YAKUZA, Chapter One

By James Strauss

The basin that has become known as Hawaii Kai was there thousands of years before Homo sapiens came along to reshape and remodel it. A man name Kaiser happened on the scene after World War II and using huge amounts of explosives his company coincidentally produced, blew a harbor and channel through the reef of coral and rock hard lava.

The fantastically beautiful former fishing pond of Hawaii Kai was where Lauren chose to make his stand. Life had come at him like a deck of face cards made up of all aces, while his own hands never held more than deuces or treys. His Ph.D. counted for nothing, as there were no jobs in the islands, and almost none on the mainland, for graduates in philosophy. Economic times demanded technical degrees or they paid minimum wage unless you were connected. He’d almost beaten the low pay job odds by getting aboard as crew on a deep sea fishing boat, where the men shared the revenue, but a wayward hook the size of a giant curved soupspoon ended that short effort. The scar on the back of his right calf joined the ones he’d brought back from Iraq, crisscrossing the front and one side of his torso. Not that anybody outside his family knew about those, as he never took his shirt off in public.

The work at Zippy’s restaurant paid minimum wage with no benefits, which was okay because military disability, although paying nothing, at least covered medical benefits for him and his family. That benefit was the single positive thing he’d managed to salvage from the mess of Iraq and his continuing recovery. He had the cleanup job because the manager of the restaurant/bakery/ bar complex had served as an enlisted Army sergeant in the war, and much enjoyed having a former Marine Officer working under him. The fact that Lauren was Caucasian (a Haole), working for an islander also appealed to him, Lauren knew, but neither of them spoke of it.

Lauren’s wife worked in retail in downtown Honolulu at the Aloha Tower Marketplace, while his kids went to a Catholic grade school. The tuition for schooling two kids ate up almost thirty percent of their combined income, but there was no help for it. Local schools were a dead end for Haole kids. It also meant they lived in a termite-ridden apartment in Kapahulu, mid-way between their two job locations. They had a car but bussing made more financial sense so it stayed parked in their garage-less driveway to be used as a “Sunday Car,” as the locals called it. Weekends only. But they didn’t drive it much except very rarely, because they both worked on weekends too.

They weren’t making it. The money was not enough. Lauren had actually gotten on his knees and prayed over the problem, which made no sense since he’d left God right where He belonged, rotting in a hell hole back in the desert with the bodies of the only two male friends Lauren had ever had in his adult life. “Screw God, Allah, and the President,” was a mantra he liked to verbalize on the rare occasions he had the time and money to drink and think about it.

But something had changed, whether it was due to simple circumstance or God’s intervention. The bartender at Zippy’s had quit by simply failing to show up one night. The job required a driver’s license to pick up some supplies (without compensation, of course), and the ability to memorize a book of drink preparations. But the most important thing was that it included tips. Any job of merit, not part of an executive package on the island, as defined by the traffic flowing through it and the collection of tips from that flow. Being the lone bartender allowed for no tip-sharing because there was no one to share tips with, and the bar was filled seven nights a week.

“Here’s the cocktail book. Memorize it and I’ll give you a test tomorrow. If you get less than a seventy you don’t get the job.” Choy looked at him with a nasty smile while he said the words, his extremely thin mustache moving up, down and around like a miniature snake. He thumped the small green book into Lauren’s waiting hand and walked away.

“Yes sir,” Lauren responded, knowing how much the local manager liked the formal response. His own smile was genuine, although the man didn’t see it. Lauren needed the job for his family and he could take the heat of almost any humiliation to keep it. Combat was humiliating, shameful and frightening. With that awful experience behind him, Lauren could play any role he had to in the secret game of dominance and submissiveness that went on in most business establishments he’d encountered. Bad times had to be endured and waited through. The change was endemic to everything. Time was on the side of the person who could accommodate that understanding, and it had become part of the hardened reality of Lauren’s very soul. As some unremembered Chinese philosopher was once attributed to have said: “If you lay and wait by the side of the river, eventually all your enemies will come floating by.”

He got home after the sun had already set, which was normal. Another benefit of the bartender’s job would be working many fewer hours and only at night. Possibly, quite possibly, Lauren would be able to finally visit one of the dazzling nearby beaches on a weekend during daylight hours. He checked the kids, both already deep in sleep, but his wife was still up. Lauren undressed and gave her the good news. Somehow she didn’t see his promotion to bartender as anything to get excited about. She’d married a Marine Officer who’d come back to earn a useless doctorate she’d slaved to pay for. And now the man of her dreams was a bartender and trying to be proud of getting the job. Lauren understood when she turned over and closed her eyes without saying a word.

Lauren lay in bed and memorized, which came easily to him. It was forgetting that was hard. He took the book into his long-term memory in under two hours. He actually enjoyed what he learned. Although not a heavy drinker himself, it would be good to be able to mix almost any tropical drink for his friends. When he found some new friends. When he had the time to find some friends. And, with the new job, he’d have the time. He could endure and he could wait his way on through.

The first night of his first week was the toughest. Lauren was introduced to what he would come to know as his clientele. The bar opened at five. The Japanese were the first to enter, almost en-mass. They took over the middle of the long wooden bar, then spread out to take over the stage area farthest from the single entry door. They talked, laughed happily, took off their coats and worked at setting up and adjusting the Karaoke equipment. They ordered nothing until that work was complete.

Lauren made believe he was washing glasses while he watched the men, who mostly resembled clones of one another. All of them thirty-to-fifty in years, wearing the same gray suits, and all bobbing and nodding at one another like they were on grade school recess.

The drink orders came when the men were done and seated. Unlike traditional Americans, they didn’t order for themselves. They ordered for one another, which Lauren found confusing at first. But, as the drink of choice was almost always the same, accounting became childishly simple. They drank Shochu, for the most part, with a few choosing Ashi beer for their friends.

Lauren didn’t know what Shochu was. The men laughingly helped him by pointing at a murky white bottle labeled ‘iichiko.’

Next, a large contingent of uniformed Honolulu Police Officers, in their dark blue uniforms, entered the bar. Lauren was ready for them, Ochuru, the general restaurant manager, had informed him that the officers were regulars and were to be treated with great respect, up to and including getting occasional free drinks.

The ten officers sat in the corner nearest the door, as removed from the Japanese group as they could get. They pulled several tables together. One white-haired officer moved to the bar. Lauren walked around the bar rail to meet him.

“You new?” the man asked, wearing sergeant’s chevrons on his shoulders.

“No, sergeant, I’m the other guy after successful plastic surgery,” Lauren responded. Without waiting for a reaction, he stuck his arm out and offered his right hand along with a smile. “Lauren Prentice, the new bartender. I don’t know where the other guy went. He didn’t show up and I got the job.”

“You one funny Haole,” the white-haired sergeant said, the smallest of smiles creasing his brown face, taking Lauren’s hand in his own.

They shook hands, neither man squeezing too hard or too soft.

“Couple of pitchers of draft Longboard. We only drink the local stuff. Welcome to our bar, Prince,” the sergeant said, letting him know who’s bar it was and then walking away without starting a tab or paying for anything.

Lauren almost corrected the mispronunciation of his last name but stopped himself at the last second. The sergeant hadn’t made a mistake.

Lauren smiled to himself. Longboard was a Kona Brewing Company product. The microbrewery was located on the Big Island but all product licensed by Kona, outside of what was served at the local brewing company bar, was made on the mainland by Anheuser Busch. The cops were all drinking Budweiser made on the mainland without having a clue.

In less than an hour, the first bottle of iichiko was empty. Lauren went into the back storage area, which he hadn’t had time to explore earlier in the day.

He was not surprised to discover seven twelve-bottle cases of the Shochu stacked next to four full barrels of the Longboard. Six kegs, each half the size of a barrel, lined another wall. They were there for direct sales, he knew. Apparently, the police officers and their friends had a lot of parties and luaus at their homes.

By the time he got back inside the Karaoke was in full swing. A drunken Japanese man in rolled-up shirtsleeves was trying to sing D’yer Mak’er by Led Zeppelin. Lauren cringed. He knew enduring the Karaoke was going to be the toughest part of his job, but it still physically hurt to listen to it, especially with the man’s equally inebriated friends singing along.

“Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh no oh go go…” the Japanese singer belted out.

Lauren busied himself with serving. The cops drank beer like they were on a desert island about to go under from dehydration. The Japanese worked to outdo the cops,” except their rice liquor was thirty percent alcohol instead of eight. “Kanpai” they yelled, at every toast, which Lauren took to be the Japanese form of “cheers”.

With the Japanese in fine laughing form, Lauren left the bar to take care of the tables inhabited by the police officers. He filled a full tray with empty pitchers and mugs before one of them spoke to him.

“So, Prince, what do you think on your first night?”

“Like looking at gentlemanly opponents of the Civil War,” Lauren answered pleasantly. “The blue and gray.”

“The blue and the gray?” the officer asked him. The other cops went silent.

“Who won?” the man finally asked.

Lauren looked from one man to another around the table. Each stared right back at him. He was being ‘goofed’ or challenged. It had happened in the Corps when he was in training. It was a dominance routine requiring the person asked to answer a question obviously known to all but seemingly known by none.

“You guys, of course. The blue.” Lauren knew all about passing such tests by being as casual as possible, not giving offense and certainly not making fun of the question or the questioner.

Sun Tzu, the famed warrior of China came to mind, as he waited for the group’s judgment: “Ultimate excellence lies not in winning every battle, but in defeating the enemy without ever fighting.”

“Go about your business,” the sergeant, sitting in his corner position, said quietly. “Leave him alone. He’s the only bartender we’ve got. Remember what we had to do with the last one.”

Lauren slowly walked away, hoisting the heavy filled tray up to his right shoulder.   Down the bar, the Japanese Karaoke singers seemed warm and comforting compared to what was behind him. Whatever happened to the previous bartender had not been accidental. Whatever it was the cops were talking about sounded dark, deliberate and potentially ominous. Lauren had spent some time with truly violent men, and they’d spoken in the same matter-of-fact way about violence.

The bar closed at one in the morning. The Japanese left at midnight together, each man paying his own tab, although the person paying downed none of the drinks paid for. Lauren was afraid he’d gotten some of the bills wrong but there were no complaints. They paid their bills to the penny with cash and cards. They paid not one penny more.

“So much for tips,” Lauren groused. He’d hoped to net about fifty dollars for the night. Possibly the former bartender had disappeared because of lousy tips, although he didn’t think so. The sergeant had been too definitive and too sincere and he’d spoken as if the man was gone in a very permanent way.

One o’clock came. Lauren was afraid to ask the officer’s to leave, but at precisely one they all stood up at the same time. They filed out quickly, with the white-haired sergeant moving forward to the bar.

“We run a tab and pay at the end of the month,” he said. “The tabs under the register drawer. Add tonight to the bill. Don’t screw us or things will go bad for you.” The sergeant reached his right hand into a front pants pocket and took out a thick money clip. He dropped two bills into Lauren’s large tip jar, purloined from his wife’s flower vase collection.

“Andrew Yee,” the sergeant said, offering his hand, once again.

“Sergeant Yee,” Lauren answered, shaking hands with the man.

“We tip for the Japs. They’re shitty tippers, but you can screw them on their bill. They’ll never know.” He turned and walked out into the night.

Lauren stared through the clear glass of his tip jar. His suspicion was confirmed. There were two one-hundred-dollar bills lying on its bottom, which was either a very good thing or a very bad thing.