MISFITS MAKE THE BEST IMMIGRANTS
(Sent to Friends Wed, 29 Oct 1997)
(This essay was started the day after James A. Michener, my favorite author, died at the age of 90. May this world have more writers who can comment on the human condition as meaningfully and effectively as he.)
Quite often nowadays, Japanese ask me if I am going to take Japanese citizenship. This may surprise many readers out there (particularly Caucasians) who are familiar with Japan, since they so often hear that they are guests--not minorities--that they believe it themselves. But believe me, they do ask. Once they find out I have bought land and a house, everything changes--because clearly I am here for life (indeed, with a 30-year loan it is practically *illegal* for me to repatriate).
"So, Debito-san," the question goes, "why do things only halfway? You've basically already emigrated. Now naturalize." And my answer, one of reservation, boils down to the dual-nationality problem; Japan (unlike America) would require me to relinquish other citizenships, and I'm not ready to give up my American passport. If I could hold both, I'd naturalize tomorrow.
The listeners here usually nod in assent, although my motivation for becoming a lifer here in the first place remains unclear.
So the next question that arises is, "Do you want to stay here for good because you like Japan?", as if emigrating is a motivation so simply condensed. "No, that's not really it, either." Some things here are fine, some not so, etc. And their curiousity goes unsated.
Why am I here? Fact is, I didn't know myself. Something as compelling as "inertia"--wife, kids, stable job, amusement with Japanese society--was not convincing enough. But like bedrock, which you don't even know exists until you dig down to it, something was there and wasn't budging.
It wasn't until I met Doug that I could dig that bedrock.
SEEING DOUG, MY OLDEST FRIEND
I first met Doug when I was five years old, meaning we have known each other for nearly three decades. One physical year and two school years behind me, we lived practically next door in Geneva, NY. Doug was close enough in proximity and mentality that we got along, becoming my constant playmate. Of course, changes in our mindsets happened due to predictable influences--different schools, puberty, driving, girls, college, job opportunities, and marriage. So now and again we would drop out of each other's lives for years at a time, but inexorably we'd hook up again and it would be as if we'd never parted. Doug has been my friend since I can remember, and we act as time capsules for each other's lives.
And what lives we had together! As prepubescents, we would "borrow" each other's toys forever, get all evil after burning ants with a magnifying glass, camp outside and not sleep a wink after the inevitable ghost stories, satisfy our egos by pulverizing Doug's runty brother (who is now taller and stronger than either of us), and get all excited fishing "creekchubs" out of the local stream (some catches were a whole three inches long!). All things that Ray Bradbury would wax Waukegan about or Norman Rockwell would paint. Subsequently, once our hair started growing and driver licenses manumitted us, "fun" meant going out for a burger and a movie, doing "doughnuts" in Doug's (father's) car in icy parking lots, disputing who went farther with a local sexpot named Mary, and generally staving off the boredom that a small town foments in the idle teen.
Ultimately, as our hometown shrank further, Doug followed his bliss into flight school and the military, lining up mechanical troubleshooting jobs with Boeing and McDonnell-Douglas. Meanwhile I was a passenger on his handiwork, flying from coast to coast and beyond, ending up you-know-where. When he heard I was coming to Seattle, he said, "Great, my old stomping ground." And out he flew from North Carolina, unfettered by wife and kids, readjusting his working hours to have nearly a week off, just to see me.
"That's the famous Doug?" said John, driving me to Portland Airport's cargo bays where Doug was being unloaded. Indeed it was. Short-haired, face still spotted with a little acne, but fighting-fit and ready for anything, Doug stood there as we drew up and John was unleashed. I wanted to see if he was ready for even John.
He was, handling him admirably. Sitting down for a Denny's 3-egg omelette (along with hash, sausage, and a compliment of flapjacks with blueberry sauce), John gave him the basic questions about life, the universe, and movies; Doug, not knowing what his interrogator wanted, responded with a few sensible but basically banal comments about movies he liked. When John started to lecture about the proper method of analysis ("You should never say that you 'liked' a movie--for what does 'like' mean?"), Doug shifted his position to essentially match his. When Doug made the mistake of mentioning William Burroughs, John launched into a full seminar on NAKED LUNCH and I bowed out to pay the bill. I also made sure to spend a good fifteen minutes making a pit stop, reading the funnies, washing my face, and doing some zit search-and-destroy, in hopes that things would have subsided by the time I got back. They hadn't, of course, but Doug was nodding intently and not interjecting. I realized that he had honed a very valuable skill: like Jimmy Carter, I think Doug could befriend and make peace with just about anybody he wanted to.
I broke up the fray, touching batons and switching cars to our new rental. Bidding goodbye to John, I was first in with the kidney punch: "Well, Doug, you want me to drive? You know that I'm a much better driver than you are."
Doug smiled and rolled his eyes. "Ohhhh boy, Dave, you're at it again. When are you just going to realize that you just haven't got the Right Stuff?" And we'd have our old silly memory lane cruise about how he's handled a car in all conditions, avoiding numerous brushes with death, with me countering about the two (of his father's) cars he'd totalled in careless snowdrift-next-to-ditches piledrives. I'd smirk: "Hey, I've never done that." And he'd say that he'd never lost his licence either, like I had done for speeding in Japan. "Well, you're just lucky--you'd be deported if you drove like this over there." And he'd pshaw me and I him back with that famous friendly American confrontationalism.
But Doug's mood darkened as we approached his beloved Seattle.
Said he: "This here's Olympia, one of the best meat markets around, until AIDS dried things up. Over the mountains is Wenatchee, which we nicknamed 'Wet Snatchee'. And Seattle, hey, we'd have contests to see if we could get into the 'Fifty Club'." Fifty Club? "Yeah, do fifty different girls in a calendar year. One a week." Um, Doug, is that safe nowadays? "Nah, so I didn't try that hard. But I'm telling ya, things are so easy over here that it's hard living in a boring place like North Carolina. Nothing to do but go to work and pump iron. I haven't had a really good lay in months."
Hmmm. "So that means you don't have a girlfriend now?"
"No girl interests me. Sex is great but it gets boring very quickly. Y'know, if only I could find somebody who can make me laugh like they did here in Seattle, fine. I almost got married, y'know." No, I didn't know. "Yeah, back in my school in St Louis, she was one of those fraternity babes. Lots of fun, good in bed, great for water fights. She used to steal my Super Soaker [a kind of water machine-gun] all the time--I'd have to buy a new one just to compete. But she forgot how to have fun. She took her schoolwork too seriously, drank too much, and became an alcoholic. No thank you."
And off we went on our stories. Doug and I are practiced raconteurs--he in person and I in print. Many were hilarious, others haunting. How Doug used to kill time in high school Psychology class by having wristwatch wars with a friend--by reflecting the sunlight off their watch faces onto Mr Ninestine's copious forehead, and having little jousts; when enough students started giggling and a couple of stray flashes hit Ninestine's eyes, there was hell to pay. How Doug participated in a college talent contest by dressing up in a pink tu-tu with a magic wand loaded with glitter; after prancing to music and making the judges all sparkly, he won. How one of Doug's frat brothers felt a really good fart coming on, and when he pulled down his pants and positioned himself to light it, he ended up shitting all over the living room furniture. How he turned a friend's New Year house party into a huge food fight, and made the whole place look like it was out of the movie SIXTEEN CANDLES (nevertheless, Doug adds proudly, he got invited back next year). How one time he borrowed his friend's car and was perchance pulled over by a cop, who got nasty because Doug had forgotten his licence; suspecting Doug of car theft, the cop refused to let Doug even pull the stopped car out of the way of traffic (he called a tow truck at Doug's expense); the punch line is that Doug called his friends from the pen to come bail him out, and they ignored it--thinking it just another one of his pranks. How Doug was at a warehouse party and some Berkeley-trained cops closed it down; when they started getting rough with his girlfriend, he stepped in and told them to lay off, only to get cuffed for "resisting arrest" and thrown in jail again.
It's no wonder Doug learned how to get along with anyone.
Then the stories began including me as well, and feelings got awkward.
About the time I too did a talent show with a shy girl who needed a crutch. Our high school music teacher nudged me one day and told me to take care of Anne--she had talent but no backbone. So I, who cannot sing, got up on stage with Anne, who can, to do "They Call the Wind Mariah" from "Annie Get Your Gun". When the curtain rose showing us in our frontier finery, the crowd laughed and threw Anne's timing off. As the piano crescendoed, she shut her eyes and sang a half-octave too high--throwing off my harmony when we did our chorus. And so on it went--as if sticking twigs in each others' bicycle spokes, we couldn't get our cadence right. Especially when I lost my rhythm singing, "...and I'm a lost and lonely man, without a soul to.. ", and let fly an "AW, SHIT!" at an amplified 150 decibels to a school full of censorship. At that point, I gave up all pretention of seriousness. I grabbed the mike from its post, brought it up to Anne (who, eyes still shut and tears leaking, was singing far too softly), and put my arm around her in some hope of comfort. We finished things off with a "...blow my love toooo meeeee..." with a harmony that was surprisingly good and a pose that would do a karaoke master proud. We got a standing ovation just for finishing.
Doug: "Yeah, Dave, I saw a picture of you doing that. Where the hell d'ya get that stupid hat and bandanna? And that checked shirt? It looked like you were wearing a tablecloth. You sure looked stupid."
About the time we went cross-country skiing up at a religious retreat called Vanderkamp, and I got lost and spent the whole day in sub-zero weather skiing around in circles. I was lucky to have been rescued before nightfall. Returning in a reduced state of consciousness, with my hands frozen to my skipoles, I faced the ire of the whole troupe--who had to spend most of their only full day there looking for me instead of enjoying themselves.
Doug: "And you, of all people, ended up teaching 'Wilderness Survival' merit badge to the Boy Scouts!? Don't make me laugh!"
Or about the time we went on another religious trip (the most unGodly things go on on these things!), and I spent much of the ride feeling Mary up in the back seat; our driver was incidentally our high school English teacher, and pretty soon it was common knowledge who in our high school was the latest guy with stinky fingers. Pariah status was mine--no decent girl would come near anyone so desperate as to resort to Mary.
Doug: "Mary was a horse--I don't know what you saw in her. 'Course, I went farther with her than you did--but that was just a challenge since she in fact threw down the gauntlet. You, on the other hand, took her much too seriously. Like you take all your women too seriously. That's why you married young."
I almost married even younger. In our lower-teeny days, there was a girl named Heather I really, really liked, who lived just down the lane from Doug's. Whenever Heather and her family were summering at their cabin in the Adirondacks, Doug, astounding as it may seem, was made caretaker of their house. "Wanna go see Heather's underwear?", Doug kept on saying, but I, also astoundingly, was too shy to be so prurient. I didn't want to soil my snow-white image of her, and what if she found out? I liked her too much to tell her my feelings, but somehow she got the message. Like geese in a mating-ritual dance, she and I twined necks without touching for several years, finally consummating once we graduated from Geneva High and escaped the rumor mill.
But we were not to be. A couple of years into the relationship, we were "engaged to be engaged", as are many young couples who have love but don't understand where to take it. Feeling the only way to prove said love was to keep escalating it with promises of more commitment, we fomented a relationship that was unable, like a bicycle, to stay upright without somebody pedalling. When she went back to an old boyfriend who knew how to cruise, I was thrown into an emotional limbo that took years to snap out of. It was the decisive factor in my turning towards Asian women.
Doug: "Like I said, Dave, you take women far too seriously. You should have seen that coming with Heather. She's snow-white but a ditz. You let yourself get hurt. Hey, I played 'Truth or Dare' with her and Lauren Holly [yes, the movie actress, former wife of Jim Carrey, former neighbor of Doug]. That was far enough."
Or about the time another friend, Steve, and I spotted a severed pier in the middle of Seneca Lake, several hundred yards from shore, and decided to swim out to it. Doug said he would watch. And watch he did--as the cold from the lake (Seneca is very, very deep--from an altitude of 800 feet it apparently goes below sea level) numbed our legs and gave Steve cramps. I had to use my Lifesaving Merit Badge holds just to tow him to the pier, which happened to lie right in the wake of a major boating lane. After almost getting hit by speedboats a number of times, we reached the pier. No joy--it was covered in slippery bird guano, afforded few handholds, and anyway hellish to get upon in our exhausted condition. Once atop, our scratched bodies were buffetted by cold winds as we realized we were stranded a long way from shore. We got out of it all right--by swimming to another (connected) pier nearby before hypothermia set in--but the story of stupidity was immortalized by now. By Doug.
Doug: "That was one of the dumbest things you have ever done, Dave. What were you thinking? Now that you're here, you want to swim Puget Sound?"
Actually, the dumbest thing I've ever done was probably the following:
(Retyped from Dave Aldwinckle's "TAPESTRY OF EXPERIENCE", an unpublished collection of undergraduate essays from the Risley Recorder, Cornell University 1986-87.)
(Done in the style of then-favorite author Stephen King. Thankfully he's still alive.)
He was terrified.
"What do I do now?" was the question resounding inside. "I'm gonna die. I knew I shouldn't have said that."
[Damn straight you shouldn't have. But you never listen to me, do you, Dave ole Buddy. All your own fault. You've been a baaaad boy.] It was his conscience, pontificating away. Quite like a parent saying: "I told you so I told you so." And he had always hated that. Insult to injury. Iodine on a rotting tooth. Some self-hatred for letting himself get guilty.
"--ey, I'm gonna beat the shit out of you!"
He snapped back to the story currently unfolding about him. The parking lot at McDonald's. Pickup trucks all around. Locals watching out the restaurant windows, either grinning or feigning disgust. Regardless waiting for a good fight. The leering teens outside, encircling him and Doug. The lads stood there staring at the two, toying with their prey: Heh heh heh. We've got all the time in the world, boys, and we're gonna make you paaaay. Yessiree.
The shortest, but by no means weakest, kid had just finished taking off his shirt, throwing it aside as though it was a crumpled body. Mine, perhaps. Responding to the accompanying cheers of all the pickuptruckgirlfriends, he stood there inflating his chest, inches in front of Dave, like a mini Atlas: "C'MON, asshole. I'm gonna show YOU who's full of SHIT! I'm takin' you on, man. C'MON!"
"Oh Christ," Dave thought, "why does this have to take place at a McDonald's? I'm fuckin becoming a statistic. America's most efficient gunshot massacre, something like 24 people blown away by only one man, took place at a Mickey D's somewhere. Myself, I'd seen in Syracuse some stewbum manhandle a little girl beside the squeaky-clean Mayor McCheese high chairs. There had also been other tense moments in others where I saw cops converge; fast food joints are a common teen hangout, center-stage for gang rumbles. But back then I was the nice quiet innocent bystander."
[Hell, not this time, Dave old fruit. Seems you and McDonald's just don't mix. You deserved a break today. Where do you want it?]
JULY 26, 1984. PENN YAN, NY
It had been a beautiful day on Keuka Lake, sunshine and dry heat licking the grapevine-covered hills that produce New York State wines. Yearning for a dip in the waters, Doug had invited Dave out for a spin in the family boat. Nice idea. The most unpleasant thing about the whole afternoon had been what Dave called cadaver-fish--those silly minnows which while their time away nibbling at things flesh--occasionally nipping the toes of the two very vivacious corpses from cool depths below.
"Yeah," Dave thought, "I think I could get into a lifestyle like this. Deadhead city. Nothing to bother myself with. I don't have to do anything at all, except hang on for dear life when Doug pulls one of his patented figure eights with the goddamn boat. But I'm not bored at all. Just content. Nice."
But storm clouds were gathering. Both above and on shore.
Dave squinted upwards, framing his brow with his palm. "Doug, let's head in. I could do with a snack." "Sure." Doug gunned the engine and angled towards the marina. But as they approached the pier, they'd noticed that a situation was rapidly unfolding. There stood on the deck a randy-looking lot of louts, ranging in age from about eight to maybe seventeen. They had glared at Doug and Dave like Border Police eyeing Mexicans.
Dave had glared right back: "Hell, you ain't gonna intimidate me, lads," defiant till death do it result.
Doug brought the boat right into their midst, and the fear rose with the swell. Fear that Martin Sheen's troupe had probably felt when they arrived at their destination in APOCALYPSE NOW. But like Dave said, nobody was gonna do no intimidating, not even some fucking punks. He brashly hopped onto the dock, avoiding their eyes and concentrating on finding his shoes. He thought: "Hey, what the hell are you doing with my shoes, smegmabreath?" They were in the grasp of some frowning little kid. Without a blink Dave collected them back. Had the little shit been bigger, he might have responded. But not yet. "Not a full-fledged delinquent yet, but he's off to the right start. Just think, in a few years that turd'll probably make his living through extortion."
Doug was beckoning to Dave, distracting his building anger for a moment. "Be right back," Doug said, rowing the boat out to its moor. The lads watched it go. Dave felt his anger well up again. "Huh, betcha as soon as we've left they'll probably sink it."
Then the spite center of Dave's brain spiralled into action: "Yeah, I've seen this type of people before. The type who'd let their stupid mousy moustaches grow when they got their first testosterone spurt. I remember them as far back as grade school. Yeah, the fuckers who'd shoot rubber bands at my ears in class and then threaten me if I didn't [give them back, dicklick. why should I--so you can shoot them at me again? OK, see you after school, man, at the Circle--you're dead.] The type who hate me and single me out for nosebleeds because they're jealous. Jealous because I'm 'smarter' than they are. Uh-uh, buddy, it's not brains that keeps me ahead of you. I work. Hard. You're just too lazy. Yet you'll still hate me and want to damage what you envy. Well, I hate you right back."
Dave felt the hate create the sour taste that flooded his mouth, coated his teeth. The taste of nervous energy awaiting an outlet. "I shoudn't bother with them, everyone says. I'm supposed to be aware of the fact that I'm better than they are. Sure, they can bruise you all they like, but they can't stop you thinking light-years ahead of them, can they? As Dad kept on saying, perhaps for lack of anything else to aay: 'We'll see where they are in a few years, Dave. You'll be somewhere. They won't. Just ignore them and you'll go away.'
"Easy for you to say, Dad, isn't it? You're not here. You don't have to tolerate them, ever. You're an immune grownup. Not me. And right now I'm surrounded by so much human refuse I'm getting sick. I want to detonate them. Slowly."
"--tiny fuckin' boat. Musta been a Blue Light Special at K-Mart. Hur hur." A comment from the tallest mouse-stached slug. Said with eyes averted but in a stage-whisper for all to appreciate. Followed by obviously sychophantic laughter from his lackeys. The sour taste became an acid.
Dave had concentrated on doing up his laces. But not really--he had been writhing with anger. Doug had swum back from the boat and given Dave one of his guarded looks: "Dave, are you causing trouble again? You know you've got a talent for making yourself look stupid in a crowd."
"Let's go, huh?" Doug said, not bothering to dry himself off. "Yeah, OK." They slipped away from the bunch too easily. Piling into Doug's Datsun, they gunned the engine. Relief at last--
Dave was grinning. Now a safe distance from the wolf pack, he could be daring. Nervous outlet, "It's Blow Off Some Steam Time, folks. Come on down!"
"Doug, before you leave, pull up close to the pier and give me a few minutes to roll down the window. Get ready to really gun it after I finish."
"Dave, what are you doing?"
"What do you think? Being stupid as usual."
"Alright, it's your funeral."
The car had stopped and the passenger window gone down. Dave poked his head out and screamed:
"YOU GUYS ARE FULL OF SHIT! NO BRAINS! FUCK OFF!"
Doug floored the accelerator, not even waiting to see their reaction. Now he was smirking too. Living dangerously, like a character in DUKES OF HAZZARD. Great fun--Doug loved a good auto rally with a Corvette (even if it happened to be in a single-lane 30mph speed zone). Speed will succeed. G-force and love.
But Doug also loved burgers, as Americans do, and the Penn Yan version of McDonald's had caught his eye. "Let's eat, Dave."
"Yeah." Dave had always gotten the munchies after a good scare, and they had indeed had a good time rattling a hornets' nest. "Pig out, man." Get the bad taste out of his mouth. They pulled into the driveway with Macanticipation.
Pity their eagerness had crated myopia. They hadn't noticed the buggers had pickup trucks of their own.
Dave had been halfway through his Chicken McNuggets when he noticed how the place was suddenly filling up. People piling in at every doorway. They weren't eating, either. Just sitting around them. Murmuring.
Another stage whisper. "So we're 'full of shit', huh?"
Oh God. Mousetache and his entourage!
"Who's got 'no brains', huh?"
Dave had nudged Doug but he already knew. "Let's go, yeah?"
"Sure, Dave. Uh, just gotta go to the bathroom first. Right back."
No Doug, don't leave me!
[Well, whaddya expect, Dave?] Good ol' conscience speaking. [You got us into this. Now let's see you do something about getting out...]
Dave whisked pas the thugs and walked outside alone. Beeline for Doug's pickup. "Let's get out of here, dammit."
Would the door be open? He wanted to lock himself into the Datsun away from all this. [Feel lucky? Go for it]
[Serves you right]
Seeing Dave walk out, the locals had needed no cue, no call to assembly. The came out of the woodwork, from the chairs next to the doors saying WELCOME, from seats besides the trash cans screaming THANK YOU. And within seconds they would be at his throat.
"No point in running--they'll catch us easily. And I can't desert Doug. Surely somebody will call the cops if I make myself noticably in peril to the families inside."
Dave had walked out to the center of the asphalt. MIDNIGHT EXPRESS--Billy Hayes and the drug discovery. Center stage on the airport runway. Surrounded by young Turks. All guns pointed. Read, aim...
Two of them had made their approach. Mousetache and a short but quite muscular side-kick. Mousestache smirked, kneading his muscles.
Dave thought: "This is it, I'm going to be hit. Thirteen years of orthodontistry is going to evaporate in a moment's skirmish. Where the fuck are you, Doug?"
[Wrong attitude, Dave. You can't have Doug bail you out of this one. You're alone, stupid, and you deserve it. Time you learned that you are in full control of all your actions. At all times. Remember that. You're gonna have to recant. So swallow your pride, or swallow your teeth.]
Doug had come outside at this point and saw the ring of fire. He took out his car keys and, threading them into his clenched fist, walked to a quaking Dave and stood by his side.
Dave awoke from his flashback.
"...on, man. Let's GO! Let's see what you're made of. I'm gonna kick your fuckin ass so BAAD!. Atlas Shrunked. A fight dance. Shuffle shuffle, arms loosening to deliver whipcracks.
Dave looked over at Doug but he was occupied. Mousetache was giving him the works. Towering over Doug, he was pushing his chest against him in the ritual of pre-fight agonistic behavior: Go on, sucker, just push me away! Make contact so I can have a reason to hit you!
Dave's knees were jittering. He felt his strength ebbing. In the past he'd always feared fighting, even though he was hardly ever the class runt. Something would just switch off inside him before the first punch. He'd have to be good and angry before he could trash somebody, It'd happened twice before, but not this time. The situation was HIS own fault.
Please help meeeee
[Pride swallow, Dave. Say something. Defuse the situation.]
[Doesn't matter. Just do it. Go on!]
Dave said quietly: "Look, we don't want any trouble."
[Oh well, game over, Dave.]
Atlas tensed up. "Issat so? Well, what's with all that shit you said back there?"
"I was just being an asshole. Let's forget it. Let us go and we won't mess
anymore. I'm sorry."
[Digging yourself deeper, Dave.]
"You're SORRY?! No, man, I think I can take you. I think I can put you in the hospital, big man. I'm gonna. C''mon."
[OK, Dave, talk your way out of it. Nothing of pride is worth this. They might trash the truck or follow us home afterwards. They might have knives. Let's just get the hell out of here at whatever cost. At least stall for time. Hopefully somebody in McDonald's has called the cops.]
Okay, Dave, try logic: "Look, man, if we fight, I know it won't be fair. Everyone here is going to join in, and I can't take on all of you. I'm wrong, okay? Just let us go."
Atlas: "Oh man, jeez, it'll be fair, I'm telling you it'll be fair. They'll stay out, won't you guys?" They chimed in affirmatively.
All except Mousetache. He stood triumphant and walked over to Atlas's side.
"Omigod," Dave thought, "He's done already? Doug, where are you?" Dave looked for blood on Mousestache's knuckles. Nothing.
Doug honked the horn from inside the pickup. During Dave and Atlas's little parlay, Doug had managed to say something funny and deflated his aggressor. He had earned his passport.
But Dave hadn't. "C'mon, man. C'MON!" screamed Atlas. But Mousestache clapped Atlas's shoulder, smirking.
"Let 'em go. They're chicken-shit cityboys who're peeing their pants. Let them go back to their mommies. Ain't worth beating the shit out of."
The toughs stepped back victorious, and the wolf pack cheered.
Dave could have cheered too, had he not been so busy retreating into the pickup. After backing the Datsun up, careful not to run over any aggressors, Doug steered the duo away into the night.
Doug was smiling. He had been listening to Dave's retribution. Just had to say something:
"Oh man, you were shitting bricks. I thought you were going to cry."
Ashamed, Dave bit his lip and forced the tears back, thinking:
"Doug, nothing would have been worth it. A smashed face would stay with me for good or need corrective surgery. A broken nose is a month's lay-up. Ruined teeth are forever, and my parents would never forgive me for all their investment gone to hell. I don't care if it's all my fault. I ate crow, didn't I? So you saved me. Okay, thanks. Just don't rub it in."
Doug sensed that he had trodden wrong and put the radio on. "...this is WXXX, Penn Yan. A Friendly Town."
Dave snapped it off. He never wanted to see a boat or a burger bar again.
The writing is pretty raw, but the point is that that's the way I was back then. Echoes of John with all his contumely and self-righteousness, taken to an extreme where it eventually backfires. In all honesty, I really did not like myself back then, and most people, it seemed, shared the sentiment.
I was, in a word, a misfit.
Doug remembers it all in living color. And he always has a disparaging comment, insinuating that I had it coming, to add like a cherry on top. And as our week together progressed it began to grate.
We would go out for drinks at his favorite bars in downtown Seattle. Getting ready in our hotel room, he would criticize my lack of tasteful clothing. "You look like you bought that shit back in the late 1980's!" He was exactly right--I had. I hadn't been in America at all during the nineties to "update" my wardrobe, and cared not a whit for fashion anyway. Doug continued, "I don't want to be seen with you like that. Haven't you even got something that isn't wrinkled?" No, Doug, I've been living out of a backpack for the past three weeks. "Jeez, Dave, I can't take you anywhere!"
Then, arriving at the meat markets, Doug would be all on edge because he wanted to scope but couldn't desert his married friend. Especially since that friend is historically reknowned for being all thumbs around Western women, and would probably only do something embarrassing.
So we'd buy a drink and Doug would play etiquette police: "Dave, leave a tip."
"What?" It was hard to hear anything due to the din from the live band. Why young people congregate in places like these and hope to meet people beats me.
"Dave, leave a tip, in that jar on the counter."
"Why? Isn't eight bucks a drink enough?"
"No. Leave a dollar tip."
"Okay." I put it into the jar.
"No, dummy. Leave it on the counter where they can pick it up and remember that it was you who left it."
After the third drink, which I got, I wasn't in the mood for another tip. The drink and the service weren't that good. But again Doug played overseer. "Leave a tip, Dave."
"To get better service."
"Hey, Doug, look, we're leaving this place now anyway. What's the point?"
"If you don't leave a tip, it'll take longer for you to get a drink and it won't be as good."
I balked. "Doug, that's backward. Tips are rewards for good service, not insurance against bad. Anyway, I can wait for my drink if it only means a few minutes and I save a buck. And if it's not as good, we should go somewhere else."
"Dave, these bartenders don't get paid much. Give them a tip."
"Doug, the price is the price. I am not going to pay over ten percent more just to ransom my drink or assuage my conscience. It's the management's responsibility to pay them more and raise the price. But I think they're making enough. Eight bucks is plenty for a shot of gin mixed with lemon and ice."
"But they've got the live band to pay and rent to cover."
"That's not my concern, Doug. That's the business's and I'm not going to fiddle with our demand curves. You want to tip, you pay the tip. But I am not going to be taxed like this. It's becoming more expensive than even Japan."
"Jeez, Dave, can't take you anywhere." He paid the tip and we downed the drinks.
And so the night went on. We rushed from bar to bar, paying the cover charge at some, getting in without at others, but still spending no more than fifteen minutes at each. We went into a sax jazz bar where everyone was White and respectfully sat and listened; I felt in my element but Doug did not. We went into a dank rock cavern were meat was murder and people dressed like British-style Goths. That unpleasant atmosphere soon drove us to a Reggae bar, where most people were Black and the atmosphere was deliciously sweaty and bass. Eventually we rushed back to our original Rock bar, playing good ol' eighties' music, to hear their last set. At every place we bought a drink and paid around eight dollars each, plus tip. Then we downed it and moved on, never pausing long enough to claim our built-up goodwill.
By the time Doug got a $3 hot dog from a street vendor, then paid him $2 in tip, I realized there was something pathological at work here. "Doug, you just paid five fucking dollars for a hot dog! You doubled the price of a piece of sausage in a bun with a tip!"
Doug muttered a demurrer. He was drunk and pretty punchy, and once he finished his hot dog, he grabbed my glasses and threw them to the sidewalk, thankfully only chipping them.
I was livid. "What the FUCK did you do that for, Doug?"
"Hey, Dave, you know I always break your glasses whenever we meet." That was true--he always managed to sit on them, bend them during a pillow fight, or just mangle them in the course of things that it had in fact become a tradition.
One that I too was ready to break. "Doug, do you know how much these fuckers cost in Japan!? About two hundred dollars for lenses, and another two hundred for frames! You want to pay that? Just tone it down, okay?"
Doug did. He has always impressed me with the speed at which he shifts gears, and as we watched a wonderful sidewalk belly dancer, some guy came up to him, thankfully him, and began talking.
"Did you see that fight back there?"
The guy looked like REM's Michael Stipe, with baseball cap on backwards, shaven head, and lean features. His face was scabbing over with recent cuts.
"What fight?" Doug said after Michael Stipe asked him the question barely inches from his face.
"That fight over there in that alley. Did you see it? Because if you didn't, I'll take you over there right now and beat the fucking shit out of you."
Doug didn't even pause. "Oh, THAT fight. Yeah, I saw everything. Everything. So did everyone else. It's common knowledge. People are telling the police about it and everything."
"Oh, okay," and Michael Stipe slunk away.
I gasped. "Doug, that was amazing! Even as boozed as you are, you defused that situation without even straining yourself. How do you do it?"
"As I always have. Don't back down and don't show fear to people who look for it. Fraidy-cats are the ones they want to fight. Haven't you learned anything from Penn Yan?"
I guess not. And with all the things I have learned from Japan for managing social situations, I don't think I would have known what to do in that case at all. Short of knowing Martial Arts, I wonder if a Japanese would have either. I realized just how little I understood about America anymore. I felt even more the misfit.
It was near sunrise when we got back to our motel. Doug, despite being as tanked as I, took the wheel (I conceded that he was the better driver). But he was tense and snappy. More than ever he wanted to be free of North Carolina and be back in his Seattle, making a packet at Boeing, enjoying the nightlife, trolling for pliant Seattle women with a savvy American fratboy crowd.
Unsavvy, I felt truly out of place in his world. Doug was single and basically a yuppie, with a yuppie's abandon towards investments and expenditures; I have been married for a quarter of my life and don't believe in throwing money around. The fact was that, like so many other times in our youth, we were at one of those different-stages-of-life states again; until he settled down we would be somewhat at loggerheads.
But that in itself has never been fatal to our friendship. Convergence is just a matter of time. What bodes ill is that Doug sees me in terms of a past I don't like, instead of seeing me as the person I have decided to become.
This brings us to the phenomenon of the immigrant.
It is a harsh fact of life that one cannot change the past--only choose to forget it. Or escape it. Along with economics, a person's immutable history is one of the most powerful motivators for movement in human society, with surprising side effects. America, for example, received dissidents and malcontents who were sick of the cards they were dealt in their mother countries, and came over for a new deal. Those immigrants, perpetually challenged by new ideas, often discovered within themselves a surprisingly resilient wellspring of spirit and productivity--bedrock, if you will. Their combined efforts, within a reasonably tolerant society, indubitably helped America become the most wealthy and influential nation in the world.
This is the power of the immigrant--the power of choice.
As a child, limited by law and by a nacent character malleable by social forces, one is rarely endowed with the foresight or the fiber to choose paths that will positively influence future events. In Geneva NY, I made a lot of stupid moves, and so will probably always be seen as Winkle-Stinkle, poindexter, good at getting high scores but never making the grade, always blathering on about stupid things, always making a scene. Back there, I have no choice but to accept that image, because people find it difficult to look at old acquaintances with clean slates. Doug and I, with a friendship a generation long, even prefer not to.
Which is fine if you are happy about the way things were. As Doug illustrated most succinctly, I was not. By coming to Japan and appearing as a cast of unknowns, I was able to make my own choices, to remake myself in an image that I preferred as a sapient adult: family man, educator, essayist, and fighter for minority rights with an inner tenacity I never knew existed--because I had never been a minority before. That is why I want to stay.
The point is that misfits make the best immigrants because they feel like being portable. They feel less need to remain with people they know because of the antipathy. They feel less need to call anywhere else, but the place they chose to live, home.
That becomes the bedrock. Japan is my home now, and I am happy here. Happier than I've ever been at any time, at any place.
The downside is this: Herein lie potential seeds of doom with my friendship with Doug. Harping on memories of a difficult past are one thing, and they are tolerable. But Japan is a society that one either learns volumes about or not at all, and to Doug, Japan is a closed book. He just isn't interested. He could answer my questions about his lifestyle and work with aircraft. But his questions about my life and work Japan were just not forthcoming. An ever-increasing third of my life is overwhelming a thankfully receding past. And it is only the past that Doug and I can converse about. It has not only become unpleasant, but also redundant.
As much as I need him because he has always been there, Doug is personifying the America I left behind.
It was time to go home. I'd had enough introspection. After a short jaunt across the Canadian border and a long hop across the Pacific, I would spend the last few days of the Americatrek not in the US brooding, but in South Korea touring. This time meeting up with John's delightful wife, Beth, stationed at Osan AFB. As if to ease me back into the Orient slowly, the Korea leg was instructive, giving me a glimpse of Asia via the American military. I would also see the front line between two countries that are still fighting the Cold War.
(Click here to go on to Americatrek Part Five)