I took the job because it paid cash and required only four hours a night. A long shimmering gown was the mandatory attire. Since I didn’t own one, I simply sewed a ruffled blouse to an equally …
I took the job because it paid cash and required only four hours a night. A long shimmering gown was the mandatory attire. Since I didn’t own one, I simply sewed a ruffled blouse to an equally ruffled skirt and presto, I was a modern-day ‘Geisha’ Girl; albeit ragtag and so unlike my co-workers who were all babes from Long Island clad in clinging prom dresses. It was the 1980’s and I was working at a secret NYC Japanese tea house whose entire history seems to have completely vanished.
Each night, precisely at ten, Japanese men, dressed in black business attire, filtered into the tea house bowing and speaking to the Mama-san, a tiny but formidable tigress. It appeared that none of the businessmen spoke English. If they did, they never let on. I was excited by the possibility of learning Japanese, but soon found out I would have to master other skills. Conversing was not one of them.
Every night was like the first. Businessman would point to a Geisha and the Mama-san would then seat them together at a long, low table. Tall, slim, blonde girls were preferred. At the time, my hair was dyed blue-black plus I only wore flats. Inevitably, I defaulted to the very last and least desirable customer.
Tea was never served at the tea house, but sake was, which I thought presented a wonderful opportunity to show off what I had practiced at home and thought essential to every Geisha; the graceful skill of serving a beverage. Slowly tipping the sake vase, I nimbly poured. However, my elegant hand went largely unnoticed. Sadly, for the tea house and all its occupants that was the best I had to offer. As said, other skills were required.
All Geishas had to sing several songs to the accompaniment of a live pianist. I couldn’t compete with the girls who belted New York, New York and other Broadway numbers even when their efforts were only as good as bad Karaoke. I pressed into service the sole tune I could deliver without getting outright fired, ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’ by Peter, Paul and Mary. It was embarrassing. And yet, my midnight attempts at crooning far eclipsed my slow dancing, also compulsory to the job.
The first man I danced with was a carbon copy of all the rest. He was nervous and sweaty, and smelled of a mix between designer cologne, cashmere wool suiting and body odor. As a dancer, he was stiff. I think he expected me to lead, but since I didn’t know any steps, we just swayed back and forth occasionally catching each other from falling. When I laughed; he snorted. Despite the language barrier, I made a play for his brain, but he wasn’t interested. Back at the table, I poured more sake, this time a bit carelessly, and then sat in silence just praying for the evening to end.
Around 2am, the Mama-san slipped two hundred bucks into each of our hungry hands. Before leaving, however, all Geishas had to sign handwritten notes written in Japanese by the Mama-san. One day, I asked what the note said. Mama-san’s face went from placid to hard. Her smiling eyes became that of a beast. Her voice, usually a whisper, became a snarl as she began her explanation, but then she caught herself and, like a sudden changing wind, sweetly explained that the notes thanked each customer and invited them back to the tea house.
I suspected, based on the lavish gifts that some of the girls received, that there might have been more to the note, but I didn’t stay long enough to find out. Mama-san seemed almost genuinely sad when I told her I had contracted a high fever and was never coming back. I think she would like to have kept me if only to sit with the outcasts, myself being one of them.
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