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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.

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.

Zombies and vampires and the end of time, oh my!

April 1, 2017 Leave a comment

Some movie genres don’t connect with me. Zombies, vampires and evil geniuses intent on destroying Earth have never scared me because they aren’t real. End-time and post apocalyptic movies have never done much for me either. Jaws, on the other hand, scared the hell out of me; sharks exist and have been known to munch on people.
Nowadays I’m witnessing an evil entity—an asshole, clever albeit far from genius, but definitely evil—whose unwitting purpose seems to be precisely that, a global catastrophe of war and ecological devastation.
The most stunning aspects of this evil, amoral man are two-fold: a complete lack of ideology and his unique motivation, a narcissism so dominant, so overwhelming, it requires him to succeed, no matter the cost. He will trample everything in his path because he lacks empathy, he will foresee neither danger nor downside because he lacks intellectual curiosity, and he will neither perceive nor admit defeat because he lives within his own, gilded reality.
Contemplating the looming possibility of the apocalypse gives rise to other fears; if the rise to power of such a man is possible, can zombies and vampires be far behind?

Who needs a wall?

November 19, 2016 Leave a comment

If we really wanted to stop illegal immigration, we wouldn’t need a wall. If we really wanted the unknowable millions of illegals to return home, we wouldn’t need to round ‘em up.
All Congress would need to do is pass a law that jails those who employ illegals. Those employers would be fined—which would help balance the budget and reduce the national debt—but they would have to serve time. First offense: one year. And I don’t mean the lowly foreman. I mean everyone up the line to the top. It’s high time for CEOs to stop ‘taking responsibility’ while claiming no knowledge and suffering no consequences. [There might be a temporary building boom owing to the many new prisons needed]
We need not be draconian about it. Our wise Congress would surely include a provision to issue permits to allow the hiring of some illegals to, for instance, harvest tomatoes. [Or build new prisons] But to make sure illegals aren’t taking jobs away from hard working Americans, those workers would, by law, be paid at least minimum wage.
You may argue such a law would add yet another interfering governmental agency. Not at all. We could re-purpose immigration agents currently employed in keeping ‘em out, because no one would be coming in.
It could be that easy, if our government officials were really interested in addressing illegal immigration. And if the people that hire undocumented workers were equally interested. Once Congress passes such a law, we could sit back on our easy chairs, sipping (add your beverage of choice) and watch those many million unfortunate people return home. Keep in mind, though, we would be also watching the collapse of the US economy.

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.”

Am I going insane? Someone is.

June 21, 2016 2 comments

There is an old joke–all my jokes are old–about a man about to marry into a Baptist family. [I think it would work almost as well if the man would be marrying into an orthodox Jewish family.] The man asks the cleric about dos and don’ts.
Dancing is a no-no, he is told, but sex is okay.
“Really?” the man asks, surprised.
“Absolutely.”
“Any sex.”
“Yes.”
“In the bedroom, in the bathroom, in the kitchen?”
“Yes, yes and yes.”
“Indoors and out?”
“Yes.”
“Standing up?”
“Uh, no, that might look like dancing.”
Sadly it reminds me of the Republican, right wing stance on terrorism and assault weapons. “We are waging a war against terrorism. We must,” they say, “kill ’em all. Bomb them back to the stone age, hunt them wherever they hide, pursue them to the ends of the earth, do everything we can, whatever it takes, even if we kill a few innocents, even if we have to snoop on Americans, or on leaders of friendly countries, do whatever you can, even if it means hacking away their money, blowing away their resources and weapon caches.”
“How about stopping them from buying assault weapons in the USA?
“Uh, no, that might look like dancing.”

Could Bob Dole ever be an Eagles fan? I hope not.

June 12, 2016 Leave a comment

I am an Eagles fan and yes, it is frustrating. They haven’t won a championship since 1950. Even worse, I became an Eagles fan during the seventies, when they put on the field some horrendous teams. Fortunately I have some escape valves. I root somewhat for the New England Patriots. They became my team when I lived in Boston and first started to follow football. This lasted even after I moved to the area, until I switched allegiance to the local team. I also have a sentimental attachment to the Green Bay Packers; because they are from a small town and are owned by the townspeople, they feel like a sort of national underdog. I would think they should be considered America’s team. But make no mistake: The Philadelphia Eagles are my team.
Some people have been Eagles fans for life. They revel in it, they paint themselves green, tailgate at games and make the team a central part of their life. However, I doubt any of them would unconditionally support Nelson Agholor, a wide receiver recently accused of rape by an exotic dancer.
There have been a few instances where women have accused well known, affluent athletes of rape hoping to make a financial killing. For Agholor’s sake, I hope that is the case. Alas, those are the exception. A teeny, tiny exception. Overwhelmingly, women claiming to have been raped have been raped. And then they are made to feel responsible. They are accused of bringing it on themselves by drinking or dressing in a provocative manner or being an exotic dancer or even of being a whore. Rape is rape. There are no extenuating circumstances. None. Zero. No respectable Eagles fan would condone Agholor’s alleged behavior.
Which brings me to Bob Dole. This is someone I respected. Senator Dole, who ran for president in ‘96, seemed a responsible, sober public servant. Whether I disagreed with his views or not, I respected him, till a few days ago.
Bob Dole just said “I’ve been a Republican all my life, and I know that both candidates are flawed, and Trump has done some things that would curl your hair, things that he shouldn’t have said…I mean, what am I gonna do? I can’t vote for George Washington, so I’m supporting Donald Trump.”
I would have hoped Mr. Dole would have said: I have been a Republican all my life but I have also been an American all my life and while I cannot support Mrs. Clinton, my conscience, common sense and abiding love for my country will not permit me to support Mr. Trump.”
That’s what a decent human being would have said. What this Eagles fan says about a player who commits heinous acts or says odious things.
Being a Republican or a Democrat is not like being a sports fan. We aren’t rooting for a team, we are voting for our future.