Saturday, March 25, 2006

suited up


I biked out to the interview in a week old haircut and a borrowed suit.

Last night Craig showed me the proper way to knot up a tie. My ties always end in warped and weird shapes, but Craig’s method produced a beautiful bud perched just below my Adams apple. Zoe sat giggling in the corner as her boyfriend taught me how to strangle myself in silk and wear her boyfriend’s suit. I tried the tie again this afternoon and when I gave the thing a sharp final tug to keep it in shape it fell apart into two strands of silk, dangling from my collar. I wondered if it would be possible to give a display of my knife skills slicing vegetables instead of having to show my confidence with basic competence with knots. I was back in the first grade, mangling with shoelaces and repeating rhymes about bunny ears popping through holes. And I thought this interview was supposed to test my Japanese.

Walking over to Craig and Zoe’s place last night I passed the corner sports bar, where a gaggle of English teachers I knew peripherally were spending hard earned tax payers money on beer and sake shots. Sat down for a pint and Molly told me how easy it would be to get a customer tailored suit in Vietnam. “Yieah, like you can fly there, get custom tailored a suit and fly back for the same price as a suit in Japan?” The freckly faced American in a gold chain a backward baseball cap and a freshly laundered shirt finished his mumbled Japanese cell phone conversation and asked what my interview was for.

“It’s like a resource center for foreigners, a place where they can get free counseling and legal advice in their native language. Looks pretty interesting, chance to use my Japanese for something positive, y’know?””

“That’s cool. I wanna move to Tokyo.”

Despite his freckled white boyish face he spoke with a faint black urban drawl. But after hearing his smoothly accented Japanese I don’t know if I trusted it or not.

“Oh, okay. Cool. You gonna continue English teaching or...”

“Naw, thought it would be really cool to like bartend, knowatam sayin’?”

What can I say, I left English teaching three years ago to sweat out life in the kitchen of a small restaurant, no place for me to judge. But the idea of this guy pouring my drinks was strangely unnerving. He might mix a perfect cocktail but his something about the ebonics was hard to swallow.


Unlike New York, where a white guy in a suit could mean just about anything, in Tokyo it usually means one of three things:

1) English teacher. Employed by a national chain of English schools. While resume shows a definite lack of skills relevant to English teaching in the interview he exuded certain zest for life. In lieu of teaching skills or knowledge of English grammar, the raw enthusiasm, confident smiling and steady flow of English words are supposed to whisk students away to the magical world of English speaking. Students are charged several hundred dollars a month to sit in the same room as this guy. They absorb English by photosynthesis and dubious textbook dialogues. The suit lends a strong professional cologne to the lesson. Unfortunately exuding a zest for life usually includes a zest for scoring with as many Japanese chicks as possible, and once the contract is up Thomas has flown back to Australia and Sachiko is left wondering where she can find her next spousal candidate.

2) Business Man (Corporate Drone). Spends daylight hours desk jockeying for the best paying firm that will take him. Occasionally an English Teacher (see #1) who has grown tired of carefully enunciating for a living, sometimes a family man who figured Tokyo was the place to be, sometimes just some rep in town for three days before flying to visit our partners in Shanghai. Unlike the English Teacher, who would rather be slicked out in a silk shirt and a pair of trainers, the business man actually knows how to wear his suit, and doesn’t think about wearing it, except when he passes one of those Armani ads where languid looking Aryans with pouty lips flash out suits that cost more than my rent. One of those would be nice. Yeah…

3) If there’s two of them, in their twenties, riding mountain bikes, with dull marble eyes, they are Mormon Missionaries. And there’re more of them than you’d expect. I used to share an apartment with a former missionary and continuing Mormon who had acquired his fluent and weirdly nasal Japanese by walking neighborhoods and getting doors slammed in his face. These guys wear their black suits unselfconsciously, like a second skin. God is their co-pilot, and the big J reassures any doubts. They also push each other to really learn the language, all the better to spread the good news about salvation and polygamy. (Note to no one in particular: That guy who played Napoleon Dynamite acquired fluent Japanese skills during his mission work in Japan. Huh.)


I’ve only just started to realize this, but suits are one of the world’s weirdest confidence tricks. A stocky set of overalls and steely toed workboots are pretty useful when you’re pouring concrete and smashing office buildings, but the funniest thing is how the business suit, that universal icon of business, money, trade, it could have been anything. By sheer historical accident that guy approving your bank loan has a dark grey coat slithered over a sheer white button-down and a cornflower blue tie, but as long as his fingers have enough wiggle room and nothing snags too easily on the copy machine, he could be dressed like Batman and it wouldn’t make a darned difference. AOL and Time Warner executives negotiating mergers in pantaloons and cone tipped Madonna bras. Open your door to twin Mormon missionaries in testicle hugging outfits from the deck of the Starship Enterprise.

It seems the only really distinguishing feature of suits is that you’re not supposed to get them dirty. You wouldn’t fix a flat tire or mow the lawn in a suit. You wouldn’t cook a pot of chili or go cherry picking in a suit. The fine cut and soft fabric screams “I do not dig ditches for a living!” I see all these new super fiber suits that don’t get wet and can deflect oil and blood stains, but that looks a lot like the first nail in the coffin. If it’s possible to operate a jackhammer or scale Mt. Kilimanjaro and be dressed like Donald Trump. To keep up appearances our CEO’s will have to conduct their business in ruffled layers of white silk, glowering round conference tables like Roman senators in togas.


So I left my interview shivering. I walked in with a decent resume a stomach full of confidence, the borrowed suit snappy and light. I walked out wondering how the hell people ever learn to conjugate verbs that dangle out to ten syllables. The interviewing chamber was stark white and slightly larger than my first apartment. Three career bureaucrats sat evenly spaced behind a folding table. Across from them a single collapsible chair was placed in the direct center of the room, with enough space left over to park a Volvo or two between us. I had to put down my bag in the corner and proceed to the lonely grilling chair, where absolutely no provisions were made for my hands. So I let them flap around on my lap like dying fish.

The questions were pretty innocent and straightforward. “How do you feel your experiences will contribute to this job?” “What do you see as major issues facing foreigners in Saitama?” “What do you think of Japan winning the World Cup of Baseball?” I answered in words and they nodded and seemed to understand what I wanted to say, but one question completely threw me. “Are there any recent news stories involving foreigners living in Japan that you found interesting or had an impact on you?” This is a slightly difficult for someone who doesn’t own a television and who receives most of their domestic news by reading magazine ads on the subway. After exhausting every Japanese synonym for “ummm” I mentioned that well, no, nothing, in particular, (I know stuff about foreigners in Saitama! More foreign English teachers than any other prefecture, right?), but the names, don’t come to mind, can’t recall the exact incident, but (Large Brazilian and Peruvian populations! All those Filipino ladies who work in bars!) dates, umm, well, you see that, I... (Isn’t the Chinese mafia well entrenched here? Why don’t you ask me about that sorta stuff!) We eventually determined that I did not have a television to receive news on, and I don’t know if they took it that I am cheap, weird, transient, or all of the above. For some reason the timing didn’t exactly seem right for one of my “Smash The Boob Tube!” speeches.

By the end of the interview they seemed mostly concerned about my reliability to stay in one place. Given that my transcript showed five different jobs in five different towns in three-and-a-half years they may have had a point. I gushed out my reliability credentials. They nodded and looked skeptical, and said how a young American like myself could easily get headhunted into some high paying corporate job in the city.

Craig’s suit fit me so well I’d forgotten I’d been wearing it.

The whole time I’d been worrying about the grammar my resume when all they’d really been looking at was my suit and my week old haircut. They’d seen the English Teacher and Corporate Drone on my resume, did my haircut make me look Mormon too? In a suit like that you could be just about anybody, but with my peachy white skin and cheese grater accent I was an American in Japan, and there are only a few slots those guys slip into.


The suit and I rode home on my screamingly orange racing bicycle, light fabric pants flapping in the wind. It was a warm Thursday afternoon and half the city was pedaling around the streets, navigating that thin gap between the curb and the delivery trucks. Chattering schoolgirls in blazers and plaid green skirts, sour old men in frumpy jackets and twisted baseball caps, young mothers with toddlers strapped into little passenger seats over the front wheel. I could feel their eyes on me as we waited for the lights to change. They took in the racing bike, the suit, the skin and the curly brown hair. I’d like to know who they saw there.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

paying for it

The girls and I have a running joke now. They see me stamping home through the neighborhood and press the hostess club flyers on me with an exaggerated sales pitch, helpfully translated for my benefit."Fun garls! Come on! Come on!" The standard response to this is the zombie shuffle, but after an hour on the trains I've had enough of the living dead, and want to infuse a little humanity into the evening. So I’ve been working on this special smile. My Mom’s father used to be able to catch my eyes from the other side of the party and just by twinkling his eyes he laughed at everything in the room. You and me man, we know better. Those twinkly eye genes have to be in me somewhere, so I’ve been trying this with the hookers. In my mind the eyes are twinkling out "You gotta do what you gotta do, huh. Thanks but no thanks" and I grin at our private joke, people walking around in these silly bodies, at these funny ways the world works on us.

So all they get for their trouble is a weird American who is taking the time to leer at them but not the trouble to stop and spend some money. But he might stop by tomorrow, so they grin back and hand him a flyer.

None of the girls are past twenty-five, but they all have deep voices that scrape out of their throats, clanging on potholes and debris on the way up. There they are every night, teetering on pencil thin heels, cocktail dresses swallowed up by big, blobby rayon overcoats, gnawing on a stick of gum and trying to snag some interest from the rivers of suits rushing through the neighborhood. The sports bar across the street with its skewers of roasted chicken isn’t exactly competition, but they both fight for the same few seconds of attention from the suits. I have to say I’m weirdly relieved whenever I see one of them snagging a customer: her skin parlor-tanned to the color of roasted peanuts, his moist and gray from the office lamps and whiskey. Now she can stop bothering

I’m pretty sure there are laws out there somewhere that cash for handjobs means fines or a night in jail, but somebody forgot to tell the commuters, the girls on the corner, the local cops and the proprietors of Jungle Pub, who have a painted van that idles in front of the station, color headshots of a dozen glassy eyed girls grinning over the spray painted palm tree design. Okay, so, technically it isn’t a whorehouse, just a bar where a fella can sip a few whiskeys and enjoy a nice chat with a few high school dropouts in one-piece dresses cut for maximum boobage. Or so I’ve heard.

The fact is I’m in the minority here. I had an ex-girlfriend once who refused to believe I’d never paid for it. “Come on, I’m not gonna get mad. Every guy does it; it’s like getting a period for guys, right?” She grew up in a mountain village where the only immigrants for 100 kilometers were the three Fillipina girls “hostesses” at a second story club downtown, so I wrote it all off as bumpkin delusions. I’d heard the guys down in the sports promotion section of the town government snickering over the bra sizes of the girls down at Good Times Pub, that was one thing. But when a good friend of three years, a vegetarian and an animal shelter volunteer with sweet puppy eyes, a soft voice, a young bride and a ten month old son starts gushing about living single and whooping it up with the girls down at Good Times Pub, well, now we’ve entered the realm of the profoundly weird. It’s almost like I was living in a foreign country.


I used to sublet from a portly and middle aged South American man named Pepe who moved here in the late eighties with his young American bride in tow. She gave up on him a few years ago and went back to the US with their daughter, he stayed here with his teaching jobs and the rural Japanese home he rented for practically nothing. Propped between school portraits of his eleven-year old girl and woodblock prints of Argentinean peasants was a study was lined with worn and considered paperbacks by writers a generation or two away from myself. Sitting confidently among serious and nutritious volumes by Thomas Wolfe and Doris Lessing was a slim little number by a forgotten press: The Pink Guide to Tokyo. Since it looked like the thing hadn’t been used in a few years I probably should have swiped it for the sake of anthropology, but for all I know it’s still there, pages yellowing around black type and conveniently labeled street maps. So it looks like we’ll have to go on memory. Which – as my mother and all my ex-girlfriends know – is a fairly approximate instrument, but it’s the only one I’ve got.

Without a little biographical blurb on the back cover you had to guess at the life of the author of “The Pink Guide to Tokyo”, but he smeared himself all over the book. You couldn’t move ten pages without tripping over something about “a depravity only rivaled by the Foreign Press Club in Tokyo” or “something this reporter has never seen before.” He clearly loved the life of the foreign journalist, but unlike Hunter S. Thompson he wasn’t published in Rolling Stone and didn’t have a decent sense of humor. The book reeked of a failed marriage, a midlife crisis, a desperate need to impress the guys back at the press club. But for anyone with a personal, professional or academic interest in paid sex in Tokyo in the early 90’s the book was worth all ten dollars.

The author of “The Pink Guide Guide to Tokyo” and I do have one thing in common: we are both fascinated by the fact that the Japanese sex business doesn’t seem to be worried about hellfire or damnation, just turning a profit. Its not that being a hostess is respectable here, it’s just a fact of life. You may not want your kids to be garbage collectors, but somebody’s kids are gonna do it. Like my ex from the mountains, Japanese girls just seem to take this in stride: in the morning you scrape the ice off the windshield, in the evening boys are out paying for it.

The question, I guess, is why pay for it? Why sell it? This isn’t like selling grilled chicken skewers or giving English lessons, I hear it’s something closer to massage. I just finished Paul Theroux’s “Dark Star Africa” where he spends a surprising amount of time defending prostitution to its critics. Randy old Paul sees it all as simple economics, quoting a former factory who said she got wise when she realized that “the whole time, I was sitting on a gold mine.” If you trust my memory, I remember reading a syndicated newspaper article where a high-profile madame in Amsterdam responded to anti-prostitution proposals with the weird comment that “my girls are too lazy to do anything else! What do you expect them to do?!” The argument to decriminalize money-for-booty is pretty much the same as the cry to legalize dope: remove the stigma, cut out the organized crime and the violence, regulate it, make it safer for the working girls, the working guys, the johns, hand out licenses, spot inspections every few months.

I found a discarded copy of “Weekly Playboy” on the train the other day and picked it up: out of curiosity. The funny thing was, I did read it for the articles, and they were kind of interesting, but not the least bit edifying. Hef’s sophisticated liberal sensibilities kind of got lost in the Japanese syndication; instead of being padded with witty and intelligent articles by the nation’s foremost writers the cheesecake photos were supplemented by detailed reviews of Tokyo red light districts (a regular feature apparently) a pretty puritanical expose of urban teens doing club drugs and surprisingly detailed interviews with adult video stars on their earliest sexual experiences. It was this last part I actually found the most intriguing, and not merely to find out that Aimi-chan’s second boyfriend was a salaryman whose penis wasn’t quite as large as she’d hoped. For one thing, by some kind of weird censorship the magazine had to blank out the middle syllables of the words d*ck and p*ssy. Right next to a photo of Aimi-chan tied up with clothes pins on her nipples. Turn the page and you get a comic where two secretaries seduce some shlub in a Laundromat.

What was really interesting was reading about two people get really excited talking about sex that seemed so guilt-free, so perfectly ordinary, so, well, un-sexy. “I really liked him a lot, but after I moved to Tokyo it was hard to keep up the relationship running long distance, so we decided to break up.” “How did you take it?” “Oh, he seemed more upset than me. I was so busy with work and everything.” “Yeah, I know what you mean.” Whenever I’m back in the US I see “Porn Star” logos flashing from t-shirts and backpacks, sparking out “Sexy! Dangerous! Confident! Rebellious!” If only they could all read Japanese Weekly Playboy and learn that the love lives of Porn Stars doesn’t beat that of your average CPA. Same d*cks and p*ssies as the rest of us.

Walking home from work I can hear the hookers and their Johns talking about her student loans and his gambling debts. She wonders about a career in beauty salons and he comforts her with the slim confidence of thirty more years experience at navigating planet earth. She’s got it, he’ll pay for it, and there they are, grinning at themselves walking around in these bodies that want to do the strangest things.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

class reunion

My friend Masa runs a small café where there are no right angles on the walls and you can sit on a fuzzy plush chair shaped like a mushroom.

There were two guys sitting in the corner playing backgammon and sipping cups of tea. One had a slim face and great coiled dreadlocks, the other had cherub cheeks and a hemp hat, they both wore hunchy limp spines, loose billowy jackets and sweet chewy colognes of marijuana.

The girl behind the counter was fussing over plates of cream and strawberries; there was a photographer with reflecting umbrellas, networked flashes and coke-bottle glasses thick as your thumb taking pictures for the new menu. I was enjoying the mushroom chair more than I thought I should, and was desperately trying to explain to Kohei what a smurf was. Blue skin? Germanic? Homosexual? It wasn’t a very fruitful discussion.

I used to have lunch here every Thursday between two different jobs, stopping in for lunch and a cup of coffee. If you sit at the counter you can talk to Masa while he pours coffee, or read a book when he’s busy with other customers. It’s a nice place to get a beer too, but the last time I went there at night the girl next to us started talking about Amway and wouldn’t let me and my date go for about thirty minutes. But if you go for lunch you can watch the girl who works behind the counter dunk pasta and dress salads in unrushed and confident movements that I never tire of watching. I was never really interested in her, it’s just nice to see the people who fill up their corner of the world so nicely.

Every Thursday we would talk about what to give her boyfriend Kohei for his birthday. I didn’t know Kohei, but I stood in for the male gender while Masa was busy with customers. I think she got him a coat in the end.

When he was in elementary school Kohei spent three years in Michigan, where he learned about hot dogs and how to blow snot rockets. We weren’t speaking in English but he says he still talks like a fifth grader, and he’s twenty-two years old. Unfortunately he didn’t watch enough TV and didn’t know what a smurf was. That hadn’t really gone anywhere, so we talked about music while he waited for his girlfriend to finish work.

“Well, if you like music, you should check out this place in Tokyo, a few minutes from Ochanomizu. CD rentals, incredible selection, you might find it interesting?” I said I would check it out. Kohei’s girl got off work and we all had a cup of coffee together, and then they split. I was left sitting on the mushroom chair with the photographer in the corner and the hippies playing backgammon. So I paid for my coffee and left.

* * * * *

Yeah, you can rent music here. Just like a video tape, but cheaper. A brand new CD goes for about twenty dollars, and an imported album is close to thirty bucks. But every video store has a few racks of rental CD’s set aside, lagging about six months behind the record stores. A full week runs about three dollars, but a with a “same day” rental it’s about one-fifty. I remember libraries back in the states whose record collections mostly depended on the whims of donors, speckled with promotional CDs from local artists, with unusually detailed collections of Irish folk music, or ten copies of the exact same Devo album. Japanese CD rental shops have a lot less character, and are inordinately weighted towards Japanese singers whose voices scratch my eardrums. Foreign music sections start with the Beatles and Stevie Wonder, then jump abruptly to last year’s R&B charts, with Michael Jackson just about the only guy there who sang between 1980 and 2005. Its kind of sad really, watching the first draft of the history of 20th century music history written in the oldies section of the corner record store. I remember a lot more than this...

They say that if you can’t find it in Tokyo, it doesn’t exist. If you’re willing to pay that much for an original pressing of a Robert Johnson record, I’m sure they could take it out of the glass case and wrap it up for you. So when the bulk of my record collection got lost in the mail last year outside of those college band recordings I was pretty sure with enough time and money I could built it up again, but it wouldn’t be cheap, and it seems kind of sad to go to all the effort really. I don’t know if I’d go out and buy a Pearl Jam album just because we spent so much time together in high school. You just can’t meet someone for the first time twice. But we all like to hear the voices of old friends, nice to put an aural photograph around the room for an hour or two. Dig out that punk record from college and remember being nineteen and mowing the lawn in headphones, the volume turned all the way so it could just peek over the sound of the engine.

Tokyo is a city of distinct little neighborhoods, it’s really a thousand little specialized districts clustered around a few main cities. There’s a street where almost every single shop sells kitchen equipment, broken up by the occasional coffee shop. The CD rental shop was balanced right between the several dozen guitar stores of Ocha-no-mizu and the dusty village of antique book dealers. Kohei had drawn me a little map, which I followed to a seven story sports equipment complex. The eighth and the ninth floors rented CD’s.

There are record shops for people who listen to music and there are record shops for people who eat music. This was one of the later, and I haven’t had that much fun shopping since the fourth grade. I turned the corner and the whole gang was there: records from the New York underground that rattled me in high school, all the Japanese punk and freakout stuff that I combed over in Osaka record stores six years ago, that live Charles Mingus album where he says goodbye to Eric Dolphy, who would die just a few months later in Paris. You don’t think twice spending two bucks on a cup of coffee when you’re meeting a friend from high school, I just happened to meet a dozen friends at once. They’re sitting in my room as I type this, in a black zippered tote bag emblazoned with the store’s logo. They’ve stayed the week but I’m going to have to return them tomorrow, the music copied and tucked away for a rainy day by myself.