Hong Kong / Vows / 1976

Hong KongI gave it all away, all the cash I had on me down to my least coin. It was like feeding chickens. That back street in Kowloon was famous for its beggars, and once I started handing out cash it didn’t take long. Pierre Cardin suit, Italian shoes, silk tie, a foot taller than all the poor dudes that crowded around me. In my coat pocket was my final purchase—a pint of Wild Turkey. I remember it was a chilly night, December. Of course, I had a hotel room to go back to, and the next day I could go to the bank and get more cash, but I was celebrating my freedom by giving away my chains.

Seventy-six was a tough year, my thirtieth—burn out and break down at my editor’s job in Berkeley, a state of imploding confusion in my so-called love life, shrinks and drugs and a growing fear of others. There was the odd but deeply felt conviction that I didn’t want a future, but I had zero attraction to thoughts of suicide. I didn’t want to perform; I just wanted to wander and watch. It had taken me less than a month to get sacked from my Hong Kong editing job.

A couple of nights before that night in Kowloon I had done a Kiwi bloke I had met the favor of taking him to a respectable whorehouse. He was headed off to an Arctic oil rig for six months and wanted a weekend of companionship to send him off. I knew where to take him from wandering and watching, not from performing. The American Nam thing was winding down, and there were a lot of under-employed prostitutes in Hong Kong now that the Yanks were no longer coming there for R and R. He picked his girl out of the second group the Mamasan sent over to our booth. He seemed happy and I got up to leave. Only Mamasan wouldn’t let me. She and a line of her girls blocked the door. What about me? Her girls weren’t good enough for me? By now some of the girls were cursing me in Cantonese and others were crying and running away. Mamasan picked up a bottle and waved me away from the door. The Kiwi bloke was laughing, but it wasn’t funny. Mamasan yelled something toward the back of the room, and the most attractive, princess-petite girl we had yet seen, dressed in a slit green silk kimono, stepped through a bead curtain. I would take her, Mamasan insisted. But I’m a priest, I told her. Ha, she said, priests like it more than most. Mamasan walked over to take the shy girl by the arm and bring her to me. I bolted for the exit, shouldering aside the girls who tried to stop me. They clawed at my back as I got the door open and hit the street running. Those words, but I’m a priest—that lie—stuck with me. Why not undo the lie and become a priest?

There are three vows—poverty, chastity, and obedience. You can’t grow up Irish Catholic without knowing that. I had a brother who was a priest. So, I decided to start with the first vow, poverty, and gave away all my cash. But that was just symbolic. I had decided that what a vow meant was to disavow all interest in what the vow forbade. Henceforward, money would be a null set. If I had some, fine; if I didn’t, fine. Its accumulation would no longer be of any interest to me, no longer any sort of index of success or failure. As I gave my cash to the beggars on that cold Kowloon back street, I smiled and said, “Null set, null set,” and they smiled back, nodding, saying “Nur sut, nur sut.” We had a great time.

I moved out to Zhang Zhou then, a tiny island on the outer edge of Hong Kong Territory, where there were no roads or vehicles and a room was cheap, a two hour ferry ride from downtown. A junk with an eternal oil slick trailing from it was anchored in the rock-bound cove outside my window. I considered the other two vows. I knew enough about the history of Christian chastity to know that it wasn’t about fucking but about non-attachment to the non-spiritual. I couldn’t imagine denying my impulse to fuck, but I had non-attachment down cold, as it were. If I couldn’t make a virtue out of that, I might at least employ it as an armoring vow. Obedience was the bigger problem. Thirteen years before the Jesuits had rejected me because of my psychological problems with authority. But I found a way around that one, too. I would pledge my obedience to myself, that inner self I had always fought with. If it said head north, I’d head north. If it said find a place to hide, I’d find a hideout. If it told me all this is wrong, I’d drop it and leave. One morning the junk and its oil slick were gone.

I tried to live that way the next five years, on the road a lot. For a while a few people worried about me, but they got tired of that and left me alone. I didn’t make much money, but I didn’t starve. All in all I don’t think vows are a very good idea—that authority thing again. After a while I was happiest when I forgot them and just got on with what I was doing, though I was still broke.

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