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How to stand guard at a Tokyo bathroom

“I don’t speak English,” the ñato said, pressing an index finger to his nose. Ñatos is what we Cubans called flat-nose people. In English we might have called him pug-nosed, but it’s not the same. I don’t think ñato is an offensive word, some men go by that nickname, but I wouldn’t go crazy with it.
“I don’t speak Japanese,” I replied, fighting the urge to press an index finger to my nose. For all I knew the gesture was a Japanese insult.
It was my third night in Tokyo. Before boarding the direct Pan Am, JFK-Narita flight, I’d promised myself that I would eat whatever was placed in front of me—I was a picky eater—and would be extra careful to avoid cultural gaffes. I didn’t want to offend anyone, least of all my new friend, who in broken English had told me he’d boxed professionally, as a welterweight. Judging by his boneless nose and the constellation of scars around his eyes, I could tell he’d used his face to stop many a punch.
This 1981 business trip was my first visit to Japan. I’d been tremendously excited, never imagining I would get to travel to such an exotic place. As a bonus, I got to stay at the luxurious Okura. The hotel, which features an ever blooming, Japanese cherry tree in its foyer, was located across the street from the American embassy. Also across the street was Rudi Bey’s, a peculiar bar at which, for some reason, we were sitting drinking beer.
I did know the reason: Kennedy. He liked nothing better than beer and that made Rudi Bey’s his preferred choice; a German rathskeller where one sat at long communal tables hoisting steins of beer while belting-out German lieder. I didn’t know what was more disturbing, the waitstaff—skinny Japanese boys wearing ledenhosen and zaftig Japanese girls wearing Bavarian dirndls—or that the all-Japanese clientele knew the lyrics, or that Bauer, one of my colleagues, also knew all the words to the German songs, or that I was one of the bar patrons, or that the songs were performed by a Chilean band.
The previous night we had enjoyed a traditional twelve course dinner seated on tatamis. Our hosts had arranged for a fabulous meal in a restaurant in an ordinary looking building in the middle of the city. But once inside, we were transported to a different world, to a traditional Japanese restaurant whose rooms opened to a perfect garden surrounding a coy filled pond and populated by peacocks and flamingos and cranes and other wondrous creatures. It had been my first Japanese meal and I’d been apprehensive but the dishes were exquisite and the service outlandish. Kimono garbed women served each of us, one by one, kneeling and bowing when entering the room, kneeling and bowing before serving each of us, kneeling and bowing when taking their leave and once more before exiting the room and sliding the shojis closed. (Those women must have had great abs and calloused knees).
Naturally, I’d expected that on our first free night we would expand the experience by doing something Japanese, like visiting a typical bar to sip warm Sake.
Instead we ate at the hotel and walked across the street to this German bar in Tokyo. To dial-up the bizarreness of the evening, someone informed the Chilean band—certainly not me—that a Cuban was in attendance. The band leader called attention to my presence by requesting that I stand and take a bow and calling for a round of applause from the audience. I had to take not one, but two bows. In my honor, the band leader announced that the next set would consist entirely of Cuban songs.
I was stunned. Had they never seen a Cuban? Of course I was touched, and amazed. I would have been even more impressed had I recognized any of those obscure songs, if they were Cuban at all. But hey! It’s the thought that counts, I told myself.
Not that it mattered. The crowd went on drinking and humming/singing along and laughing and my boxer friend was mighty pleased to learn I was Cuban and therefore a boxing aficionado, considering the many great boxers Cuba had produced. I did a lot of nodding and clicking of beer steins and so much smiling my face started to hurt.
After a few more beers and many kampais, we finally—and thankfully—called it a night. We followed Joe, our leader, to the front, to settle the bill with the cashier, who did double duty behind the crowded, gleaming, wooden bar. Kennedy was warned to stay away from the large bell at the end of said bar; striking it meant the ringer would be buying a round and there must have been well over a hundred people at Rudi Bey’s.
While Kennedy contemplated the bell, my Japanese-boxer-friend asked me to guard the men’s room door while his woman-friend used the facilities. Apparently she couldn’t wait for the Lady’s room to come free.
I am not sure how I get into these situations. Even before agreeing, I spied her entering the men’s room. I was considering how to point out that he would be much better suited to guard the door when I noticed that he too had slipped into the men’s room.
Kennedy rang the bell. Some animated discussion followed between the barman speaking Japanese and Kennedy, whose command of English wasn’t great, even when sober. He continued the discussion with a typical Kennedy response; he rang the bell again. Joe had paid and was urging us to leave but I couldn’t: a young Japanese man wanted to use the men’s room.
I speak a couple of languages and can communicate in a couple more, but none of them were Japanese.
I realized my predicament as I tried to explain the situation in English, augmented by improvised sign language. It only frustrated the man who decided to slip past me using some fancy footwork. I managed to keep my body between him and the bathroom door until, eventually, no doubt viewing me as a lunatic, the type of crazy, ugly American he’d been warned against, he gave up and returned to his seat.
By the time a cackling Kennedy rang the bell a third time, I had had to turn back another two men. I was being pulled away from the men’s room door by Bauer while Joe tried to get Kennedy out when the boxer and his woman-friend emerged from the men’s room.
He waved the two men into the bathroom and bowed his thanks to me.
It was a relief to step outside. It was brisk and the coolness on my face felt good. Best of all was the sudden quiet. Joe wasn’t pleased with how the evening had proceeded. He was a thoughtful, measured, serious man, not given to outbursts, but he didn’t approve of Kennedy’s behavior. He felt it reflected on him, on us, on Americans.
Joe, a tall, white haired man, had served in the Navy during the Pacific campaign. That afternoon, while he, Bauer and I were enjoying a boat tour of Tokyo bay, he mentioned that it had been thirty-six years, almost to the day, since he’d first been on Tokyo bay. Back in 1945 he’d been on deck of the USS Missouri witnessing Japanese dignitaries in formal dress and top hats signing the WW II terms of surrender. Since then he’d been to Japan many times. The Japanese treated him with deference, which he returned but, by the way he’d told us about the Missouri, I suspected he had mixed feelings.
I made it back to my room, my head spinning, feeling confused. I had only slept a combined six hours the previous two nights and, between the excitement of being in Japan, the beer, the spending an evening in a German bar in Tokyo and my tiredness, I didn’t feel like myself. I felt weird, as if it wasn’t me on that bed, as if I was living in an alternate reality.
The one guy I knew for sure was happy was ñato, my new Japanese friend. He and his woman-friend had emerged from the men’s room with big smiles on their faces. They were enjoying whatever reality they were living in.

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Do Albino peacocks get laid?

May 12, 2017 1 comment

People ask how I felt returning to Cuba after a fifty-six year absence. In truth, I don’t know. Most Cuban exiles in similar circumstances concentrate on what was versus what is, like the collapsed roof of my childhood apartment in La Habana Vieja, or the sad condition of the streets and parks where we grew up. And so did I, but I’d been told, so I knew what to expect. The best part of my experience was being there.

In general, when Ruth and I travel, I like to wander around, a personal quirk she doesn’t always appreciate. This time, traveling with my sister—who was only fourteen when she left—and our spouses, neither fluent in Spanish, plus having a Cuban travel agent suggesting a framework, changed the tenor of the trip. Our Havana guide, a twenty three year old engineering student, took us along a prescribed route, down calle Teniente Rey, past Sarránow a museum—and toward the cathedral; the sort of itinerary tourists enjoy.

We started our walk on El Capitolio and because of new construction I was disoriented. When I asked our guide if this was calle Egido (it was) he didn’t know; he’d never heard of calle Egido. I soon recognized where I was and paused to peer down calle Bernaza and, of course, detoured on calle Villegas to point out the store where I worked—now people live there—and the spot where I chased and caught the bra thief, and where “Our Man In Havana” was filmed, and the hole in the wall were I drank my daily eight or ten cups of café, and the spot in the colonnade where the ostiones man had his little stand. The excitement was all mine.

Next day, when we took an enjoyable day trip to Las Terrazas, a former coffee plantation in Pinar Del Rio, now an Eco-community—I may do a full write up of the place—what stuck with me the most was the unexpected: there was a regular peacock on the parking lot, showing off his colors even though he was being harassed by tourist but, on a side patch I spied something even more magnificent. An albino peacock. ,

Of course that was my judgement, as personal as when comparing what was with what is. From the peacocks point of view the one opinion that counts will be rendered by the peahens.

Andrew Jackson and Fidel Castro

May 3, 2017 2 comments

I have been reading newspaper accounts of January 1959–refreshing my memory, not of the events, just their sequence–of the time when Fidel Castro gained power. There were lots of things that had to align just right for Fidel to succeed and for Batista to sneak away in the dead of night and it occurred to me that Fidel would have had no chance if Andrew Jackson had been president (instead of that wishy-washy Eisenhower who knew nothing of making war) Apparently Andrew Jackson was mad as hell when Castro won.

What scares white males?

September 29, 2016 3 comments

Eight years ago we elected our first black president. In a few weeks we are likely to elect our first female president. Rather than these been seen as great steps forward, they have given rise to fears, primarily among white males. I have been struggling with this, trying to understand what is so scary to my fellow white males.

I may have found an answer. According to Lynn Saxon in her book “Sex at Dusk: Lifting the Shiny Wrapping from Sex at Dawn,” in some deep sea angler fish species, only the female becomes a full adult.

I am sure she doesn’t mean to imply that all males or only males remain childish. After all, quite a few women don’t believe a woman should be elected president.

But it can get scarier than that. Apparently Charles Darwin (as reported by Ms. Saxton) found in some barnacle species “a number of dwarf males inside the female.” Even worse, the female had two little pockets, in each of which she kept a little husband. The troubling issue of size was first brought up by Marco (‘little Marco’) Rubio and it must concern not only Donald (‘tiny hands’) Trump, but many of his white, male supporters as well.

And if that isn’t demeaning enough, consider the male redback spider, who intentionally flips his body into a position above the jaws of the female in order to be eaten during mating.

I don’t know how much of a difference there is between a redneck and a redback spider. I’d guess less than the difference between a redback and a wetback.

The final insult may be offered by honeybees in their nuptial flight, once more, according to Ms. Saxton. “When a successful male mates with the queen: his ‘endophallus’ explodes to become a copulatory plug inside her and he drops dead. Why? It is a strategy to prevent other males from mating with the queen but for that privilege he loses both his phallus and his life. What’s more, the queen is able to pop out the copulatory plug and to mate again anyway.”

How about Hillary as the GOP candidate?

March 3, 2016 1 comment

I haven’t always been a Hillary Clinton fan but I’d like to propose that the GOP nominate her for the presidency.
There are three arguments in favor of this action.
(A) Neither of the three top Republican candidates are qualified to be president. Not even close. Only Kasich, who is running a distant fourth, could pass a presidential qualification test. By the way, Congress should consider instituting such a test to avoid current and past embarrassments: Sara Palin? Barack Obama elected after a two-year, part-time stint as a US Senator? The presidency shouldn’t be an on-the-job training center. (See Cruz, Rubio)
(B) Hillary Clinton is not only qualified and experienced, she has been tested. She has endured and survived relentless unwarranted attacks, not for months or years, but for decades. Starting when Bill ran for president and she was accused of being a feminazi, followed by attacks on her hair, her figure, her laugh, her pant suits, her supposedly being a lesbian (not that there is anything wrong with that, as Seinfeld would say) and on and on. She was even attacked because her husband cheated on her. She wasn’t being attacked for her beliefs but for being a woman. No wonder she has become guarded and secretive.
A double nomination would not only restore our credibility and prestige in the world, it would lead to a functioning government, where members of both parties stop carping at one another and get down to their job: crafting the laws needed for the common good of our once, and still, great nation. And finally, (C) It would be such great fun.

Love has a downside.

January 20, 2016 Leave a comment

I have a cold. I’ve had a lot more colds since having grand kids. Every time I return from visiting my lovely granddaughters in the West coast, I’ve brought back some malady. And now that I have two grand kids nearby and get to see them every week or two, the opportunity to enhance my immune system has improved immeasurably. None of it comes as a surprise because the kids, almost since birth, have frequented germ-exchange sites, ie, nurseries, day care, parks and the like.
A cold shouldn’t be a big deal, but it can be. In my case they always start in my left nostril, where they dawdle for a while before moving to the right one. I thought it peculiar and asked an MD about it when I was a teen in Cuba.
“Of course,” he said, “you have a deviated septum.” He didn’t add “you moron,” but I could read his thoughts in the little dialog bubble above his head.
Back then I didn’t know what a septum was. I still don’t other than apparently I have one. I never looked it up for fear of what I might learn and assumed—I have no reason to think otherwise—that it’s worse than a sixtum. I didn’t care for the ‘deviate’ implication either.
So I have a cold. My lovely twenty month old granddaughter who adores me and is a master cuddler, has a faucet for a nose, according to her mother. So I’m in for a few more years of immuno-enhancement therapy. Hopefully.
The cold is still in my left nostril. I hope it moves to the other nostril and out before I visit my California grand kids next month. I can deal with just so many germs at a time.

Chip Kelly: genius

November 30, 2015 2 comments

The problem with football is that it attracts so many geniuses (or genii, whichever you prefer.) Too many of these supremely gifted individuals flock to the game instead of channeling their unique talents toward finding a cure for cancer, reversing global warming or designing safety caps seniors can open.

I can only hope that Jeff Lurie, a very responsible team owner, will recognize that his social and moral duty demands he release Chip Kelly, so he can redirect his talents for the benefit of all mankind, rather than a few suffering Eagles fans.