It was a hot night in the city. I sat in my office on the 9th floor of the "Let's Building" looking out over the neon glare of Shinjuku. The air conditioning wasn't making more than a ripple on the puddles of perspiration on the floor. I reached over and emptied another Bourbon and Pocari Sweat. I had just about had enough of feeling sorry for myself for one night and was getting ready to return to my dingy Takadanobaba apartment when the phone rang.
"Are you Phirip Malrowe?" the voice of a young woman asked.
"Could be," I teased, trying to be mysterious.
"You famous English teacher?" she asked, wondering if she had got pizza delivery instead.
"Listen lady," I snarled into the mouthpiece. "Don't you realize you ought to use a tag question when you're attempting to verify meaning?"
"B-b-b-belify meaning? she stuttered.
"Skip it, lady," I told her. "You don't even know my rates yet."
I found playing hard to get was the best way to get my clients interested. She wasn't any different.
"Mister Malrowe, I need you help," she sobbed.
"What seems to be the problem?"
"I can't possible talk about on phone."
"Yup, I guess with your level of English, you need more visual cues. Where are you calling from?"
"I am bar in Roppongi, I think it called Welfare."
"You mean Velfarre. Give me 20 minutes."
"You mean Velfarre. Give me 20 minutes."
I stepped out into hustle and bustle of Gero Kaido and hailed a cab. The driver smelled of old socks and cigarettes. He had forgotten how to smile since learning to drive. The fact that I wasn't going to Saitama seemed to join onto the long line of his other misfortunes, but it was hard to tell with that kind of face. A sign in Japanese asked patrons not to smoke, but with his blackened teeth, who was he kidding?
When we arrived I made the mistake of tipping him. Naturally, being Japanese, he ran after me and forced me to take back my 13 yen. Then bowing several times and apologizing, he got back in his cab and, for all I know, drove straight to the tracks of the Chuo Line and lay down.
Roppongi was trying hard to live up to its reputation as a 'fun town.' I walked past a number of people, who were trying to prove how international the place could be by laughing as loudly as possible, and breezed into the club, a solid chunk of style in a place where it was only smeared over the surfaces.
I found the girl at a corner table being pestered by a big lug who had come to Japan with the quaint idea that 'No' always meant 'Yes' and a power of faith that sustained his delusion of being God's gift to women. I knew it was her because her Kantundastanda Dictionary was open in front of her on "belify meaning." Going right over, I kissed her on the cheek.
"Sorry I'm late, sweetheart," I said, pretending to be her boyfriend. That was too subtle for the big ape. He took me for another pick up artist muscling in on his action.
"Hey, buddy!" he tapped me with a finger you could plug a drain with. "Beat it! Toots is with me. Go find your own yellow cab. Some of these Jap dames like older guys – ha ha ha!"
"Listen, buster," I sneered at him. "I know you've only got a few days shore leave, so why don't you spend it learning origami, visit some exquisite Oriental temples, or take in a few sumo matches. Don't waste it having a brawl with another Westerner in a Eurobeat disco over a woman tarted up in the latest Italian fashions."
That seemed to hit the spot. Suddenly, the hard glint in his eyes melted into a sappy glow.
"Yeh, no kidding, brother," he said finishing off his drink, looking like a gorilla with a thimble.
"What am I doing here I couldn't do back home? I come half way round the world and for what? I'm in this exotic land with its unique, esoteric culture and I waste my time trying to pick a fight with another bozo over this floozy whose head is filled with Hollywood bullshit. I've had enough of this. I'm gonna get an early night's sleep and in the morning, I'm gonna find me the real Japan. Say, buddy, you can't give me any pointers can you?"
"Sure. You should climb Mount Fuji and see the sunrise, followed by an onsen with a monkey, and a bit of zasen. Don't yell when they whack you with the bamboo or they'll think you're a wuss. Then, if you still have time, maybe cram in a shamisen lesson, but remember to bring your own cat."
"Thanks a million, pal," he said, giving me a two-handed handshake with one hand, before turning on his heel and marching off. Somewhere in the distance I seemed to hear a piece of bamboo hitting a rock and swinging back down to fill with water again.
With King Kong out the way, it was now safe to check out the little package on the barstool next to me. "I'm Malrowe, Phirip Malrowe," I said. "How can I help, sweetheart?"
She started to introduce herself as if she were sitting an Eiken exam, and even then she was going to fail.
"M-m-my name is Nozomi Yoshida. I is university student. I major English literature. My hometown Aomori plee-fek-sha. I hobbies scuba dive, flamenco dance, clean of room, and watch of movies."
I let her run out of steam. Meanwhile my eyes worked her over. She was wearing a translucent floral pattern dress with no waist, slightly more like a baby doll nightie than a silk handkerchief, high platform shoes that probably helped keep her awake, and silvery make up that reminded me of the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz.
"Mr. Malrowe," she suddenly sobbed, "you gotta help me."
"It’s 25,000 yen a day plus expenses and bar tab," I flashed her a smile for free.
"Yes, yes, of course. I have big problem." The tears were starting to rust the carnival paint.
"Wrong lady, you've got a small problem – it's called the indefinite article. I wouldn't worry about it too much unless you're trying to be precise."
"Mr. Malrowe, my professor at college, Higginbottom Sensei, asked me to write essay of existential motifs in Shakespearean literature. I look up all words in Kantundastanda Dictionary, but I can't understand it."
"So, what do you want me to do about it?"
"I saw you ad in Tokyo Journal, Tokyo Notice Board, Metropolis, J-Select, Ai-Eye, and Hiragana Times. You great English sensei. Many years in Japan collecting our terrible English. Maybe you can write term paper for me?"
She batted her big baby-doll eyelashes at me as if she was trying to flip an egg with them.
"You got me wrong, sister," I told her. "I may look like some jaded, cynical, washed-up, low-life heel, but I’m not that kind of teacher. If you've got an assignment, you're gonna have to pass it fair and square. I'm not going to help you cheat."
She started biting her lip and making gurgling noises like a toddler that's just swallowed a golf ball.
"Anyway, I have as much idea about existential motifs in Shakespearean literature as anyone else in this club," I added trying not to look too directly at the rows of knickerless para para dancers going through their paces on some nearby mirror tables.
"Oh, Mr. Malrowe, you only my hope."
I started feeling sorry for her, then I started wondering how she'd look without all that goofy make up – terrible probably. I couldn't understand it – she didn't have much money, she wasn't particularly sexy, and her dress and make up sense were something that couldn't possibly appeal to a guy like me brought up on Veronica Lake and Pink Lady.
Off those platform shoes she was just a scrawny little, stumpy-legged dwarf with too much solar-dermic damage. I was having trouble finding a reason why I was getting involved. I guess it was just old softy Malrowe doing his saving-a-drowning-kitten act once again. If there was a beggar near by, I'd've probably bunged him my last piece of change as well, and then looked for an old lady to help across the street.
"Okay," I said, stubbing out my cigarette on the "patrons are requested not to smoke" sign. "I'll help you." That seemed to make her day. Little fireworks went off in her eyes and all her teeth came out to smile.
I asked her to show me the term paper. She lifted up a small transparent Fendi handbag, designed to show everybody how many tampons and condoms you're carrying around, and started pulling out all sorts of junk.
After she'd turned the bar table into Barbie's dressing room, she finally produced a crumpled wad of paper emblazoned with the same cockamamie question she had just told me about. What was this clown Higginbottom thinking? There was definitely something doolally about that kind of question to a class of airheads like Nozomi and her glitter-cheeked, keitai-toting chums. Their idea of English literature was probably reading the "Made in Italy" labels on their clothing.
When I got back to my office in the Lets Building, the fax machine was peeling off a curly letter for me. It was from the Society for Testing English Ability Level, better known by its English acronym as S.T.E.A.L.
Another one of the varied aspects of my life as a Tokyo English teacher: I had started doing a bit of exam writing. S.T.E.A.L. was a nationally recognized, homegrown qualification for English proficiency, testing millions yearly at 50,000 yen a shot, not to mention the books of past test papers, the CD and DVD courses, and a few dozen other spin offs, including the recently invented "Learn-and-Wipe" English language toilet paper designed to boost your vocabulary and provide comfort and softness.
The job involved writing short English passages of between 99 and 101 words each with a few questions. They liked passages on things like Ostrich Farming, Tree Tagging, or "New Ways to Recycle Old Rubbish," which was my speciality. I had also contributed a few pieces that had been rejected, like "How to Jimmy a Lock With a Gaijin Card" and "The Hidden Benefits of a 50-a-day Smoking Habit."
The fax was from my new handler, Mr. Okamoto, a plump-faced young man whose immobile features miraculously failed to conceal his endemic nervousness. I ticked a box and faxed it back – this was how he communicated with you when he got to know you really, really well. It was now 11:45pm and I had the rest of the day off.
The next day, the Sun rose. It had that mean July glare in its eye, as if it were looking for any babies or dogs left alone in parked cars outside pachinko parlors. Luckily I didn’t have either,as I climbed into my beat up Nissan Blendy and drove out to the Koshihikari University for Cute Young Ladies.
College tutors have better hours than judges, so Higginbottom was through soon after he got back from lunch. He was a typical academic type, stoop-shouldered, untidy hair, and pale from too much studying. But there was something about him I didn't like. It might have been the fact he wasn't a beautiful redhead in a tight black dress, but I suspected it ran deeper than that.
I trailed him to his house, a large palatial residence within easy walking distance of the campus. It had a satellite dish on the roof, no doubt to catch all those limey BBC Jane Austen costume dramas or live broadcasts from Stratford-upon-Avon.
I waited in my Blendy for a few minutes, then walked slowly up to the front door. I was going to try the direct approach, but before I could lay my digit on the buzzer, I heard something that froze my blood. The stereo was blasting out Candy Shop by Fifty Cent, the notorious gangsta rapper. It just didn't figure – this spindlebrain listening to sound juice for palookas!
I took out a piece of hard, durable plastic, otherwise known as my gaijin registration card, and quietly jimmied the door. I'm a big guy, but years of living in dinky little Japanese pads, has taught me to walk like a cat on coconuts. I slinked down the corridor and caught sight of Higginbottom in the kitchen scraping a can of hot chili onto a pile of Twinkies, another detail that didn’t quite square with the high brow gee I took him to be.
Next he slouched through to the living room, switched off the music and put on the satellite TV. I was expecting the Discovery Channel but instead it was a movie about big-breasted girls with large vibrating machine guns, who shot everything up till it exploded, shot lovingly in close up and slow motion.
I left him to follow the subtle character development and plot twists while I went to check out his study. There were WWF posters on the wall and empty root beer cans on the floor. A nice antique bookcase that looked like it should have been full of leather-bound first editions of Dickens and Aristotle was instead stuffed with junk. There was a copy of Making Out in Japanese, Japanese for Morons, Japan Pink Guide, a few numbers of "Sports Illustrated" and "National Enquirer" and, to add a little intellectual depth, a coloring book.
If this guy was a bona fide English prof, then I was the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature. This chili-farting, MTV-watching, baseball cap-wearing couch potato made Beavis and Butthead look like Plato and Socrates. Inside a desk drawer I found a copy of his academic credentials, an MA degree from the kind of University you could cram into a PO box in downtown Taipei.
Next to this was a pile of photographs showing a bevy of young beauties, obviously his students. It didn't take a genius to work out from the childish handwriting on the back that the slimy creep was allocating marks based on how 'friendly' they had been. So that's why he was setting impossible essay topics like "Existential Motifs in Shakespearean Literature." He didn't know what it meant either, but it sure gave him the whip hand as I could see from the triple 'A' scrawled on the back of a snapshot of Nozomi in suspenders and nekomimi.
Under the photos I found his old parole card. So, not only was this gink passing himself off as an academic, raking in 5,000 bucks a month for a 10-hour-week and taking advantage of the students, he was also on the lam from the parole board. My flesh would’ve been creeping up the wall if I hadn't been so envious.
Suddenly the door opened behind me and there he was with a tube of Pringles in one hand and a carton of chocolate milk in the other. If he was looking for the remote control, I was obviously the wrong size. Before he could react, I buried my fist a few inches behind his belly button and watched him go down like a sack of potatoes.
"Whaddya do dat for?" he bleated.
"Just an IQ test, professor," I sneered. "You failed."
He started to look confused, like I was talking over his head, so I tossed him my card, the one the machine in the arcade had printed with little kitties and bunnies on it.
"So you're a private English t-t-teacher?" he stuttered as the chocolate milk dribbled down his stubbly face trying to avoid his warts.
"Yeh – majored in applied linguistics at a real university, and spent a full year getting a TEFL diploma. How about you, Einstein?" I dangled the fake MA.
"Gimme dat back," he desperately grabbed at it, falling back on the floor as he missed.
"No way, you phony," I snarled as I gave him a bit of shoe leather.
"I don't mind a guy lying his way into a cushy job. It doesn’t hurt anyone except a few big shots who can afford it. But when you start messing around with the English language, then it's a different story."
"Whaddya mean?" he asked from lips you could tell my shoe size from.
"I mean setting your students assignments that have no relation to their level of English, making them fork out for texts they have no hope of mastering, throwing them in at the deep end so no one will think of questioning how you arbitrarily decide their marks, so that you can use that as leverage to get their underwear off."
"So, what? Teaching English is just a racket."
"Scum like you turn my stomach. I'm almost ashamed to be a native speaker of the most expressive and precise language ever devised by man, but nothing will turn me from my sacred duty of teaching the World to speak in short, snappy, hard-boiled phrases. It might take 1000 years if we let deadbeats like you muddy the waters, but one thing is certain, the whole World and everybody in it will one day speak the noble language of English."
I must have been carried away by my own eloquence because I didn't see him pick up the paper knife and lunge at me in a desperate attempt to save his career. Luckily, the blade embedded itself in the small hardback copy of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of English Poetry that I always keep in my breast pocket for those long, lonely hours an English teacher has to spend on the train. I paid him back with an elbow to the kisser and listened to the tinkle of teeth on the floor.
"You’re all washed up, Rico. Tomorrow, the Dean gets a few more references to put against your name. You'll be out of here faster than yesterday's Sushi Vindaloo. If I were you, I’d start looking for a new job. Here, this might help."
I scribbled down the number of a bar in Roppongi that employed punks like him to spit in your beer at slightly over 700 yen an hour, and threw it into the little circle created by his loose teeth.
As I walked past the living room, the blonde girl with the vibrating breasts was chewing up another drugs convoy. I blew her a kiss and walked out into the sunshine.
A few days later Nozomi came to see me at my office. She looked a lot different. The clown make-up was gone and she had dyed and straightened her hair back to its natural state. She looked the way you imagine Japanese girls to look before you come to Japan. I liked her a lot better this way. I moved closer to prove it.
She told me she no longer needed me to write her term paper because her English Lit. professor had suddenly lit out. As they couldn't find a suitable foreign replacement for the job, they had got a Japanese professor to fill in. Now all they had to do was copy out passages of Catcher in the Rye and translate them into Japanese and then back into English using their dictionaries. They even got extra marks for nice handwriting, preserving Japanese syntax, and using word processors.
She gave me a look you could pour on your waffles. I knew she was waiting for something and it wasn't public transport. I was just about to make my move when her mobile rang and she started using her mouth on that instead. It was her best friend inviting her to go shopping. She opened and closed her hand like a little flower and disappeared into the elevator.
After she left, I turned and looked out over the city that was forever breaking my heart. They said a typhoon was slowly moving in. Outside the clouds were piling up like my dirty laundry, reminding me of what I usually did on Saturday nights. It would be too wet for that, so I decided if I was going to get wet anyway, I might as well start from the inside.
I popped a Camel in my mouth, locked up the office and headed off towards Dubliners for a good Irish soak. As I stepped into the elevator, her perfume hit me one last time. I breathed it in, thought one last thought about her, then lit my cigarette. Outside the rain was already washing the memories off the sidewalk – except, this being Japan, there wasn't a sidewalk.
Sept-Nov, 2000 (In 3 installments)