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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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On the nature of friendship

December 19, 2013 Comments off

When I left Cuba I lost my best friend. Ernesto, unlike many of my friends, kids I’d known since kindergarten, was a Christian, and dark enough to pass for mulatto.
We met in high school (Instituto de la Vibora), on a boxing ring, facing each other from behind sixteen ounce gloves, because the PE instructor caught us arguing. [“There will be no fighting in my class,” he was fond of saying]
After we punched each other for one interminably long round, we discovered we were neighbors, started to walk to school together and became friends.
We celebrated Batista’s fall together—Ernesto is the one who woke me very early on January first 1959 with the news that Batista was gone and we had to go capture Vibora high school, for the revolution. And yet, we didn’t become Castro’s acolytes. We remained on our seats while everyone else jumped to their feet to cheer, stomp and clap every time a movie house newsreel showed Fidel, or Che, or Camilo. We discussed our learnings endlessly—we used to talk for hours and hours and after saying good bye, talked some more—and after a few months concluded that Castro’s was to be a communist regime.
But we didn’t panic. We didn’t run for the hills. We set out to see what communism was all about. I soon concluded it was not for me but my friend embraced it, hook, line and doctrine. A couple ever worsening years later, I managed to get out.
We remained friends via long letters. I imagine my letters reflected my struggles (I have been known to complain) just as his letters reflected his environment, the excitement he felt as the revolution developed. His letters were tinged with unintended propaganda. If there is one thing Fidel Castro excelled at was propaganda, constant, relentless, repetitive, pervasive propaganda.
His letters made me angry. I was poor—refugee poor—and lonely. And cold. My other Cuban friends were in Miami or New York or almost everywhere else in the world, not in Boston. I was working my way through school while my parents, who came to the States a year after I did, struggled.
I didn’t have time nor patience for more of Castro’s lies. At first I felt compelled to challenge him and reveal the real truth. It was no use. I stopped writing.
In my mind he remained my friend. I never thought of him as anything else. With the advent of the Internet I tried to locate him. After years of trying I succeeded a couple years ago, only because he had done so well. He is a respected scholar and a published author.
My first email—sent through his publisher—elicited an immediate and happy reply. We resumed our friendship as if nothing had happened but the passing of fifty years. He didn’t question me, he didn’t ask why I stopped writing. We caught up by email, we exchanged pictures of wives and children and grandchildren. Pictures of our present selves.
At times I asked him about events we shared, moments I am including in my ‘forever in progress’ memoir. Each of us remembered things the other had forgotten. We exchanged so many emails I fear the NSA must have opened a special storage facility for them.
We still email from time to time. We remain friends, albeit separated by distance and circumstances. His emails are still tainted with Castro propaganda. He can’t help it. He doesn’t see it as such. It is what he believes. It is how things are over there. He is a communist of the first magnitude because he understands it. But I’m no longer troubled by his comments. I no longer challenge or try to argue.
Perhaps this means that after fifty years I have mellowed, or grown up, or perhaps I am able to separate political belief from the person’s inherent nature. He was a good man and a good friend back then and he remains so.
I would like to go back and visit. I would like to revisit places where events took place that are important for my memoir. I petitioned for a permit. I’m willing to bet that if I’m allowed to go, we’ll embrace and resume talking and interrupting each other as if nothing had happened. Maybe this time I’ll take notes so I can remember what it was we had so much to talk about.