After being advised to return to Japan by a woman named Monique and an image of the Virgin Mary constructed from cigarette butts and crack vials (previous post), I seized the opportunity to grab the job section of a two-week-old Chicago Tribune from the pile of newspapers that served as a makeshift bed of the fellow I was sharing a stairwell with when he got up to stretch his legs and argue with one of the voices in his head.
Despite the fact that the nation was experiencing another economic downturn that, like winter snow in Chicago, seemed to take the government by surprise each and every time it happened, regularly driving wages down and leaving snow on the streets until June, there were nevertheless a number of jobs being advertised in the Trib’s job section, which, according to President Reagan and my mentally disturbed stairwell-mate, meant there was no unemployment in the United States. “There’s a job for anyone who wants one,” my stairwell-mate, himself a principled free-market proponent who not so much slipped through the nation’s social safety net as just fell through the space where the State of Illinois was expected to erect one, announced to a spot on the wall.
Much to my surprise, there were no ads for well-paid English teachers in Japan. There were, however, a number of ads for pest control technicians and special education instructors, both positions paid at the minimum wage, and when I asked during my interview at Bright Futures Academy how they could pay the minimum wage to dedicated teachers who struggled so hard to reach and profoundly impact the lives of severely disabled children, they replied that it would be illegal to pay less.
That left Bug Off.
Outside whose basement office I waited later that afternoon, in the sad gray glow of a single, overworked fluorescent tube that managed to just barely illuminate a full-color glossy poster of vermin, mostly cockroaches. I did not realize there were so many different kinds of cockroaches, and even in this poor lighting you really could make out the differences, some of them very subtle. My face inches from the poster, I noticed what seemed to be a mistake—two roaches of the exact same type, but one with no Latin name below it. A misprint, I thought, and moved my face closer just as the office door opened, sending the duplicate cockroach without a Latin name skittering off the poster and me reeling back off my metal folding chair into a perfectly executed backward somersault and standing dismount.
“That’s what I call initiative!” the Bug Off guy boomed, beaming there in the doorway. “You’re hired!”
Still out of breath from my cockroach-induced somersault, I nevertheless raced to take advantage of the situation.
“I want $6 an hour!” I announced.
“You will get minimum wage,” he countered.
“Breaks,” I barked. “I want a 15-minute break every two hours.”
“You will get one unpaid 10-minute break every other day during the summer months,” he parried.
“And winter?” I cleverly rejoined, sensing some wiggle room.
“You will work 14 hours a day, for which you will receive one bowl of cold Cream of Wheat in the evening. You will be chained overnight in this very basement to a large piece of concrete that will also serve as your bed.”
“Okay,” I said, breaking into a smile. “This has all been said for absurd comic effect. We both know these kinds of employment conditions are clearly illegal.”
And he laughed for two straight days. Forty-eight straight hours. Caught his breath and laughed for another two days. On the evening of the fourth day, I asked him what was so funny, and after he laughed for yet another two days, he finally replied, “Illegal? What are you going to do? Take it to the National Labor . . .” He giggled. “Sorry, sorry. The National Labor Relations . . .” He convulsed in laughter. “Okay, okay, sorry.” He composed himself. “The . . . National . . . Labor . . .” he held his hand out, palm toward me. I waited. “Relations . . . Board.”
“No doubt,” I replied testily, “you are alluding to the claim among some that President Reagan’s National Labor Relations Board is anti-labor. While I am sure his appointments to the board naturally reflect his conservative political views, the law is, after all, the law, and . . .”
“They’ve begun executing labor organizers in public squares,” the Bug Off man interjected crisply.
As I considered my next move from among a rapidly diminishing set of increasingly less attractive options, I began to hear voices from above.
The Bug Off guy did that thing again with his hand out and palm toward me, then ran back into his office, coming out moments later with a cassette recorder and a microphone attached to a suction cup. He stood on the metal folding chair and fastened the suction cup to an overhead heating duct. Then he sat on the chair and struck a pose like The Thinker if The Thinker had been a 55-year-old overweight exterminator in ill-fitting, double-knit brown pants that, when he sat like that, rose high above heavy black shoes to reveal at least 10 inches of white sock. And that’s when it hit me.
“You’re a cop!”
Again, the thing with the hand out, palm toward me.
“Shhhh! I can’t hear what they’re saying!”
“You’re a cop,” I whispered.
“This is the strangest Spanish I have ever heard,” he muttered.
“That’s because it’s Japanese,” I said. And it was. Japanese so simple even I could understand it.
“How’s a skel like you know what’s Japanese and what’s Spanish?”
“Skel? I knew you were a cop!”
“Answer my question, dirt bag.”
“Okay, first of all, even if I am a dirt bag, and I am not conceding that point, but even if I were a dirt bag, I do have feelings. You don’t need to talk to me like . . .”
And he punched me right below the rib cage, expertly, with just enough force to knock the wind out of me, then leaned back and waited patiently as I desperately struggled to suck air back into my lungs. I knew he was a cop.
He’s gone and done it now, I thought to myself. He’s kicked over a hornet’s nest. Nobody treats Eddie Trombone like this. Nobody. Then the cop raised one eyebrow, and I ducked, put my hands up over my head, and let out a high-pitched squeal like a small dog.
“I lived in Japan for a while.” I cried.
He shoved a notepad and pencil into my hands.
“Writing? A confession?”
“No, I usually write those,” he said, “and I’ll write a doozy for you if you don’t start translating what they’re saying up there.”
Oddly enough, even with my limited Japanese, it was dead easy to translate what was coming through the heating duct. It was one of those typical Japanese conversations between friends or spouses, where nothing seemed to be said but some sort of communication miraculously took place, though what was communicated would be impossible to determine by an outsider and was indeed sometimes lost even on a participant of the conversation. It made eavesdropping at restaurants less interesting and was at least partly responsible for the increase in divorce rates in Japan and the entry of the United States into World War II.
Did you do the thing?
“Hai. Ano koto. Ano hito to.”
Yeah. The thing. With the guy.
“Ano toko no hito?”
The guy from the place?
“Hai. Yatta, yatta. Yararemashita.”
Yeah. I did it, I did it. It’s done.
The conversation hit a lull, and I held the notepad up for the cop. Halfway down the paper his eyes grew wide. When he reached the end, the Lucky Strike fell out of his mouth.
“Sweet Jesus,” he hissed. “We’ve come across a mob hit!”
He charged out of the basement. I heard him run up the steps, then heard a door being kicked in.
“Konnichiwa!” two voices sang out welcomingly, followed by six shots that rang out less so, then two heavy thuds.
“Freeze!” the exterminator cop replied a bit after that. “Or I’ll shoot.”