Apology: Being irresistible to old men (Part 3)

31 12 2010

Dear Japan,

I would like to offer my sincerest apologies for misrepresenting myself as a member of a flamboyant male escort service, and misleading your older gentlemen into having embarrassing lovers’ quarrels on your otherwise wholesome streets.


Elder Swift

Part 3/3

I woke up, disoriented in the darkness.

The soft sound of muffled snores, trapped under a shifting tide of futon blankets, had risen in pitch at some point and disturbed whatever dreams I might have had, leaving me suddenly awake, staring at a formless ceiling as my eyes tried to adjust to the shadows.

A tinny beating sound, like little armies of drummer-boys, seemed to slide off the rooftop. The never-ending rain of last night had carried on until… what time was it? I moved to sit up, finding, to my annoyance, a listless arm draped across my chest. I still wasn’t fully awake, and as the arm sluggishly pulled away back beneath the neighboring blanket from which it’d spawned, I realized I wasn’t in my own bed.

I was sleeping on the floor, in a dark, shrouded room, surrounded by a dozen passed-out men splayed randomly about in one gigantic, makeshift pallet of futons and blankets. Reality slapped me in the face light a soggy piece of sushi, and I remembered where I was and why: Zone Meetings.

At the Mission HQ.

And this time it was I who was the visitor, and some younger usurper was sleeping in my old bunk bed, enjoying the sweet release of sleep that even the cheapest combination of springs-and-mattresses can bestow, while I slept atop a few questionable futons usually stored on forgotten shelves in the storage room.

I should explain for those unfamiliar: futons in Japan aren’t like the futon couches/beds you see in America. Imagine, instead, an incredibly thick blanket (or an incredibly thin mattress) that you can fold up in thirds and deposit conveniently in the closet every morning (clearing up space in your tiny room). They’re surprisingly comfortable (especially stacked) when used on top of the straw mats that serve as the flooring in Japanese bedrooms, called tatami (“ta-ta-me”).

But these were “questionable,” you see, because I’m pretty sure the futons we’d pulled out of retirement used to belong to the Sisters back when the female missionaries occupied the apartment some years in the past.

As a male, it only takes one time, one time, of finding a suspicious scarlet-trending-to-brown stain in the middle of a Sister’s old futon to make you want to take everything they’ve ever touched and burn it on the front lawn.  But no, we only threw away that one we found, and the others were kept around for missionaries visiting headquarters, and yep, now I was just such a visitor.

In my tired stupor I didn’t have the energy to bother complaining – I was far more concerned about having to go out and try to do the whole “missionary thing” during our yearly East Asian monsoon. As though punctuating my thoughts (or perhaps the Lord sensed my laziness) the rain picked up suddenly, washing against our prison-slit style windows in dark waves.

I groaned, trying to roll back down into a pillow that wasn’t there, and groggily reached out and stole the southernmost quarter of some other Elder’s blanket, exposing their sock-clad feet to the stale air, bunching  it up into a halfway serviceable cradle for my head. As I fell back asleep I offered up a quick prayer, begging for some relief from the torrents of water I just knew would be waiting for me and some unlucky Elder come morning.

A note to the more spiritually inclined readers: praying to the Lord to enable your laziness is a patently bad idea. Plus, it was the wrong sort of prayer altogether: I shouldn’t have wasted my time praying for it to stop raining.

No way. That’s like a Level 5 Miraculous Intervention Event (Weather Alteration and/or Cessation) when really, I would’ve been fine with a Level 1: “Dear Lord, please don’t let me be molested by some old man in the rain. Please.”

That kind of “divine intervention” takes all the godly effort of blowing a bicycle tire out or causing me to miss a train connection – enough “butterfly effect” builds up in your day that you’d never even meet the old pervert.

God I wish we’d missed the train.

Sure enough, it was still raining cats and dogs when we woke up. Honestly, that’s not too much of a big deal anyways – no missionary is afraid of a little water, but I hadn’t brought any sort of rain gear with me. The same principle that applies to keeping old, nasty girl-futons in a back closet applies to sharing clothes/gear too. I got the crappiest thing they had, an oversized (XXL at the least) rain coat that dragged along the ground when I walked.

I couldn’t possibly wear anything more ridiculous, or so I thought.

The Zone Meeting was the next day – our local missionary leaders (the Zone Leaders) had thought it would be a great “team-building exercise” to get us together a day earlier and have us go on exchanges (see Part 2 for my thoughts on those), so despite the rain I was still pretty happy to be there.

They paired me up with Elder Thompson: a tall Australian from the Golden Coast, skinny as a rail, and we went out back to grab some bicycles. He looked down at me dragging my ungainly raincoat around and just kinda shrugged, chalking it up to a “Swifty” thing to do. That’s right, by then my name had become an adjective for things ranging from clumsiness to egregious displays of naivete. Elders would sigh and say, “Ohhhhh Swifty…”

I made it about twenty feet away from headquarters before I suddenly learned why girl bikes and guy bikes are different. I kid you not, it was not until this moment in my life, nearly twenty years in, that I had ever considered the practical implications of wearing a dress and trying to ride a bicycle.

Having my huge raincoat draped across the bicycle’s frame quickly taught me how utterly impossible it is to move freely without getting errant clothing caught in the gears, spokes, or any other part of the bike that could seize up and toss me into a flooded ditch to drown to death thanks to a poor fashion decision.

Girl bikes have the middle bar lowered to accommodate this, I realized. Wow. Mind-blowing, the stuff you learn as a missionary.

Elder Thompson patiently turned us around and I ran back into the missionary’s apartment to look for something less likely to win me the equivalent of a Japanese Darwin Award, and still keep me relatively dry.

And there, in the back of the closet, folded in neat little pile, I found a perfect plastic/nylon set of rain gear: a coat with a hoodie, and elastic banded pants (at waist and ankles!). It was absolutely perfect: with this over my suit I wouldn’t get muddy at all, and the elastic ankle bands would keep my pant cuffs from getting caught in the bike’s chain and killing me. Perfect!

Oh, it was also purple. Very purple. Not a pleasant shade of plum or some other muted tone, mind you, no, not even one of the acceptable pastels.

This was a purple that defied purpleness; transcending the mundane hues of the rainbow, shooting past violent in a flare, and approaching the glory of Barney the Dinosaur himself.

It was too late to change my mind: Elder Thompson had been waiting patiently, and, honestly, even though he didn’t seem to be in a real hurry I didn’t want to give him a bad impression. Missionaries all gossip with each other, and the last thing I wanted was a label for being lazy (no matter how I actually felt). Soon enough we were back on our bikes, tearing down the streets looking for people to talk to.

Obvious fact: no one wants to stop and talk to you when it’s raining, not even for “free English lessons,” but that didn’t stop us from trying. After a while we decided it was location that was the problem, convincing each other that the Elders who lived in the area had already burned through everyone they could here. What to do?

We biked our way over to the Ikebukuro train station and hopped aboard one of the express’s that was running northwest, skipping a few of the boring stops and ending up outside a cool, outdoor mall I liked. The place was essentially just a street lined with shops, but had a long glass roof running over the entire thing for something like a good quarter mile, making it possible to do two important things: find people, and talk to them without getting wet.

My heart sank as I realized all the shops were pretty much closed up by then – the day was already almost gone and Elder Thompson and I had barely talked to a single soul. This is not what we wanted to report back to the group when we got back to headquarters, but the place was a ghost town and there was barely anyone to strike up a conversation with.

But there he was! A possible “kin-jin” (kean-jean) – a golden person – someone who would surely hear our message and be instantly converted!

Nah, he was just some poor sap who hadn’t seen us in time, and tried to walk by us without making eye contact. Elder Thompson was having none of it! Even as the guy tried to apologize and say he was in a hurry, Thompson picked up speed to keep right alongside him as I trailed a bit back behind. Elder Thompson never even flinched as we ended up right back in the rain without umbrellas; the guy literally tried to peel us off his tail by subjecting us to weather.

Ha! If a mailman can do it, you bet your (magical) undies a missionary can too!

Not wanting to interrupt the vigorous attempt Elder Thompson was making at maintaining a conversation, I decided to hedge our bets by staying in eyesight and trying to flag down another potential convert. Our entire goal that day was to either give away some Books of Mormon or at least teach a First Lesson. In other words, we had a quantifiable set of things that we had to tell people, and if we could con someone into listening long enough we got to write them down in our nightly report, receiving the praise of our District Leader.

Off to my side I saw a middle-aged man standing beneath the awning of an indistinct building, smoking a worn out cigarette that was doing a remarkable job of staying dry despite the drizzle. I could tell he was keeping an eye on the animated conversation some thirty feet away, so I walked over to say hello.

I definitely had his attention from the moment I walked up – his entire mood seemed to change, his body language shifting away from my companion and his new-found friend and entirely towards me. He took his cigarette out of his mouth and stubbed it on the handrail, flicking it back behind him as he opened his mouth to greet me.

His outfit was a little odd – sweat pants and a gray hooded sweater, zip-up style, and he had just buried his hands inside the center shared pocket. He leaned forward on his toes a bit as we started talking, and I introduced myself as a missionary for the Church. At this point, as his eyes glazed a little bit, I should’ve realized something was wrong, but I was as wet as a dog and hadn’t gotten to talk to anyone for hours, and was willing to put up with almost anything.

Even when he was putting a hand on my shoulder, looking me in the eyes, and asked me if we could “talk somewhere.” I said yes! I thought, hey, here’s a guy who actually wants to talk to me! This is great! I waved over to Elder Thompson and he waved back – happy that I had also succeeded in doing a “stop” on the street. I was so excited, and I undid the pull-fasteners and dropped down my nylon hoodie so I could see him unobstructed.

“Oh! You’re very handsome! This color is good,” the man said in Japanese. I said thanks back, proffering the possibility that he was being too kind just because I was a foreigner. He immediately replied back, “No, no, I like foreigners. Very exotic.” Then, in English, he asked, “What is your name?” in a rather stilted way.

I told him, “My name is Elder Swift, and you have very good English!” He laughed abruptly, and suddenly started fishing in his pants for something while maintaining good, non-creepy eye contact. In just a second he had whipped out… a pen, a silvery pen, and held it up in front of me and proudly exclaimed, again in English, “This is a pen!”

We laughed together at his memory of elementary school English (I swear all Japanese people seem to know how to say “This is a pen!”), and I asked him what his name was. “Oh, oh, my. name. is…” and then he paused, and it was a little odd, because he was doing pretty good up to now in English, and then said, “Tanaka. You can call me Tanaka. Nihongo demo ii ka?” So he was Mr. Tanaka (the most generic name in Japan), and he wanted to know if we could switch back to Japanese – and I assured him that was fine.

Meanwhile, to the side, my temporary companion and the other guy had started getting louder, and Mr. Tanaka asked who the other gaijin was. I explained he was my partner, and he said, oddly, “Oh, I am not interested in him.” Then he patted my leg (which is hard to do while standing up), laughing out, “Just you!” and I laughed along, completely unaware of how this looked to the few pedestrians who had passed us by.

At this point I realized he had been drinking, but unlike most suspicious drunks I’d encountered, he was holding it really well. Don’t get me wrong, he was showing all the signs of having had a few shots – excitable and pretty open in his speech, but his inebriation only seemed to make him more willing to talk to me, in the middle of the sidewalk, while fat droplets of rain cascaded down his balding scalp.

Who was I to question the ways of the Lord and the people he put in my path?

So I tried to explain a little about who I was and what I was doing, and explained that I even taught free English lessons. “English teacher!” he  exclaimed, seeming even more excited. Then he put an arm around my shoulder and turned me away from my companion so we were facing the street. Usually I would be skeeved out by this point, but he seemed to be steadying himself on me and was super friendly, so I let him hang on and he kept talking.

“You’re a good kid, that’s what you are! A good kid! I like you!”

I thanked him – that was an awfully nice thing to say and… “I want to give you, hmm, 5,000 Yen. Yes, 5,000 Yen. You’re a good boy, aren’t you? A good boy!”


Obviously he was drunk and I couldn’t take advantage of him by accepting money (we were supposed to turn down gifts and such) – and told him “No, no, I can’t accept money, I do this for free.”

Well, right then, he just whipped in front of me and stared straight up into my eyes as though I were the most amazing thing he had ever seen. “You’re, you do it free?”

I nodded vigorously and told him, “Absolutely! I just can’t accept money – I absolutely believe in what I’m doing.”

He nodded, looking me up and down, and I could see my purpled self reflecting in his gleaming eyes as he put out a hand, palm forward, and patted me on the chest, almost fatherly-like. “You. You are a good boy. You will come with me, and we will talk about things. To my house.”

This was a lot to process, but, incredibly, what I heard and what he said came across as two different things. Still in a completely innocent mode, I thought he wanted Elder Thompson and I to come talk about the gospel with him, and was inviting us over to dinner. I yelled over, “Hey, Elder Thompson, I think -” at which point Mr. Tanaka grabbed my lapel and pulled my head gently (and now creepily) back towards him as he said, “No, no, just you, not him. I only mean you.”

Then it happened, as his left hand held the edge of my jacket’s hood, his right hand gently caressed me from below, lovingly, like a man petting his favorite plaything. “NOT AGAIN!” my brain screamed, even as I just stood there in shock, and it all fell into place.

Too late – the hand that had just felt me up was now clamped onto my left wrist like a vise.

He started yelling at me to hurry up and he dragged me forwards as I tried to resist, fearful of breaking his arm if I twisted the wrong way. “How could this get any worse!” I wondered, and I tried to tell the guy to let me go – he had misunderstood!

Just then a taxi started to drive by and Tanaka didn’t so much hail it down as do a stadium wave with three arms (one of mine was still attached to his) and bring it to a screeching swerve into the curb.

Stop for a moment and picture this rainy scene: a taxi squeaking to rubbery halt against a wet curb, a middle aged man dragging a purple-clad foreign kid along, yelling at the cabby to “open-the-door-already-its-pouring-out-here-you-bastard!”

The door did in fact pop open, and he dropped himself inside, letting my hand go. I recoiled instantly and backed up, trying to tell him there had been a mistake. That’s when he got all “mean drunk” on me and started yelling at me “to get in the damn cab.”

“No, look, it was a mistake, I’m a missionary!”

“I don’t care, get in the cab! Get in the cab!”

“But!” By now Elder Thompson had finally figured out something was wrong and was headed my way. His street friend was already bailing, thankful for the distraction, heading (of course) back towards the covered mall street he had come from in the first place.

“Get in the cab! You’re coming to my house!”

At this point  the cabbie, God bless him, tried to intervene, “You’re not a prostitute, are you?” and I said “NO!” The cabbie tried to explain this to Mr. Tanaka, matter-of-factly, but Tanaka-san was irate: “I said get in the cab, boyo!” Then he tried to jump out and grab my hand.

I’ll never forget how gob-smacked ol’ Tanaka-san looked as the cabbie hit the lever that makes the car door swing shut automatically, which proceeded to smack the poor guy in the face. Tanaka-san fell back into the cab.

“Forget it kid, I’ll take him home. You go on now!”

Mr. Tanaka kept yelling, fists pumping up and down on the back headrest of the cabbie’s seat – but since his arms were in the cab now the door could fully close, and the taxi pulled away as I stood there, rain flowing down my mottled hair in brown spikes. Thank God for modern Japanese taxi cabs and their driver-controlled automatic doors.

Elder Thompson arrived, giving me the craziest grin: “Dude, dude, that guy just tried to take you home! He tried to take you home, Elder Swifty!”

I sighed and looked over at him, “I need food.”

“Let’s go have us a feed!” he bellowed, and we set off for the train station, hours left in our day to finish the Work, and a night ahead of endless, but loving, ridicule.

So I’m sorry Japan, for a lot of things really.

I’m sorry for dressing up in an outfit so garish it made me look like a Purple Power Ranger.

I’m sorry for loitering outside what turned out to be a “private mens’ bathhouse.”

And I’m sorry for soliciting a middle-aged drunk with the promise of free sex in the comfort of his own home. I’ll never forget how disappointed he looked, as he realized his dream of getting 5,000 Yen worth of “services” for free disappeared as his taxi pulled away…

Oh… and Japan? I accept your apology, too.




7 responses

31 12 2010
Ms. Jack

I love your story about the mattresses.

I remember the first time I stained a mattress. It wasn’t an immediate emergency since, as a 15 year-old conservative Christian girl, it wasn’t like I was going to be having anyone in that bed any time soon. Still, I knew that someday we would be moving, and it would be guys who would be moving my mattress out to the moving truck, and I was mortified at the thought of my daddy, brothers, uncles and cousins carrying my mattress across the front lawn with the mark of the beast on it for all to see.

So, I did the only thing I could think of: I got a bucket of bleach water and scrubbed that stain until it was pure white instead of reddish-brown. I figured anyone who looked at the mattress would easily be able to guess why it had been bleached, but the mattress was cream-colored and the bleach was nowhere near as obvious as the blood. My obsessive fix must have worked well enough, because moving day came and went and no one seemed to notice.

I guess your sister missionaries didn’t have my idea.

2 01 2011

OMG. Thanks for sharing your story.

2 01 2011

Painfully funny! Thank heavens for that cabby.

3 01 2011

I read parts 1, 2 and 3. Seriously funny!

I’m going to make my boyfriend read these. He’s a Japanese national living in the U.S. He’s going to be mortified. :- )

3 01 2011
Last Call for Brodies Nominations! | Main Street Plaza

[…] Apology: Being irresistible to old men […]

16 01 2011
Stephen M (Ethesis)

Bless your heart, now I know why no purple power ranger.

2 06 2011
Futon Company

Here in the UK we love our futon beds for many reasons, for many it’s all about making best use of available space, for others it’s all about style and the futon is used in the same way as a traditional sofa.

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