Sunday, January 20, 2013

A Series of Inconsequential Anecdotes: Pt. 2


Pt 2: Did I Just Fall in Love with a Stripper?

Early Winter, 2011: My father and uncle came from New York to Tokyo for unrelated business stuff. They had not discussed or coordinated their synchronous trips and they don’t endorse anything bigger than coincidence so they didn’t give a damn. They’ve been doing unrelated business stuff in Japan for over thirty years and this had happened before. A routine was established. They would encounter each other in the lobby of Hotel Okura, the hotel where they both always stayed. They would smile and shrug, just like they do when they encounter each other on the C train in Manhattan. During the subsequent week they would attend to unrelated business stuff during the day and in the evenings they would dine with Japanese family members and then drink vodka together in the hotel’s dimly-lit, very expensive bar. Neither would have the time to visit me in Toyooka.

A few weeks before departing New York, my father invited me to meet him in Tokyo for a long weekend. I used two vacation days and did not pay for my hotel room. The bus ride took about four hours.

It was a warm afternoon when I arrived at the entrance of Hotel Okura’s Main Building. My uncle was waiting for me there. He welcomed me into the main lobby and introduced me to a pair of women working the information desk. The women bowed excessively and repeated my name and I was flattered and baffled and I felt spoiled. The lobby had a grandiose chandelier suspended at its midpoint and the chandelier was like a giant beehive made of Japanese bonbori lanterns.


Hotel Okura is an upscale hotel located across the street from the US embassy on the outskirts of Roppongi District. The hotel is large and the street is narrow and it intersects a few of the myriad other side streets that surround the busy and bright avenue of Roppongi Dori. Roppongi is one of many Tokyo districts that qualify as central and Roppongi Dori is famous.

The hotel consists of two wide edifices connected by an underground corridor. The underground corridor is lined with posh shops and patisseries, like if 5th Avenue were an attenuated, refulgent tunnel. Although Okura is a fine hotel visited by celebrated people, it retains particular significance to my family. My father and uncle were raised next-door. They grew-up around the chefs and receptionists and bellhops and when my father was a child, Okura employees were instructed to know his name. Now, when my dad makes his annual Tokyo business trip, Okura reserves a specific room for him because that room is his favorite. He doesn’t even ask.

My father was set to arrive the following evening but had paid for my room in advance. It was a suite on an upper floor of the South Wing, a five-minute walk + escalator ride from the main lobby. I rebuffed the bellhop’s offer to carry my knapsack and that seemed to make him uneasy and he walked like he didn’t know what to do with his hands. I followed him down the carpeted, underground corridor, past restaurants and cafes and conferences rooms and a small post office and a quaint bookshop. Other guests peregrinated and they smiled at me with that brand of casual warmth that comes from believing you’re members of the same exclusive club. I was glad to be included in their sodality. This was an affluent and culturally diverse crowd and they exuded an air of requiescence. Their teeth were fine and their watches were large but not ornate. They wore suits and gowns and conversed quietly and I couldn’t count, much less recognize, the languages I heard. Many couples spoke to each other in dissimilarly accented English. The women pointed into shop windows and the men pulled their women closer.

Hotel Okura’s location makes it especially attractive to foreigners. Roppongi is home to numerous foreign embassies and the district has, over time, developed a lively, international atmosphere. The skyscrapers are modern and Roppongi Dori is always crowded. There are Mexican restaurants and Irish pubs and USA fast-food chains and strobe-lit discotheques. Pedestrians are young and modish and they stride in straight lines and obey traffic signals. It is perhaps the only locus in Japan where you can get by just fine without speaking any Japanese.

Central Roppongi is a ten-minute walk from Hotel Okura and its florescent, six-story advertisements were visible from my room. It was a comfortable room with a wide, good bed. I showered and watched English language CNN and then met my uncle in the main lobby.

We took the subway to a Chinese restaurant that specialized in shoronpo - large pork-steamed soup buns.1 My uncle and I each finished an order of twelve shoronpo and we shared a bottle of sake. My uncle’s shirt was splattered and we were full and content and anchored to our seats. We ordered another bottle of sake and my uncle smoked a cigarette and we hardly spoke.

Back at Hotel Okura we entered to the Orchid Bar and continued drinking. It was a swank but endearing taproom tucked behind the Main Lobby. The bar itself was a single strip of treated mahogany and guests drank at it in pairs or alone. My uncle and I sat on barstools and he ordered me a series of quality Irish and Scotch whiskeys and explained the differences between them. The bartender was engaging and spoke flawless English and when he had free moment he would listen to my uncle and nod his head circumspectly. A few hours later we said goodnight to the bartender and my uncle staggered off to his room. It was around midnight and I was incapable of falling asleep or watching television in a hotel room. So I walked to the center of Roppongi. 

Cars sped down Roppongi Dori and they did not make much noise. Above the avenue an elevated highway loomed, concrete and calm. The sky glowed like it does in large cities and there was no moon but somewhere up there was total darkness. I stopped at a convenience store and purchased a can of cheap Japanese beer and drank it as I walked. There was no breeze and the air was crisp.

As I neared downtown Roppongi the sidewalks became congested, everyone walking in the same direction. Japanese girls wore thick eyeliner and their skirts were short and their skin was artificially blanched and I wanted to talk to them but I did not have the courage. Young Japanese Salary Men pissed in alleyways and passed-out on stoops and no one paid them any mind. I finished my beer and bought another one at a different convenience store. I could see the lights and hear the noise of bars and clubs and urban merriment. 

The streets of central Roppongi were filled with fast-moving revelers and stationary club promoters, most of them first-generation African immigrants. The Africans did not approach the Japanese girls and did not acknowledge the Salary Men but I was tall and foreign and alone, so I was a natural target. The promoters were all men and their skin was true black and their English was choppy and self-taught and I enjoyed the thirty seconds of conversation we could share before they began coaxing me toward a specific establishment. Each African claimed that his pub was a respectable pub with good music and good people but I knew this to be false. These men worked for hostess clubs. 2

I discovered a small Irish dive-bar on the second floor of a squat, unimpressive building. At the bar I drank Glenfiddich and chatted with the bartender. His English was stilted and he was bashful so we spoke Japanese and he praised my pronunciation. The whiskey warmed me and I was relaxed and happy.

Before I finished my second glass a young man sat next to me. His hair was black and pulled into a loose ponytail and he ordered a beer and watched me converse with the bartender, smiling to himself.

“You speak good Japanese.”

The man smirked and his lips slipped into the abyss of his mouth. He was Italian and his accent was strong.

“They will never think of you like a Japanese person,” he said.

“That’s fine.”

“I could never live here, everything is strange. The people are strange. But it is a good vacation.”

“How are you spending your vacation?”

“Let’s go see some girls,” he said.

I paid for my drinks and we left.

The Africans on the street spotted us from a distance and they grinned and waved and waited for us. The Italian zigzagged through the public, disregarding the Africans. I followed as best I could and the Africans grabbed at me but never held on. Japanese pedestrians moved in all directions at a uniform pace and navigating them was not easy but it was fun. J-Pop music came from somewhere and a solitary Salary Man stood in the crosswalk, whirling in slow circles, his arms outspread and his face flushed and his eyes bugged. A necktie was slung over his shoulders, like a chic scarf, and it slipped off and shoes trod on it and the Salary Man did not notice. I wasn’t worried about what would happen next because I hardly ever felt helpless in Japan.

The Italian swerved left and we entered a cramped, glossy vestibule where we waited for an elevator.

“I have been in Japan two weeks. This one is the best. Cheap. No Japanese girls.”

“I want to speak Spanish,” I said.

“They will have that.”

The elevator stopped on the third floor and opened onto a room that glowed soft purple. We stepped forward and there was an African on either side of us. The two men were were still.

“Do you have a girl who speaks Spanish?” I asked the African on my right.

He called into the source of soft purple and a Caucasian man emerged. His balding head was shaved and his gray suit jacket had protrusive, unforgiving shoulder pads. The Caucasian and the African spoke to each other in English but the Caucasian had an Eastern European accent and the club was filled with digital American pop music so I could not decipher their conversation. The Caucasian retreated into the soft purple and the African looked at me.

“Upstairs,” he said.

The Italian and the African followed me into the elevator.

There was a roster of women waiting for us on the fifth floor. They stood in two parallel lines, a gauntlet of glitter and skin. The African man nudged us forward but he remained in the elevator and the doors shut.

A Japanese man stood between the rows of women and he invited us to stand with him. He was not tall and he did not waste time, jabbing his finger at each girl separately. There were maybe ten girls in total. They all looked very different and there was not a Japanese girl among them.

“You choose,” the Japanese man said.

“Do you speak Spanish?” I asked the girl closest to me. She looked at the Japanese man and he shook  his head negative and then she pouted at me and she shook her head negative.

The Italian selected a girl. She was East Asian and her dress was cobalt blue and she was overweight in all the wrong places. She took his hand and led him into the back room. The Italian spun around and pressed his thumb and index finger together, signaling A-Okay. His lips were somewhere inside of his mouth.

The Japanese man approached me and his body moved in short, kinetic bursts. He beckoned a girl forward.

“She lived in Spain,” he said.

The girl was petite and exotic. Her hair was brown, her dress was pink and her legs were long. She took a step forward and said hola.

“This is Nicole,” the Japanese man said.

“She’s fine,” I said.   

The other girls dispersed and Nicole waited for me, smiling in a way that felt genuine and lovely but was practiced. I walked into the back room and she followed.

It was a medium-sized room with orbicular, decorative light-fixtures festooned along the axis where wall meets ceiling. A pleather bench lined all four walls and supplementary bench segments extended into the middle of the room so that the room was divided into five semi-private seating sectors. Each semi-private seating sector had its own circular table. The small decorative globes did not generate much light and the room was crepuscular and cigarette smoke made the air turbid. The Italian was seated at one table with his East Asian girl. Two others sectors were occupied by two old Japanese men and their girls, neither of whom was attractive. Nicole shoved me into a vacant booth area and we sat down. There was a high-def television hanging in one corner of the room and it displayed the Japanese karaoke music video that corresponded to the American pop-song currently playing. The song was R&B and the television showed a Japanese couple holding a blanket, huddled around a hearth. A waiter came and I ordered a whiskey and Nicole ordered a sherry.

Nicole kicked off her stilettos and pulled her legs up onto the pleather bench and tucked them behind herself.  She looked like a gymnast and she watched the television.

‘What’s your real name?’

‘Nicole.’

‘No. You’re from some place where Nicole isn’t a name.’

‘My name is Nicole.’

‘Hi, Nicole.’

‘…’

‘Do you actually speak Spanish, Nicole?’

‘I have traveled to Spain.’

‘...’

‘You are big.’

‘…’

‘Can I touch you? I am going to touch you.’

‘Where are you from, Nicole?’

‘The Philippines.’

‘I’d like to go there.’

‘I can show you around.’

‘You can’t do that, Nicole.’

The waiter came with our drinks and he placed them on the table and left without speaking. Nicole took my whiskey and sniffed it and contorted her face into a coy, specious frown. Her face was small and her eyes were large and her skin was russet and she was beautiful. She stroked my knee and did not hold eye contact. I took the whiskey from her and drank it. It was inferior to the whiskies my uncle had bought me and I was glad to know the difference. Nicole took a sip of her drink and then I took a sip of her drink.

‘I thought maybe it was juice.”

‘Do you play sports? You are so big.’

‘I play basketball. I coach basketball.’

‘You are not professional.’

‘…’

‘What is your job?’

‘I teach. I want to write. My father is a lawyer.’

‘…’

‘Why do you have a British accent, Nicole?’

‘Do you want me to stop touching you?’

‘You can touch me, Nicole.’

‘That girl over there with your friend, the girl in blue, she is my roommate. We live together a month.’

‘The Italian is not my friend. And your friend is not cute.’

Nicole pressed her forehead into my shoulder.

‘Stop.’

‘You might be the most beautiful girl here, Nicole.’

‘…’

‘Look at these other girls. They’re awful. Your friend is fat. That one over there has an angry face. That one is ugly. I don’t understand why people pay for this.’

‘You are paying.’

‘I’ll pay for you, Nicole.’

‘I also think they are ugly.’

‘That guy over there. The old guy. Does he realize that his ugly girl isn’t actually into him?’

Nicole stopped stroking my leg and took a drink.

‘Why are you here?’

‘Why not? I wanted a good conversation.’

‘I like you.’

‘Tell me about the other girls, Nicole. Whom do you like? Whom do you hate? How old are you? Do you believe in God?’

‘I don’t know them. I started to work here two weeks ago. That one is my roommate, I told you. She is always fun. Her, over there, I do not like her. She is like a girl. You know girls when they are around other girls. She is like that. You think she is ugly?’

‘She is ugly.’

‘You are cute.’

‘Look how that one walks. Look at her, Nicole. Jesus. It’s chilling. Where is she going? She looks like a huntsman.’

 ‘I don’t like her too. She is a cowboy. She spits. She is going to spit now.’

We finished our drinks and Nicole signaled to the waiter and he delivered a second round.

‘My name is Evangelina and I am thirty-six.’

‘Evangelina. How old are you really?’

She repeated the number and she pronounced thirty without the h so it sounded closer to dirty.

‘I am telling truth. Thirty-six is old. You are young.’

‘Thirty-six is perfect. A good age. Say it again. Thirty-six.’

‘Stop.’

‘Your friend is a bad dancer. You can join her if you want.’

‘I don’t know this song.’

It was an old rap song and I knew all the lyrics so I performed them for Evangelina and she watched me and was amused. When the song finished I noticed that my glass was empty and I was drunker than before.

‘You want to drink and you want to sing but you do not want me to touch you. You are strange.’

‘What are the guys usually like?”

‘They talk. It makes them happy to complain and laugh. You should complain and laugh. You must look happy or I will have trouble.’

‘I am happy.’

‘This is my job.’

‘I understand.’

The Italian was dancing with Evangelina’s roommate and we watched them and laughed. The waiter brought me another whiskey.

‘It’s a shit job, isn’t it.’

‘Sometimes it is fun. Sometimes not.’

‘You aren’t touching me anymore.’

‘You talk too much. You should be a lawyer, like your father. You will not be a good writer but you can be a lawyer because you talk too much. You think you are smart. You are not smart.’

‘You’re good at this.’

‘You look like a dinosaur when you laugh. Look at your nose holes. They are like a dinosaur nose.’

‘How did you get that British accent?”

‘Feel my armpit. Touch it. I am sweating.’

‘…’

“I am not embarrassed to sweat. You make me sweat. But you smell worse. My sweat does not stink. You stink.’

‘…’

‘My ex-boyfriend was English.’

‘Where is he now?’

‘Here. In Tokyo.’

‘He taught you excellent English. I like your accent. What happened?’

‘I saw him with a different girl.’

‘When?’

‘A month ago. Before I went to the house of my roommate.’

‘You’ll be fine.’

Evangelina put her arms around me and pushed her face into my collarbone and she cried. It was a soft, weak cry and her body shuddered. It was a frail body and I cradled it.

‘You are very good at this,’ I said.

We drank more and Evangelina told me she was getting drunk. The Italian left and Evangelina’s roommate came and sat with us. I bought her a drink and she drank it and laughed loudly and danced and then she left and Evangelina and I were drunk and happy to be together.

She said she would never dance for me.

I ordered another whiskey.

She punched my arm and it hurt.

I took a sip of her drink and it was apple juice so I acted upset with the waiter.

The waiter apologized and brought sherry.

She kissed my ear.

I wondered if maybe the Italian worked for the hostess club, if he was a street agent of sorts.

She fidgeted and drank.

I could not find the Italian and it did not concern me because I had 30,000 yen plus a credit card.

She kissed me and it was a long, good kiss.

I held her.

African men grabbed me and one of them repeated the phrase: Cheek kisses only. Cheek kisses only.

I told them everything was fine and I ordered another whiskey.

She took my mobile phone from my pants and entered and saved her number.

The room swirled and I found a toilet to piss in.

She kissed me again and the Africans returned and they told me it was time to leave and they walked me to the elevator.

She shouted that she finished work at 5am and I should call her.

A thick Caucasian I’d never seen told me I owed him 55,000 yen so told him that his bar had tried to replace my girl’s drink with apple juice. I showed him 25,000 yen and said that I was a lawyer from New York and this was all I had but I could get more money from the nearest ATM. 

The thick Caucasian took the cash and two Africans accompanied me onto the elevator.

I became disoriented and wandered the side streets of Roppongi for like half an hour.

I found Hotel Okura and I entered the entrance of the Main building. The receptionist told me my name and pointed in a direction.

The shops and patisseries were all closed and the escalators were illuminated by lots of expensive, miniature light bulbs.

I fell onto my bed and saw that it was 5:47am so I called Evangelina.

‘Kon’nichiwa.’

‘Hi.’

‘You didn’t wait for me.’

‘Come over.’

‘I’m on the train with my roommate.’

‘I’m drunk.’

‘When will you come to Tokyo again?’

‘I’ll call you.’

‘Good.’

‘…’

‘Goodnight.’

‘…'

***

December 17th, 2011. It was a cold day and I was packing a suitcase with Japanese stuff I would bring my family for Christmas. Everything fit in the suitcase and I loaded my small Japanese car with bags. A river sounded like water in the distance. I went inside and sat next to my kerosene heater and watched a movie that I had already seen. The sky was black and the stars were small and I didn’t know what time it was. I called Evangelina.

‘Why didn’t you call me?’

‘Hi.’

‘I miss you.’

‘Is this a good time?’

‘I am at the bathroom. I am doing a shit. Now is the perfect time.’

‘I’m coming to Tokyo tomorrow.’

‘I want to see you. I do not work tomorrow.’

‘Let’s have dinner.’

‘Really?’

‘Yes.’

‘Call me when you are coming.’

***

December 18th, 2011: I phoned Evangelina from the bus and left a message. Japanese passengers watched me and scowled.

When I arrived to Shinjuku Station I called Evangelina again. She did not answer and I did not leave a message.














Footnote 1) A single shoronpo is bigger than a golf ball and it is best to take the whole bun in your mouth because one injudicious bite results in a messy eruption of soup broth.


Footnote 2) Hostess clubs are the Japanese answer to strip-clubs: a place where men can sate their most basic urges. But hostess clubs are not strip-clubs. There is no stage and there is no pole. Hostess girls do not dance and they do not strip. They are, very literally, financially compensated companions. They get dolled-up and they sit next to you and they flirt with you for money. And I have a theory as to why this is such a big business in Japan but would never work in USA. It goes: the sad awkward American man has many opportunities to talk to women. He can go to a bar/dating website/the water cooler and interact with a girl. He can make his reckless advances and social etiquette dictates that the girl will at least listen for a few minutes. But gender relationships in Japan are archaic and weird. Female sexual purity is still very much a value and marriage remains a fundamental institution. Dating is not casual and cross-gender friendships are rare. It is difficult for men to just talk to women without implying something long-term and scary. And so Japanese men don’t crave tits and ass nearly as much as they crave the chance to look into a woman’s eyes and know that she is actually listening. She is an object for him to carp at and flirt with and she is obligated to comply. Hostess girls are sometimes the only way a Japanese man can get a woman to affirm his existence. It’s a combination of psychological + physical prostitution and it fills a void that American men, as a breed, don’t have. Which is not to say American men, especially businessmen, don't love Japanese hostess clubs. We like a woman's attention as much as the next guy. Plus there’s the bonus caveat that many hostess girls are under-the-table prostitutes. A good conversation plus some coitus? Strip clubs just don’t compare. 

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