1975 and I gorge on the buffet of possibilities girls my age can choose from.
I had left home at 17 to attend college in Colorado. I tried to move back to my mother’s home in St. Louis but I yearned for a place of my own in a city of my choice.
I return to Denver.
Independant. My only obligations is to take care of myself. I find a snug one bedroom apartment in a not-too-bad neighborhood. Fully furnished on the second floor of a nice old house. I hadn’t accumulated the many belongings of adulthood and savored the sparseness of my existence. A few glasses, a couple of mismatched mugs. Enough utensils for me and a friend.
It all seemed so manageable.
I needed a car so my father negotiated a fair price with his mother and I purchased her old Ford Pinto equipped with new tires. I happily drove it for several years until studies showed that the gas tank had a tendency to explode if it was rear-ended and the new tires were found to blow up at high speeds.
I fondly called my first vehicle “The Death-mobile”.
Settled in, I was ready to implement my plan to change the world until it occurred to me that I didn’t have money for food or rent. Which was okay. I had an eternity before I was too old to make a difference.
I had waitressed in the past and was almost adequate. My innate clumsiness, a tendency to forget orders and a distaste for people who drank too much kept me from the highest tier of my craft, but I had a ready smile and was willing to work days, nights and weekends.
Armed with my resume and a disproportionate sense of optimism I headed out to the hub of fine dining. Five applications filled out. I was halfway through my self-imposed goal of ten per day, trying to rationalize why seven was a more realistic number as I approached the next business on my list. I was thirsty and broke and wished they offered potential employees a free soda.
The beautiful, heavy wooden doors looked incongruous in downtown Denver. More appropriate for a castle, I thought. With a sense of hope I pushed on the unyielding entrance, then threw more of my weight against it, and almost falling into the lobby.
A whoosh of alcohol, maraschino cherries and exotic smells of unfamiliar food greeted me. I breathed in deeply while my eyes adjusted to the dark, windowless bar. By the time I could see I was already smiling.
It was three in the afternoon and the place was empty. I asked the bartender if I could speak to the manager and waited, trying not to look too parched. Hama asked me if I’d like something to drink.
I sipped on the ginger ale and admired the beautiful bar. I later found out much of the interior–and the doors–were imported from Japan. People were preparing for dinner service. The women wore lovely, silk kimonos. The bartenders wore white shirts, red vests and bow ties.
I peeked into the dining room and saw cooks in white uniforms and tall colorful chef’s hats, intent on their duties.
Everyone that noticed me nodded pleasantly without breaking stride. I had walked from a sidewalk on a busy street in Denver to another world. Gasho of Japan.
An Asian man in a black tuxedo introduced himself as Daniel, the manager. He studied my resume and application, slightly ogling me over the paperwork. Morally, it was important that I was considered solely on my merits. When Daniel asked a question I answered professionally and concisely. I also smiled. I figured it couldn’t hurt.
I got the job.
The house rule was you had to be at least part Japanese to work in the dining room. I was clearly Caucasian and took my place as a cocktail waitress, one of only two white women in the restaurant.
Now, I needed a uniform. Which had never been a problem in any of my other jobs. There I’d been typical. Here, I was anything but. The manager said something in Japanese to the head waitress and he was gone.
A group of women materialized, forming a circle around me. They stood, shaking their heads and clicking their tongues. The words were foreign but their meaning was clear. They had no idea how to outfit this Western woman.
Finally, Asako tells me to come back tomorrow morning at ten. The ladies disperse like petals in a breeze.
The next day I’m directed to the back hallway and find the dressing room. It is disconcerting to see the women in their street clothes. They seem so ordinary.
They start to don one, two, three layers of undergarments. There is a flurry of practiced fingers, buttoning, zipping, straightening. One by one they go to the closet where groups of pretty pastel kimonos are hanging. The robes are secured with a thick sash, an obi, and the metamorphosis is complete.
They check their perfect makeup, comb the last errant hair, and proceed in dainty steps that carry them quickly and smoothly to their destinations. I stand transfixed, my reverie broken by,
Asako has a bundle of clothes in her arms. I am to wear the antiquated hand me downs of women from long ago. To me they are exquisite. I feel like Cinderella getting ready for the ball.
Asako begins the arduous task of teaching me how to dress myself. I search for buttons and zippers. There are none. There are only ties. My undergarments are from a bygone era.
This petite, soft-spoken, delicate flower now begins to truss me like a Thanksgiving turkey. I try to follow her movements while she yanks and seizes on piece after piece. The only sound in the room is the occasional grunt as she tugs and pulls, tightening the cloth strips.
I try to take in enough air to utter, “Too tight”. To no avail. It’s clear she’s ignoring me, intent on finishing the assignment of cramming my American body into an outfit better suited to another race.
My mother had once told me you have to suffer to be beautiful. I focus on her words as I anticipate what color my kimono will be. Pale yellow like butter? A subtle blue like a robin’s egg? Oh, I hope it’s pink. Pink like the bow on a birthday present.
Asako goes to the closet and slips my gown on from behind. I feel the cool softness caress my arms. I hold my hands where I can see them. Oh my God.
It’s red. Garish red. Glow in the dark red.
Not silk, either. Shiny, tacky, sateen.
She grabs an obi from a drawer, winds a braided cord around my waist, gives it one more twist for good measure and stands back to make her assessment. Asako shrugs. She has done the best she can with what she had to work with.
I turn towards the mirror so I can see what she see. Not as bad as I thought. Actually, not bad at all.
I don’t exactly look like Cinderella, but I am transformed. I feel elegant. Exotic. I take a deep breath. My ribs ache, as they do all the time, every time, I wear my kimono.
She hands me socks and zoris-sandals-and motions me to put them on. They are not pretty. “We had to purchase men’s shoes for you. No women in my country have feet this big. We will take the cost out of your paycheck”.
She turns to leave, then pivots and grabs the back of my collar. Asako snatches it with a ferocity Hulk Hogan would envy. The collar on everyone else swoops gracefully. Mine stays stubbornly close to the back of my neck.
Apparently, this is disgraceful.
I learn to stiffen my torso whenever a waitress walks by. Invariably, they grab the offending cloth whether I’m empty handed or carrying a tray laden with drinks, pulling towards the floor. I leave this job with better posture
Even with everyone’s best efforts I never really mastered the Art of the Kimono. Or of being dainty. The other waitresses who worked in the steaming hot dining room would occasionally have a few droplets of perspiration on their brow or upper lip.
When I got busy, I would sweat.
They were able to traverse the entire dining area with mincing, smooth steps. I would take big, farmer’s strides in an effort to keep up. At the end of a busy night, they would still look fresh and composed. My kimono started unraveling a few hours into my shift. It stayed put for about half my shift before someone noticed my slip was dragging behind me and I was sent to the back to re-organize and re-tie.