The nervous tics and the errant speech patterns were dead giveaways that something was sorely amiss with the haggard guy in shorts and t-shirt that stood next to me.
“Oh, great,” I thought to myself. “Here I am, in NagaWorld, Phnom Penh’s only casino, a target for meandering ex-pats who are either looking for kindred souls or something weird. Turns out it was probably the former, though my internal warning light was brightly flashing.
My instincts were right, as the guy eventually let on that he’s “finally stopped smoking the rock.” He’d begun to open up when I’d bump into him at Naga or around town, and he – I still do not know his name – shared a bit of his life story with me. Single guy, came here to meet a Cambodian lady, did, got fleeced for a couple grand, and now hangs out in Phnom Penh and makes a daily trip to NagaWorld “to eat the food and look at the ladies.”
“The ladies” are dozens of attractive young women in absurdly short red silk skirts who flit about the casino floor, cashing in wins, exchanging $100 bills for $20s and fetching drinks for the gambling set. There’s nothing tawdry about them; just gentle visual distractions from lights, bells and spinning wheels.
“The Rock,” of course, is crack cocaine, and his words say he’s quit the habit. His actions tell me otherwise.
So I nicknamed him Crackhead, not in a pejorative sense, but due to the lack of a more appropriate moniker, and because he was one of the more interesting characters I’ve met since I started making periodic trips to NagaWorld.
Then I met Velcro.
Velcro is a well-coiffed Cambodian guy with chronically bloodshot eyes and halting English who magically attaches himself to the chair next to me whenever he sees me there. Cambodians know no personal boundaries, and that fact holds true when it comes to playing slots. He reaches across me, pushes buttons, mutters, moans and growls when something goes wrong, and gleefully claps me on the back when bells ring and pennies mount (it’s low-stakes stuff here.)
I literally cannot peel this guy off my hide – he’ll follow me from machine to machine, settling in to manage my flailing gambling efforts and summoning one of the ladies for drinks or winnings, and he seems to have a sixth sense about when I’m about to make an appearance – hence the nickname Velcro.
He seems to always be there – this observation from a guy who’s not – and it turns out my instincts were once again true.
How do I know this?
Last week Velcro was joined by a beady-eyed Middle Eastern guy who turned out to be Pakistani and spoke perfect English.
“He’s a good boy,” he told me, pointing to Velcro. ”But he doesn’t understand English.”
Now that’s not so. On many occasions Velcro has provided play-by-play of my vast winnings, counting the pennies as the machine whirs on: “Oh, sir…that’s one five-ty….urggghhhh….mmmmmm…one five-ty….ten.”
Velcro, it seems, is a loan shark. He carries pockets of cash to lend to poor suckers who’ve drained their own stashes, attaching gawd knows what as collateral and charging I can only imagine rates for the privilege of losing someone else’s money.
I find myself wondering what happens to people who borrow too much, who can’t pay it back, and who find themselves at odds with a very wiry, bloodshot-eyed character who seems affable enough to a clueless baraing like me but probably has a nasty streak not that far beneath the surface.
It dawns on me: What the hell am I doing, hanging out with these guys? Is this my male-oriented social circle, a misbegotten lovelorn American crackhead and a Cambodian loan shark backed by a Pakistani money launderer?
The kindly Mormon guy next door suddenly seems like a viable option for male bonding. Or maybe I’ll join a pagoda and hang out with the monks. Most of them speak English, and I don’t think crack or money-lending is big in The Order these days.
I miss my buddies back home. Goldman, Jim, Steve…. But it occurs to me that the list of good male friends in my former life wasn’t a lot longer than it is here, and that gives me hope.
Now I just need to peel Velcro off my back and shed my Crackhead habit.