Grizzled Vietnam veteran, psychotherapist, drug connoisseur, illegal alien, subway brawler, weaver of endless tales, all this and more. At an English intensive in 1995, another teacher exclaimed, “I know you – you’re Santa Claus!” I looked around and there he was: a scraggly, Patton tank-Santa with hoary white beard and gravelly William Conrad voice. But in an upside-down world, I would come up with most of the presents.
I Click On St. Nick
Carl Windsor was sipping black coffee and puffing on a cigarette. He had the flu, he said. I asked if he was making himself chicken soup. No way, he said. No money. Half and hour later, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, I reached in my wallet, pulled out a 10,000 yen bill and told him to go buy groceries. That’s a hundred bucks. I’d never done that before and still don’t know why I did. It wasn’t the last time.
The second time we hooked up, we were team-teaching a corporate class in Ikebukuro. Afterwards, we went for coffee. There in the crowded shop, he told me how his younger brother had been fascinated with rockets back in Minnesota. “Randy,” he stated, “was the first person to put a rocket into space single-handedly. Problem was, it came down on our neighbor’s house. Put a big hole in the roof.” In retrospect, this was the defining moment of our friendship. Nine out of ten listeners at that point would take exception to this ridiculous story. I only nodded interestedly. Maybe I said wow. Carl was so matter-of-fact that it immobilized me, as if I had sighted a UFO. You don’t argue with UFOs, you stare at them. Was Carl, an astute judge of personality and an accomplished raconteur, testing my limits? Did he sense my skepticism? What was understood in the moment, in any case, was this: he could tell me his tales with impunity and I would listen to them. What he never knew was that I would write each and every one down.
There was something of the Hell’s Angel about Carl. He claimed to be 50, but looked a weary 68, with eyes wise from hard things seen first hand. And a ferocity in those eyes, a Jack Nicholson devilry. Windsor had been in Tokyo for thirteen years and spoke the language with a casual fluency. At Christmas, he often got gigs as a TV Santa, beamed all over Japan. In department stores, children sat in his lap. On December subways, they came asking him for toys. I once heard a fellow English teacher ask him for a girl friend for Christmas, saying he’d been a “good boy.”
“Santa doesn’t believe that shit,” Carl growled back at him.
In Japan, Windsor could be quite a few people. Two weeks after that first intensive, I saw him on TV in a Visa commercial where a beaten-down Japanese businessman wanders into a Cuban bar, then is seen fishing placidly in a boat next to Ernest Hemingway. Carl was Hemingway. In the last frame, back at the bar, the bartender asks the salary-man if he found Papa. “Yes,” the salarymen sighs wistfully. Windsor also played Leonardo da Vinci in an NHK-TV docu-drama. Once, in the Seventies, the Japanese police picked him up and held for hours before U.S. embassy people came to convince them he was in fact not Alexander Solzhenitsyn. He said he’d even hosted a radio talk-show in Tokyo and dispensed advice to teenagers. I did not question any of this. I listened.
The Moat Around Midori
When I met him, Santa’s world revolved around Midori, who saw in Carl a prince where others saw less than that. Midori appeared at age nineteen, and they’d been together for several Mays and Decembers. She was, in fact, a high school senior when they met, but later an honors student in economics, finally a rising wheeler-dealer in Tokyo financial circles. They were, as a couple, beyond improbable. But however your Western morality judges Carl, when set against Japan’s innumerable repressed, conforming, taciturn males, an older American like him can possess a cachet unimaginable in his home country. Carl had first seen her in a Shibuya bar and asked, “What do you think about old guys?” She’d said, “As long as you can dance, it’s okay.” Santa danced.
Midori’s father, Noboru Tanaka, was a top administrator in one of Tokyo’s most prestigious universities and owner of one of the largest single pieces of farmland in the Kanto area. We’re talking acres and acres here. We’re talking forests. The Japanese love to visit shrines; this guy had his own. His lineage went back as daimyo or samurai for 15 generations. To grasp his family’s status, consider the values and social conventions of landed European gentry in the 19th century, then double the intensity. Most Japanese girls rent their twentieth-birthday, “coming-out” kimono. Midori’s owned hers; it set Pop back a cool $20,000. There were three daughters, with a house for each one in the family compound.
In Tanaka-san’s house, Midori, as eldest daughter and chief heir, occupied a higher position than her mother. In accord with ritual, there was just one bath, or ofuro, the place of cleansing and harmony. And the rule was that Midori should always bathe after her father and before her mother. She could also dine with her father and grandparents, while her mother could not. Despite these formal affronts, her mother, in the best Japanese tradition, was reportedly the power behind the throne.
Pop, then, was conservative. Consider the time he gathered his three daughters into his presence and ceremoniously announced to them how deeply disappointed he was that he had no son, then just walked away. Tanaka viewed his wife and daughters simply as his “property” and, when, early on, he discovered Midori’s involvement with Santa Claus, he was, to say the least, displeased. He called Midori a whore and reminded her: “You are my thing.” Carl soon found a private detectives camping outside his home. After a few weeks, he decided to gather up some personal information about himself, diplomas and so on, and give them to Midori to present to her father, but she demurred. Finally, one day, he walked across the street to the detective sitting idly in his car.
“You’re a private investigator, right? Well, you’ve been watching me for a while. I think you’ve got enough information on me, so I suggest you leave. By the way, if I see you here again, I’ll just pull you out of that car and kick your ass, okay?”
The guy rolled up the window, started his engine, and was gone. Ten days later, Carl got jumped by some thugs in Omotesando. He held his own and survived. Windsor says he then called on some underworld contacts of his, something one does in Japan only as a last resort, to let Midori’s father know he was not a foreign insect to be stepped on with impunity. Carl had a natural affinity for the Japanese world of secret hierarchies, veiled threats and the posturing of men of power. It came both from a military upbringing and from his years on the street.
A cease-fire seemed to be in place, but the daimyo was implacable. Midori had to move back into the family home to avoid disinheritance. We should appreciate the irony of this trio. Windsor was a broken, struggling foreigner, landless and alone. Yet this strange American was Tanaka’s bane: his affair with Midori besmirched a fifteen-generation continuum. The patriarch’s ploy was useless anyway. Now the couple just met on the sly. Yet when they escaped for vacations outside Tokyo, Carl liked to buy a local delicacy and send it to Midori’s family in her name, in the tradition of omiage. He would ask her about her grandfather’s health or her mother’s. He knew appropriate behavior from its opposite, he quickly appraised character and perceived motivation. Still, his tales tend to reveal that understanding is one thing, behavior another.
Santa de la Rue
There had been times when home was a cardboard box in Yoyogi Park, where drug deals were what kept him alive, where cries of unseen men set upon in the parks chilled him closer to the bone than the cold air. (Later, when things got tough again, he’d tell me, “I can’t go back to the park, man, I just can’t go back there again.”) Or he’d have a street-stand at Omotesando, selling watches. Even then, Windsor had his connections. Once a local yakuza got in his face for a standard shakedown fee. Carl quietly explained to the young gangster that his boss wouldn’t like him doing that. He told the enforcer to drop a dime to find out. Apparently, Carl had helped the mob-boss’s wife with her English a couple of times. The young tough came back groveling, asking if he could buy Carl dinner. Yet another time I drove through Roppongi with him and he tilted his seat way back and ducked below window-level, seeking invisibility on the small chance an old enemy might see him. “Look out for a guy with orange hair,” he muttered.
Before the cardboard house era, Carl lived in a building near Shibuya. The owners had gone bankrupt, and the police had put up yellow, “Do Not Enter” signs. Instead, the yakuza took over and rented all the apartments out cut-rate. Carl moved in, Iranians moved in, it was a total underground scene. One night, the police came to bust the Iranians. The cops blew right by crashed-out squatters holding cocaine and weed to get to the Iranians: they wanted their 10,000 counterfeit telephone cards, a big business in Tokyo that used to play havoc with NTT revenues. The Japanese mafia made them, the Iranians sold them. That was an inviolable rule, confirmed when two Iranian wise-guys decided to steal a counterfeiting machine. They wound up as suicide partners who jumped off a building together in Kanda. Strangely, when they hit the ground, their throats were slit all the way through. Some kind of mid-air Islamic ritual? Carl talked it over later with a street cop. “Hey, how’d those Iranians get their throats cut like that?”
“I don’t know, but they were suicides,” responded the cop, dismissively. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter, they were just Iranians.”
The Doctor Was In
In another life, Windsor was an established psychotherapist who did emergency interventions for the Los Angeles police. His stories here were endless. He told how he was called in to help with a man who’d been eating his arm, taking bites out of his bicep. Carl went into the cell, blood everywhere, thought for a moment, then came up with a typical Windsoresque approach: he asked the guy if he was hungry. The guy said yes, so Carl got him a chicken sandwich. In the moment, it did the trick. I forgot to ask if he ordered it with ketchup.
There was a man he’d evaluated after he showed up with a gerbil up his behind, another with a dead cat impaled on his penis. A guy in agony with a 19 hour-long erection. A U.S. Navy submariner who had torn his own eyes out. A man in emergency who’d lost both arms but kept offering to sign his admission papers. He told of a female mutilator who so regularly cut herself that she looked a victim of the Texas chain saw murderer. Of a psychologist who had tried to kill herself so often that “her wrist looked like a zipper.” Carl would mix compassion with a sardonic twist and a taste for danger that harkened back to Vietnam. Sometimes he aggressively provoked a semi-violent type on the street until he got physically threatened — just so he could get the guy into a hospital for a good meal and a shower.
Once, years later, watching “48 Hours” in Japan, Carl saw a story about a woman and her son, a mentally ill man who was forever hitchhiking to nowhere chased by demonic voices he heard. Instantly, Carl knew him — he’d picked up the paranoid-schiz off the street in L.A. maybe ten years before. Windsor recalled the time this guy had been chased out of town by the voices and at their behest made it all the way to Cape Canaveral where, inconceivably, he sneaked past guards, donned a NASA jump suit, and was watching them load a satellite into the cargo bay of a Space Shuttle when a guard finally figured out something was very wrong with the new guy with the Marine haircut and the glazed eyes. He’d leveled his weapon at the guy and said, “Don’t move or you’ll die.” Eventually, they shipped him back, and he told Dr. Windsor the story, smiling all the way through until he remembered the Marine’s, “Don’t move or you’ll die,” and the smile fell away. In that moment, he said, the voice inside had stopped for the first time during his escapade, as the phrase “you’ll die” reverberated in his brain.
That patient brought back to Carl the memory of Dr. Death (“a major prick”) an L.A. psychiatrist who prescribed meds for psychotics. He did this with such abandon that most patients were overwhelmed with side effects: trembling hands and stomachs, even Parkinson’s symptoms. They used to beg Carl, “Don’t let Dr. Death give me the meds.” The strange thing about Dr. Death, explained Carl, was that he fought with his wife about twice a week, and the woman would take her revenge by means of his color-blindness. After a tiff, she’d dress him in purple-checked pants and pink shirts. Patients and interns would stare as he came in resembling more a psychotic than a therapist. But he kept overdosing patients. When Carl complained, he’d say, “Who the fuck are you — a medical doctor?” They finally came close to blows, ending Carl’s residence at the facility.
Windsor once told me of a “repeater” suicidal type back in L.A. who was threatening to jump from the third floor of a building. Carl, not for the first time, got him to come to the hospital instead. It was the fourth or fifth time he’d done this. On the ride to the hospital, Carl turned to him and whispered that next time he needed to be at least seven floors up to guarantee death. This day the on-duty resident at the hospital let the guy walk free because there weren’t any open psych beds. The man went back to the 7th floor of the same building and jumped to his death.
“Was I guilty of second degree murder?” Santa asked me, “or of assisted suicide, or did I just somehow intuit this poor fucker wasn’t happy on this plane of existence and needed to know the proper altitude from which to take out an incurable pain?” (Carl’s undergraduate minor was philosophy.) He said the hospital resident was “all shook up,’’ so he’d bought the guy a cup of coffee, put his arm over his shoulder and told him, “Look, I recommended the 7th floor — you didn’t.” The resident never said another word about it. Against this misstep, one must put in the balance the many times Carl intervened to ease pain or save a life — often at risk to his own.
“You know the story about Carl Rogers: some guy is standing on a ledge and he tells Rogers, ‘I’m gonna jump!’ Rogers says, ‘I hear you saying you’re gonna jump.’ The guy says, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna jump!’ Rogers: ‘You feel that you’re going to jump.’ “Damn right,” says the guy, and jumps.
This is not what you’d hear from Albert Ellis, explains Windsor. “Ellis would say, ‘What the hell’s the matter with you – you’re wife tells you you’re shit and you buy into it? Hell, my wife tells me that twice a week. What you’ve got to decide is, do you refuse to accept her statement that you’re shit, or do you think you’re wife is right? If she’s right, fuck it – go ahead and jump!’”
“Mmmm . . . Albert Ellis,” I mumbled, trying to recall Psych 101.
“They call him the Prince of Cognitive Therapy,” elucidated Carl. “I used to drive him around L.A.”
In Tokyo I was trapped in a dysfunctional marriage, and Windsor was my therapeutic safety-net. He was also responsible for getting me high again, after a hiatus of several years. Marijuana, possession of which is an extremely serious matter here, is nevertheless available, and Carl certainly had his connections. For me, used to obtaining it in the U.S., and immune to bullshit moralizing by alcohol-swilling hypocrites, stepping across the line, while unwise, came easily to me. Carl would hand it over cheap, albeit with a pusher’s sales-pitch: “This stuff is really amazing, I’m warning you, take it easy!” He said that every time.
Paradoxically, there are plenty of head shops in Tokyo, one inside a major department store dispensing pipes, bongs, even imitation dope. One day, recommending a place, Windsor reassured me, “Don’t worry, there’s no surveillance cameras.”
“Man, when I first came here, I always looked, everywhere I went. It’s just training from my days working on the street. Mirrors, cameras, alternative exits, back-to-the-wall positioning, it’s automatic. I was in a biker bar once in East L.A. when three guys got shot to death. I saw it coming in the mirror and got my ass under a table.”
“That was when I was working a halfway house,” he went on. “I had to fill out reports on whether a patient could hit the street again or not. That’s where I met Reggie. Reggie got busted because, when he was high on PCP, he became convinced that his foreman had kidnapped his daughter. Reggie was a very large man. When three guys finally tackled him, he had lifted his boss over his head in front of an industrial-grade shredder. Then he broke away and a few blocks from the factory, he thought he saw his daughter standing in front of a movie theatre, so he took her home. Problem was, it wasn’t his daughter, so he got popped for attempted murder and kidnapping.”
“At the county facility, inmates wore either orange or yellow fatigues. Reggie wore yellow. I used to sit with him in his art activity room and watch him mold these tortured devil dolls out of clay. “That’s what the devils looked like who told me about the foreman, Carl,” he’d explain. “And listen, man, when I get out, if you ever have any trouble with anyone, anyone at all, we’ll get my pit bulls on ‘em, okay?”
“Sure, Reggie,” Carl would say, “but you know, Dr. Weinberg wants to see you get past this devil thing first. We want to know if you can go out on the street alone – and come back. You better come back, okay, Reggie?” As he told the tale, I could feel the blend of authority and genuine kindness Windsor must have brought to his work. Take for instance Charlie Brown – his real name – an advanced schizophrenic convinced that his body was filled with worms. Charlie would inject vitamins into his legs to rid himself of them, but nothing worked. Nothing except 1600 mg of Thorazine, an enormous dosage that required special approval from the state psychiatric board. Windsor told how the poor man had gone to a voodoo queen for help with the “worms.” She’d told him he could rid himself of them if he tried chewing tobacco. It backfired.
“You see,” Santa expounded, “serious schizophrenics are very concrete. You have to tell them precisely what to do. If you teach them to boil water in a pan, they can’t extrapolate that to a pot. The voodoo queen never told Charlie to spit out the tobacco – so he swallowed it. The he got sick and threw up. When he saw the tobacco fibers, it confirmed his worst fears: there were worms inside him. After that, only Thorazine cooled him out.”
Santa Goes To Nam
Still farther back were Windsor’s Vietnam days. His father was a ranking U.S. Army officer, but Carl did what he could to stay out of it. He tells of the many ways he and his high school buddies attempted this — cigarettes dipped in ink that produced spots on your lungs for a few days, a plastic pouch of Karo Syrup, stashed inside your lower lip, which when bitten open turned you instantly into a diabetic, blood in your sample from pricking your finger with a needle. Perhaps the most creative effort came from a kid who, showed up for his physical with concentric rings of red paint expanding out from his anus.
“What’s this all about?” asked the doctor.
“It’s for darts.”
“What kind of darts are you talking about here?”
“Oh, lots of different kinds. White ones, black ones, yellow ones.”
“What, are you gay or something?”
“Well, a little. I guess, but I want to join the army.”
He didn’t. Carl didn’t either, but he got sucked into hell anyway. His father got him working for the Rand Corporation, one thing led to another until he was U.S. Army Intelligence and that was that. They started him in Japan for a while, but when the war escalated, he was sent to Vietnam. Bad things happened there, so bad he never talked about them. Something would pop out now and then. One day he told me he’d had a dream, something that happened to a small Vietnamese girl had come back to haunt him. Once he commented, “Sometimes I’d put a bullet in somebody’s knee, just to show them what real pain was.” Carl intimated just enough to suggest that while I’d tooted a saxophone around the Bay Area, he’d gone somewhere and become someone I could never imagine.
One story that stuck in my craw, though, was of his microwave exploits. He claimed microwave technology was his specialty in Nam, and once, when he’d been out in the bush for about four days with his squad, they got word “some people nearby wanted to kill them.” Apparently the VC were real close. “I thought there must be something I could do,” Carl said, so he pointed his microwave dish in an area the enemy were thought to be. “The Charlies began jumping up from their nests, holding their ears, screaming in pain,” Carl said, “I’d fried their brains. My men just picked them off.”
Could this be done? I went on the Net, found some Vietnam Vet sites, and put the question out there. Some responses:
• “Now that I’ve been able to get back off the floor & set my chair back in place, I still need some time to stop laughing… I’m sending this out to my 19th Engineer buddies, as we shouldn’t be selfish with this — many thanks for making my day a bright one!!!”
• “Thanks for the good, no, make that great laugh!! I know all the radiomen in the field units carried those ‘dish’ antennas. They doubled as frying pans!!”
• “Crapolla !!!!! The next thing this Colenl (sic) will be telling you is about the time he caught a 500 pound bomb dropped from an airplane and saved the lives of an entire platoon. . . Enjoy the joke, as he sounds pretty good at it.”
• “I’ve heard some tall tales, but this one takes the cake. Many things are wrong with this story – yes, there were HF line-of-sight antennas. but they were truck mounted; their frequency was way above the human hearing range. Jumping out of bushes, holding their ears…?? In a James Bond movie, maybe.
But Carl was not the kind of guy you would casually confront about this. I tucked the emails away.
After the war, Carl returned to Los Angeles, where, he explained, he accumulated a private therapy practice of 30 clients a week. However, he eventually tired of “middle-class neurotics with unhappy marriages” or “vindictive black women complaining about wandering husbands and doing nothing about it.” Given his familiarity with mortality in Vietnam, where every day could be your last, Carl gravitated toward street work with people who openly manifest the impulses many of us harbor somewhere inside. So he relocated to Honolulu.
His first case was a 250 pound, six-foot-four black man covered from head to toe with human shit. He looked at Carl and said, “I’m Barbra Streisand.” In that moment Carl thought, “This is where I want to be!” He preferred dealing with the deranged and unadulterated pain than the manipulations and deceptiveness of normal people. The cops had pulled Barbra out from under a car on the South Side and beaten him up. Carl went to the senior clinician and told him he’d locked the cops up in the emergency room with Barbra and her overpowering smell as punishment for what they’d done.
“Dr. Windsor,” responded the senior medic, “We’re gonna get along just fine!” Carl went back and asked the police if they’d got the message: beating up psychotics was not appropriate police procedure. Barbra, perhaps sensing an ally, stood up and loomed over them, growling, “I am the Destroyer!”
“It’s not Barbra anymore, gentlemen,” said Carl. When the cops found all Carl wanted now was for them to un-cuff the Destroyer, they did so and were out of there in the blink of an eye. In his many stories, Windsor exhibited fearlessness, humor and a compassionate spirit, managing to handle a wide range of psychotics like Barbra. On the street, it was nearly combat sometimes. But he felt no matter how bizarre or repulsive a behavior appeared, it was a way someone was staying alive. Windsor’s casual citing of psychological studies, his references to a range of academic theories, his detailed knowledge of pharmaceuticals all lent great credibility to his invisible credentials. But the cumulative effect of his stories — there was always a new one — took me into the Twilight Zone. Could they all be true?
More On Mrs. Santa
There was his ex-wife in L.A., an alcoholic, and more than that. These were the early Eighties. She’d been, Carl claimed, the subject of a porno magazine centerfold and later a big-money whore who flew junkets to Florida to do Johns for the mob. He told about how she’d once arranged for her Mercedes to be stolen and stripped somewhere in Utah so she could move up to a 300SL with the insurance money. But at some point, he found himself alone in the hospital with their baby daughter, born two months premature — alone, because after giving birth, his wife had taken off. Carl told me he slept for weeks in his daughter’s room in neo-natal intensive care. Then a nurse tipped him off: all was not kosher at the hospital. After assembling “ironclad evidence” on malpractice (they had ignored signs of early contractions and altered test results) he sued. Eventually, an California court found in his daughter’s favor for eight million dollars. The money was still in a trust fund, “to protect it from the mother.”
So now my outlaw buddy was a millionaire. Carl had been slated to receive a nice hunk of the compensation, but, well, problems developed along the way. The couple were soon divorced, he explained, and then his wife took up with a major L.A. cocaine dealer, also taking him for all he was worth. One day, Carl learned that the man, who was staying in his former house, had struck one of his daughters. Windsor rode up to the place one night on his Harley and gained admittance via the 24-hour security guard, a sympathetic former cop who knew Carl. Windsor says he sat there in the kitchen waiting for the couple to come home, sharpening his Bowie knife to a razor’s edge. When he heard the car pull up, he put the knife away and walked to the door. “I’ve got something I need to tell you,” he told the coke dealer, enfolding the offender’s shirt in his fist. He repositioned one of the guy’s ears very close to his own lips and said, “I don’t care if you fuck my wife. She can piss in your face if you like that. She’s already pissed all over me. Personally, I’d advise you to get as far away from her as you can, because she’s doing a major number on you. But I heard you hit my daughter, so what you need to do is climb in your BMW and get the fuck away from this house and never ever come back, and you need to do it now, before I beat your ass halfway to death. Now get the fuck out of here!” Carl says he never heard a Beemer peel out so noisily before. A year or so later, he was riding through town and noticed he was being followed by a BMW. He pulled into a strip joint to see what was up, and so did the BMW. Carl walked into the bar, and pretty soon the dealer came in and sat down next to him.
“You scared the shit out of me that night, man. And you were right, she’s bad news. I lost a lot of money.”
”Yeah, well, you were talking about my babies there.”
“I’m sorry, man, I don’t want to be your enemy.”
Carl added that they called this dealer “The Fifty Million Dollar Man,” because he never did a cocaine deal for less than that figure. But his ex used the confrontation to establish before the courts Carl’s “instability,” and despite her own highly questionable life-style, his status was gradually reduced from guardian to joint custody, then that was removed. Finally, perhaps as a result of his downslide in Japan and inability to make child support, he was barred from seeing his daughters altogether. The day he told me all this, Windsor borrowed 2,000 yen to get home. The eight million somehow seemed very far away.
I remember we were supposed to meet for coffee once, but he hadn’t answered my messages for days. Finally I reached him. He explained that he’d had to meet with a Japanese friend, a guy who, when he drank too much, always called Carl for help. After coffee, right in front of Carl, the guy had walked out into Shinjuku’s biggest street, got creamed by a car and died 36 hours later. Windsor said he’d had to “deal with the family.”
Okay. We walked into a German restaurant — the menu was in German, and I remembered that Carl had said he spoke German, but he acted as if he could neither read the menu nor speak Japanese. Carl sat staring calmly at me like some inscrutable North Pole mafioso. From where I sat across from Santa, perfectly centered behind him, there was a large hemispherical design in the ceiling, an opening out of which a golden pillar appeared to descend directly into the top of Carl’s head. I didn’t mention it. I’d once told Carl that years ago I’d believed I was getting messages on license plates sent from a higher intelligence, and he’d reacted with a look of professional disapproval. So now, I held my peace. He was reminiscing about a recent tryst with young Midori, atop Tokyo Tower. Gazing over the city lights, they had spoken about a day when there might no longer be human life on Earth. Carl said the thought of such an enormous span of time allowed him to accept with equanimity his adored one someday lying in the arms of another man. It gave meaning, he said, to the Buddhist tenet that suffering comes from resistance to the impermanence of earthly things.
I picked up the tab. “I’ll pay you back March 10, when I get paid,” Santa promised as he waltzed away down Koshukaido Street. Images of Jackie Gleason. A little travelling music, please. A month and a half later, I reached him at midnight on a Sunday. He told me he’d thought I’d been out of town. Meanwhile, two more people had died: his ex-wife’s mother and another drug-dealer friend. Never a dull moment with Santa.
St. Nick Of Time
One day, driving to Carl’s apartment, I pulled out into an intersection, too fast to see a kid coming on a motor scooter. He dumped his bike and slid to a stop in the vicinity of my front wheels, scraping up his leg. Locals stood and watched. My white cat Martha, along for the ride, sat on my dashboard and watched. I got out and floundered in Japanese with the boy, who stood there impassively examining his leg. I called Carl – no answer. I ran to the corner, and there he was a block away in front of his apartment. He came bouncing up and took control of the situation, using his linguistic and interventionist skills to persuade a trembling boy with a scraped knee not to call the cops. “They just complicate things, kid,” he said. The kid, cowed, agreed. This was excellent, given the white kitten sitting on my dashboard and especially considering that a few days earlier, I had plucked a realistic, scale-model toy AK-47 out of someone’s trash pile and thrown it in my rear seat. Why? No one knows. But I deeply appreciated absence of the Tokyo police.
Carl persuaded the kid to let me take him to the hospital, where they bandaged him up and sent him home. The kid was sweet, a college senior who looked 16 years old, “studied American culture,” and dug grunge rock. Driving him around, I got the impression his favorite artist was a singer named “Neil Bana,” but after careful questioning, it turned out to be the Seattle group led by Kurt Cobain. I paid his doctor bill and stuffed another ¥10,000 into his hand. Meanwhile Windsor was bending his scooter back into shape. After we got back and the kid chugged off into the darkness, I stood in the street with Carl and a Japanese friend of his who said I’d probably get nailed by the courts for ¥2,000,000 for avoiding the cops and admitting my guilt by paying him off.
But young Yasunori’s folks weren’t that type. I called to apologize a second time and wound up three weeks later with his mother serving me chocolate mousse with whipped cream and coffee and then little sandwiches and Japanese tea and then a big pizza with Coke and then fresh strawberries and then more coffee……WHY??? You’d think the kid had knocked ME off a bike.
More Street Santa
Carl never concealed his contempt for the Japanese male and never shrank from confrontation. Sekuhara (sexual harassment) still occurs on the trains, perverted chicans touching women or squatting down to look up dresses. Some keep mirrors on extendable sticks. Once, in front of Carl, a yakuza type hauled off and kicked a young woman halfway across the train car for no discernable reason. Every Japanese male on the train quickly turned and looked the other way. Carl moved to assist the girl, quietly advising her to see a doctor about the bruise on her leg and suggesting she get off at the next stop, as “you don’t want to see what’s going to happen next.” Then he was in the offender’s face, on the other side of whom appeared a providential Indian gentleman, no less enraged. “You’re pretty good at kicking girls around,” offered Carl, “How’d you like to take on a fifty-year-old American?”
“And a teacher from India!” chipped in the chap from the sub-continent. After the young lady exited stage left, they got in some good head shots on the offender. At Ikebukuro, they had him by the legs, trying to drag him from the train, but he hung on to the seat rail, the doors banging closed on his midsection, so they relented finally, dropped his shoes on the platform, and walked away as the train pulled out.
Rotund, white-bearded, usually broke and disheveled, Windsor got his share of disapproving glances on the trains. Often passengers commented aloud about him, assuming he spoke no Japanese — they were quickly rebuked in their native tongue. Late one night, a young tough was ranting in Japanese that Carl was one of those “foreign drug-addicts.” Carl finally shouted out “Bagaero!” (Asshole!), walked over, and sat down next to him. Everyone else moved away. Pulling an envelope out of his pocket, a weary Carl whispered, “Yes, it’s true, we foreigners have lots of drugs: and you can have these two pills if you promise to take them both right now in front of me.” Now, the idiocy required to ingest unknown medication from a shabby stranger you have been publicly insulting boggles the mind, but the guy downed the pills and disappeared into the night, his body now processing Windsor’s potent high blood-pressure medication, two doses of which were enough to knock him on his ass, and conceivably worse. Windsor (in a burst of creativity?) told me the next day he remorsefully called a contact at a local police station to confide the story and ask if anyone had O.D.’d in the vicinity the night before. The cop, reportedly, said, “No, Carl, but please don’t do that any more.”
Incident #46: Carl can’t sleep, as usual, so he gets up and goes for a walk. It is 4:30 AM., and he’s making his way down a dark neighborhood street in Nerima Ward, headed for the local 7-11. Suddenly, just behind him, the screech of bicycle brakes. Carl turns around to see a large young guy on a bike looking at him.
“Urusai!” shouts Carl. (“You are loud and intrusive! Shut up!”) The big guy looks at Carl.
“It’s not me — it’s my bike,” he explains
“Bakayaro!” growls Carl. (“You stupid man!”)
The tall young Japanese is looking at Carl, this shabby Santa Claus with eyes like death. What was the reality there that night? We can at least imagine the kid jamming down the avenue, enjoying the speed and the rarity of an empty Tokyo street, his head down, suddenly looking up to see Carl, being forced to slam on his squeaky breaks. Or we could imagine him as a local bully or a member of a gang of bullies, happening on an old man late at night and deciding to fuck with him. But these are only speculations. Because all he actually said was,
“It wasn’t me – it’s was my bike.”
Now Carl points out, laced with all the Japanese expletives at his command, that there wasn’t much difference between him and his bike in this situation; for all practical purposes, when you’re on your bike, you are your bike.
The guy is carefully moving the bike past Carl, still seated, using his long legs to scuffle along. He slows down and stares back with a pained look, or perhaps he wanted to look fierce. This is all fine with Carl, on edge from his usual problems and from not enough sleep.
“Well, since you had a chance to hit me with your bike, but you didn’t,” he observes, now you have another chance to hit me off your bike. Why don’t you try that?”
The guy turns away with the same pained look and begins to ride off – but then stops and turns one more time. Uh-ho, thought Carl, bracing himself, he’s gonna come back and fight. The Japanese is looking back at our bristling natural-born-killer Santa, chest poked out like a giant pigeon. He is not ready for this pigeon, for this angry bearded porcupine.
“I told you. It wasn’t me. It was the bike.”
“C’mon” smiles Carl, gesturing to his chest with both thumbs, bouncing on his heels, his eyes gleaming, “C’mon.”
You have to feel for the Japanese guy, unable to react or form sentences in his own language. But why hadn’t he apologized quickly, as he should to a man many years his senior, who had the right to shout “Urusai” at his clumsy behavior at 4:30 AM? Or is he really some sort of bully? We don’t know. We can only imagine him riding off, building up speed, streaking around a corner, perhaps pretending that his feet were fists and his pedals were Carl’s face.
But they weren’t. It was his bike.
Santa On The Lam
Dr. Windsor lived as he did despite having lived in Japan for eight years as an illegal alien. This magnified the bizarre nature of his presence in my life. He spoke of a “misinterpreted accident” involving a student, years before, that resulted in his losing a job and then his working visa. He gave Kafkaesque accounts of a high official in the Japanese Secret Service who had befriended him and would soon intercede to re-legitimize him, of scenarios where the government was about to acknowledge mysterious past services he’d performed for Japan and grant him redemption. Stuff totally out of the movies, but his sober, self-controlled manner lent credence to it all.
Beyond all unsolved matters, there was the mystery of how an overweight, insolvent old white man was so passionately connected to a hot young Japanese woman, Midori-san. Santa embodied the myth that in Japan you’re never too old; there’s still time to make dreams come true. I never really knew Midori, she spoke almost no English, we just bowed and said hello when we met. Windsor e-mailed me artfully composed photos of her, a black negligee slipping just so from perfect shoulders, midnight eyes that slice right through you. But her physical beauty was not the sole aspect of Carl’s experience of her. Back in her disco days, he was struck primarily by her enormous vitality and appetite for fun — dancing, talking, riding around on the back of a motorcycle. He had no idea she was brilliant. When she began college, she would come to him with an English Lit assignment and he’d suggest there was more than met the eye in the piece, helping her to explore its symbolisms and meaning. He’d explain that in other countries, college is seen as an exciting time, when young people stretch the limits of their thinking. In Japan, it’s more about stretching the limits of one’s drinking. Midori would run off and come back with the insights he’d hoped she’d find, meeting, even exceeding his expectations. Carl relished the role. He could be teacher, lover and friend. Freshman, sophomore, junior, then her senior year, and everywhere she was at or near the top of her class.
Midori became an underpaid powerhouse financial pro; after two years at a major Tokyo security firm, she’d outdone her male colleagues in sales and was entrusted with buying, even creating mutual funds for the firm, as well as for clients. Carl claimed the company reaped literally millions of dollars from her skills. Midori explained to him that most Japanese security companies are yakuza-like operations, where salesmen are browbeaten and intimidated into making sales in ways that make the office in “Glengarry, Glenross” look like a girl scout troop. The boss would scream at the brokers to sell $100,000 worth of stock each day. If they didn’t meet their quotas, they had to stand at their desks, not sit. “That little girl,” he would scream at them, “has outsold you all. What are you, a bunch of sissies?” Midori would be talking to a client on the phone who asked, “Are you all right? What’s that noise in the background? Is there a fight?”
“Oh, it’s nothing,” she’d say soothingly, “Our boss in Ikebukuro is worse.”
She began appearing on Tokyo TV as featured analyst of her company; she also did in-house broadcasts to branch offices. In one case, she was reassigned to replace the general manager of her department as moderator for a major seminar because his decision to ignore her advice had resulted in a six million dollar loss rather than a two million dollar profit. The company president called her in before one important meetings to admit that “everything I’ll say today will be based on your good advice. You will be rewarded.”
Yeah, sure. In America, she’s way over $200,000 a year, easing in and out of her Beemer. In Japan, she rides a train, sleeps in a tiny company dorm room that gets “inspected” regularly. If she leaves at night, she must report where she’s going. They gave her so little salary every month she couldn’t afford to help Carl when he slipped deeper into trouble. And she was often enough sexually harassed at work – one of the offenders was her boss. Her real father called her “his thing,” and we can easily imagine how little fatherly love she ever got from that autocrat. As a top university official, he would have been a nearly invisible workaholic anyway.
So the fates offered Midori this wrinkly old American owl. It was as hard for me to accept as it is for you. Carl often flashed across my mind as some sort of villain, even a molesting lecher. But what was inside him was sharper and stronger and wiser than 99% of the men that surrounded him. And Midori, in time, would show her steely Japanese will.
He would look at me through those watery eyes, steeped in Freud and Jung and Erickson and Albert Ellis, as if he’d risen from the depths of my own unconscious, or out of some wild, primal male force. Even today, in my mind, I hear him telling me to cool out, that I am saner than whatever is assailing me, telling me to take a slow breath and hang in a little longer. I had known him now for a few years, but as the millennium turned, things were not going well. He was slowly going nuts in that little room of his.