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May 27, 1997

Geisha, Gomer, Goober: Hi Ho!

Clark Powell

EDITOR'S NOTE: This column continues a series about a Merchant Marine voyage the author made at age 17.

Last time, we left two young sailors in a large Japanese geisha house-cum- restaurant. To the Okinawans, I am sure Jerry and I were barbarians, though they must have seen plenty like us. We were relentlessly making one faux-pas after another, yet we were blithely unaware of our gaffes.

Here's how I recorded our dinner in an unusually long and detailed log entry:

Monday, August 25, 1969: "I asked the Japanese man who was smiling and bowing but also definitely blocking our way upstairs if we could go inside the party room.

"'No. Sorry.' Pause. I asked if this was a hotel and how much rooms were. The maitre d' laughed and said, 'No, this is Japanese restaurant.' We promptly produced sheaves of dollar bills and promised not to wander around. The man shook his head. Another pause, smiles freezing on faces. Then Jerry shrugged and put a $10 bill in the man's top coat-pocket and we had a breathless moment while the man stared at us like an offended samurai.

"Finally, the man motioned to a China-doll lady hovering nearby, and she came forward with teeny-tiny steps bowing and smiling. We were made to understand that we should follow her, and were ushered to our own private eating room. The man followed us, and slid shut the paper door. He smiled, but his eyes did not - so the expression he gave was more a grimace than a grin.

"Four geisha-girls came in. These, it turned out, would be our waitresses, guides, and audience. They spoke no English, and what communication that took place was largely by pantomime. First, we had to go back outside and take off our shoes. It was then I noticed that my feet were, well, pretty dirty. I lucked up and sat cross-legged, but Jerry got a big laugh from the geishas when he sat with his knees under him like a girl-san. The paper panels kept sliding open and a geisha would enter, bow, and slip off their wooden block sandals (they wore white socks with individual big toe mittens). They would have to sit again to close the panel, then mince over to bring us something, bow, then giggle and blush. To exit, they'd have to do the whole thing in reverse: sit to open the panel, bow, slip back into their sandals, bow again as they silently and carefully slid the panel closed. This intricate process was a wonder to watch.

"Jerry was still nervous about the food. I think seeing the raw squid and octopus in that fast food place had put him off. A doll-woman came in (going through all the complicated motions) and handed us each a steaming white cloth rolled up in a little dish. She did a charade of washing her hands and face - we caught on, and did likewise. After she left, I decided to wash my dirty feet, too, but this turned the white cloth nearly black. I was kind of embarrassed when I put the soiled cloth back in the dish.

"A succession of geisha-dolls presented us with bowls of tea, chopsticks, and a menu that was twenty pages of Japanese - or maybe Chinese, who knew? Anyway, I managed to find out that #19 was shark fin, so I decided to try that, and Jerry went with #397, which we think was bamboo."

While one geisha (the term means literally "art person") left with our order, three others sat with us - perhaps this was the expected thing. I suppose they were there to entertain us and to make delicate conversation, perhaps to play the samisen or banjo and koto (zithers) that lay in the corner of the room. We grinned like happy baboons, and the geishas, at a loss, just giggled.

It was Lady Murasaki meeting Goober and Gomer.

Finally, for something to do, one of the ladies reached for the cloth I'd used on my feet and absently began to wipe of the table. She saw me gasp, and with a look of puzzlement, regarded the cloth in her porcelain hand. The dirt on it brought a new storm of giggles, and I blushed and pointed to my feet. The fact that we were so utterly without self-consciousness seemed to relieve the geishas of any embarrassment - it was as if they were dealing with infants.

The log continues: "At that moment the door opened and a gigantic platter of food was placed on the Lazy Susan on the knee-high table. It turned out to be Jerry's bamboo. The ladies took spoons and served us the dish in the little bowls we'd been given. Now the moment of truth: chopsticks! Unbelievably, neither Jerry nor I dropped a single morsel. The bamboo shoots were strange but good, and there was shrimp mixed in them. Actually, it was delicious. Then the shark fin soup came in, kind of greasy yellow. The ladies showed us how to hold the bowls close to our mouths and just shovel the soup right in. This seemed, well, un-dainty, but I guess that's the way you're supposed to eat soup here.

"Our hostesses couldn't leave Jerry alone. First, he'd made the mistake of sitting in a girl-san position, and second, his long blond hair seemed too much for them to resist. They kept laughing and playing with it while poor Jerry blushed and tried to eat. One geisha even got Jerry to wear her combs on his forelocks. He tried to get them to do the same to me, but I made sure my hair was brushed back.

"That's all, we said. We're full! The hostesses seemed dismayed, and started to chatter in animated Japanese, pointing to the hardly dented platters of food. We protested that we couldn't touch another bite, and were (with great ritual, of course) presented with a check for $11.35, which included two giant Orion beers and four Cokes for our hostesses."

Outside again, we got in a cab and said, "Massage." Another wild ride through some narrow, crowded streets, and fifteen minutes later we were deposited at a storefront that said "American Happy Massage." It was actually a nice place and they gave real massages there - or else I just didn't pick up on the coded hints from the masseuse: "It was a great massage," I enthused in the log. "You go into this little room that has a dresser, chair, and a high massage table, plus a whole lot of other stuff (I found out that the massage girls live in their rooms). Anyway, they also have adjoining saunas and hot tubs.

"First you hit the sauna for about ten minutes, get up a good sweat, and clamber out like a cooked lobster. Sit on a wood stool while the masseuse pours cool water over you and scrubs you down with a rough sponge. Then it's into the tub for another ten minutes while she takes a break. Finally, the massage. Ahhhh. I never knew I had so many bones to crack. She even massaged my scalp! I felt like a bowl of melted butter when I walked out of there.

"Next we hit a bar, which was a dark place with dayglo paintings floating in black lights. It had a few solitary drinkers, and a very loud and sincere band playing the same song for about 70 years, over and over. You have never heard Rock and Roll in its mangled glory until you hear a Japanese version of "Inna Godda Da Vida." The drummer went into this Ginger Baker drum-solo that lasted about 15 minutes. The guy was actually incredibly good.

"After that," I concluded flatly, "we hit a few more bars and then made it back to the ship. We had a good time."

Next ish, we turn toward San Francisco. It's been a long voyage, and I for one am ready to bring this story home.

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