Memoirs of a Jewish Geisha

Working in Midtown to give businessmen the girlfriend experience

"Good. You already know. Sometimes, if you're working in the karaoke room, you help them with the machines."

"And that's it? That's how it works? That's all we do?" Angie asked.

"Yes. You show up at 8:30, and you work until 1:30. The pay, it's not so good—$70 a night—but you can make more if a customer calls to request to see you, or if you sell a lot of drinks. Every time a customer calls me and says, 'I want to see Angie' or 'I want to see Victoria,' you make another $10 for the night. Sometimes the customer will want to go out to dinner with you before your shift. You go with him—just let me know that you went out—and you can make an extra $30 if you bring him back to the club. When you're out to dinner, you get to come in at 9:30 instead. But you set that up yourself."

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"And that's really all there is?" I asked.

"Sometimes, the Russian girls, they will try to do more," Michelle said. "But this isn't that type of place, and that's why the Russians never last very long here. You go to dinner with the customers. If you want to spend some extra time with them, like show them the city or something on the weekend, that's fine, but you don't have to do anything with them. Sometimes, they will try to push it, and you just say, 'No, thank you, I had a lovely time at dinner—thank you for the drinks. Please come visit me again, please request me.' They might get mad at you and not come back to the club for a few months. Just be very clear with them, and you should be fine."

"Sounds great," Angie said.

"So when can you girls start?" asked Michelle.

It's another night at Kaoru. The air is heavy with raw fish and cheap perfume. A swinging ditty comes from someone playing the piano. A customer stumbles up and flips through a songbook, and the song ends. The man wants accompaniment for karaoke.

I've been hostessing for about three weeks at this point, and I have a sense of the basics.

Right when you get in, at 8:30, you punch your time card. Mama-san, as I've been told to call Michelle, gets angry if you're even a minute late, say the girls. Then you go to the back of the club, next to the men's bathroom, to change. The dressing room is a windowless space, and has the vibe of an unpainted broom closet. There's a pile of hair irons on the floor, and a row of mirrored closets, where some 15 hostesses keep their eveningwear. Between 8:30 and 8:45, the girls rush in, quickly changing from jeans, Mickey Mouse T-shirts, and messy ponytails into strappy gowns, Prada platforms, and slick updos.

Most of the hostesses are Japanese, though a couple come from South Korea.

I'm the only gaijin—foreigner—on staff, ever since Mama-san asked me to fire my friend. Mama-san said she couldn't bear to tell Angie not to come in anymore—would I mind telling Angie for her? She said there were too many girls and she needed to cut back, but that didn't make sense. For some reason, Mama-san just didn't like Angie, and I never really figured out why.

The other hostesses are friendly, but they mainly speak in their native language. I know that I'm missing out on some of what's going on, but it seems to be the same conversation girls always have when they put on makeup together—complaints about boys, concerns about weight gain, compliments on a new dress or haircut, etc. You really don't have to be a linguist to pick up on that, just a chick who has attended a sleepover at one time or another.

Eight hostesses usually work each night. They are mostly in their late twenties, though a few are in their early thirties. Most are in the U.S. on student visas, and have to be paid under the table. Some are taking English classes during the day, while others study singing or acting. Many have one or two other jobs, too. One girl works as a housekeeper and babysitter. Another works as hair-dresser. The two bartenders, both men, came to New York to dance.

Kaoru officially opens at 9:30 p.m., though most customers trickle in a little after 10. Until then, the hostesses chat with each other behind the bar, swigging glass after glass of unsweetened black tea. Sometimes they slip into the kitchen and use the gas range to light up a Dunhill or Marb Light. The kitchen serves three purposes: busing station, business office, and makeup touch-up area. There's a small mirror in there, a bottle of body lotion, and a couple of gem-colored vials of perfume.

When the men start to show up, they sit at the bar or at a table-and-booth combo. There are also two private karaoke rooms. To sit at the bar, the cover charge is $70. For tables or private rooms, it's $130 per person.

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