Memoirs of a Jewish Geisha

Working in Midtown to give businessmen the girlfriend experience

Kaoru is open Monday through Saturday. The busiest nights are Thursday and Friday, attracting around 20 clients. Most of the customers are Japanese and South Korean men in their forties or fifties. Saturday nights, the bar is virtually empty.

"That's because the men are at home, with their wives and kids," the girls explain. "Only bachelors tonight. Real slow."

One hostess, who had worked there about a month, found the work "kind of weird."

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"My first night, some guy grabbed my boob, and I didn't know if I could get up or do anything," she said. "I told Mama-san. She said I could leave the table if that happens."

This hostess said she came to the U.S. from South Korea to get away from her parents. They were strict. And she was bored in her homeland. Kaoru, she determined, wasn't that bad after all. "I get to drink. I get to drink a lot. And it's free!" she said.

Another hostess, from Japan, said that the work wasn't terrible. She asked me whether I liked the job.

"Just don't leave with the customers," she said. "Dinner, before the club, is safe. But afterwards, not so much. Very dangerous. Don't get into their cars."

She got into a car one time, she said, and it was a "very dangerous" situation. She wouldn't elaborate.

Hostesses generally work as a team. When a customer comes in, a hostess will walk over and begin talking with him. She will ask him to buy her a drink—Mama-san's sales target is one drink per girl per 45 minutes. After 20 minutes to a half-hour, depending on how busy the bar is, another girl will come up and ask to join the conversation. The first girl will excuse herself, then make her way to another client. She'll then ask this next customer to buy her a drink, too. Eventually, another hostess will join this pair, beginning the cycle again.

Kaoru mainly runs on bottle service. Most of the men keep handles of liquor there. The bar, which sells anything from Scotch to shoju, tacks nameplates on the bottles, and will store them in the kitchen for up to a year. Looking at the tickets, it appeared that a bottle typically ran $160. Men usually spend anywhere from a couple hundred dollars to around a thousand for a night of drinking and conversation.

The hostesses also tout each other, but in an endearing manner. A more experienced hostesses will introduce the newer girls to a client by saying, "This is so-and-so. Isn't she cute? She has such a pretty smile and a great body and such a lovely personality. You should get her a drink."

Mama-san said that it takes about three weeks to get into the swing of hostessing work. And she would know: I'd been told she had been in the business a long time, and the place, Kaoru, is a historic institution in itself. Pete Hamill wrote about the bar for New York magazine in 1981. It marked the so-called "Japanning of New York," and was one of the respected cultural institutions that catered to the big wave of immigrants.

"The customers, they have to come in, see you a few times, and get to know you. Then, after a little while, they'll start to call, request to sit with you, and invite you on dohan, the paid dinner," Mama-san said. "And then you make more money."

In the first two weeks, the customers were curious, but kind of cold. Angie had said that they'd be intrigued by the fact that I'm Jewish, and apparently look it. Sometimes they'd straight-up ask: "You're Jewish, aren't you?" and would add that they "could just tell."

Indeed, a lot of the initial conversations began by their musings on my supposedly Ashkenazi characteristics. Their observations had the sound of a lepidopterist commenting on a freak moth.

"Hm. Very pale," they'd say.

"Your hair, it just does that? Is it a perm? Ah, Curly-san," Mama-san called me, petting my head. "Natural?"

"Yep. Look—you can pull it like this," I said, pulling taut a ringlet, so that it was straight. Then I let the tendril go, so that it contracted into a spring-like shape. "And it goes back like this. Like the tail of a pig."

Mama-san looked at me curiously and laughed. The next day I worked, she said she liked it better straight.

Most of the men talked plainly about their 12-hour workdays, and how they wished they'd pursued their romantic dreams instead of lucrative careers. They did everything from renting out karaoke machines to running sushi restaurants to coordinating mergers and acquisitions. Many had apartments in the city, but kept their families upstate. Sometimes their loved ones lived in New Jersey or Connecticut.

"There's a sort of cold war between my wife and me," one said. He was on the board of a textiles concern, but wished he had stuck with his history studies. "We know we exist, but we don't really talk. I have two sons, but they just spend all my money."

Another customer, an executive for a shipping company, complained that he didn't get any sleep.

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