Whenever I Sit at a Bar Drinking Like This, I Always Think What a Sacred Profession Bartending Is

Whenever I sit at a bar drinking like this, I always think what a sacred profession bartending is. The bartender, with the stained-glass shelves of many-colored bottles behind him, moves precisely about in a shining crystal vestibule, like a priest conducting a ritual. Pouring the holy liquid into a glass, he listens with a reverent, sympathetic smile as the customers recite their woes.

At the far end of the bar is a pair of unattractive Mesdames with coarse skin and too much makeup. They're disgustingly drunk-or maybe only pretending to be. Their dialogue alternates between whispers and squeals. Something? the bartender intones, beaming his smile in their direction.

Next to the Mesdames is an obviously newlywed couple. I suppose they've just held the wedding reception at this hotel, and now they'll spend a night here before leaving on their honeymoon. Neither of them is saying much. The groom takes tiny sips at a glass of house whiskey and water, and the bride is drinking in her surroundings as the ice in her mai tai melts, turning it a cloudy orange. Shall I bring you something to nibble on? the bartender inquires, sweeping his smile their way.

Next to the newlyweds is a lone American man in a dark suit drinking a Schlitz. Foreigners always order beer. The guidebooks tell them that the prices in Japanese hotels are outrageous, to stick to beer if they drink in the bar. Next to the American a young woman and a much older man are drinking champagne cocktails and virtually necking; next to them is a pair of the half-assed sort of rich men you find in any hotel bar; and next to them is me. There's an empty stool between me and them, however. She's late. I'm drinking by myself, not talking to anyone, and I can't really judge how drunk I am. I wonder how many I've had now. Shall I fix you another? the bartender asks with a smile, and I nod. Bourbon splashes into a glass. Busy? the bartender says as he pours. Well, at least the location work is over, I tell him. Now it's just a matter of editing the film.

I'm a director for a television production company, and our specialty is overseas documentaries. Until two years ago I was involved with musical variety shows.

The bartender never rests. He lines up the glasses, chills the champagne and white wine, chips rocks out of a block of ice, replaces ashtrays, serves up platters of sausages or raw oysters. No doubt all nine of the people sitting at this bar are looking for sin tonight. The circumstances are different for each, of course, but all have the same destination in mind. No one gets drunk in order to elevate their moral standards. The bartender, sure enough, is a priest of sorts.

Maybe I should tell a joke or two and laugh while I can. Tonight I have an unpleasant task ahead of me. Maybe I'll share a little joke with the kindly bartender. For the past six months or so I've been documenting slums. Calcutta, Manila, Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo, Bogota . . . When you're in the slums you begin to wonder if the whole world isn't a slum, to feel as if slums are the normal state of affairs. I heard a lot of good jokes in those places. A dead baby was floating in the sewer in Calcutta, and an Indian fellow I knew said something really funny. What was it again? Ah, well, it's about a dead baby. I'd have to tell it just right or it wouldn't be much of a joke.

"Sorry!"

Here she is. I haven't seen this woman, this mistress of mine, for a long time. She looks wonderful. She isn't my mistress anymore, though. Why is it that when you stop having sex with a woman, the moment you've distanced yourself, she starts to look even more beautiful than before?

"The streets were so jammed!"

Jammed? Try the bazaar in Calcutta if you want to see jammed, I nearly tell her. Strange thought to have at a time like this. Maybe I'm getting drunk after all.

"It's been so long, I wish I had more time tonight but I've got to get home early because my mother's coming, you look great."

I don't feel great. And now I feel even less so. I wasn't getting my hopes up too much, but I was half wondering if she and I might not rekindle the old flame for the evening. I could use some warmth tonight. That's life, though. You don't have to live in a slum to know that things don't always work out the way you'd like them to.

"Would you explain it all to me again? I didn't quite get it on the phone."

She works at one of those boutiques on the back streets of Aoyama. The type of woman you can find most anywhere these days, the type who assume that being tall and pretty gives them certain privileges. Her name's Kiyomi. They call her Kimi, and that's what I called her in bed. She declines a glass of my Wild Turkey and orders the Brandy Alexander she always used to drink.

"Well?"

I don't feel much like talking about it. What I'd like to do is rattle off a series of slum jokes, laugh hysterically, drink till our tongues go numb, take a shower together, and play games with a bottle of vegetable oil.

"Well, the thing is, a certain woman is taking me to court."

"So you said. Your wife?"

"No. My wife'll probably be taking me to court pretty soon herself, but she's going to have to wait in line."

"You have so many women, after all."

"That's not what I mean."

"It doesn't matter. Now."

"Anyway, this woman, she's suing me for damages."

"Damages? What does that mean? Is she young?"

"No. Average."

"Twenty-three?"

"Twenty-five."

"Oh. Average."

"Average, right? Anyway, her lawyer says we were in a common-law marriage type of relationship."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"She claims I tied her down, restricted her freedom."

"I don't really get it. I mean, she chose to get involved with you, right? Knowing you had a wife and children?"

"That sort of reasoning doesn't work on her."

"Are yakuza involved?"

"No, no, she's perfectly straight and narrow. Average. So, anyway, my lawyer says-see, she and I always met here, in this hotel-so he says if she was the only one I ever met here during all that time, then that would lend credence to her claim that it was an exclusive, binding relationship."

"I don't really understand."

"So my lawyer says that if there was even one other woman I got intimate with, here in this hotel, even one I paid for or whatever, then I could claim all my rendezvous here were only, you know, recreational types of things."

"Forget it!"

I can feel the blood drain from my face. Why is she so quick on the uptake all of a sudden?

"Wait. At least listen to what I have to say."

"You want me to testify for you, don't you! You bastard!"

"Yes, but, look, there's one thing I have to tell you in advance. We're talking about a legal trial here. I can't offer you any remuneration."

"You bastard! Remuneration! Think about what you're asking me to do! I'm not even married yet! I . . . What would I tell my mother? My mother's still working! She always cooked dinner for us, every night! What do you take me for? You have no concern for anyone's feelings but your own!"

And damn me if she doesn't start crying. Her mascara runs down her cheeks and black tears drop on the marble countertop of the bar. The American in the dark suit is shooting reproachful glances at me; the half-assed rich men are talking about membership at the Yomiuri Country Club and pretending not to notice us. An old proverb says the two things you can't get the best of are a crying baby and something else, but I'll bet neither one is as bad as a woman in tears. Picasso had a work called Weeping Woman, but no Weeping Baby . . . Picasso? What's Picasso got to do with anything? If I don't convince Kiyomi to help me out I'm going to have to devote the remaining forty-odd years of my life to paying off debts. In Calcutta there was an old man just sitting silently by the side of the road. Suddenly I envy him. I envy everybody who isn't me right now.

"Don't cry. Listen, I know it's a lot to ask, but, look, right now I'm-"

"A lot to ask? It's not a lot to ask, it's, it's unthinkable, that's what it is. Who ever heard of such a thing?"

I wonder how many times I've seen this woman cry. She cried when I told her it was over. We were in a French restaurant in Roppongi. Between sobs she was screaming at me-You're the most horrible man on earth! When you die you'll go straight to hell! - screaming so loudly a waiter nearly dropped his tray. She ate her dinner, though, even as the tears ran down her face. When the pigeon dish arrived, she cut off the stream of curses just long enough to squeal, "This is delicious!" Tall, pretty women are tough to the core, and they know how to keep you off balance. What am I going to do? Maybe I should try bursting into tears myself.

"Kiyomi, you . . . You're the only one who can help me."

She stops crying. I don't know if this last line of mine struck a chord or if she's just tired of crying, but maybe I'm on to something. I've got to feel her out carefully.

"I know how selfish I am," I tell her. "I know I'm not perfect. But I'm really having a rough time right now. My father back home is all crippled up with rheumatism, and what with that and my little sister's miscarriage my poor mother's going completely neurotic on us, and-"

"What? Your sister had a miscarriage?"

She always used to like it when I'd tell her how much she reminded me of my little sister.

"Yeah. After six years of marriage, she finally gets pregnant, and . . ."

My sister has two children and one more on the way. The secret to lying is to convince yourself that what you're saying is true. If you can't fool yourself, you can't fool anyone else. It's the same with making television programs.

"The poor thing! She must be devastated."

"Oh, she's all right. I talked to her on the phone yesterday. She's tough, that girl."

"She's just putting up a bold front. It's got to be devastating. My brother's wife had a miscarriage, and I know how hard it was on her."

"We talked about the slums in Calcutta. Did I tell you about that?"

"No."

"Well, it's just hell on earth. Calcutta has nearly ten million people, and half of them live in slums. It's as if they've been denied their humanity; they rummage through garbage dumps like animals, there's about one toilet for every hundred people, the streets are all soggy with overflowing sewage, there are dead babies floating in the gutters . . ."

"Oh my god."

"Japan's a special place, you know. Life isn't so easy on people in other countries."

This is true. Whenever I go overseas I'm reminded that Japan is a special case. The Japanese are hopelessly spoiled. The country's prospering mainly because of chance geopolitical factors, but the people think it's because they work so hard. . . . All of which is beside the point right now. My own personal goal at this moment is a lot higher on my list than cleaning up the slums of Calcutta.

"I told my sister about a family I interviewed there. A family of six living in a space about ten meters square. They've got only one bed-bed, it's a wooden plank covered with ratty old blankets-and they take turns sleeping on it. The children all go out to beg every day, and the father works at some construction site twice a week or so, makes about two dollars a day, just enough to eat. But the thing is, they're happy. Cheerful."

"They're cheerful?"

"Cheerful. The children's faces just glow. They look infinitely happier than the Japanese kids you see trudging back and forth to cram schools every night."

Her cheeks are stained with the tracks of mascara, but the bartender makes no attempt to offer her a moistened towel. The bartender is gentle and sympathetic, but he doesn't intrude in forbidden territory. He's a symbol, and avoids becoming personally involved. For all the world a priest.

"You did a lot for me back then, didn't you."

She's reminiscing now. She orders another nostalgic cocktail.

"When I think about it now, I realize the time I spent with you was the closest I'll ever come to having a glamorous life."

"Don't be silly."

"That's what I think nowadays."

"It's not true."

"I can't really do anything, I don't have any skills. What can I do but get married?"

"You could end up marrying some very wealthy man."

"No. I know now."

"Know what?"

"Status, class-it's not as if those things have ceased to exist. There are men who are both wealthy and attractive-you're one of them-"

"Come on."

"-but men like that don't choose women like me. They get bright, pretty girls from wealthy families. I know that now."

"Not necessarily."

"I'm afraid so. Look at you. It never occurred to you to divorce your wife and marry me, did it? It doesn't matter, I'm not saying it matters anymore, but, what I mean is, when I was with you, the food I ate and everything, I'm sure I'll never eat such wonderful food again in my whole life-caviar, lobster thermidor, globefish-I mean, my mother and father have never had food like that, and you took me to Singapore and Cebu Island and all those places, and, yeah, I was pretty bitter when we broke up, but . . . I don't think I'll ever have that much fun again."

"Listen, as long as you keep your health, there are all sorts of things to look forward to."

"I'm sure that's true for you."

"For everyone."

"You don't believe that for a minute. You're the one who always used to say that even today ninety-nine percent of all human beings are slaves."

She's got me there. Back when my marriage was still going smoothly, I used to take my five-year-old daughter and three-year-old son to an amusement park near our house. Studying the people there, it always struck me how slaves inevitably end up with other slaves. Slave faces and slave fashions and slave cars and slave speech and slave attitudes just keep replicating themselves, over and over. In Japan nobody realizes they're slaves; at least in a place like Calcutta the discrimination is so total and so blatant that your real status is constantly right in your face.

"All right. You win," she says, resting her cheek on her hand. "You're hopeless, aren't you. Can you guarantee my privacy on this, though? It won't be in Focus or something?"

"No way. I'm not that famous. But, look, I really appreciate this."

"I want something in return, though."

"What? I told you there can't be any re-" "Not money. You know what a big fan I am of Yoshihiko Takahashi, right? The second baseman for the Carp? My greatest dream right now is to meet him. I'll testify on the condition that you introduce me to Yoshihiko."

Who am I to refuse conditions?

I go to see a colleague in the sports department at a local station.

"Listen, do you know Yoshihiko Takahashi, the baseball player?"

What in the world am I doing, though? Every night I get telephone calls, alternately pleading and threatening, from the woman who's taking me to court; the only word I get from my wife are curt orders to send our children's this, that, and the other to her family home; I've got fifty thousand feet of film waiting to be edited-and here I am trying to arrange a meeting with a baseball player. How I envy that beggar in Calcutta, who has only to sit on the street with his hand outstretched to make it through the day! All he has to do is survive.

"Not personally. The people at the Hiroshima affiliate cover the Carp. Why?"

"It's a long story. Can you introduce me to somebody at the Hiroshima station?"

"Easy enough, but what are you up to, anyway? You're going to get Yoshihiko's autograph and use it to seduce some young female fan of his, right? It's going to cost you."

"If only it were such a tale of sweetness and light. In fact, it's a grim and depressing affair."

"You had these rare Italian cigarettes once, remember? That's what I want in return."

"Wait. You can't buy those cigarettes-they don't even have them in duty-free shops overseas!"

"You know I'm a nonfilter freak. This whole anti-smoking campaign nowadays- it's all a plot by a certain international pharmaceutical company and the ad agencies, and I-"

"A pianist gave me those cigarettes when I was on location in Italy. He only gave me one pack!"

"Great cigarettes."

"I could pay you instead. Say, twenty thousand yen?"

"I need the smokes."

Who am I to refuse conditions?

During a break in the dubbing, instead of eating dinner I go to the Italian Government Tourist Bureau. I'm here to meet a public relations officer named Carla. She helped me out once when I was making a documentary about the history of popular song.

"This is going to sound kind of silly, but I wanted to ask your advice about a certain type of cigarettes."

Carla is the daughter of a family so outrageously wealthy they own their own soccer team. Her father had her appointed to the tourist bureau partly for the purpose of evacuating her from the land of political kidnappings to Tokyo, the safest city in the world.

"This is quite a coincidence. I was going to call you."

The smell of her perfume is overwhelming. No doubt her body odor is, too. I've only known two Italian women. They both had soft skin. Latin vaginas are a lot like Japanese ones. Which is completely beside the point right now.

"The cigarettes that pianist, Massimo, smoked. How can I get some of those?"

"What were they called?"

"I don't remember. I remember the package, though. It wasn't paper, it was one of those little flat tins, like cigars come in sometimes, and the logo was an elephant with whiskers-or was it a water buffalo?"

"I've never seen any cigarettes like that."

"I need to get some."

"You say Massimo smoked them?"

"Yes."

"Then they may be custom made. Massimo's from Perugia, which is an especially isolated district, even for Italy. Come to think of it, they do make some excellent tobacco products there. We've finished operations for today, but I could send a telex first thing in the morning."

"Do you think you can find them?"

"Nothing having to do with Italy is impossible for me. Except maybe interviewing the Red Brigade." Carla laughs, causing her enormous breasts to jiggle. I once danced a slow dance with her, my face buried between those breasts, and nearly suffocated.

"I have a favor to ask of you, too. Do you remember that time we went to eat a special salmon roe dish at that place in Tsukiji?"

"Behind the Dentsu headquarters?"

"That's the one. They served some little dried fish for hors d'oeuvre. I want some of those to serve at my next party."

"Ah, but you can't find those just anywhere. I seem to recall that they were from some remote little region on the Japan Sea coast, or-"

"I was going to call you. I've just got to have some of those fish, and soon. I'll take care of the cigarettes for you."

Who am I to refuse, or try to negotiate, any conditions?

The editing continues. Everyone involved is walking around with bloodshot eyes, having worked late night after night. On the monitor is a giant garbage dump in Calcutta. Dogs, cats, pigs, water buffaloes, birds, and human beings are rummaging through the garbage. Two women holding babies to their breasts are fighting over a half-rotten melon rind. "How can anyone live like that?" the recording engineer mutters. "These people are way beyond having anything like individual pride," the technician says as he taps at his keyboard. I direct the dubbing, making minor adjustments to the script as we go, but the only thing in my head is a little dried fish.

"Kat-chan. It's me."

Kat-chan used to work for Dentsu. He was in charge of the Sumitomo pavilion at the Expo. He quit the business six years ago and opened a restaurant in Tsukiji, right behind Dentsu. No one's sure why he quit his job as an event planner. Some say he was forced out because he's homosexual. He himself says it's simply because he loves to cook, and I'll say this much: he certainly comes up with some amazing dishes. His ark shell and kiwi salad, for example, is out of this world.

"Well! Hello, stranger!"

"I've got a favor to ask."

"Not on the telephone, you haven't. You'll have to come here and show your face."

"Last year, in the spring, you had some really delicious little dried fish, remember? Real tiny little things."

"Sure. From Wakasa."

"Right. Do you have any now?"

"No."

"No?"

"There's only one little old man who catches and prepares those fish-he's a legend in Wakasa -and they're almost impossible to get your hands on. They were incredible, weren't they? You can imagine the demand."

"Damn."

"You've got to have them?"

"Yeah."

"I'll get you some, then."

"Really?"

"But I want something from you in return."

"Whoa, whoa, wait a minute. I don't, I'm not . . ." "I don't want your ass, silly. Listen, do you still see Ken-bo, from the Arikawa Agency?"

"I don't do music programs anymore."

"So you don't carry much weight with the agencies now?"

"What, a piddling little agency like Arikawa? No problem. What do you need?"

"Find Ken-bo and tell him to give me back my racket. I lent him my Dunlop Max 2000, and he won't give it back. I'm leaving on a trip to Izu Highlands the day after tomorrow, and I want to take that racket with me."

Too many material goods. Cigarettes from the Perugia region in Italy, little fish from Wakasa, Dunlop rackets-Japan is on the road to ruin. Look at Calcutta. A beggar woman, both arms covered with sores from some skin disease, stands in the blazing sun for ten hours to get her hands on a single stale biscuit.

I duck out of the cutting room and dash up the stairs to Studio 3, on the fourth floor. Ken-bo is a young gay manager for the Arikawa Talent Agency. He comes to rehearsals to brown-nose the producer even when his singers aren't on a show.

"There you are," I snarl. "Haven't changed a bit, have you."

"My! Back in the real world again, are we?"

"Listen, you little toad, I've got a message for you. Kat-chan in Tsukiji wants his racket back. Tonight."

"Oh my god, I don't believe this."

"I don't care what you believe, just give it back. I'm in a big mess if you don't."

"Wait one second. I've explained this time and again: He gave me that racket. Sheesh."

"I'm telling you to give it back. You want me to spell it out for you?"

"What are you getting so excited about? What happened?"

"Look, you know I'm a close friend of the producer on this show, right? You know what I'm getting at. Don't make me say it."

"Oh for heaven's sake. All right. But I'd like you to do something for me in return."

"Don't push your luck, toad."

"Very well, then, do as you please. We don't have any decent singers right now anyway. Not much you could do to make things worse."

"Hey."

"And tell Kat-chan that when he gives a person a gift he shouldn't expect to get it back."

"Wait. Okay. All right. What do you want?"

"There's a little club in Ginza called Bizarre. Do you know it?"

"I know it. How much do you owe?"

"No, no, good heavens, it's not like that. There's a hostess there named Saki . . ."

"Since when are you into women?"

"Everyone has to put up a front in this business. You know as well as I do that-"

"All right, all right. So?"

"So I want you to tell her I can't make it tomorrow."

"Done."

"And I don't mean by telephone. Oh, goodness, no."

"No?"

"Go to her club. Take, let's see, about a seven-thousand-yen bouquet of roses, and whisper in her ear. Say: 'Ken-bo sent me. He won't be able to make it tomorrow, and he sends these roses by way of apology.'"

Is this ever going to end? What's this hostess, Saki, going to ask for? And what was it I was after in the first place?

I buy the roses from a vendor on the street. It's late at night, so the price is at least three times what it would be at the Hibiya flower market. I've suspended dubbing operations for an hour. It's raining in Ginza. The neon lights are hazy and the aroma of scorched rice cakes hangs in the air. I haven't had anything to eat since that bowl of noodles at lunch, and I feel lightheaded and dizzy. My eyes hurt from the editing work. I feel like the Calcutta beggar. I'm chubbier than him, of course. But just like him I'm holding out my hands in desperation. I wander the streets in agitation and turmoil. When the Calcutta beggar fails to get money or food, he merely retracts his hand. It's obvious which of us has any real dignity.

"Ken-bo's afraid of me. As you can see, I'm pretty beautiful, and when beautiful women get angry, it scares people. Ugly women get mad and it's only comical, don't you think? Tell him to stop being such a chicken and call me."

I hand the bouquet to the hostess Saki, eat the tiny dish of young taro tubers, and drink a glass of Chivas and water, and just as the fire is spreading through my stomach I hear a voice go, "Yoshihiko! How can you say such a thing?" Yoshihiko? Where have I heard that name before?

"Did someone just say 'Yoshihiko'?"

Saki has her face buried in the rose blooms.

"Mm-hm."

"Yoshihiko Takahashi? The guy on the Carp?"

"Yeah."

"He's here?"

"Right behind you."

"What? He comes here a lot?"

"Once in a while, when he's in Tokyo. The girls love him. He never gets too drunk, or vulgar or anything."

"Introduce me to him. Please."

"Oh, are you a fan?"

"I can give you some Italian cigarettes, or some little fish from Wakasa, or a tennis racket, anything you want, just please introduce me to him."

"He'll love it. His fans are very important to him."

I stand up holding my hand over my throbbing chest and follow Saki across the room.

Yoshihiko Takahashi is God.

I hand him my business card and introduce myself and tell him a friend of mine is a tremendous fan and that I know it's an awfully impudent request but would he mind speaking to her on the telephone? He smiles pleasantly and gives his consent. Unconditionally, yet.

"Kiyomi, you know who that was, don't you? That was Yoshihiko Takahashi, Kiyomi. Spring training is starting soon, so as far as meeting him in person goes, I'm afraid it's a little difficult, but . . . Hello? You still there?"

"Just a minute, my heart is still pounding. My god, I thought I was going to faint."

"Kiyomi, you don't know what I've gone through. . . . I've . . . I've been . . ."

Tears well up in my eyes.

"I can imagine. I thought you knew I was only joking. Thank you, though, really."

"Joking?"

"Well, of course! Listen, I was so nervous I could hardly speak at all. Will you tell him to win the stolen-base crown this year? Would you tell him that for me?"

"Sure, I'll tell him, but . . . You were only joking?"

"About introducing me, yes. But don't worry. I still intend to testify for you."

Yoshihiko Takahashi is sitting at a table with some other ballplayers and a bevy of hostesses, talking and laughing, just as he was before I interrupted him.

About a month later, after my nemesis has withdrawn her suit and just as my divorce trial is about to begin, I receive a package of muscovado sugar from Okinawa. The sender is Mr. Yoshihiko Takahashi. Kiyomi and I have decided to go to a baseball game when the season begins. I can already hear us cheering in unison:

"Run, Takahashi!"

From the collection Hashire! Takahashi("Run, Takahaski!")By arrangement with the Andrew Wylie Agency. All rights reserved.