Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Urashima Taro Part 3: Wake Up with Waffle House

From an old blog, this is part 3 an account of when I visited the US in 2006, my first visit after for 9 years of living in Japan.

January 25th, 2006

After a 32-hour trip with baby, I got 5 hours of sleep in a cheap hotel and then woke up and showered. My first morning in America in 9 years, and there is no hot water. Strangely, I wasn't at all angry, since it kind of matched my mood.

The Indian immigrants that owned the Airline Blvd Econolodge were really nice. As an expat living on the skinny, I even identified with them. Having lived for 12 years in a country whose language I had to learn from scratch, I did not mind at all that the night manager was nearly incomprehensible. I thanked him for his kindness and promptness in picking us up the night before, knowing full well that it was not an exception. A cheerful woman in a sari was cleaning rooms when we left, and it was obvious that the family pretty much did everything here. I told her how much I appreciated the very late pickup, and how relieved I was to find a place to stay, and she smiled with genuine joy and said, "that's nice to hear." The motel was cheap and dirty with no hot water, but it was safe. It was a place with lockable doors and lights, and it had housed my father, wife, and son. I was truly grateful.

However, once Dad was awake and Noel was being fed, I was numb again and taking care of business, getting us in the car and on the road to Oxford. We really needed some breakfast, so Dad took us through Memphis instead of getting on the interstate right away.

Dad, in spite of his condition, was driving. He was driving because it was easier for him to get into the driver's side of the car. Simple as that. There was also my disorientation about driving on the right side of the road.

Highway 78 from Airline Boulevard was just sleazy. I chuckled at seeing a run-down building with a huge sign advertising "China Buffet Truck Parking." Just at this moment, Dad lifts his eyebrows and says "Mmm, China Buffet," and he is absolutely serious, offering it as an enticing alternative.

Driving through Memphis, I was struck by how the scenery was like the Chinese food we got in the Chicago airport - so much quantity with so little quality - so much space with so little in it.

For breakfast, we stopped at one of Dad's favorite restaurants - Waffle House. We sat in a booth because Dad needed the wider seat just to fit himself on. I was impressed by how far American restaurants have come in accommodating the disabled. The doors were big enough for Dad to get through, and even the bathroom was like a barn, or so it seemed to me, coming from super-compact Japan.

The booth was next to the grills and stoves where the food was prepared. There was a loud, young black woman who seemed to run the show. She was large, tall and stocky, and she had numerous tattoos of handwriting - in cursive, no less - up and down her neck and arms. I did not and still do not understand the significance of these tattoos, but they seemed to mean something. They were not artistic at all. She talked freely and often with the customers, two of whom were evidently regulars.

At the grill was a much shorter, rounder young black woman who seemed to be on good terms with the bossy one. She was talking on a cell phone as she cooked the food in an efficient and easy manner. It was impressive how she could get away with all this, but it was not my place to say anything.

Then there was a much skinnier, smaller black girl and a round, blonde white girl waitressing. They were obviously very scared of the boss. The blonde white girl was actually shaking very badly most of the time, but I suspect that she might have been in some kind of drug withdrawal or maybe just alcoholic shakes. Her teeth looked terrible, so I suspected it might have been meth, but who knows. I don't like to assume the worst, but she was obviously not doing well, and the teeth, the bags under the eyes, and the yellow complexion made substance abuse much more likely than some neurological disorder.

Last, there was Grandmaw, or at least she was somebody's Grandmaw. She was probably in her late fifties or above, and she was completely oblivious to the other workers. Of course, she coordinated orders, asked for things, and served, and she was directing the waitresses on what to give to whom and when, but she was not at all in the circuit of intimidation and fear that the boss girl had set up. It seemed almost like Grandmaw didn't notice this very palpable set of power dynamics.

My father, for his part, was oblivious, too. He ordered his favorite burger and a side of hash browns. He asked for extra pickles, and when Grandmaw brought them, he thanked her and said that extra pickles is one of those little pleasures. She told him to take his time and enjoy his food.

He replied, "Oh, I always take my time. I don't like to rush through my food. You have to enjoy life while you have it. That's what I say."

Grandmaw agreed, "You got to take each day as it comes. You take it for what it is and be grateful."

My wife looked over to me for translation, and I made a face to indicate that interpretation at this moment was not an option. The boss girl was detailing how she made so-and-so regret ever coming in here for a job, and the shaky white girl brought me more coffee. I was impressed that, 12 years after I left the USA, you can now get decaf with free refills at Waffle House.

Dad rearranged the pickles on the meat so that they perfectly cover the beef patty, giving him an ideal combination with every bite. "You know, you can have your lots of stuff, but if you can't enjoy it, it doesn't mean much. I just want to enjoy what I got and live my days as best I can." The skinny black girl drops a cup on the counter, but it doesn't break, and boss girl glances her way.

At this point, a gray-haired, moustached man of about my father's age got out of his customized pickup and came in. He was definitely southern and country, with cowboy shirt, boots and hat, but he was slender and healthy, standing on his own, looking about purposefully, and carrying a cell phone on his belt. He was independent and employed. He might have been the owner of a small business or perhaps something to do with low-level industry. He had that air about him, and he looked like Dad. Or rather, he looked like Dad would look if he were not in such bad shape. I felt guilty because I imagined what life would be like if Dad was like this - healthy, purposeful, independent, and mobile. This guy's kids probably recieve money from him, rather than the other way around. But it was not money that I envied. It was certainty, freedom from doubt and guilt.

This guy was in charge and probably carrying quite a few people on his own, both at work and at home. He was probably a good guy to go to for advice in certain things. I can't say that I would ask Dad's advice. The thing that really made me feel kind of short-changed was knowing that this guy's kids never had to ask themselves if they are doing enough for him. They never had to decide how much to sacrifice for him, what they would have to do to help him. He was strong and on his own, and his children are free. But that is rot, to think that way, and I turned my attention back to the diner drama unfolding.

Grandmaw was still serving other customers and keeping the conversation going, "That's the best way. I don't want none of them luxury things they got on the home shopping TV, none of them bags and jewelry. I like to just do my own thing and take my time."

Dad smiled in agreement, and I noticed that he was missing teeth. "Dad, you're missing some teeth."

"Yeah, they fell out, but I don't have the dental or the funds to get 'em fixed," he said apologetically.

"But Dad, those are your dentures, right?"

"Yeah, the teeth fell right out of 'em. Sorry-ass way to live, ain't it? I'm missin' teeth in my false teeth," and he chuckled. "Sorta like getting a wooden leg amputated, ain't it? You might say I done hit rock bottom. I'm mostly paralyzed in my right hand, so I can't even jerk off, I'm so fat I ain't seen my pecker in years, I can't walk, can't work, and can't get around, and I'm married to a crazy woman. But you know, there is always hope." And he leans in with a conspiratorial whisper, "I am working my way to ambidexterity, if you know what I mean." And he grinned, the missing teeth at irregular positions, suggesting some kind of meaning, like a coded message.

The door opened, and a young, plump white woman with dye-black hair, a colorful butterfly tattoo on her neck and several piercings all over her head came in. She was very fair and clear-skinned. She even looked healthy. She asked for a job application, and the boss girl gave it to her with a raised eyebrow. The butterfly goth girl went outside again, and Grandmaw was at a different table serving.

While the goth girl was outside filling in the form, the regulars at the bar got more coffee and asked if it would take long to teach her who is boss. Though she had been talking almost non-stop up until this point, the boss girl's tone quickly changed, and she was quiet "Won't take long. Never does," she answered and started silently wiping the counter as though it were part of her reply.

Well-oiled and queazy, we made our way back to Oxford. I drove, and it was difficult to stay awake on those straight, deserted country highways. I swerved a couple of times, but there was nothing to hit, and everyone else was asleep.

When we arrived at Dad's house, we went in to greet my step-mother B. She had taken an interest in decorating, and there were wooden posts of technicolor deer and gnomes stuck in the lawn. Each one only cost 2 dollars at Walmart, and it made her feel happy. She had succeeded in purchasing. She was an agent in commercial transactions. She was participating in the world.

The white front door to the house had "NO SMOKING - OXYGEN" written in flourescent orange block letters in the middle. The letters, however, were partially obscured by plastic vines and artificial flowers that had been nailed to the outside of the door. More decorating. She said that the vines really "bring out" the front of the house.

Wife and the baby stayed in the car for the time being because the baby was still nursing and half-asleep. I tried to help Dad out of the car and to the house, but Dad told me to go on ahead, that he would take his time. My stepmother was eager to see me, he said.

So I opened the door, and then it really got weird.

No comments: