effects of a hundred dead men when I noticed, in the gloom of a far corner, three boxes, larger and more sturdy than the others, marked in black ink “Marquee Letters”. I felt relief and shame in the same moment, and made a vain attempt to put some order back into the place by stuffing handfuls of clutter into boxes. That’s when I found two books.

I picked them up and took them to the window for a look at them in better light, because among all of the crap that I had been digging through, among all the boxes of gaudy shirts and harmonicas and sheet music and condoms, they were the first books I had seen. One was a simple black notebook, in which a guitarist named F.  Carlton Reeder had kept a daily log of his expenses. A typical entry might read “March 8, new A-string $.35, union dues $1.50, lunch with Mel $.75.” The journal began on January 1, 1957, and ended on what must have been the day his engagement at the Apollo ended and his belongings were put into escrow: November 6, 1957. I was alone, in a spooky old theatre full of ghosts in a spooky old town full of ghosts, holding the diary of a dead stranger, and the last entry in that diary was made on the day that I was born.

After that eerie moment I barely looked at the second book, but did see that the cover showed a lurid illustration of a vaguely Asian woman reclining on a divan wearing a low-cut gown slit up to her hip bone. A Caucasian male figure leered at her through a bead-curtained doorway, and that was enough to make me put the book in my pocket and take it along. Atlantic City no longer had a laundromat or hardware store, let alone a bookstore or public library, and I needed something to read. I took the appropriate letters downstairs, got my ladder out of my truck and in flagrant violation of union safety code stood on the top step to write “Three Stooges Film Fest” on the Apollo’s marquee. The second unit shooting crew came and got their shot and I put the letters back in the attic without cleaning up the mess I had made.   For all I know, it remains that way to this day.

And when I got back to the hotel that night I began to read the novel. It was a first edition of Jack Reynolds’ classic Thailand romance A Woman Of Bangkok, and expecting as I was a tawdry bit of titillation, I was amazed to discover that it was a novel of extraordinary sensitivity and insight. The glue of the book’s binding had long since crystallized in the dry heat of the attic, and as I read my way through the book each page came off the spine like a dead leaf. When I finished the book I had a loose collection of three hundred yellowed, fragile pages held together with a rubber band, but I didn’t throw the book away.

One year later I was on a plane bound for Thailand. I didn’t know it then, but I would remain there for seven years. At thirty thousand feet over the north pole I re-read A Woman Of Bangkok in the brilliant white light of the stratosphere, and the man in the seat next to me must have thought I was crazy, to take such effort to read a thirty-year-old trashy novel that left a snow drift of crumbled paper in my lap with each page I read. By the time we landed the book was confetti, but that was okay. That book had laid in wait for (exactly) my entire life, and after doing its job it disintegrated.

Since then I’ve tried to find out everything I can about Jack Reynolds, which hasn’t been much. I’ve learned that he came to Thailand after running a fleet of ambulances for a Quaker mission in China through the 30’s and 40’s, and that he produced only two other books, one bad, one good, neither successful. He married a Thai woman, had nine children with her, and eventually died. That’s all I know about the man who is responsible for me spending my 30s in Thailand.

Mr. Reynolds’ single serious contribution to English Literature is about a young Englishman who falls in love with a Thai “dancing girl” in Bangkok circa 1950. She takes all his money, breaks his heart, costs him his job, and finally leaves him to a future of failure and bitterness. But despite its turgid content, the book is brilliantly written. It is a story full of wit, pathos and plain old human drama, and it’s still one of my favorite books in the world.

Of course, the Bangkok that Mr. Reynolds described, where Patpong Road was only known to the airline pilots, doesn’t exist any more. It may never have existed outside of the author’s imagination. But if I ever did anything of any worth at all in my time in Thailand, it was due to Jack Reynolds writing about the Kingdom in a way that made me want to go there.   

Books are more  powerful than bullets or missiles, but they are almost impossible to aim. A book may not strike its target until decades after the author is dead, but it will rest on a shelf (or in a box) for years, always armed and ready to explode in someone’s head. All it takes is for one unsuspecting reader to trip over a book, like a Cambodian farmer tripping over an old land mine, to change his life forever.


Editor’s Note on Back to the Future:

Back to the Future is not the first piece of work by Steve Rosse that Eastlit has published. Apart form Back the Future, the following have been featured:

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