After landing in Manhattan there was no time to celebrate. Sari was anxious about school. She was taking second year Chinese at Columbia for two hours a day, five days a week, the sole instructor being the bullying dragon lady, Ms. Pan. Ms. Pan divided her class into favorites and whipping girls. Sari was a conscientious language student, but being blond, blue-eyed, and innocent appearing, Ms. Pan apparently decided Sari would make a good target for bullying. She was picking on Sari every time she opened her mouth in class.
“Your tones aren’t right. It isn’t fang pi (level tones, “fart” in Chinese), it’s fang pi (both syllables pronounced with falling tones.)”
My moving into her dorm room made the pressure on Sari worse. Something had to give there, and I also had other challenges to confront.
Desperate Job Hunt
Besides desperately needing a place of my own, I needed to find a job right away. My savings of $2,000 wouldn’t last long in Gotham City if I didn’t start earning. I got a copy of The Village Voice where employment agencies advertised for office workers, “Girl and Man Fridays.”
Man Friday was a term from Robinson Crusoe, and in this context meant “male personal assistant.” This was ten years before personal computers appeared on office worker’s desks, so there was demand for low-paid assistants to type letters and file paper.
I went to several employment agencies and filled out applications. I didn’t even think of preparing a resume or CV. Despite having graduated with a B.A, the only real job skills I had were showing up and typing, so that’s where I started.
Mis-adventures at NY Life
In my first job which I got through the Village Voice, I reported to an insurance agency downtown. It was New York Life near 23rd Street and Madison Avenue. The male insurance agents dropped new policies and letters into in-boxes, and an army of mostly female assistants moved them from the inbox trays to filing drawers, stuffing the papers into the right or wrong file folders.
I did that for a few weeks, and then one of the managers asked me to come into his office. He said, “I don’t know what you’re doing here in New York, but you’re a smart kid and we can offer you a job.” I had my head shoved so far up my ass that I just turned him down before even finding out what the job was exactly. Like many youths of the 1960’s and 70’s I had a bias against business, and especially sales. The fundamental problem was that my mind was operating on two separate wave lengths. One level was hopelessly idealistic and narcissistic, inspired by anti-war protest and delusions about socialism in China and Vietnam, etc. I intended to apply to grad school in Asian Studies to pursue that interest. The other side was down-to-earth, informed by my experience in Oregon as a unionized dairy and mill worker, plus my father’s example as a small businessman. In that moment I couldn’t get the practical side engaged.
I told him, “I’m a college grad, and I’m not going to do this.” Actually, the job was insurance sales, which does have a future for those who are young and can tolerate constant rejection, but I wasn’t even listening. I lost the opportunity. Frankly I wasn’t even that good at what I was doing there anyway, just filing. Later in the week one of the 30’ish file clerks told me in a kind way that I was screwing up and had to be more careful about putting documents into the right folder. “Our files are such a mess. If we have to go back and find an individual’s insurance policy, we have to rummage through all the files.” I was contributing to the chaos. That temp job ended after a month or so, and then I got another one where I was to listen to a Dictaphone and type letters.
My supervisor was a German woman who was a stickler for detail. Again, lacking street smarts and the slightest bit of common sense, rather than correcting the grammar I heard on the tape, I just wrote the speech I heard verbatim, reproducing errors and quirks. I lasted two days in that job. When the Teutonic female office manager saw one of the letters I typed, she sent me back to the agency, diplomatically telling me that she wanted someone who was more experienced.
After getting a few paychecks and doing a little math, I realized that the Man Friday pay was so low after taxes that I couldn’t even break even anyway. I still didn’t want to spend my precious grub stake just to survive. I had to get a regular job, not a temp job, or I would be screwed.
Desperate Apartment Hunt
Meanwhile, Sari was feeling increased pressure from Miss Pan, and our sharing a single bed in the dorm was compounding the stress. Even if we felt close, it was hard to get any rest. I looked for my own apartment in my spare time. Once I thought I found one to share with two male Columbia students, but when I went over to see it, a student with round glasses and a dopey looking beard said, “We’ve changed our minds. We want to live with a girl.” I was angry. I thought they had promised it to me on the phone, and then they rejected me for this frivolous reason.
One morning soon after that Sari finally cracked, and asked me to find another place, THAT DAY! I panicked. I didn’t think of checking into a hotel for a week. That would have been common sense. Instead I ran over to see a college friend, Kevin, the only other person I knew in the city. Kevin was the older friend from Washington University I mentioned earlier who enforced some order during the love drug session in the Washington University dormitory. By coincidence he was also at Columbia now, in the journalism school. I asked him if I could stay in his place temporarily. He shared an apartment with two male roommates who I knew a little bit. That day he happened to be throwing out an old mattress. I saw it on the floor and said, “Why don’t you let me sleep on that for the time being.”
“No, I’m throwing that thing out today, and if you’re sleeping here, it’s in my bed.” I thought, that’s one offer that I’d be happy to refuse. He knew just what to say to get rid of me.
I had to do something, and quick. I frantically went out and checked “roommate wanted” advertisements pinned on corkboards in the bookstores at Broadway near Columbia. There was no Craigslist at this time. Fortunately, there was one ad for a room on 114th street across Broadway from the University.
I called, and met the leaseholder, a young banker who had graduated from Columbia, served in Vietnam, and then went to work in the Trust Department at Chase Manhattan bank. Karl was 28, six years older than me. He was intense and brutally honest. He showed me the room and told me that one of his roommates had quit school suddenly and left. I told him I wanted the room, and would give him the deposit right on the spot. He said, “That’s not necessary. I’m a man of my word.” I told him what had happened to me with those other guys who changed their mind, and he said he would never do that. He wasn’t kidding. He was always true to his own principles, even if they were rigid.
I moved in that night. I was saved again, this time from having to go back to Kevin’s place. What a relief! Now I had my own room with a view of the fire escape for $75 per month. Karl had a larger room and was paying $100, and an undergraduate from Michigan paid $125 for the corner apartment with a window. We shared one bathroom and the grubby kitchen. Later due to the typical male neglect of cleaning, Sari rewarded the place with a “Bad Housekeeping Award.”
I had already become intimately acquainted with cockroaches while an undergraduate in St. Louis, and when I switched on the light in the kitchen at night, I met with many more. Once day the super knocked a 4’x2’ hole in the kitchen wall to do some work and then just left it that way for weeks. Roaches swarmed out by the hundreds. Still, I was not complaining. I had my own room, and it was just two blocks from the Columbia dorm where Sari was. It was also close to the famous West End jazz club (a relic of the earlier “beat” era, gone now), and many restaurants and bookstores. This was before Amazon wiped out the bookstores leaving only one private one left standing near Columbia.
Sari came over sometimes and my roommates liked her, saying her visits “humanized the atmosphere.” The other male roommate, Scott from Michigan, was charming, but Karl was too intense for me to be comfortable with. For one thing, he had served in Vietnam, and told us “the objective truth is that what the US is doing was right.” As a former campus leftist, I didn’t understand and didn’t want to hear that, although now in retrospect I might agree with a lot of what he said, because it is true that most people in South Vietnam had no desire to live under a Communist dictatorship, and many became “boat people” later after the fall of the Republic. It was only clear to me in retrospect.
Fortunately, Karl also found a lady friend, a rather dark complexioned, hot southern Chinese woman. Karl told me that he didn’t believe in boasting about sexual prowess, but confided that when he did the deed, he always did it at least twice in one night. That remark didn’t do much to humanize the atmosphere either, but I didn’t clash with him because we left each other alone.
Karl hated his job his job at Chase, but my other roommate predicted that Karl would stay there forever. About 25 years later I returned to the neighborhood and checked for Karl’s name on the door. It was still there. It was about 11:00 at night. I could see the lights on upstairs. I was drunk from a party and obnoxiously rang his bell. No answer. I looked over the outside of 622 West 114th and saw that it is now a nicely renovated coop.
When I was there in 1973-74, big piles of dog shit made the sidewalk from the apartment to Broadway into an obstacle course. Thanks to rules set by the competent Mayor Koch, stink bombs on the sidewalks are a distant memory by now. But now there was still the same empty lot with trash scattered about in it next door, and the #1 train was as creepy as ever, thanks to our current progressive Mayor DeBlasio who gives free rein to pan-handlers and the mentally ill on the subway, just like in the 1970s.
Mr. Ikeda, Aspiring Entrepreneur
Now I had one small victory, a place of my own to stay, but had not solved the desperate employment challenge. I still didn’t have a resume or CV, but I started putting Japanese language skills on my job applications at the employment agencies to see if that made any difference. Fortunately, it did. Japanese corporations were just starting to set up offices in New York. In October 1973 during the Yom Kippur War, OPEC started an oil embargo and the price of oil spiraled up. Japanese trading companies needed to buy oil, but had to pay for it in Petro-Dollars. They needed banking facilities in New York to support the conversion of Yen to US Dollars and international trade.
New York already had a small Japanese community. Midtown had some sushi bars and restaurants, and expat Japanese families lived in little enclaves in Fort Lee, New Jersey or Riverdale in the Bronx. When I mentioned my language skills to one agency, right away they swung from total disinterest to interest, and they offered me an interview with the President of a Japanese company called Ikeda International.
That sounded exciting since it connected with my interest in Asia. I had spent a year abroad at Waseda University in Tokyo during my junior year. So I reported to Mr. Ikeda’s office in the Diamond District at 30 West 47th Street. I took the elevator up, and it opened to a windowless reception area surrounded with translucent glass. Behind the glass the lights were on, and a visitor couldn’t estimate the size of the company. Mr. Ikeda, a handsome Japanese man with a baby face, was over 50 years old, but could easily pass for ten or fifteen years younger. He welcomed me into his office, we exchanged a few words in Japanese, and I won him over.
Mr. Ikeda had just requested the agency to send someone to answer the phone when he was away on a business trip to Tokyo, but when he met me, he said, “Forget the temporary agency. Tell the temp agency it didn’t work out. I don’t want you for that job. I can use you for something else.” I was a little nervous because I thought he was cheating the agency (he was), but I accepted. During the interview, he told me that his company was in the diamond dealing and import/export business. To start he just wanted me to answer the phone for two weeks, and after he came back, he’d get someone else for that job, and I’d be his assistant. Music to my ears.
Before he left for Tokyo he told me to keep the lights on in the back of the office so customers would think it was a large firm. By now I realized that Ikeda International just had one full-time employee, the President, Mr. Ikeda himself. His company had more than one telephone extension, and he answered one phone as Timothy Ikeda, and second line with another name. He was using multiple monikers to make the company seem bigger.
After he left for his “business trip” to Tokyo I sat there alone for two weeks, read a John Cheever novel, and responded to the phone calls. I never got any calls about diamonds, but I got some about moving furniture. Gradually I realized that he was in the moving business, not diamonds, but there was a catch. He was accepting the furniture and moving it into a warehouse, but not delivering it out again! A desperate customer called me and said “We’ve been living without furniture for two months now. Please help us. We need our stuff. He won’t release it.” I couldn’t do anything for him since I didn’t know where the warehouse was and had no way of contacting Mr. Ikeda. There was not email then, and I didn’t have a phone number for him in Tokyo. I just apologized and took down the name and number of the unhappy customer.
Mr. Ikeda must have been advertising his moving service somewhere. A Saudi man called me and inquired about rates. He was living in Queens and moving back to Saudi Arabia. I told him that I could give him an estimate, and he invited me to his apartment in Forest Hills. I went out there and found his place. He was an elderly gentleman and was living there in a nice apartment just with his wife. He was a patient and sincere man. I measured and counted the items that he wanted to move, and then told him I’d call him back with the estimate when Mr. Ikeda got back. I wrote it all up neatly for Mr. Ikeda to look at when he returned.
When Mr. Ikeda got back, he was all fired up. He told me that he had gone to the Ginza where the beers cost ten-times normal, and hung out with his friend Rocky Aoki, the founder of the Benihana restaurant chain. Back in Japan he had been posing as a big shot.
I had a list of calls for him to follow up on, including the information about the Saudi moving job. He shouted, “What’s this stuff?” and threw my notes in the garbage. I asked him about the people who called needing their furniture, and he shouted, “They’ve got to stop bothering me. Forget about it. Tomorrow we’re driving to Toronto.” I overheard one of the customers call in and ask for their furniture. Mr. Ikeda lost his temper, shouted, and slammed down the phone. I was appalled. I wondered. If he’s doing this, how could he stay in business? Now I suspected he was nuts, but I still didn’t quit. I wanted to give this job a little more time. The Japanese angle could be interesting. I thought maybe it would still pan out.
The next day I followed his orders by coming in wearing jeans and a winter jacket I bought at K-Mart, ready to help him drive furniture to Toronto. We went to parking lot in Queens where he kept a graffiti-scarred white moving truck. We climbed into the cab, and he drove to a loading dock in Long Island City. Looking around, it was a grungy looking neighborhood and the streets seemed empty. There were some bodegas, cheap looking restaurants, and the warehouses. Mr. Ikeda warned me that this neighborhood was dangerous. He stepped out to a bodega to buy some cigarettes, and told me to keep the doors locked, and to stay in the cab.
In a minute, he got back in, and just before we reached the loading dock he told me, “American workers are lazy. I give them tips and push them to get the job done. If I don’t do that, I have to wait around all day. They don’t like to work.” We got out of the truck and opened the back doors. He handed out $1 each to the warehouse workers, who were middle-aged Irish or Italian-American men. They didn’t seem so bad to me. With the help of the dockworkers, we loaded up the truck with furniture. When we were done Mr. Ikeda went into the office, and a middle-aged dockworker approached me and in a fatherly way said, “How’d you get involved with him? You should quit. He’ll just get you hurt.” I hadn’t thought of that. I stored that advice my mind.
Mr. Ikeda and I took to the highway. As Mr. Ikeda drove he mentioned that two Japanese students had worked for him before as driver and mover. They had taken the wrong exit on a freeway on Long Island and got onto the Northern State Expressway. Trucks are not allowed and the bridge clearances are too low even for a small truck. The top of the truck slammed into one of the overpasses, and the heads of the students made imprints as they impacted the windshield. Mr. Ikeda told me that the Japanese students apologized for wrecking his truck. “They said they were sorry.” I noticed that he didn’t say he was sorry about their heads.
Busted at the Border
After driving all day, we arrived at the Canadian border near Buffalo and Niagara Falls. Before we reached the customs drive-thru, Mr. Ikeda said, “Pretend that we’re students.” As naïve as I was, even I thought that was stupid. I still don’t understand why he would even try to do that. What was the point? After all, we were just transporting used furniture, as far as I knew. Do they charge customs duty on used furniture? Also, Mr. Ikeda was over fifty years old, and even though he was baby-faced, he didn’t look young enough to pass for a student. All they would have to do is look at his driver’s license to get his age. How could they possibly believe his story?
Sure enough, the border guards asked Mr. Ikeda what he was bringing into Canada. He said, “We’re students and are bringing our stuff to Toronto before school starts.” This was implausible. I could pass for a student, but he couldn’t. Also, why would a student have so much furniture? I think that the Canadian border patrol decided to have some fun at that point.
They asked me to step into one interrogation room, and Mr. Ikeda into another. We could hear each other over the tops of the partitions. I heard them ask Mr. Ikeda what he was doing? I could hear him repeating his lies, and the guards laughing. He shouted and stuck to his story. They asked him for ID, and had fun asked him what school he was attending and what classes he was taking.
Then a uniformed customs official asked me sternly what I was doing. I didn’t even try to lie. The situation was hopeless. I said, “We’re just delivering some used furniture. That’s all.” They searched me, and kept asking questions. I just told them the truth so they gave up on questioning me, and after playing with Mr. Ikeda some more they confiscated his truck, and told him he could pay a fine and return to get it after they were finished searching it. They didn’t let us cross the border.
By now it was late at night, and we took a cab to a seedy motel on the American side of the border. The next morning Mr. Ikeda put me on a Greyhound bus to New York. Later in the afternoon when I arrived in the office exhausted, I was surprised to see Mr. Ikeda was back already. Now I was pissed. I realized that after putting me on the bus to save money, he must have gone back to an airport and flown back to New York.
After only a few weeks with Mr. Ikeda, I’d had enough. Pedantically I typed out a letter of resignation. I had witnessed his volatile temper and thought he might explode when he saw it. Surprisingly he was a real gentleman when I told him I was quitting. He asked me to reconsider. He accepted my resignation and kindly wrote out my last paycheck. I walked out the door relieved that I wouldn’t have to work for this nut case anymore.
Later I found out that Forbes Magazine published an article about Japanese businessmen in New York, and Mr. Ikeda got a full-page spread. He was posing as a rising entrepreneur, which is exactly what Forbes likes to glorify. The article it said he was a diamond dealer and an exporter. Maybe he was, but I never saw that, other than exporting furniture to Canada. His friend Mr. Benihana (Rocky Aoki) was an authentic rising entrepreneur and founded a successful restaurant chain, but I didn’t see much “rising” at Mr. Ikeda’s company. All I saw was bullshit. From then on, I never believed anything I read in Forbes.
The job with Mr. Ikeda turned out to be a joke, but unfortunately now the joke was on me. I had no job and no leads. I’d been in New York three months now and winter was closing in. Without a job, I knew I was screwed. My lowest moment came next – standing in front of the WR Grace building on 42nd street stuffing dimes in a pay phone to call recruiters while it snowed on my bare hands. I was out of sorts and didn’t know what would happen. Would I have to go back to Oregon with my tail between my legs? The thought of that kept me pumping dimes in the phone booth, no matter how hard it was.
The façade of WR Grace Building where I desperately shoved dimes into a pay phone.
After calling many employment agencies and getting turned down right and left, I finally got lucky by playing the Japan card again. One agency sent me out to interview with another Japanese client. I put on a clean shirt and slacks, and reported to the recently-opened One World Trade Center. I still didn’t have a suit or a resume. The Twin Towers were new at the time and had just been dedicated. The atrium under WTC 1 didn’t even have finished store fronts. There were just some makeshift news-stands and coffee and bagel vendors, and a lot of construction. I took the express elevator up to the “Sky Lounge” at 40. It made a whooshing sound as it pushed the air at high speed, and my ears popped on the way up.
Then I crossed the elevator bank to get a local elevator to the 45th Floor. Mr. Suzuki met me at the door and invited me into the waiting room for the first interview. He was about 5’ 6” tall and very thin. His face was pock-marked and he had a loud voice. His pin-striped suit was too baggy and his belt twisted around his waist one-and-a-half times. Later I would learn that he was quick-witted and sometimes laughed too loud in an un-Japanese way when he savored a joke.
Mr. Suzuki asked me for a resume, and I admitted I didn’t even have one. He sighed and handed me an application to fill out. Then he asked why I wanted the job. Somehow, I knew exactly what to say this time. Something about how I liked Japan and how exciting it would be to work in International Trade.
He said, “But day-to-day these Operations jobs can be unglamorous.”
“That’s true of all jobs. I understand that.”
Later the secretaries told me that they had already interviewed more than twenty other people, and rejected them all, but somehow, I got through, as unprepared as I was. They had me start at a salary of $150 per week. I bought a single business suit before day one, and showed up for my first day as an Operations trainee.
First Day at Kyowa Bank
My new manager, Mr. Hagihara, gave me some training books to read on Letters of Credit and Import Documents. I finished them in a day or two. Then I started right in doing paperwork. It was not difficult. The surroundings were pleasant in contrast with the plywood mill back in Oregon where I got slivers even wearing heavy gloves. Here the worst I could get here was a paper cut.
Kyowa Bank had just opened their New York branch and we were their first American employees. Spatially they arranged the floor in a hierarchy just like in a bank in Japan. The senior bankers sat in the back by the windows. They were very friendly but we rarely had occasion to speak to them. In front of them were Mr. Suzuki, my own boss Mr. Hagihara, and the treasury specialist Mr. Hiura. These middle managers were in their 20’s or early 30’s.
The American employees sat in the next row toward the front of the office. I think that we were all between the age of 19 and 22. Clifford James, a Connecticut business school graduate was to my left. I was in the center, and a 19-year old Italian-American girl named Panet sat in front of Mr. Hiura. In front of us was a row of 19-year-old secretaries, Joanne (Italian) and Gail (Irish).
There were no computers at this time and everything had to be typed, filed, and messengered. My own secretary was Maria Girace, another strong-minded Italian American girl from Queens. Finally, there was the messenger, the elderly and overweight Mr. Weiss who sat near the front entrance. Poor Mr. Weiss wore coke-bottle glasses, complained that his feet hurt, and was always taking days off to do such things as getting wax flushed out of his ears.
Back in Japan where everyone shared common values and were super-disciplined, the new staff members went through a rigorous training program. The trainees wore uniforms and the management monitored every detail of their behavior. Mr. Hagihara showed me a company manual written in Japanese. It contained detailed instructions on how to serve tea, polite body language, levels of polite speech, and every aspect of Japanese business etiquette.
By contrast none of us, not me, Maria, Panet, Clifford, or anyone had worked in an office before, and there was no code of conduct or mature American adult there to keep us in check. The Japanese managers were not accustomed to dealing with aggressive and anarchic young Americans fresh out of high-school or college, with no office experience. The cultural chasm between us was also deep. I had some understanding of Japanese culture but the other Americans didn’t have the benefit of having lived in Japan.
What I witnessed was shocking, partly because I was not used to the behavior of young people in New York. That was the second cultural gap. In un-diverse Eugene, I had never met any women as bold as the Italian-Americans in our office. Back in Eugene, with the exception of some of the “hippies,” most of the girls were WASPy, conventional, and by the way didn’t like me. To me they were like Pee-wee Herman’s blond girlfriend in the movie Big Top Pee-wee who made egg salad sandwiches for his lunch. In contrast, the Italian-American girls wore platform shoes, chewed gum, flirted with the bosses, and really knew how to talk back. I liked them but they shook me up sometimes, and other times I couldn’t stop laughing. Note that Pee-wee fell in love with a trapeze artist named “Gina Piccolapupula” in this same film, with similar charms to the girls I was meeting now.
My own secretary Maria Girace was smart and competent but didn’t like to be bossed around one bit. She stood about 5’ 9” tall, stoutly built, sweet in her own way, but totally fearless. She told me she grew up in a tough Italian Queens neighborhood near Ozone Park, and that her father was in hiding from the Mafia. Once I saw Mr. Hagihara ask her to do something. He said he was in a hurry. Maria stood over his desk, crossed her arms, and said, “Hagi, you’re busting my gats.” It was a joke, but I knew it was dangerous to joke that way because the Japanese might get insulted. In Japanese culture, you have to use the full surname and either preface it with Mr. or end it with “-san.” Calling him “Hagi” was a breach of etiquette, as was talking back. Maria and two other Italian girls introduced me to many choice Italian words “Strune, bafangoo, escadrool…” I can’t remember them all. They refused to translate but we could figure out that they were not nice.
Next to Maria, Panet was probably the most flamboyant woman in the office. She was a petite 20-year-old, about 5’ 3” tall. What she lacked in stature she made up with fieriness. She had lips like Mick Jagger. She knew how to flaunt her assets in front of the Japanese men, wearing tall platform shoes, sheer blouses and tight jeans. I could tell that her boss Mr. Hiura enjoyed it immensely when she flirted with him, especially when she leaned her small breasts over his desk. She put him into heaven.
The War of the Chair
Clifford also made some waves. He wasn’t Italian. It wasn’t that. It was the opposite. He commuted from Connecticut. He was the only one on the staff with a B.S. in business administration, and he took himself very seriously. From the beginning, he felt that he was underpaid, and he thought that the Japanese did not respect his skills in loan analysis, even though he had no experience. One American client visited and Clifford recommended that the bank not lend to him, but the Japanese managers went ahead and approved the loan, disregarding his advice.
Things came to head in “the battle of the chair.” Although Clifford was only 22 years old, it was a fact that he had a bad back, and he requested a better chair. I observed that my chair was better than Maria’s. Mr. Hagihara’s chair was better than mine. The really big chairs with high backs were reserved for the most senior managers. Mr. Suzuki, who was in charge of personnel administration, refused Clifford’s request, telling him he thought Clifford just wanted a chair that would give him higher status. This put Clifford in the opposing camp.
The jokes got rougher. One day Maria decided to play a trick on Mr. Suzuki. She pulled him over and said, “Suzuki-san, did you hear that a Japanese man died on the elevator today?”
“No, really? What happened?”
Maria said, “Yeah, he wrapped his belt around his waist so tight that it cut off his circulation and he died.”
Mr. Suzuki’s face flushed bright red. Mr. Suzuki could normally take a ribbing, but Japanese people can be very sensitive about receiving this kind of direct humiliation. In their society is it considered to be very rude. Mr. Suzuki was very quiet for a day, but fortunately for our “fun” atmosphere in the office, he loosened up again after that.
Mr. Suzuki and some other young Japanese managers actually started joking around with the us too much, and eventually the senior managers cracked down on all of us including Mr. Suzuki. It was the fault of us Americans—we spoiled the atmosphere with our clowning and noisy behavior. For my own part I am not proud to say that I went along with the crowd and sometimes even contributed to the merriment. For a few weeks, there was no joking and even some overt hostility.
I realized that we had to “make up” and try to get along better. Fortunately, Sari’s father gave me a whole bunch of tickets to a Yankee double-header, and suggested I invite the Japanese managers. I did so and that gesture helped break the tension. When hard-nosed Maria found out she accused me of “sucking up.” “You should have asked us instead.” I told her I didn’t agree and that we had to stop warring with the management.
Sometimes I was making critical remarks at the Italian women when they got loud. One Italian girl approached me and told me that they wanted a truce. She and Panet took me aside and both told me that I may be a hot-shot college boy for whom it is easy to just move on to another job, but for them as high school graduates it had been very hard to find a job. After that I was chastened. I stopped making remarks at the Italian women, and also resisted poking fun at the Japanese bosses.
Later Mr. Hagihara very kindly invited Maria and I to his house in Fort Lee, New Jersey and Maria taught Mrs. Hagihara how to make real Italian red sauce (with sausage and peppers, the real stuff). After I left the bank I stayed in touch with Mr. Hagihara, most recently going to lunch with in him Tokyo during a business trip in 2002. He read an earlier version of this story and reminded me that he and the other Japanese middle managers were young then too. They were just learning. We both looked back on that time with nostalgia. It was a more innocent time, at least in the office.
Mr. Hagihara and I in American Club, Tokyo, 2002
Outside the office, as I mentioned before, 1970’s New York City streets were menacing.
If the reader wants to understand the background, I recommend The Cost of Good Intentions: New York City and the Liberal Experiment, by Charles R. Morris. As a quick summary of the book, In the 1950’s and early 1960’s there was a peak of migration of poor southern black, Puerto Rican, and other disadvantaged people into the city, more than could be assimilated into the stable working-class communities. Morris observed that “family structure and traditional authority broke down under the pressures of ghetto life, and a generation of uncontrolled children was spreading predation and terror through the city’s streets.” There was rioting in Harlem and Corona Queens in 1963, and more in Bed Stuyvesant in the summer of 1964.
On top of that the Italian mafia was importing and distributing heroin (the French Connection), and there was a flight from formerly middle-class neighborhoods like Park Slope, Brooklyn to the suburbs. By 1974 the rioting was over, placated by liberal Mayor Lindsay, but the city was paying out over $1 billion annually in welfare, financing it with short-term debt, and by the fall of 1974 the city government was on the brink of default. President Ford refused to bail the city out. The Daily News headline was, “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” I witnessed the tensions and hostility on the streets while I was there.
Being a transplant, unfamiliar with four of the five boroughs, I was scared to go outside Manhattan, and I knew that only parts of that island were safe. One weekend Maria invited Sari and I to an Italian “feast” in Cobble Hill Brooklyn, adjacent to Park Slope. She took us there on the subway. It was probably the first time I crossed the East River into Brooklyn. We got off the F train at Carroll Street. They had the street lit up, were selling sausages and all the colorful things you see at a Saint Gennaro festival, and all kinds of people were walking around. It had a well-deserved reputation for being a Mafia neighborhood at that time. Journalist Pete Hammill, who I got to know later, told me that one of the mafia chiefs was caught keeping a lion in his basement in Cobble Hill to scare his loan sharking clients at this time.
As we walked away from the Italian street fair at the end of the night, some Hispanic guys recognized Maria as Italian, and made taunts and insults, to which she responded in kind, giving them the finger and shouting “bafangool”. I wasn’t the target of the harassment, but I was amazed by her reaction to the Hispanic men, who were cracking up at her expense. When we were ready to return to the subway, Maria said, “Are you carrying a knife?” I could just imagine myself pulling out a jackknife and having a street fight with kids who actually knew how to use one. It wasn’t going to happen!
Sari and I Start to Enjoy the City
On a more positive note, after my move to the apartment near Columbia and after finding a regular job, my relationship with Sari improved greatly, and moving to New York started to pay off for both of us. One fun thing that we did was go to 3rd Avenue where there were many sidewalk cafes and bars with big windows and open seating. I enjoyed many a Singapore Sling there and took in the scene before it turned sinister in the “Mr. Goodbar” singles bar environment that developed later. I loved watching people on the Upper East Side.
We went to movies like “Serpico” and “Blazing Saddles,” and experimented with new restaurants and we tried many that were popular at that time. One favorite was the Greek Restaurant “Symposium” on West 113th Street near Broadway. This restaurant still operates today. This is where we learned about dishes like Pistachio and how enjoyable it is to drink Sangria.
We also went to Chinatown often and experimented with different regional Chinese dishes. Before the 1970’s almost all Chinese restaurants in the US were Cantonese-American. Around 1973 a new wave of immigrants started to introduce other Chinese cuisines. A popular restaurant was “Szechuan Taste”, which offered hot spicy food (with a heavy dose of MSG). We often went there and to some other restaurants in Chinatown selected by her bullying professor Miss Pan. The hot food could make you break out in a sweat or even hives. Now the Szechuan Taste restaurant chain is long gone, probably because of the MSG, and even the food in the few Szechuan-Hunan restaurants that still exist is terribly debased except in the four (Lower Manhattan, Flushing Queens, Sunset Park, Bensonhurst) Chinatowns.
California on the Brain
By the summer of 1974 I had everything going for me. I was living in a city I found stimulating, had a real job, and also a girlfriend who I was in love with. Unfortunately, my idealistic side kept clouding my mind. In making plans for the next year I sabotaged the whole thing by applying to graduate school everywhere else but in New York! I had the madness on Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley, California on the brain. Why didn’t I apply to Columbia, and why didn’t I think of just working at least one more year and then applying to business school instead of an academic East Asian history program? I still had too much influence from my politically correct brainwashing at Washington University, especially from a Chinese History professor who glorified the Cultural Revolution. I still thought it was a much bigger adventure to be an academic than to work in business. Now I see it as the opposite.
In the spring I learned that I was admitted into Stanford’s East Asian History graduate program, which meant that I had to leave in September and start over from scratch. I got into Berkeley with zero financial aid, which wasn’t going to work. Sari had more graduate school left. So after about a year and a half of good times we already had to say goodbye.
We dressed up and went out for our final dinner before my departure. I remember her sexy satin dress. We chose the “Monk’s Inn” in mid-town Manhattan. This was a French restaurant with a Middle Ages theme. The waiters all wore togas and carried on like the medieval monks in the works of Rabelais. Years later a friend told me that they had to close because the waiters got to vulgar – too much joking, burping and farting.
I remember clearly what I ordered that evening. I wanted to celebrate by having a steak, and I ordered “Steak Tartare.” I was shocked when the waiters brought out a plate of raw hamburger mixed with onions. I got it down somehow but can’t say I enjoyed it. So that was my last night in New York, and the next day Sari and I said a tearful goodbye at the airport.
I flew to Palo Alto, with high aspirations for the future, but also with strong feelings for Sari and New York deeply imprinted in my psyche.
What did I take away from that year? I learned to love New York City and even after. being in the San Francisco Bay area, gradually realized that I didn’t want to settle anyplace else. In that year away from school I became confident that if I ever wanted to return and work in business, I could do it.
Ten years later in 1983, I became completely disillusioned with leftist idealism and the academic career path and wanted to return. A Harvard-trained economist I was sharing an office with advised me that it was impossible. “You can’t work in business without an MBA. You need a degree. They’ll never hire you. The economy is in recession and no one is hiring anyway.” Actually, it was the start of the Reagan economic boom and the computer revolution, and he was completely off base. They economy took off just at the right time and even New York started to thrive.
I returned to New York and got a job with no qualifications other than the confidence that I knew what I wanted to do and the belief that I could pull it off, somehow. It wasn’t easy at all, and there were lots of ups and downs. I swore off accumulating more academic degrees, and just got on with life, going through a corporate training program for undergraduates and teaching myself whatever I needed to know about the computer field after that. I lived in Park Slope Brooklyn for over 30 years in walking distance from Cobble Hill where Maria Girace first introduced Sari and I to the Italian festa. There are still a few elderly Italian people there, but the mafia is long gone, chased away by Mayor Giuliani.
I have tried to look up Maria Girace, but she has disappeared, probably to Florida. Sari and I married in 1976 after she finished her Masters at Columbia, and she moved to Palo Alto where I was studying. Unfortunately, my itinerate career destroyed the marriage by 1982. She put down roots in San Francisco and is still living there to this day. I’ve seen Sari many times since then, and she still has the same sweet sense of humor that attracted me so long ago.
I moved to New York for love of Sari, but my love of New York is the love that lasted. Over four decades later I’m still here in New York, scarred and war-weary, still battling, making out as best I can, still improvising.