There was a decided conspiring tone among the group at what had to be our fourth or fifth bar. I was only one who didn’t speak Japanese (Jock and Ian did) so I contented myself with watching flushed, inebriated salarymen gesticulate at each other while working on yet another three-fingers worth of Suntory. Then Ian whacked me on the shoulder and shouted in my ear.
“Quit yer woolgatherin’ – we’re leaving!”
“Where’re we going?” I asked him once we were outside in the drizzle and waiting on the minibuses. The hotel, maybe?
“Karaoke!” There were huge grins, clapping and chatter from the others.
Japanese guys on a night out, back in the late 80s at least, at some point went to a place that had karaoke. Our guide had obviously arranged for the ichi-ban. The one we went to sported a sound system that was an audiophile’s wet-dream. There was a low stage complete with lights, a slick energetic middle-aged emcee accompanied by a cute ‘deejay’, and a huge screen hung on the back wall that showed images cued to the song. Ian told me there were ‘R’ rated versions they could play, but they weren’t on that night. And, lucky us, we had tables not far from the stage.
Japanese guys on a night out back then also didn’t sing “party music” karaoke; the more melancholy or dramatic the song, the better. Something like ‘My Way’ – either Elvis or Sinatra .You could request a song or let the girl pick one for you. There was an applause meter and you got ranked. The crowd would also buy the singer drinks if he was especially good, like pulling off a real tearjerker. It was a competition, and you only got one round to prove yourself.
It turned out to be a blast. Some did well on the music, some on emotion, some on style. Quite a few were really good, but many were so drunk the fun was in watching the attempt. There was a reason why the stage had a ramp rather than stairs. It was like a musical airshow, where you waited for the crashes. Jock, our quiet expat Brit, had a surprisingly smooth voice. One of our Japanese (I think the brother of the groom) apparently imitated one pop singer so well that his table was crowded with drinks, which were passed around with much cheering to the rest of us. Everyone in the place took, or had to take, a turn.
You guessed it…
The emcee asked my name twice, said “a desu ka” and announced it, followed by some quick patter that got laughter from the audience. Our group cheered. The DJ, seeing that I wasn’t going to ask for a song, sized me up, went to her console and pulled up this:
Maybe it was having watched that video four times over Christmas liberty while house-sitting with a Buddhist ghost. Maybe it was having a voice stained by a day of whiskey and tobacco. Maybe it was because the reasoning part of my brain was lying passed-out and cuddled up to the lizard part. Maybe it was that it had been six months since I’d left her at the airport and five months and a week since I’d told her answering machine that I loved her.
I nailed it.
“Where the fuck did that come from, mate?” Ian demanded when I finally made it back to the table.
“Dunno,” I replied as I watched trays of glasses show up. “Guess I said ‘hell with it’ and went along for the ride”.
“You’re seven!” I must’ve looked stupid because he pointed at the scoreboard. Seven indeed, misspelled name and all.
I’m told I ended up in ninth place. Somewhere in a box, I have a tie to prove it.
I was a stud in kindergarten.
Maybe it was the button-down sports shirts, the crisp slacks and the red blazer. Maybe it was the bad-boy reputation of being the first kindergartner in recent memory to have stayed after school (it was a half-day class back then, and I’d elbowed another kid in the ribs during the Pledge of Allegiance.) Anyway, I got the girls. Barbara, with chestnut hair down to the small of her back. Rose, who bragged that one of her grandfathers had been in the IRA. A few other playground female friends, including one auburn-haired sprite whose name I unfortunately forgot, but who probably drove her parents to despair when she hit puberty.
And then there was Natalie.
Our neighborhood in the early 60s was a mixture of French, Polish (mostly), Irish, and Black. I was essentially part of the first group and she part of the last. We’d meet up to walk to school and then walk home together holding hands. Sometimes we’d visit the fish market on the way home to look at the lobsters in their tanks. When it rained, her father (who worked nights) would drive us the whole two blocks. I gathered years later that we were the talk of the North Side for quite some time. When you’re six years old and brought up in an environment of relative innocence, you don’t much know about that.
Natalie’s dad drove a big dark green Chrysler with lots of chrome and the radio permanently tuned to a jazz station. One time a song was playing that I really liked and asked him who the band was.
So for months I thought the band’s name was ‘Brubeck’. A few years later, I found Take Five Live among my mom’s albums and damn near wore the record out.
“Take Five” was pretty controversial when it was new, but today it’s a jazz staple. Most times that I hear it now, it’s either a tarted-up musical confection, or it’s been so suffused with ‘cool’ that it should be renamed “Fanfare for the Hipster”. That’s why this stripped-down yet complex version by a couple of lads from Maine called Unorganized Hancock blew me away.
It takes me back to sitting in the passenger side (Natalie in the middle, next to her dad) of that big Imperial, the beat -and-swish of its wipers somehow accompanying the song.
Natalie and I stayed together until the third grade, when her father died of a heart attack. She ended up “staying back” a class and we drifted apart. She fell in with a wrong crowd. Though we’d still run into each other all the way through high school, we were strangers venturing on enemies.
It wasn’t until over decade after high school that we met each other again at a party while I was home on leave. She’d straightened out her life and had gone on to college. She was happy, pretty, living in New York City and married to a photographer. We exchanged information. As usual in life, I never saw her again. But I still think of her once in a while, especially while this song plays.
And I think of something else. Maybe it’s weird, maybe not. Looking back, her husband and I could have passed for brothers.
One from Stacy McCain:
“On Thursday, New Republic columnist Timothy Noah received an email from editor Frank Foer asking him to meet at 2:30 pm on Friday. During the meeting, Foer told Noah that he was out of a job. ‘All I got was your column isn’t a good fit for the direction the magazine is going in,’ Noah told The Huffington Post shortly after.” Let’s imagine what Franklin Foer would have said if he had really been honest with Noah:
“Dude, you’re 54 years old. Fifty f–king four, an aging Boomer with a loyal readership of aging Boomers, and that’s not where the action is these days. For crying out loud, Marty sold us to a 29-year-old multimillionaire. Think about that, OK? Do you think Chris gives a damn about your Hillman Award? And so what, you wrote a book? About income inequality – as if Mister Facebook Wonder Boy is losing sleep over that. What? Well, yeah, but “quality” is in the eye of the beholder, really. Nowadays, it’s all about the clicks, Tim. I’ve seen the analytics and, quite frankly, you’re not pulling your weight. Page-views, Facebook “likes,” re-Tweets — pick a metric, doesn’t matter. BuzzFeed gets more hits on a cute kitty video than your stuff gets. Chris wants more hip, sexy content. He uses that word a lot, “sexy.” There’s basically two kinds of writing for him: “sexy” and “sucks.” And I’m not saying your stuff sucks, Tim. But it’s not sexy. I mean, when did you ever have a column go viral on Reddit, huh? When did any college kid ever re-Tweet you with an “LOL”?
“Sure, sure. I know you can try harder, Tim, but your salary is just too high for what we get in return, traffic-wise. I’ve got kids e-mailing me stuff every day, begging me to publish their stuff for free. These kids are desperate – liberal arts degrees from good schools, tens of thousands of dollars in student debt, working part-time at Starbucks and just trying to catch a break. Why should I keep paying you big bucks for un-sexy columns when these kids write pretty good for free? Besides, you’ve got less than 6,000 Twitter followers, Tim, and some of these kids have 10,000 or more, so they can really drive the hits. And you’ve got, what? Fourteen hundred Facebook friends? There are high school kids with twice that. It’s a business, Tim. Not personal. Chris doesn’t want to be the bad cop, so it’s my job to cut you loose. And trust me, you won’t be the last. There’s way too much un-sexy around here.”
That’s what Franklin Foer would have said, if he were honest. But guys like that don’t get paid to be honest, do they?
Mr. Foer might’ve been honest, had he been sure that the ‘sexy hipsters’ would Page-view, Facebook “like,” and re-Tweet. He’s getting paid to try to bring in “eyeballs”.
“I’m going back to Idaho.” Those were the first words from the Mechanic when I walked into the Laundromat at the Center of the Universe.
The Mechanic’s been here longer than me. He moved to California at twenty-one with the firm offer of a job in the oilfields. Now he’s in his forties, divorced, did a couple of years in jail (“for being stupid”) and unemployed when the axe fell on his contract job out at the base a couple of months back. We’ve talked a lot during the waiting times, usually about cars, The Professor’s health issues, doings in the town, getting pulled over by the CHP, the joys of working for the government, the joys of working through the California family-court system, his neighbors’ stealing his cable (and the Mexican lad across the way calling the cops on them), his moving out to a new place after a nearby meth lab blew up. The usual stuff for a little town out in the Mojave.
We seldom talked politics and religion came up only once, when his kids wanted to head off to church with a friend’s family. ‘Going to Idaho’ is something he’s talked about over the past half decade, while we sat on the benches and watched the crazies go by. Then last Christmas he made a trip up there to see his family, the first time in six years, and he took his kids along.
The supplemental information came hard and fast. A friend landed a huge long-term contract working in the forests and called him, saying the Mechanic’s skills were a fit and could he start soon, like the beginning of next month. It would be a Spring-through-Autumn deal, meaning the hunting season would be unimpeded. Mom wasn’t doing too well. She was moving in with one of the siblings and the family home was going to be empty. The Mechanic paused to take a drag off his cigarette.
“And my son wants to go, too.”
The boy was the Mechanic’s pride and joy, twelve and fast growing out of the pudgy-lad stage. There’d been the stories about the problems with his school and the struggles to stay out of trouble. I remembered the Mechanic talking about how the kid had taken to the woods and the mountains, going hunting and hiking with his cousins. There’d been a change in the boy since that two-week visit. There was something in the eyes, awareness and even thoughtfulness.
“I checked the school up there,” the Mechanic continued, “It’s small and it’s got good ratings. He’ll have to do some catching up, but my brother’s boy is in the same grade. And he can stay with family while I’m at work”
There was a break in the conversation as we watched an ambulance came screaming up the highway, followed by a fire truck. Not unusual for a Sunday morning in an area where age, obesity, respiratory problems and heart attacks were common. Moments later a Highway Patrol car roared by. So much for the cardiac arrest theory.
“I gotta get him outta California,” the Mechanic said through a haze of cigarette smoke as the sirens died away, “He deserves something better than this. He deserves to have a future.”
We didn’t say anything for a while, then he excused himself to retrieve his laundry from the dryer while I sat and watched a gaggle of hipsters stroll to the vegetarian restaurants down the street.
“You still got my number, right?” I asked him when he came back out with his bags.
“Yeah,” he replied as he threw the bags in the back of his truck. “I’ll see ya around, there’s still a few weeks.”
“Yeah,” I replied back, “see you around.”
Thirty minutes later I was heading home when Billy Joel came over the satellite radio, singing about a time when he wasn’t old and gray and hadn’t drunk the bittersweet dregs of success.
Now John at the bar is a friend of mine
He gets me my drinks for free
And he’s quick with a joke or to light up your smoke
But there’s someplace that he’d rather be
He says, “Bill, I believe this is killing me.”
As the smile ran away from his face
“Well I’m sure that I could be a movie star
If I could get out of this place”
La la, di da da da dum
Yes, it’s a re-post of sorts. But it’s rather interesting that unique things happen to me at Christmas, for two years in a row:
She was standing to the right of the side entrance of Walmart. Just close enough to catch shoppers going in, but not close enough to draw the attention of management and the Sheriff’s Citizen Patrol that were cruising the lot. It might have been a good location earlier, but the winter sun had set and there wasn’t much light coming from the halogen lamps. Or maybe she’d picked that spot on purpose. Faded jeans, whitish sneakers and a dark down-jacket that had seen better days.
“Would you like to buy some mistletoe?” she called out as I stepped onto the sidewalk.
‘No thanks,” I replied as I headed for the sliding door and the fluorescent interior. It would be just an in-and-out mission, if the crowd permitted. It was busy in spite of the lousy economy. Or maybe, my fatigued brain finally figured, because of it. Finding the present was easy. A gift card for an aged relative who “didn’t want anything for Christmas”, but would be quite unhappy if her request was actually filled. Yes, a gift card isn’t sentimental. But sentimentality had long been passed over for practicality – on both sides.
I shuffled along with the tweakers and the badly-tattooed welfare cases as they juggled their carts and their too-many kids toward the register. The worst part was that the wait gave me time to think unhappy thoughts. I’d volunteered to stay at work through Christmas Eve, so everyone else could take vacation. Somebody had to mind the shop and I volunteered to be the somebody. I’ve long cursed myself for being a soft touch. I’m the shipmate you’d hit up for fifty bucks the day before you were discharged, the mark who’d stand duty for you on Christmas Eve gratis, the one who actually talks to the missionaries at the front door, the guy who gives five bucks in a Denny’s parking lot to a woman with way too many visits to the glass pipe and gets a cheap ring and a ‘bless you’ in return.
But what really bothered me was that I would still wish the borrower who we both knew I’d never see again ‘good luck’. I would still enjoy looking at the stars and the Christmas lights out in the little town across the Sound while standing the midnight watch out in the cold. I’d enjoy talking to the earnest young men in their white shirts and ties and black name tags, hearing their life stories. I’d even kept that damned cheap ring in my ‘treasure box’, along with the medals and ribbons I would never wear again, the keys to cars long-junked, and the yellowed, twenty-plus year old envelope with the photo of The Girl inside.
Then it was my turn to exchange cash for the gift card. I swapped empty pleasantries with the cashier with her orange-dyed butch-cut and tribal tattoos on her arms. I took my change and bag, did the “Merry Christmas” routine, then headed out the main entrance and into the cold for a roundabout trip to the car. No soft-touch this time, I said to myself.
Except that I turned right instead of straight.
She was still there, except she’d moved closer to one of the lights. She wasn’t young, but she wasn’t methamphetamine-aged either. Dark eyes, dark hair framing a slim face that was on the edge of pretty, with a mouth that looked like it could smile easily, or used to.
She gave me That Look – the one women seem to have been giving me ever since I started shaving.
“I changed my mind,” I said quickly. “How much?”
“Five dollars each.”
I fumbled with my wallet, pulled out the money and handed it over. She reached into a wrinkled plastic shopping bag and gave me a cellophane packet.
“Thank you and Merry Christmas,” she said. I wished her the same, tucked it into my jacket, walked to the Volvo and started it up. But before I put it in gear, I sighed and pulled out the packet. It was indeed a sprig of mistletoe, tied with a silver ribbon and a long silver string. I pulled it out and held it up to the light. There were still tiny droplets of water on the leaves.
I don’t know how long I sat there with it in my hand. Then I tied it to the rear view mirror and drove home.
There would still be coffee in the pot on the stove and a half-bottle of brandy in the pantry. A few minutes outside on the deck with both, and the stars and the Christmas lights in the town below for company sounded good to me. Maybe a quick trip to the treasure-box and a look at the photo of The Girl, just for comparison before the recent memory faded. Perhaps, sometimes it paid to be a soft touch.