I went to Japan looking for work. This was not what I had in mind.
Maybe it's the bourbon, but lately, we've been feeling nostalgic. With writing this good, can you blame us? "Tokyo Stripshow Tryout" originally ran in 2009.
HELP WANTED: FOREIGN MEN NEEDED FOR STRIP CLUB
I see this ad in the English-language newspaper in Tokyo. I am broke; I can't get a steady English teaching gig, or any other form of employment, to save my life. I am just desperate enough to reply to it. Unfortunately, the days when a native English speaker without any qualifications can waltz into town and score a lucrative position are long gone. I'm learning this now that I'm already here and running out of money.
Just to be clear, I am not what you would call a "male-stripper type." I am hairy. Very hairy, everywhere, except on top of my head, where I would generously be referred to as balding. I am overweight. Not a fattie, per se. A former fattie — I've lost a lot of weight in the last couple of years and this has left me not with rippling abs, but loose, rippling, residually flabby skin. Facially, while I'm certainly not handsome, I'm not bad looking. I'd give myself a six or a seven. Decent for an average guy, but not a male stripper.
I don't mention these particular attributes when I phone Evan, the manager of the club and an American. I focus more on my entertainment experience, never specifically describing what it was I did as an entertainer — comedy, performance art, balloon animals — but he seems impressed by my credentials. As we arrange to meet, I ask Evan what he looks like, before he can ask me.
"I'm hard to miss in Tokyo," he says, "I'm black and six-foot-four."
* * *
Two days later, I step off a subway train at our pre-arranged stop and wind my way through a sea of Japanese commuters. Evan was right — he's impossible to miss. At six-foot-four, black and built like a professional linebacker, he's a mutant superhero towering above the Japanese. As I approach him, it's pretty obvious that he's waiting for a Fabio, not me. He looks around expectantly, everywhere that I'm not. When he finally realizes that the man who is standing right in front of him is the man he's here to meet, his expectant smile fades.
His mouth opens to speak. I quickly jump in.
"Before you say anything, let me just say two words: novelty act."
I plead my case to him, playing up the comedic aspects of my entertainment background. He naturally has his doubts. But he also has a club facing a lot of competition. He confesses that he's been looking for something to make his club stand out. And maybe, just maybe, a short, balding, flabby man could be his answer.
"All right, I'll let you audition," he says, "but you've got your work cut out for you."
We leave the station, get into his car and drive to the club, chatting along the way. Evan tells me about his life in Tokyo, being stationed there while in the Army and why he decided to stay after his tour was up.
"Japanese women love the brothers," he says. "I'm not kidding. Take a look around. Every time you see a black man, he's got two women on his arm."
I never noticed this before, but now, as we drive through the nightclub/strip-club district, I see it so often — black men surrounded by giggling Japanese girls in silver foil hot pants — that I decide it would make an excellent drinking game.
Evan unlocks the front door of the club and I follow him inside. I hear him flip a switch and a blue spotlight illuminates a tiny octagonal stage, which rises a few inches above the floor. It is surrounded on three sides by a dozen tiny, matching, octagonal tables, too small for holding anything except drinks. Evan throws his coat over one of the tables and tells me to get ready. He walks into a side room that appears to be his office. I take my costume out of my backpack: a brown suede Hefneresque smoking jacket and a brown felt jester's hat. I borrowed the jacket from an English teaching acquaintance, and the hat, which proudly sprouts three long, firm, turgid cones topped with yellow puffy balls, was bought at a Renaissance festival many years before. I had been travelling with the hat throughout Asia, never knowing exactly why I was letting it take up valuable space in my backpack. Until now.
I am dressed. I am ready. Evan comes out of his office and tells me to begin.
"What?" I ask, "No music?"
"The sound system's off and I don't feel like messing with it. Just do it without music."
I grumble about needing music to get into the mood — I can't strip cold. He tells me I should try humming something. It's no substitute, but what choice do I have? The only stripper music that comes to mind is the old Forties stripper song, which I believe is called "The Stripper."
Da da DAAA da DA da da
Ba da da dum
Da da DAAA da DAA da da…
I hum, I strut and I preen. Before long, "The Stripper" becomes the old Noxzema Shaving Cream commercial.
"The more you shave, the more you need Noxzema… Noxzema Medicated Comfort Shave," I sing as I shimmy the smoking jacket off my shoulders and down my back
When I reveal the thatch of hair covering my chest, back and shoulders, I detect a small wave of revulsion passing over Evan's face. He quickly composes himself, but it's too late. I decide to make the most of it, twirling and twisting my body hair, suggestively plucking out individual hairs on the accented horn blasts of the song:
DA (pluck!) da da da
DA (pluck!) da da da
The moments of pain are but a small price to pay for my inspiration, though if I'd thought of this bit ahead of time, I'd have bought some waxing strips to strategically place around my torso.
Evan is chuckling and shaking his head. I've got him where I want him — time to bring out the big guns. I drop my pants to reveal, between my two hairy legs, a fully stuffed, leopard print g-string. (This was also a loaner from my English teaching friend — she couldn't get me work, but she definitely came in handy in other ways.) I reach deep into the g-string and rummage around. I pull out a long, thin, peach-colored balloon. (I had also been travelling with a stock of balloon-animal balloons. You never know when they'll come in handy.)
I stretch and pull the balloon as sexily as one can stretch and pull a balloon, loosening it enough to blow up. A twist here, a fold there, et voila: a three-foot-long phallus complete with scrotum, shaft, head, urethra and a little bit of balloon left over at the end to carry between my legs. (I developed this trick while working adult parties in San Francisco. Like all my balloon-animal tricks, it's basically a variation on "The Doggie.") I do a Mick Jagger around the octagon with my inflated manhood and mime a bit of balloon abuse. Working myself up into the proper frenzy, I turn my back on Evan and reach again into my g-string. I pull out a white balloon, blow a small bubble of air into it, insert it into my "urethra" and spin back around for the grand finale:
The Ejaculating Penis Balloon, ladies and gentlemen!
I stand there, my arms and legs spread wide, like Liza Minnelli expecting rapturous applause. The balloon drops to the floor.
Evan claps a few times and says, "Okay, I get the idea. Get dressed."
As I change into my civvies, Evan tells me that much to our mutual surprise, he is interested in hiring me. I must appear a bit overeager because he tells me to calm down, that nothing is settled yet.
"Ordinarily, I do all the hiring. But for something like this, I'm going to have to run it past the owners. You'll probably have to audition again."
This is not a problem at all. I am overjoyed, never thinking I'd even get this far. It was a shot in the dark, a desperate bid just to raise some money. But now it was more than money. It was money possibly being shoved into my g-string, night after night, by bored, Japanese housewives. Maybe even so bored that I might get lucky from time to time.
* * *
Three days later, I'm back in the octagon, parading around in my g-string for the owners. I was expecting some polyester-shirted, permed-up Japanese Yakuza swingers with a couple of giggling bimbos hanging onto him, but the owners — two men, two women — are quite respectable looking, very well-tailored. They're in their early forties and seem a little straight-laced to be in this sort of business. Maybe it's a tax write-off. Or maybe there's more to them that I can see. For all I know, they could be into all sorts of kinky things.
Even hairy, flabby white men wearing jester's hats and g-strings.
I work the same act as before, but I'm feeling a little off. I'm not connecting with the audience. Last time, Evan laughed, he got the parts he was supposed to get, but tonight, I'm not getting any real feedback. The men have faces of granite — no twitch, no tic, no change of expression. They're giving me nothing. The women are smiling, but it might only be good manners. At the "big" moments, they merely cover their mouths and giggle slightly. Maybe they find it funny. Maybe they're embarrassed. I haven't lived in Japan long enough to know.
I finish, again with the ejaculating balloon. The owners applaud for what they must deem to be an appropriate amount of volume and time. They stand in unison, turn in unison, and walk single-file into Evan's office. Before closing the door, one of the men says something in Japanese to Evan while gesturing towards me.
"What did he say?" I'm hoping for a clue.
"He said you should put your pants on."
I get dressed and wait with Evan. I ask him how he thinks it went with the owners. He doesn't have any more of a clue than I do, and he's lived in Japan for nine years. After about fifteen minutes, the door opens. Evan is called inside. The door closes. I wait.
The door eventually opens again and Evan steps out.
"Well?" I ask.
"It was a close vote…" he says.
"Three to one. Three for, one against."
"I got the job!" I jump up.
"Well… no. It has to be unanimous. If one owner has doubts, then they all have doubts."
"No!" I cry. "That's not right! It's majority rules. Everybody knows that."
"Not here. I'm sorry."
"Well, who voted against me? It was one of the men, wasn't it? Let me talk to him. I can get him to change his vote."
"Forget it. It's over. Let me buy you a drink."
Evan walks behind the bar at the rear of the club and brings over two large cans of Sapporo.
"Listen," he says, "for what it's worth, I thought it was a great act."
We drink as the owners file out of the office. As they pass, each bows politely to me, still with no expression, except for the woman at the end of the line. As she walks out the door, she turns to me, smiles, and gives me a thumbs up. She wasn't stuffing money into my g-string, but it made me feel a little better. Then again, it could have meant anything. I return to my beer and ask Evan if the guy who voted against me told him why.
"He didn't give me any specific reasons," Evan says, "but I get the feeling he might have gone for it if you were black." n°