My Date with the Yakuza
Have you ever had this experience? . . .
You are waiting in your car to enter a full-up parking lot and the guard at the gate has held you back from the opening about a healthy car length to afford passage along the pedestrian by-way, and suddenly . . . into the enticing gap swoops a souped up automobile which, once it comes to a complete stop, is now not only blocking foot traffic, but has magically managed to crown itself head of the line!
As in, occupying your rightful spot.
Yeah, me either. Well, until today. Imagine me, your beloved, beleaguered, (now bewildered) socio-cultural tourista-blogger: having dashed cross-town (and in a prickly mood, for it) trying to make it into an administrative office before closing time, feeling the beads of sweat percolating above my brow, mentally working through the mechanics of getting that essential form found, filled out, and filed before deadline, and suddenly, my calculations becoming multiplied by a factor of two.
What would you do?
So did I. Honked as loud as that horn would go. About as long as it would, too. Leaned into it. Metaphysically glued flesh to polyurethane. Letting the world (or at least the car in front of me) know that, along with Ultravox, Celine Dion, Nickelback and Sergeant Major Charles Jackson "I am alive".
Well, surprises abound. After a brief consult with the stiff at the gate who had epaulets on his shoulders, a copper badge on his breast, and nothing on his hip to back it up, some pint-size guy with more attitude than could possibly be justified by the pint-sized frame pushes open his door, thrusts back his shoulders, rotates his neck about two hundred and sixty degrees and then makes a beeline for my window.
Oh, here’s some fun coming right my way.
He's got that look. There isn't a way to describe it to you, but okay, I'll try. Mid-to-late twenties, razor thin, white two-piece suit with an overly-wide pastel tie atop a pinkish shirt, pants cinched with a belt pulled tight enough to suggest that perhaps they require less waist, the belt needs one less notch, or this dude needs a little more after-dinner snacks. Maybe a combination of all three. He's got a Britney Spears pate job -- you know, not perfectly-shiny, but rough-hewn as if the razor could have been adjusted a couple more degrees toward "well done" -- and some designer shades on -- the kind that are graduated top to bottom, tinted driftwood brown above the eyebrows and something closer to clear plastic just above the cheekbone. Directly beneath his nose is a mustache that suggests it is having trouble deciding if it will ever make something of itself; beneath that, some gapped and yellowing teeth; and even below that, some stray outcroppings of chin-growth that seems to harbor some of the same ambition issues of its upper-lip kin.
Basically, what we got on our hands is a yakuza wannabe. I mean, if the guy was made, he wouldn't be driving a two-door boxy thing with a slightly pudgy orange-headed gal riding shotgun and someone's 4 year-old kid in a baseball cap straddling the hump between the seats. No matter how souped up and chromed-out the vehicle is, it still shouts out to by-standers "family car".
Hard to take a hot shot seriously under conditions like that.
But take him I must. Otherwise he might set about pounding on my car with his foot or palm -- a scene I have seen before. It's not only a way of getting attention. Somehow, over on these streets, it intimidates the car owner into quick and total capitulation. "Just stop pounding on my car, will you please. Sir? PLEASE!?"
Before the pounding, though, comes the "reasoning". Which is where we are now. Mr. Wannabe standing at my window making the "come on, buddy, roll down your window” motion with his hand; treating the maneuver as if it isn’t a request as much as an expectation. I don’t mind playing along. Curiosity, rather than fear, being my guide. I make sure to roll the window on the opposing side first – leaning over and making eye contact with the rent-a-gate-watcher who takes the hint and approaches. His curiosity enables me to purchase a witness. Only then does the window on the thug side go down.
”Hey pal.” The accent is thick in the way that a tough imagines he sounds most tough. For me, the thicker he lays it on, the less I understand it. I mean, all he's said so far is "hey pal" and I'm already half lost. His variant of slang being an inner semantic world all its own; one I have never been invited to enter (and therefore tried to master). So, if the guy had any kind of brain he’d polite himself up. That way I might better understand and, therefore, comprehend that I ought to be more intimidated. Complicated in a convoluted sort of way, but true. As it is all I can do is soar at the level of amusement. Divertissement. Edification about my fellow man.
All that I live for.
”What’s with the horn?” The guy sizing me up. Yeah I got glasses. But shoulders I also possess. Throw in the barrel chest, my white-bread face, and a bitchin set of wheels -- not to mention the guy with the copper plate on his chest leaning in for a listen -- and I'm doing okay.
”I’m next,” is what I say. “But you seem to have gotten in my way.”
Hotshot thinks about it, looks through the one window and across to the other, casts a derisive look back at me and says: “you are next." Shrugs his shoulders, spits out "no big deal” as if he's according me a favor. Waits for the obligatory show of respect that people of his ilk are accustomed to. Waits.
I give him a similar surly stare in return, manage to pop my gum loud his way, say: “so there isn’t a problem, then.” And press the button to start my window back up.
Hotshot has a decision to make. The apology that he expected didn't come. So why did he walk all the way over here. And now what?: leave without anything to show for it? I'm sure he hates that when that happens. So, what to do? I imagine that he is currently quelling the impulse to slam the window or pull a weapon. "Another time, any other day," he might be thinking. Who knows?
What flits through my head is that one day this is surely how I will get it. One thug too many I won't take shit from, who will be all too skillful in showing me the error of my ways. But for now, this thug lets go, shines it on, struts back to his car, expectorates, making sure that his woman and kid catch the classy maneuver.
"I sure showed him."
"Yeah, Dad. That's how you do it!"
"Good job, sugar bear. I'm proud of you."
The guard waves me forward around the punk, now returning to his car in an arc wide enough that my car has to swing wider, forcing the guard at the gate to pull aside his temporary barrier, to make more room.
Everyone being inconvenienced by a middling yakuza wannabe punk.
When Bobby Kennedy wrote his memorable memoir about the Cuban Missile Crisis, he made a point of pointing out that history provides lessons in the failure of appeasement, the errors of capitulation. At least for those men who came of age during the mid-twentieth century -- our very own Cold Warriors -- the message they divined from World War II was that Europe erred in accommodating Hitler; by according him more than he was due, they stoked the fires of his ambition, and sent signals of opportunities slaked on their weak will. In this way they sewed the seeds for their own demise.
Right or wrong, the lesson the Kennedys took from history -- and applied during their shining foreign policy moment -- was this rule of thumb: “never show weakness, never acceede, never capitulate.” A rule of thumb I subscribe to when dealing with thugs.
I don't deal with thugs much. Not in my line of work. But I have crossed paths every so often with them. Once, fleetingly, I had a fan who thought it was cool to hang out with a university professor. He bought me pizza, took me to a couple of after-hour wetspots, invited me to give a talk at the Lion's Club. I was naive enough not to realize that I was placing myself in a potentially compromising position. I am not quite sure how, and I don't think he did either. For the moment it was simply bestowing favors for something as yet unspoken and unmaterialized in return. Still, you never know what can come up. There might be one day when he might need someone on the inside of a university to lift some information to help him advance a blackmail scheme, or maybe fudge an exam score to get a relative or friend's kid in, or possibly divert some research money into a private bank account. You never know what you are in the middle of until it has a grasp of your ankles and starts tugging at you. This sad verite I am starting to understand.
Fortunately we severed ties before any real damage could be done. But he did have a female friend who he had introduced me to. And, I have to say, for a gal of advancing age and circumstances, she had made quite an impression. She took to driving me here and there in her black Mercedes. At the time I didn't think much of it. he was almost certainly yakuza, they were friends, but she didn't have to be right? She was simply being nice. Right? And I was certain that tomorrow I would win the Publishers' Clearinghouse Sweepstakes.
Well, naivety only takes you so far. At least as far as six feet under or else ensconced in the poorhouse. Fortunately, I got out when I started recognizing what that tugging at my ankles really was. It was the prelude to a takedown. And I didn't want any part of it. So, I soon thereafter severed ties with her too. I missed the rides, sure, but there are lots of ways to get around town. Humans are nothing if not resourceful. And adaptable.
But what I was able to take away from the experience was the same thing that my date with the yakuza wannabe provided me. If you want to dress it up in the garb of ideas, you might identify it as "identity". Accompanied by something that I'll call "ironic signifiers".
Here's what I mean. My chauffeur was always quick to remark on her sleek black Mercedes. Proud possessor of it, was she. Although it was starting to show its age (much like its owner), it was by now sagging here, nicked there, lines etched port and stern. Still, she wouldn't give it up. For her it was a sign of something. But what? Status? Money? Success? Sex appeal? A personal reminder of bygone heyday?
The closest she came to any admission was when I took to referring to her as a "yakuza babe", seeing as how the black M coupe and sedans are the preferred cars for yakuza . Well, that moniker drew a sidelong look from her. Somewhere in between "hey, fuck you" and "yeah, and whataboutit?"
But what else was there beside the look? Nothing. No words of denial; no attempt at correction or redirection. In the absence of words, in the silent space that followed, was res ipsa loquitur: the thing speaks for itself.
And that's what got me thinking about ironic signifiers. Because people like yakuza babe and Mr. yakuza wannabe make no effort to hide from their "true" identity. While they may not hang a sign on their windshield saying "have you kissed a mafiosi today?", they wrap themselves with enough visual or contextual cues to verily make the announcement for them. They don't try to run from it, hide it, dress it up or deny it. Like the hard guys with the tats adorning their arms and shoulders who I occasionally observe in the locker room of my sports club, they aren't in any hurry to turn the decoration from view. In their minds they've earned it -- often the hard way -- so, why not be proud of it. These tats -- these tokens of their identity -- this is who they are.
So, instead of covering up physically or figuratively, they court the attention; then laugh at the effect it exerts on others. Sometimes their laughter is derisive; as in: "look at them quaking and scampering." Or else it is gleefully quizzical: "look at them, totally clueless about who I truly am!"
In the US people are always saying "be yourself", "feel comfortable in who you are". Well, I guess that is what my date(s) with the yakuza have taught me . . . at least when it comes to them. They are who they are and they are more than okay with it. And if you, the person in their presence, don't get it at first glance, then they will invoke enough symbols so that, at some point, it will become clear to you.
No matter how dense or naive you happen to be.
Whether you happen to be taken for a ride in their fast car . . . or make the mistake of leaving a spot at the front of the parking lot line.