Thursday, June 28, 2007


I’m pleased to report the reunion (in all its denim) was a success. In the words of Yelena, 2002 class reunion chair, “I just love those jeans on you.” Thanks, Yelena.

The other compliment came from my friend Heather’s psycho freshman year roommate. In the barbecue buffet line, I had my hand on a hot dog bun when hers grabbed my shoulder. I took me a moment to remember who Pam was, but she didn’t miss a beat.

“Oh my gosh, Jeff, you look great! The goatee looks so good on you!”

She wouldn’t have said the same for some of my fraternity brothers who I bumped into at the diner down on Main Street Sunday morning. With bloodshot eyes and stained t-shirts, the three zombies smelled like they had slept in a landfill.

“Hey guys…what’s up?” I asked with hesitation.

Yogi went first. “Odie pissed his car.”

Odie went second. “Yogi broke the lock off the [frat] house with a rock to use the bathroom but hosed himself right there standing up.”

It was Jester’s turn. “I woke up in Butterfield [dormitory]. I have no idea how I got there.”

I surveyed the group with arced eyebrows. Then Odie spoke up, admitting that, yes, after a night of binging on beer pong he passed out inside his Ford Explorer behind the house and lost control of bodily functions.
Jester (left) and Odie exchange paddle slaps after winning a point in pong. They'd both be on the losing end come sunup.

“Yeah, and he also booted all over the driver’s seat!” Yogi volunteered.

"Shut the hell up, Yogi, no I didn't."

There was no denying, however, that Odie had also drained his truck's battery. Yet Yogi and Jester weren’t home free. The SUV (Smelly Urinated Vehicle) was their only ride back to Boston.

* * *

After reliving liquid college memories followed by a week of hosting a Japanese friend (blog entry forthcoming), I found myself sitting aboard American Airlines flight 167 bound for Narita.

During the delay at the gate, I polished off leftover apple pie and a container of chunked melon and strawberries for breakfast. Now past noon, I was ready to snack again. I inflated my air pillow and settled into my coach seat. With legs on this 6’2” frame, I can vouch that American does have more legroom.

I was nibbling my third handful of Snak Club Yogurt ‘N’ Nut Mix when an unusual announcement came over the PA.

“Ladies and gentleman, the mother of a little girl in seat 42B has alerted us that her daughter has an extreme allergy to peanuts. Anyone seated nearby is asked not to eat peanuts.”

I stopped mid-munch. Snak Club had no cholesterol, no preservatives, but plenty of peanuts. Was I the subject of censure?

I glanced up at my seat assignment. 36B. Six rows. How near was near, and was I far enough away from near? How much of a whiff of peanuts was gonna choke the little girl’s throat? What if I left the offending nuts in the bag, could I keep indulging in almonds, raisins, dates and irresistible white chocolate chips – mouthwatering bits of perfection my taste buds suddenly craved at any price? I mean, there were plenty of other little girls on the plane. Healthy ones, too.

My jaw locked shut for fear of contaminating the air with peanut particles, the fallout of which would surely suffocate girl 42B six rows back. I decided to sacrifice for the greater good, and carefully rolled up the plastic bag.

“Excuse me!” barked a voice from behind.

Shit, too late! Wrongful death was my first thought.

Like the airline’s Boeing 777 fleet, Marilyn the flight attendant was an aging hen rolling through the aisle in preparation for take off. Unlike slinky stewardesses on Asian carriers, Marylin and American's girls were probably now grandmothers who had pedaled beverage carts long enough to land the coveted international routes. Grace had worn off years ago. Riveted elbows and sliver hair matched the exterior of the fuselage.

“EXCUSE ME?” she clucked again. “Can you get that? I can’t reach.”

And just like that she resigned herself from closing the overhead bin above me. For the base fare, taxes, security fee and fuel surcharge I paid to sit on my air pillow, I didn’t take kindly to a do-it-yourself attitude from an employee of an airline behind schedule.

She moved along tapping shoulders down the aisle, delegating duties to Chinese and Japanese passengers who couldn’t catch her rushed instructions in English. I did her job and fluffed my cushion. Buckling my belt, I reached for the seat pocket and unleashed the bag of nuts.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Introducing...The Staff

Generally speaking, the staff here at Shin Gakko is excellent – friendly, tolerant and dedicated to a fault. They treat us foreign teachers as quasi equals even though we are, well, barbarians who break house rules with only casual teaching credentials to our name (i.e. being native English speakers). Below are staff vignettes with Anglicized nicknames to protect the innocent and mock the guilty.

Personal secretary to Mr. Ouchy. Never fails to "herro good morning!" me with her only three words of English while we’re riding the elevator to the 8:15 a.m. staff meeting.

A dear of a home economics teacher. Young, sweet and single.

Biology Bob
Quirky science teacher I sit next to in the teachers' room. Never seen him eat lunch all year.

The Bento Babes
Three mothers who staff the school canteen (“The Bento Shack”) where bento box lunches and vacuum-sealed breads are the source of lunchtime sustenance when I don’t have time to chow down on Bertha’s cafeteria cooking.

Bertha & the Kitchenettes
Bertha leads this endearing cafeteria cooking crew. Her bright smile, short graying hair, strong forearms and stronger work ethic merit a comparison to a Japanese Rosie the Riveter. The best part of working at Shin Gakko is their bathtub-size curry rice or fatty sauteed beef bowl.

British co-worker who amuses me with his daily antics in an otherwise by-the-book atmosphere. Once accidentally exposed himself to Gloria.

Commander Kickshit
Overzealous, gruff boy’s P.E. teacher with an impressive wardrobe of matching Adidas tracksuits. Hates kids and English even more. Dishes out an excessive number of pushups to his lanky charges. Could benefit from a rainbow Care Bear or a bear hug.

Egg Man
A pun on his real Japanese name, Egg Man and I teach English to my insolent homeroom class of 7th graders. “So what we gonna do?” is his patented phrase before we enter the room. With the little monsters waiting inside, I’m tempted to call the Ghostbusters.

English Inc.
Faulty placement agency that duped me into this job. While its employees are nice as individuals, I’ve butted heads with the company over working conditions, salary, health insurance, time off and everything else in my flawed contract.

Perhaps the longest tenured teacher at Shin Gakko, Esther reminds of my eponymous late grandmother with her passively barbed comments. Despite my limited role as a human tape recorder in her two sections of 11th graders, I look forward to class as a way to spiritually reconnect with Grandma.

Terse custodian who sweeps the halls with a grimace. Has no qualms about mopping the men’s room while I’m doing time on the can. Normally a shadowy background figure, Gloria once took center stage when she tumbled down a flight of stairs outside of my English class.

Head of English
But ironically one of the worst at it, Head is an example of textbook learning gone horribly wrong. I bite my tongue whenever he begins sentences with fundamentally, as you know and namely. Case in point: “As you know, in five minutes, namely 8:25, there is a homeroom class of fundamental English.”

Gloria’s gloved subordinate.

Mr. Microphone
Balding audio-visual guy who wears dark sunglasses even inside his studio cave outfitted with floor-to-ceiling sound equipment circa 1986 and flickering monitors with murky images.

Ms. Mitohara
The most helpful and competent English teacher I’ve ever worked with. She has been my lifeline to any and every question concerning a frustratingly disorganized school management. Yet as a junior teacher and a woman, responsibilities bypass her in favor of more senior and English incompetent male colleagues.

Ms. Murasaki
Prim and proper, this Japanese language teacher is unfailingly polite. Behind that perfect façade, however, I just know that she yearns to abolish English language instruction and banish the barbaric foreigners defiling her country in the name of teaching it.

Mr. Oki
This young and dumpling-shaped English teacher and I teach two sections of 10th graders. Future dream: escape Japan and move to Melbourne.

Mr. Ouchy
A pun on the principal’s Japanese name. His chauffeured black “President” model sedan idles out front sparing him the 15-minute walk to the train station.

Soccer Dan
Finally, a hip math teacher! Tall and 24, Dan draws a line of girls at his desk seeking extra attention after class. Once a soccer player in college, the sportsman keeps in the game as a coach for the boys’ team who rank just behind baseballers as the big men on campus.

Sunshine Suzuki
Ebullient and enthusiastic, this female gym teacher coaches the 7th and 8th grade girls. For my assistant gym teacher duties, I am fortunate to be paired with her rather than Commander.

Suzuki & Suzuki
Two sister spinsters staffing the school store stocked with overpriced mechanical pencils and notebooks. Hairnets, buns and white-powered faces are a throwback to pre-war Japan.

Reminds me of my grandmother after she began forgetting my name or that, yes, we have class today and, yes, it started five minutes ago. Her English pronunciation is so mangled that even I have trouble catching the non-sequitors spitting from her mouth. We team-teach one vacuous class of 10th graders who silently count down the minutes until the bell ends foreign language hell.

Unfriendly Wendy
Crotchety head receptionist holding court in the main office where Arlene sits. Faxes my monthly timesheet to English Inc., begrudgingly.

Dwarfy librarian never without her maroon apron and thick glasses. Possibly having an affair with Mr. Microphone.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Day of Denim

In the five years since I’ve graduated from college, peers have outpaced me with more framed pieces of paper and larger bank balances. Now this weekend it’s time for our first reunion, where no doubt I’ll have better stories over beers in the Class of 2002 tent, but I’ll also need something more to measure up. Style.

Of particular concern is what to wear on my bottom half. Go-to Diesel jeans have worn away at the most inconvenient place – the crotch. So, too, have A+F boxers, compounding the exposure of a private area in public places. Sitting on the subway leaves me especially vulnerable.

Over two years, clothing expenditures in Japan have totaled $20 for a new belt and second-hand jacket. Stylistic differences and size realities have ruled out flirting with Japanese fashion, which is probably for the better. Purple tank tops under three-quarter button-down stretch shirts look fine on their rail-thin frames, but would leave me feeing self-conscious even at a gay mixer.

Unsure of where to hunt for men's denim, I guessed that OIMEN department store would be a good start. I tensed up walking into the ground floor, also ground zero for accessories. Snakeskin shoes, belt buckles larger than my fist and enough glittering chains to make Mr. T blush all screamed high fashion out of my league. Despite sounding like a narcissistic brand snob, I find shopping to be stressful and degrading (hence buy only brand names to make myself look positively stunning).

Boutiques and responsive attendants filled OIMEN’s eight floors. Some enthusiastically engaged the lone foreigner by pulling recommendations off the rack as I walked by (see above remark about J-boy fashion). On the second floor I hovered around a promising shelf with jeans in hopes of sending a silent signal for help. I even unfolded some and held them against my legs. Why was no one running over? Was my booty that out of proportion? Or worse, were these women’s jeans?

I built up the nerve to ask the teenage sales girl if she had the paint-splattered denims in large. She acknowledged the request with a nasal shriek and shuffled off – literally jogging in baby steps – and returned with a counter-question: would I like to try them in medium?

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I made a classic gaijin (foreigner) mistake by walking into the fitting room with shoes on feet. The footwear foul must have incensed the clothing gods; the jeans wouldn’t budge above my knees. Salvation knocked on the door and handed me a large, but in a style so splattered that the jeans were almost white. Out of politeness I tried them on – up until my thighs.

I was just pulling my old jeans back up when the door swung open. The head salesman looked in without apology. A more suitable client stood behind him with two pairs in hand. I stumbled out of the fitting room as casually as possible, clutching sneakers in one hand and belt loops in the other.

I buttoned my fly and tightened my belt on the up escalator, and contemplated the challenge before me. Jeans in Japan had to fit three criteria, the second of which was fitting me. First they had to pass a style test – funky but not flamboyant. Next I had to pass the physical challenge – squeezing American thighs into pants designed for a people with pencils for legs. Finally came the price check. With tags often $175 and up, would fashion come at any price?

On the third floor, directly above the fitting room fiasco shop, I spotted another rack of denim, and parted it with authority. I stepped back. The style was exactly what I was after – whitewashed creases radiating out from the groin (looks better than it sounds, trust me).

I sucked in air through my teeth as fingers fished for the size tag inside. Actually, one glance at the thighs said enough. I could fit my arm through the leg hole, but not much else. Criterion two failed. Game over.

Out of curiosity I checked the price of what would have been. My eyes lit up – they were under $85. Momentum restarted. Behind the small size was a larger pair – LL to be exact. The planets were aligning.

I rushed to the nearest attendant, who was folding sparkly skull and crossbones t-shirts. His sun-kissed skin complemented hair dyed auburn. Manicured bangs swept over one eye. He was a textbook example of かっこいい (cool guy). His jeans were ripped and roped, and studded with brass buttons down the leg seams. A white t-shirt matched his smile, or chagrin at having a foreigner on his hands. In haste, I yanked off still-tied sneakers and ran into the dressing room.

I emerged.

“Such long legs. I’m jealous,” he said.

“No, no. My thighs are a little big,” I admitted while testing out the hip huggers, which did the job without turning legs numb.

“They look good on you,” he said, bending down to examine the cuff that flared out. “Just right.”

I turned to put on sneakers that, tightly tied, I had kicked off outside of the fitting room. They now sat neatly aligned and undone. The thought of this superstylish guy laboring over my New Balance laces brought out an “only in Japan” smirk.

He folded my purchase like it was the emperor’s robe, and sealed it inside a plastic bag that he lowered into a shopping bag over which he slipped another plastic bag to guard against the morning’s drizzle.

His duty wasn’t done until he walked me five feet to the door, bowed and politely asked for my continued patronage. I dually thanked him (as well as the clothing gods). With solar eclipse-like odds of finding jeans in Japan, expect me back around 2087.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Outing in Akihabara Part II

...continued from last post.
Some passages of this post are sexually explicit. Reader discretion is advised.

I had been conditioned to seeing the boys in black uniforms, but on this Sunday we were far from locked school grounds. Noki arrived so camouflaged that I didn’t recognize him, although he stood out like Rambo dressed head to toe in fatigues from a hunting hat down to black combat boots laced high. He slung a matching backpack over one shoulder. Oversized brown sunglasses completed the enthusiast’s ensemble.

I fumbled for words, but only laughter let loose. The kind of knee-jerk snort like if you saw your dad in drag. Honda picked up on my poorly disguised reaction.

“This crazy boy,” he said, maxing out his conversational English.

Honda (center) had his own look. He was grooming himself to be a typical Japanese pretty boy. A diamond glinted from one earlobe. Snug jeans rested low on his hips with a Louis Vuitton wallet peeking out from the back pocket. A dark velvet blazer hugged his shoulders while neatly tied around the neck was a fake Burberry scarf, a ubiquitous accessory among trendy teenagers like his friend (left).

In our distinctive outfits – solider, fashionista and off-duty teacher in khakis – we marched off to explore the urban jungle of Akihabara with Noki of course leading the charge.

One subset of geeks is perverts, and bookshelves in Akihabara are packed with perversions. On this day I saw enough bulging cartoon breasts on magazine covers to satisfy me for a lifetime. The industry trend seemed to be the bigger the better, and boobs inflated beyond the size of beach balls were not uncommon.

Permutations for erotic poses were endless. Some girls wore skimpy school uniforms. Others, bikinis dripping in cum. Boobs came bound in chains and rope while another popular theme was girls’ caressing the chests of playmates.

Once you’ve seen a few, you get feeling you’ve seen them all. That was until I came across a cover with a wolf-human clawing into bleeding vaginas. Nearby, penile-shaped tentacles of an anthropomorphic octopus penetrated all orifices of a gagging schoolgirl.

Honda typed Japanese into his electronic dictionary. The translation read, “This causes sour relations between Japan and countries concerned.” I was more than concerned. I was nauseous, and was about to feel worse.

Up and down stairs Noki weaved through floors with narrow aisles of paperback fantasy worlds with twisted illustrations. Grisly graphics were not bound to the printed page. A video game running on demo mode challenged players to select an animal and rape chained girls with ferocity. Success was measured by the level of white liquid dripping into a pot at her feet.

I asked Noki if he was ready to leave.

“I must check this floor,” he said with diligence. “Checking many floors is very important.”

I, however, had seen more than enough, and wondered if they were even allowed to be seeing any of this. Honda typed again and showed me the result: “Persons under the age of 18 are not admitted.”

“How old are you!” I accused them once we were back outside.

“Sixteen!” they chimed in unison as I followed them into the next store.

Filled with endless volumes of comics, this basement bookshop was at least tamer. Curious collections included: Chrono Crusade, Venus Versus Virus, Arrivederci Alicevenice, Lunatic Saga, Butt Backraid and the not-so-Shakespearean, As You Like It featuring a not-so-studious schoolgirl.

Noki showed me his favorite, a series called Rozen Maiden. I recognized the girls on the cover as those on his fan and day planner he brought to class.

“I don’t like real girls,” Noki confessed. “I hate them.”

As Noki explained the characters, their strengths and the battles they faced, I sensed his kinship with the maidens. The books about these girls now seemed normal compared to other subjects in stock like Love Doll Hole, How To And More.

Browsing further, I noticed an evolution in cartoon chests on covers. Muscled arms and exposed torsos were locked in group embrace. I picked up a paperback called “Brothers,” but the men looked more intimately familiar than just family. Contrary to my first thought, this was not the gay manga section. Noki said that “Boys Love,” or BL, was a genre for girls. It seemed only fair that if men can flip through pages of girl-on-girl action that women could fantasize about groups of amorous guys.

The final fantasy adventure in Akihabara was a reality check. As soon as we stepped back outside, two uniformed officers moved in on Noki.

“Are you here shopping in Akihabara?” the policeman asked.

“Yes, we are going to some stores,” Noki said. Honda and I backed up a step.

“So you’re here shopping?” the policeman reiterated in typical Japanese-style interrogation. Passersby slowed to whiff the unfolding drama.

“Actually, he's here to wage guerilla war on soft targets,” I wanted to interject. I lacked the language skills to do so, but saw an opportunity to practice.

Since there were two officers, I engaged the one not frisking Noki’s fatigues. I told him that Noki was a friend, but that I was no otaku. He asked me what country I was from and how long I had been in Japan. Sensing the next question would be about my job, I changed the subject. I didn’t want Honda implicating me and piping up about my being their teacher.

“Tokyo is so safe,” I marveled. The cop cocked his head in doubt. “Well, my hometown is New York.”

His head straightened and he smiled in agreement before turning to his patrol partner who was wrapping up his search. Failing to find a knife, pistol or other 凶器 (murder weapon), the policeman released an embarrassed Noki.

Interest in us faded, and so did my feelings towards Akihabara. I warned Noki and Honda not to be late for English class tomorrow morning and disbanded.