The new millennium came, sinking its teeth into the flesh of the weak, and Carl Windsor was not among the strong. He got jobs and quickly lost them. He blew a chance to open an English school in Hawaii by begging his potential Japanese patron for train fare home. The president of a small English school offended him during an interview, so Carl grabbed him by his lapels, pulled him across his desk and told him to fuck off. That satisfaction wore off, and now he was getting spurned on weekends by Midori as she grew weary of his disasters. He fell five months behind on rent. His health declined. His teeth fell or were pulled out. His blood pressure was way up. He began sleeping days away, drugged by any sleeping pills he could score. By mid-year, I was bringing him groceries once a week plus a few bucks for the train. Santa repeatedly contemplated suicide, and he had enough pills to do it.
Santa Puts His Boots On
As the crafty skills that helped him survive as an illegal alien for eight years were slipping away, Carl seemed to undergo a transformation. He fled into prayer, resolving to reclaim his dignity. Five years into his relationship with Midori, he came clean to her on his illegal status. Now she understood the reason for his constant crises. Between the lines of his confession was the solution to his ills: she could marry him.
But she would not. Though they had repeatedly fantasized about it, she justifiably saw the circumstances as unacceptable. Carl would have to leave Japan for at least five years, according to new amnesty laws, and there was no guarantee he would ever be permitted reentry. A Japanese woman can easily envision five years of denial. Every other karaoke video involves a woman staring out to sea or smoking sadly in a bar, reminiscing over The Romance That Didn’t Work Out. It’s an emotional state easily surrendered to. But how long could a young financial starlet wait for Santa?
As October, 2000 slipped away, Carl finally set the day he would vacate his miniscule apartment. Despite the good times, despite precious intimacies with Midori, it was in reality just a hole in the wall, and the hole was closing. His U.S. passport would expire within weeks. Dr. Windsor had to hit the streets, and then he had to leave Japan. Flat broke.
It took us two days to get him out of his place. The first day he wasn’t worth much because some friends had come over to say goodbye and hadn’t left until the wee hours. Around 9 PM, trying to jam a drawer that wouldn’t go in, Santa was getting angina pangs. I told him we better quit for the day. The next morning I found him piddling through old papers and photographs. I lugged bag after bag of debris to the trash. I watched him describe a former patient’s dysfunctional behavior, all the while painstakingly attempting to insert documents into a cellophane holder. When he’d finally accomplished this, he threw it all away in the trash. I had to keep on eye on him. Every couple of hours we broke out to a coffee shop, just to escape the gloom. Carl sat there in the local McDonalds, exhausted, scraggly white locks falling along his ears, a few teeth missing, his fingers stroking that big beard as he recalled bygone times. A pair of red suspenders held his dirty brown slacks up over an old maroon t-shirt, as he began to reminisce.
Santa: The Early Years
He went back down a long road to his boyhood days in Michigan, to a difficult childhood with a mother who drank and an army-officer father. Carl explained that his father hadn’t started out to be spit and polish. He’d wanted to be a priest. But in the Thirties, Carl’s grandfather, a local banker, lost everything and jumped from the top of a building in Charleston. He left eight children behind, with Carl’s father George as the oldest son. From his mother’s point of view, George wanting to disappear into to a monastery was about the same as her husband jumping off a building. The first time he came back from the cloisters, he found his belongings on the front steps and was told to either get in the house and shoulder his responsibilities or get out and stay out. George picked up his goods and left.
At the monastery, he learned French, later went on to major in the Romance languages and even mastered German. One day, the abbot took him aside and said, “George, I notice you have a wandering eye for the women. I think you need to reexamine your heart and your vows. If you decide to leave, there’s someone I want you to talk to.” After George realized the abbot was right, the someone in question turned out to be a representative of the United States government. This mysterious individual proceeded to plunk George down in the heart of wartime France as a country priest/artillery spotter who called in air strikes from the steeple of his church. His congregation knew nothing of his activities, much less that their priest was a trained U.S. Army commando. By war’s end, George had risen to a position where he was given responsibility for the rehabilitation of survivors at a liberated concentration camp — commissioned to give them back the will to live, as Carl put it. Only once, did he tell Carl of what he’d seen there.
“They made lamps out of human skin,” was all he would reveal. George wasn’t the raconteur his son would become, and what Carl could learn came from poking around the attic, finding old newspaper articles and medals and then asking questions.
It wasn’t until Carl’s own military security clearance check that he unraveled another family mystery, this regarding his maternal grandfather. Investigators checking on his vulnerability to blackmail asked him how he’d feel if people knew his grandfather was a convicted felon. Carl said it wouldn’t bother him, wanting to know more of course, and so learned that the man died in prison after years serving time for smuggling heroin. This explained the occasion his mother took his sister south to Montgomery, Alabama. It must have been to the federal penitentiary there, to lay her father to rest.
His maternal grandmother’s story was no less dramatic, and made understandable his mother’s depressions and the cruelties she subjected Carl to. Rummaging through papers in the attic, he kept coming across the name Edith and finally, cautiously inquired of his father who this was. Eventually, the truth came out. Grandmother Edith had worked as a barmaid in Texas and kept her daughter stashed behind the bar next to a 30-ought shotgun. When the child was three, her mother gave her to her married sister, who lived on a horse ranch. The sister had a family of twelve children, and the three-year-old became unlucky number thirteen. They taught her how to ride a horse and to shoot a gun (years later, she kept a .45 by her bed and was a dead shot) but they never let her forget she was the outsider. They even took her name away and called her Marcie. The dinner plate passed around the table always reached her last. Years later she’d ask her own kids to guess why she always chose the chicken butt, so they could know “the chicken butt was all that was left when the plate reached me, and I was glad to get it.” Her 19th-century-style led her to train Carl to be able to “pour a guest a drink, play cards, and carry on a civil conversation.” This proved valuable as the boy grew up in a general’s home, frequented by visitor’s ranging from mid-level officers to ambassadors. I was told.
As he grew, his mother drank more and secreted herself in her room for days. One example might summarize her approach to her boy: Carl was playing baseball and got struck in the head by a bat. As he lay on the ground, they called his mother over and told her a doctor had been called. Edith told them to forget the doctor; the boy was making too much out of it and needed to be tougher. It was only a few days later, when the headaches and dizziness continued, that she relented and a doctor confirmed that a serious concussion had taken place.
Carl’s brothers excelled in sports; he didn’t. So he cultivated a difficult double-major: academic excellence and juvenile delinquency. His father, the commando, had taught him to fight and also the ability “to destroy someone with words,” and he was a natural. He proceeded into college and excelled there, as well as in graduate school.
Around this time, he experienced lowered appetite and a constant desire for liquids. Thinking he had a flu of some kind, he checked in to the clinic; they ran some tests, and discovered that Carl’s kidneys were basically non-functional and he had only a few more months to live. Somehow, an Indian doctor emerged who performed a then-experimental procedure, removing one kidney and rewiring the other somehow, leaving him healthy enough that he could kick ass on Tokyo subways thirty years later. There in McDonalds, Carl raised his shirt and showed me the abdominal scars. They were massive.
I sat there watching him, listening to his gravelly monologue; his face was that of a weathered prospector, the sheriff’s sidekick, a classic face from the Old West. You could see Texas in it. Carl’s students usually tabbed him as somewhere around 65, but he was 52, beaten down from hard living: a life-and death operation in his youth, combat in Southeast Asia, plenty of action on the street, and quite enough drugs. The white beard? Tonight he told me it had been brown when he went into the jungles of Vietnam, and pure white when he came out of them a year later.
Finally, around two on a drizzly November afternoon, the room was empty. He’d thrown away most of his clothes and stuffed a little suitcase with what he couldn’t part with, including a few remaining potatoes and onions from what I’d brought him that week. But he was not exactly headed for the streets. He had connected with a guy in Shizuoka who needed some web pages done – Carl had mastered the skill in his free time. The man, a well-off New Zealand architect, would put him up for a few days and put some cash in his pocket. After that, he was headed north to Nagano to stay few more days at a Catholic monastery, visiting with a priest-friend he’d known since his high school days. And then? Well, even if you’ve overstayed your visa for eight years, when you appear at Narita immigration, air ticket in hand, the Japanese usually tell you, goodbye and good riddance. He was almost ready.
So, after carrying most of the junk out of the apartment, who do you think was going to drive Carl a hundred miles south through pouring November rain to Shizuoka? Why, me, of course. I figured it was good for a couple more stories, but I would have done it anyway. I got my two stories, though.
Santa Heads South (Story 1: Takashi the Dog-boy)
Takashi lived up on the third floor, above Carl. Takashi growled all the time and ate from a dog dish in his room, which was always in utter chaos. Carl walked by a couple of times, heard the growls and occasional barking and wondered why no one complained. In the mornings, Takashi would put on a fashionable suit and Armani tie and ride the subway to his job downtown as a technical analyst at a major securities house. He was about 27 years old when he learned Carl was a therapist and went down to ask to be hypnotized.
Carl says he is certified to perform clinical hypnosis and has done so many times to revive and deal with traumatic events in his patients. He took Takashi under, and the first thing he met was the dog. This was unnerving, because, well, here was this dog in the room, growling at him, where Takashi had been a moment before. Windsor then used an “advanced Eriksonian hypnotic technique” to take him to the first time the dog had appeared in his life. Tetsuya was back in his own room now at age six, his mind numbed by what he had just seen in the family kitchen. He had been at the dinner table, watching his drunken father. His dad was shouting at his mother about something, some mistake she had made and, when she came over to pour tea into his cup, hot scalding tea, he’d flung it into her face, scarring her for the rest of her life. Takashi knew in that moment that he wished to kill his father and, simultaneously, that he could not. In that instant, the dog emerged and became part of him, growling, eating from the floor, focused on taking the father’s throat in its jaws and ripping the life out of him.
The abusive behavior of the father recurred until Takashi was fourteen and had a realization. One night, he slipped into his father’s room with a kitchen knife and quietly woke him up, whispering to him next to his pillow: “Father,” he said, I’m old enough and strong enough to kill you now. I could have already slit your throat with this knife. And if you ever touch my mother again, I will.” The father decided to modify his behavior. Takashi, though, had gotten used to being a dog and could not modify his. Now, years later, it persisted. One other bit of behavior induced him to contact Carl: attractive as he was to women, he couldn’t keep girl friends because when sexually aroused, Takashi bit them, drawing blood.
Carl set up some ground rules: clean up your room. No sex, no violent behavior. Massages only with girls, and only back massages. He didn’t reveal any more to me about his meetings with the young man, but when a year later Carl felt was he was ready to accept the horrific memory back into his consciousness, Takashi told him he had already remembered. By then, he was able to free himself from the behavior and have normal relations with women. Finally, Carl told him:
“There’s just one thing left for you to do: get on the train and go see your father. You don’t have to forgive, him, or you can. But don’t you think he needs to know that you don’t plan to kill him any more? Most important, you need to do this. Then we’ll be through.”
Santa Heads South (Story 2: Chin the Duck)
Windsor and I were on the freeway now, headed south. “Actually, animal behavior in disturbed people is pretty common,” Carl observed. “I told you about the guy who quacked, right?” And so I learned about Chin the Duck.
Chin came from China. Chin quacked. Quacking was all he did, except for pacing around the ward of a Chicago mental institution where he had been consigned for 30 years. Quack, quack. And sometimes, the custodial woman assigned to him said, he babbled undecipherable nonsense. Early on, his IQ had been rated at 16; in psychological nomenclature, he was an imbecile. He never said a word. He shit in his pants. He had to be fed. Occasionally, he’d deck another patient with a violent blow thrown from his shoulder. If someone turned the radio up, he quacked louder. Once, the neighbors complained about some extra-loud quacking, and when a police car arrived with its siren on, Chin out-quacked the siren. The brother could quack. At this time, late in the Seventies, Carl was working for L.A. County and got called in to reduce at least the volume of the quacking behavior.”
He describes the cold look in the idiot’s eyes as he sized him up the first day. Dr. Windsor took an unobtrusive seat in the ward and observed him at 90-minute intervals for a few days to establish a baseline for his behavior. One thing he noticed bothered him: Chin could direct his anger. True imbeciles cannot do this, their emotions are unfocused and unattached to their surroundings. Chin got angry in given situations or at specific people. It was toward the end of this period that he heard Chin say to himself, as he paced the room,
“Ichi, ni, san, shi . .”
Chin was speaking Japanese! Japanese was the “undecipherable nonsense.” Watching him pace, Carl grasped what that meant. It was in the record that as a young man, Chin had spent time in China as a prisoner of the Japanese. Chin, Carl realized, was not pacing, he was marching. And counting – probably under orders – in Japanese. If he stopped marching, he would, in his mind, be beaten. So he had to keep it up. He had done this for over thirty years.
Carl had already done a post-war stint in Japan, so he spoke a few words of Japanese to Chin, who almost jumped across the room when he heard it. And then Chin answered him. His IQ was not 16: it was much, much higher than that. The questions Carl asked him soon confirmed his theory about the behavior and also built the first small bridges of trust between the two of them. Little by little he managed to convince Chin that the people who had beaten him were not around any more. Over time, he tried to move him toward accepting that, since he was in America, he needed to learn English. Hell, he’d been listening to it for 30 years, it would probably be a cinch. But Chin started quacking whenever Carl brought it up, so one day (being Carl) he tried to push matters. When Chin started quacking, Carl turned up the radio. Louder. Then louder. The third time, Chin upped the ante, passing on the quacks and opting for a solid right shoulder into Carl that broke his collarbone and left him looking up at his patient from the floor. Smiling. He had to smile so as not to reward Chin for the violence. He’d broken the collarbone once before, so he knew it was broken, but he just swallowed the pain, got up and told Chin with a grin that they’d have to stop for today, but that he’d be back tomorrow to try again. Then he walked outside the facility and started yelling in pain.
After six months, the money allotted for Carl ran out and he moved on. But he kept getting reports from the caretaker, “Chin makes coffee in the morning, he’s making the beds for us, he goes to the toilet, he’s eating normally.” Eighteen months after Carl found him, he was studying for his high school equivalency degree, and he would get it. He was in fact, basically a normal person, a traumatized former Japanese prisoner wandering around speaking Japanese to himself. For thirty years, psychologists, therapists, clinicians had passed through the clinic, but no one had figured it out. Carl Windsor did. He had looked in his eyes and seen something there.
Santa Goes to Hell
We rolled into Fujinomia, close by Mt. Fuji, around 8PM, in rain and darkness. I stopped the car in a parking lot to get my bearings. Carl got out, homeless now, and stood uncaring in the drizzling rain. Then he walked over to me and said, “Arnie, I’m scared.” Speaking from my own stable situation, I assured him everything was going to be okay. At Fujinomia station, we met Stanley, the New Zealander who’d said he’d put Carl up for a few days and pay him about $600 each for setting up a series of home pages. We followed the guy over to a big building which housed the sake dealership of his in-laws, plus a nice little bar-cabaret up some stairs, and his home proper. The bar was decorated with African masks and candles. Elongated gargoyles had been sketched on the walls. We sat at the bar. When Stanley had shaken my hand outside, he hadn’t looked me in the eyes, and I didn’t like that; inside the bar his gaze was so intense, I felt he might be gay. The kid working behind the bar was as girlish as he could be. Were they a couple? What had Carl slipped into here? After a while, though, Stanley told some male conquest stories. And hell, his wife and daughters lived here with him. Still, something felt funny.
A couple of girls came in; one was a shock, with long, pretty fingers and cantaloupe-colored lips. Santa was instantly the charmer, but it was a poignant effort: after a while, he ran out into the rain and brought back his photos of Midori. “This is my girl friend,” he proclaimed. As for me, after two beers, I sank into a hammock chair and drifted off, drained by the events of the past days. Eventually, Stanley, dead drunk himself, led me upstairs into his big home, boasting vaulted wooden ceilings in a modern Japanese mode, rife with complex inner planes and angles. Having grasped all this, I lost consciousness.
Next morning, around 6AM, I found Santa hunched up on the big leather couch, consumed by anxiety. He’d observed Stanley’s alcoholism and listened to a story that had disconcerted him. Stanley’s brother it seemed, had fallen, or jumped, from a building a few years ago and was now mentally askew and consigned to a wheelchair for life. Windsor had put this event together with the drinking and factored in other stories he’d heard to get a diagnosis he didn’t like. People said Stanley often brought distressed people down to his place; there would some trouble and the rescuee would get thrown out. Carl’s idea was that in these failed rescues, Stanley was reenacting his brother’s disaster and by transforming hapless guests into worthless troublemakers, pathologically expiating his own guilt over his brother’s fate.
I listened skeptically as he propounded this theory. At the same time, I was gazing at a drawing lying on Stanley’s big desk. It was a black silhouette in profile of an older man with a Santa Claus beard. You were supposed to look for hidden images in the sketch – the more you could identify, a note explained, the more perceptive you were. I discerned within the sketch a red dog sleeping on a street, but from a distance it was the profiled figure’s hand, resting on his chest – a bloodied hand. Why would this perceptual puzzle show a man who looked like Carl, with his hand bloody?
It was getting to be mid-morning. Wearily, I bade my stressed Santa goodbye. He was on the road with everything he owned in a few bags, totally broke, thrown back to the days when he slept in parks. But he’d be back in a few days with some cash in his pocket. He’d visit that Catholic priest-friend in Nagano next, then turn himself in to Immigration and leave Japan, and Midori, probably forever.
When I got back to Tokyo, his calls started coming. Early next morning, Carl called to say he was in crisis, feeling suicidal. Stanley had taken him to a small house up in the hills where he was to work and left him there. But a man there, one of those whose websites he was to work on, told him it was supposed to be done for free. Then it turned out there was no running water, no toilet, and no heat. Carl had woken up freezing in the middle of the night, unable to use a bathroom. In the morning, after the man had offered to take him to one, he took off. Things were falling apart. Calmly, I assured him everything would surely work out; he was catastrophizing.
During the day, Carl made calls. Stanley still wasn’t answering his cell-phone. He couldn’t reach the man’s wife back in town. He called the local friend who’d referred him to Stanley, to let him know he’d been treated neglectfully and suspected he was going to get ripped off. Calmly, the friend assured Carl everything would surely work out. Then this “friend” managed to reach Stanley and told him everything Carl was thinking – verbatim. Windsor hunted down a sleeping bag in the house that day and, knowing it was against the law not to have running water, called the city to get it turned on again. So he got through the night and was finishing the 15th page of the new website, when Stanley entered the house and slammed the door behind him. Hard.
“I’m back!” he announced, in an angry voice.
What happened after that was blurry to Carl, as he tried to recall it the next day. He remembered his suitcase being hurled against a wall, his belongings flying in all directions, his alarm clock shattering against another wall. He remembered Stanley’s face and big body coming at him. He remembered some kind of attack by the big man, though the details were not clear. He remembered telling Stanley the words he’d always used on the street, in the old days when people went out of control: “You have to calm down now! You have to calm down!” He remembered realizing he was a hostage of this big, raging man, trapped somewhere in the foothills of Mt. Fuji. He remembered collecting his things and stuffing them back into the suitcase, then Stanley hurling it into the back of his van, where everything flew apart again. He remembers being given 5,000 yen to get on the train and get the hell out of town. He remembered Stanley screaming at him that he was a psychopath, and wondering if it were true.
I picked him up that night at Shimbashi Station, hugged him and drove him to a capsule hotel in Ikebukuro for the night. He showed me big red and blue bruises on his outer forearms, located where a man defending himself would fend off blows thrown at him from a taller man. Yes, the marks were similar to the image I’d seen on Stanley’s computer. We discovered a bump on his head where the guy must have landed another blow. But when the subject of revenge came up, Santa shook his head and, of course, told me a story. He’d known a lawyer in Chicago who was approached by a Mafioso. The hood plunked a suitcase on his desk with $500,000 inside.
“I want you to defend me. Win or lose, you can keep the 500 grand. Only thing, if you lose, you won’t get a chance to spend it. Maybe your family can.”
The lawyer took the case — and lost it. He figured he knew who’d been assigned to take him out and tried to take him out – and blew it, wounding some wise guy, probably the wrong one at that. The lawyer is in jail for a long time now: “Judges,” Carl explained, “really dislike an officer of the court indulging in attempted murder.”
“When you go into revenge, “ Carl opined, “you go into a darker darkness, a place not natural for people like you and me, and you fuck up. Some day, Stanley will fall down those stairs drunk and break his neck. Forget him.”
Santa On The Street – Reprise
Midori was hardly talking to Windsor on the phone any more. Here was her lover in the street, penniless, beaten up, scared and alone. She stood firm: get yourself together, leave Japan and come back to me again someday (as if she believed that could ever happen). If you love a man, do you treat him that way? Of course, there’s the other side of the moon. The girl deserved her life and her youth back. Carl had had her since she was nineteen. Surely, she was terrified at the intensity of the emotions, swimming in guilt – caring, but unable to see him in such distress. Santa denied that it was over. “She’s trying to make me strong, make me honest.” He couldn’t see the wool he pulled over his own eyes. I kept my mouth shut. The next day, I paid for the capsule hotel. By now, five years into our friendship, Santa was into me for thousands of dollars, far more than I’d ever loaned anyone, and the odds I’d get it back were not good. Somehow, I could care less. I knew I’d often put more in his hand than he’d asked for. Here in the eye of his perfect storm, Carl was still astute, perceptive, forgiving. His insights rang true. I loved the guy. He couldn’t see his forest for his trees. He was incurring consequences of his own making, but he carried his cross gracefully, and when his eyes filled with tears, or when he growled in rage, I understood and I was there.
One day around this time, a phrase on the radio stuck in my mind: “…he must have some issue around his father.” It lay in the back of my brain until I got it: I was rescuing my dad! I’d been doing it all along, ever since the first 10,000 yen bill I put in his hand. Thirty-five years after my own father’s marital crisis, another authority-figure was getting kicked out onto the street. I had to help. I was carrying this man in my arms. I was feeding him, carting him around, giving him train fare, paying for his cigarettes. What would he have done without me? Well… rescue, shmescue. As it turned out, he probably would have just resolved everything faster.
But hindsight is buying Apple in 1998. With all analyses written and revised, there was Carl out in the cold, with winter closing in. I said goodnight, drove back to my cozy apartment and pulled out Eric Clapton’s, “Pilgrim,” whose mournful “Drowning in a River of Tears,” had Carl’s name all over it:
In three more days, I’ll leave this town, and disappear without a trace
A year from now, maybe settle down, where no one knows my face
I wish that I could hold you, one more time, to ease the pain
But my time’s run out and I’ve got to go, got to run away again
But still I catch myself thinking, one day I’ll find my way back here
And you’ll save me from drowning, Drowning In A River Of Tears.
Better Days? (Better Think Again)
Windsor kept dragging his feet. Instead of heading north to the monastery, he found a three-mat room not so far from me. I don’t really think you can visualize a three-mat. Three tatami mats are about room enough for a U.S. Army cot with a little straw trimming around it. It would barely qualify as a walk-in closet. Several Africans had just moved into the little house too, and right away the Japanese cops swooped down to check out the legal status of their bicycles, blocking off the cul-de-sac where the house stood with a police car. Checking foreigners’ bike registration is a basic police pastime in Japan. They brought an ambulance, fearing a riot, I guess. Carl backed into the kitchen and got ready to hide in the crawlspace under the house, but the police paid him no mind. It wasn’t time yet.
One day in late November, I accompanied Carl to the American Embassy in Toranomon, where he laid his cards on the table, which included a U.S. passport about to expire. They could have arrested him, but they issued a three month extension, time enough to settle with the Japanese and, hopefully, get out of the country without jail time. His doctor wrote him up as “mentally ill,” to make him less attractive to the penal system.
And now here came Midori again, falling back into Santa’s arms in his mini-sack, as of old. She not only knew where the Nikkei was going, she knew how to lay low until shit-storms pass. Soon they were driving around looking to rent a cell-phone for St. Nick. One day, she parked her car unwisely in someone’s driveway. Some benighted fellow rushed out, telling him, in Japanese of course, to “have the bitch move her car.” Santa warned him once, the guy repeated his slur, so Rick placed a solid right hand on the sweet spot on the guy’s jaw. The offender sat down for a while. Our favorite couple sped off, with Midori shouting (incredibly) “Sumimasen!”
In December, Santa’s stock was suddenly up. Like magic, he was getting calls to show up in his red-and-white suit at department stores and company Christmas parties. I even got an English intensive for him to teach with me up in Nagano. It was beginning to look like Carl might be able to hit the ground running in Honolulu.
They didn’t pay him in advance, of course, so I was still fronting him his rent, and quickly I was down another $800. And when he started going crazy from dropping hunks of his sparse cash into Tokyo’s ravenous pay phones, I lent him my telephone credit card too. (Surely he had hypnotized me on the sly!) A couple days after Christmas, one of his contractors dropped money in his account. It was time to pay me back, a little at least. There was no call from him the first day. On the second, definitely in a testy mood, I called the pay phone in his new digs. After fifteen rings, it was,
“Carl! Is that you?”
I fell into a stony silence that went on for a while. Finally he spoke: “Yeah, well, how do you want to handle this?” He’d picked up my irritation.
“Yeah, Carl, how about today?”
“Look, I hope you’re not thinking I’m running off with your bread, man. They had me working real late, last night.” There was a sarcastic edge to his words.
“Yeah, well, I need you to at least stay in touch.”
“Geez, you’d think the old Jew could cut me some slack.”
I hung up on him, stunned. My wallet had, in best New Testament style, turned its other cheek, countless times, without a squeak of complaint. I visualized my European ancestors experiencing similar abuse in ages past (“Here’s Finklestein the usurer come for his pound of flesh!”) after I’d fed him and cared for him for weeks, like a father. Next day, I met him and told him a dream I’d had that night. “You had your head on my shoulder. I thought it was strange for a man to be in that position. I told you, ‘I don’t mind if you’re rude, but I don’t like you to be mean.’” Carl started crying and burbling apologies. He was becoming quite a weeper. I told him forget it, but it took a while for me to do the same.
He got paid some more cash and blew it all on a weekend of hashish. “I fucked up, I’m not well, I need help,” he mumbled over the phone. Later, over coffee, he scribbled out steps One and Four of the 12-step program and pushed them at me across the table: “I need to make amends to those I’ve hurt; I admit that I am out of control and need a higher power to regain my sanity.” Incrementally, Carl began to admit that he’d been misleading me. Money he’d said he’d reserved for his airfare he hadn’t. Now he barely had enough left to get out of the country. Then there were his stories about friends in high places. One was supposedly near the very top of the Japanese National Police, but he finally had been unable to pull any strings for Carl. In October, Carl told me the man’s wife, whom he knew quite well, had been diagnosed with a virulent, incurable cancer. He began going to visit her in the hospital. Then, in late December, consumed by tears, he told me how that day the woman had died in his arms. Now it was mid-January. One day, calling from somewhere on the street, Santa said he was beaten down and tired, but before he went home he had to go to the hospital, “to see Ling-san.”
“I’m sorry, you have to remind me – who is that?”
“She’s Tora’s wife, remember? She’s in the hospital with cancer. She’s totally morphined now, but when I come see her, she gets that sparkle in her eye.” I took a deep breath and told him he sounded tired and should just go home. It was the first time I had the impression he might have really lost touch with reality. His propensity for weeping and for convincing, detailed descriptions of events – events that didn’t jibe – kept me totally off balance.
Santa Comes Down the Chimney
European images of Santa’s elves are misleading. It turns out a lot of them are natives of Ghana. Those were the ones who clued Santa in that a top Roppongi hostess club was looking for a sax player. It was early December, 2000. Santa was on his last legs in Japan, still crashing in a Saitama house with a group of Africans. The cubicle where he lay his head was literally the size of a Volkswagen interior. Christmas decorations were bristling and flashing all over Tokyo, arousing melancholy in the hearts of Western expats, when Carl called me up with the news. So on a blustery cold night I met one of the Africans at the Hibya line station and walked a block from fabled Roppongi Crossing to a corner building with the words, “Grand Cru – 8F” etched into concrete over the entrance. We took the elevator to the eighth floor, where it opened onto a deep-carpeted, mahogany-wall paradise. Tiny spotlights shone down on little pink-marble tables, marble the faded rouge of late afternoon sunlight caressing Greek temples overlooking the Adriatic…the color of long-forgotten murals buried deep within Pompeii. Or the burnt-orange of smoked salmon left in the refrigerator too long. Crystal chandeliers graced the ceilings, a glassed-in wine room lined one wall. The manager, Mr. Kawamura, an elegant young guy with impressive English skills introduced himself as we sat down with his assistants.
“So, you are a piano player?” he began.
“No, I’m a sax player.”
“Oh, we are looking for pianist!” My house of cards collapsed.
But then I noticed the sounds of a John Coltrane ballad filtering down from speakers in the ceiling. I grasped for the straw. “Well, that sax up there sounds pretty nice. Why don’t you give me a try?” Kawamura sighed, “OK, we will listen.”
They set up a mike and I plugged my pre-recorded backup music into their PA. Somehow, it all worked. An airy ride-cymbal intro began and my tenor dove into a smooth, organ-laced swing version of “Misty,” the ultimate background you’d want if you were talking with one of the unimaginably beautiful girls who worked there. Kawamura and his boys listened, which was nice, since I’d busted my ass putting the arrangements together. When it was over, they applauded and asked for more. Three tunes later, they took me in the VIP room and offered me six nights a week. I told them I needed to talk to Santa first.
I was on Cloud Nine. Now, instead of another nondescript English teacher, I was a serious entertainer in the heart of Tokyo. I’d play in a gilded room high above fabled Roppongi, wore a burgundy bow tie and a tuxedo. Clueless foreigners who strayed up to the 8th floor unescorted by a Japanese were firmly denied entrance. Every night the room was filled with forty of the loveliest girls this side of your wildest dreams, the crème de la crème of Tokyo, each one in a low-cut evening dress revealing their sculpted shoulders and exquisite necks, their flawless skin – their mostly empty 12 year-old minds. But that’s another tale.
We all met a few days later at a local coffee shop. Santa was his growly self, exuding that unique mix of gravitas and eccentricity. The conversation was in Japanese, most of which bubbled over my head. Santa got them up to $750 a week from $675, and somehow, instead of me figuring out my own transportation, I wound up with a private chauffeur who drove me home out to west Tokyo every night – there were no trains at one A.M. when I got off. It was a tough gig. A 20-minute set at 9 followed by a 70-minute break hanging at the Starbucks downstairs, then three more 20-minute sets broken up by 40-minute breaks. You could go draw yourself a beer in the kitchen. You could sing Boz Skaggs tunes and no one complained. After a while, well-heeled customers were handing me $100 tips. And it was a real job. Sax players don’t have real jobs, they get a week here, a few nights there. This was steady work until who knew when. “When” turned out to be five years, 1,550 nights, 6,200 sets, and 31,000 songs later. I played Misty a lot, but eventually I had 350 other tunes to choose from. I made around $40,000 a year, as they had another, even more posh club around the corner and sometimes I’d work both of them, sprinting back and forth to cover eight sets a night. What’s not to like. It kept me active between the ages of 55 and 60.
Thus did Carl Windsor mysteriously impact my life one Christmastide in the midst of his immeasurable travail, just before he would soon quietly slip out of my life forever. My take is this: be nice to heavy-set guys with big white beards who tell improbable tales. You never know who you’re talking to.
Doubting Jazzman Escorts Santa Back To The North Pole
Carl had found a prominent doctor to maintain that his heart condition was so severe he needed to return to the U.S. immediately, thus discouraging the idea of holding him in jail, where he might die and embarrass the Japanese government. Still, there was the chance that they’d haul Santa into detention and deport him six months later and that I might never see him again. So I could no longer avoid a confrontation: I was obsessed with verifying the reality of his “inheritance.” If it existed, I’d know he could repay his debts to me. If it was a falsehood, I’d write it off to experience. But I needed to know.
I’d hit the Net at Expert.com and described my situation. A lawyer somewhere in the Ethernet responded:
This story is almost certainly false. You are taking risk for this person, he should provide you with all information, such as the attorney or trust company that is to pay, the paperwork that shows his right. Call them to verify. When you have done all that, I will be happy to explain any further questions for a small fee.
Before I drove Santa to Immigration, we went for coffee. Haltingly, I began to tell him of my correspondence. He knew what was up immediately.
“You want documentation, right.” He hung his head and agreed it was the right thing to do, then started explaining that it was difficult to process such paperwork now. Once he met with his attorney in Honolulu, he’d send me everything.
“All I need, Carl,” I interjected, “is to have a conversation with the attorney executing the will.”
“Well, my brother has that information, and I hate the son of a bitch.”
“Carl, you know we’d feel much better if we cleared this up before you left.” I kept looking for a telltale sign, the shifting glance, the stuttered phrase. He was good. Really good. But the path was getting narrower. We could both feel it. He said he’d do his best. I backed off.
Immigration threw us a curve and made us come back the next day. I picked Carl up at 7:45 after playing until 2AM the night before. On the way, he told me how bad he slept because of what he’d put me through, and how I was right about the lawyer. All I could think was, why the hell is a future millionaire agonizing over a few grand?
He hung his head and mumbled, “I don’t know why you’re still around.”
I patted his leg. “Cause I love you, man.”
The doctor’s strategy worked to a tee. At the Immigration Office, a dank, refugee-clogged building dedicated to processing overstays, Carl left with his documents and a stamped passport on the same day. They smiled and pampered him like the hyper-tense physical wreck he really was. They didn’t treat everyone that way. One woman’s interview, overheard by Carl, included the following exchange:
Immigration Officer: “You have a visa from Burma? That country doesn’t even exist anymore!”
Woman: “But Mynnmar is the same country as Burma.”
Immigration Officer: “It says here you were an ‘entertainer.’ That means you were a whore! Burma doesn’t exist anymore – what are you going to do now, go be a whore in America?”
Carl sighed and observed, “Yeah, she might have been a prostitute, but who was buying? Sick creeps like that little Hitler in there.”
Earlier, when we were driving out to Immigration from Denny’s, Carl had reiterated his intention to get the information I wanted as soon as he spoke to his lawyer in Honolulu. Seeing a brief opening, I asked, “What’s his name?” A slight shock wave. “You want my lawyer’s name?” Santa asked, a touch of umbrage in his voice. “John Matthews.”
The next day I found Matthews in the Yahoo yellow pages and called him up. Mr. Matthews said he was a “club lawyer.” He worked for night club operators.
“Carl Windsor?” A brief silence. “Never heard of him.”
On the day Santa Claus left Japan, I picked him up in front of his little house, and we threw his few bags in the car. For me, it was a day of reckoning with Santa: the frustrated lawyer within me had five questions for him, each of a higher order of difficulty. As we were finishing up, I started in on my witness.
“Carl, I got to get this off my chest. It keeps banging around in my head. A long time ago, you told me your brother put a rocket into space single-handedly. Did he really do that?”
A big smile came over Santa’s face. “Yeah he did! You can get these rockets from a company back in the States — B types, C types. My brother had this two-stage miniature of a Saturn. Packed it tight with solid-fuel. You had to get up on a ladder to reach the top. They tracked it, and they told him it left the Earth’s atmosphere.”
“Who’s they?” I interjected.
“The company that sells them, they also do tracking.”
“So it went into a kind of sub-orbit?”
“Yeah, But the other one, he shot it off went up like this…and then it came down into the neighbor’s roof. They weren’t too happy.” The story was the same as I remembered it five years ago. It seemed a completely sincere, natural reminiscence. I’d checked with the American Rocket Society on the Internet, they had said they had no records of such kinds of events.
“Let’s go,” said Carl, and got up to leave.
I’d waited too long. Now we were pulling out onto Kampachi Street, headed for the station. I gave him Question Two. “Okay, I got another question. I went to Military.com on the Net – there’s no record of your father. You said later in his career he gave briefings to JFK. But a Kennedy administration specialist at the University of Louisville ran a search in the J.F.K. Library, and in a wide range of books on Kennedy. Your dad’s name never came up.”
“Well, I don’t know why.” Carl began rattling off his old man’s positions: Chief of Operations of this, Chief Officer of that. It all sounded so authentic. “You know, the intelligence community is a very closed area. You can’t find everything you want just like that. But my dad was in the army – I saw him come home at night in his uniform. Hell, you look closely at photographs of the Kennedy funeral, you’ll see me and my dad there. How do you think I got in?”
“You mean the funeral at Arlington?”
“Arlington National Cemetery. Not exactly anyone could attend that ceremony. Look, when I get to Honolulu, I’ll do the search. I’ll find him.”
We were entering the big Kampachi tunnel. I was going to nail him this time. Whenever I was around Carl, it was a little like being under hypnosis; I tended to forget things, overlook obvious questions under the power of his personal presence. Carl was starting to go into a slow burn about his dad not appearing in Military.com. Maybe he was angry at me too for doubting him. I pushed ahead.
“Carl, at vietenamvet.com, when I told them about your zapping the VC with a microwave antenna, they said it was the best laugh they’d had in twenty years. They said you were a hell of a storyteller.”
Santa went off. It was “fucking this” and “goddamn that.” He was like Z .Z . Top in a whiskey rage, a Hell’s Angel who’d been shorted on a drug deal. Santa was scary when he got mad.
“Look, Arnie, you don’t know where the fuck you’re going when you go out on the Net with that shit. This was very powerful technology. They don’t talk about it. They don’t tell you how they lit up the nighttime sky over Nam with satellites either. You shouldn’t go on the Net with that kind of information.
“It was called a burn, Arnie. We did four of five of them. Microwaves kill. You think that cell phone you use doesn’t have any effect? People get cancer and strokes out there where the big relay stations are. Why the fuck do you think I haven’t been able to sleep for the past twenty-five years? The things I’ve seen, the things I’ve done? Shooting people, shooting kids.” Tears were coming. Carl’s voice grew softer. He told me of a horrific, incident he felt responsible for in Vietnam, one he had never forgotten. Then tears turned to anger. Now the Vietnam Vets were his object of fury.
“Those fuckers laughing about this, they burn me up. These guys sat around at desk jobs and motor pools. You have their email addresses?”
“Sure, I’ll send them to you.”
“I want to sink my teeth into their asses. The stupid fuckers.”
He’d gotten to me again. By the time I’d turned left onto Ome Kaido street, I decided to pass on the last two questions, one about his lawyer who’d never heard of him, the other about the woman that had died in December and showed up back again in January. He had me feeling like a disloyal shit.
“Yeah, I’m a little angry,” he growled when I asked. This was Carl’s way of saying he was really angry. “You had legitimate questions, but you went behind my back. It was something we could have done together. I would never do that to you.”
“But I’ve told you about it now.”
“Yeah, now you tell me.”
“I don’t think it’s comparable. You had this whole series of amazing stories – plus, I’ve extended myself, you know, financially. Now you’re leaving the country.”
“Yeah, I understand.” But he was still burning.
“Look, I think I’ve proved myself.” Despite all the missing pieces, I was asking for acceptance as we pulled into the station.
“This doesn’t change anything,” he allowed, grudgingly. “I know your heart’s in the right place.” And yet I’ve known, since that moment, that it did make a difference. Carl’s deepest sensibilities were military, and in the military mind, it’s ALL about loyalty. I’d crossed that line. I’d snuck around behind his back. A man of his intelligence probably already knew I was fucking writing about him! This sort of fact-checking would only have confirmed it. In the army, in any case, there’s a rich tradition of outrageous storytelling and embellishment of fact which, rather than being questioned, calls for higher and more ornate levels of bullshit in response. In trying to catch him in falsehoods, I had only revealed myself.
At Ogikubo Station, he got out of the car roughly and went around the back to grab his things. Despite all the last minute gigs, Santa was going to hit the States with little or no cash. He’d said he’d probably call Alcoholics Anonymous from the airport and ask for help. I got out a little purse I’d found stuffed in my desk drawer with $220 U.S. inside. I tucked this, and another 10,000 yen bill, into his bag.
“You don’t have to do that…” Santa’s voice was breaking again. I hugged him, putting my hand over the bald spot on the back of his head. Then I walked him to the ticket-wicket, lugging his suitcase down the crowded stairway. He went through the gate, turned once to throw me a mischievous salute, and was gone.
Those stories, all those stories. Were some true and others imagined? One thing was sure: by the time I arrived at work at the Grand Cru that night, Carl Windsor had crossed the Pacific and landed in America. Maybe in a few days, as promised, he’d reconnect with me from a Honolulu Internet café. A week or two later, he would send me legal confirmation of his future status as a wealthy man. (You remember – the inheritance!)
Of course, the confirmation never came. He stayed in touch, but I let him push the inheritance thing under the rug. But in a couple of months, he managed a spot on the faculty at Seattle’s University of the North Pacific, teaching English as a foreign language. His name appeared as an instructor on their website. He was doing okay.
A year passed. He had more incidents of dizziness and chest pain. He needed open heart surgery. They performed toward the end of 2003. They shut him down for seven hours to put in a new valve, pulling usable blood vessels from an arm and a leg. I talked to him on his cell phone in recovery. He was groggy, barely intelligible. The next day they almost lost him. But the guy was hard to kill. He recovered and went back to work.
Sometime in 2004 he stopped answering my mail. A few months later I checked his university web site and he’d disappeared from there. I suppose his heart might have changed its mind and pulled its own plug. Or maybe he just went into deep cover. You can google his (real) name endlessly on the Net and find nothing at all. But now and then I imagine bumping into him by accident on the streets of this city of 10 million people.
I don’t give a fuck about the dough. I just miss Santa.