By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
"My daughter, she's eight," he confided. "We sleep in the same bed. And she tosses and turns all night. But my wife, she's lucky. She's in the bed with my son, and he doesn't move."
One time, I asked an American customer what brought him to Kaoru.
"It's better than dating," he said. "You already know the rules. I can talk to a girl and buy her a drink without being thought of as a pervert. By the way, you ever had seaweed sake?"
"Don't think so," I said. "What's that?"
"It's very expensive," he said. "They only do it in Japan. It's when a girl pours sake in her crotch, and you drink it. It'll run you $400, $500."
"Nope," I said. "Can't say I've ever had that."
Another American, the only black customer I'd seen there, said he likes that they store his liquor at Kaoru. The man, who said his firm manages New York's pension funds, enjoys Kaoru because he spends less than at other, conventional bars.
"I'm a Renaissance man," the man explained one night. "I do everything. I ski. I snowboard. I used to do triathlons. I've got motorcycles and sports cars. I hunt. I volunteer—I'm on the board of Juilliard."
He really took a fancy to one hostess in particular, a ballroom-dance instructor with coppery highlights and sculpted calves.
But I noticed that she and the other girls kept finding ways to avoid sitting with him—sometimes he sat alone at his table, until a bartender or Mama-san told a girl to go over and chat with him. One night, I overheard him complain to Mama-san about getting the cold shoulder from the dance instructor. He said he was also afraid that he'd been overcharged.
"Don't worry," she told him. "Sometimes the girls, when they're new, they don't know what they're doing with the bills. I'll look it over and make sure it's fine. The girls, they don't know any better."
One customer, an aging Japanese rocker, spent his nights at the mic, endlessly crooning classic love ballads. The man, who always had an edgy, mod accessory—like pointy ankle boots or excess silver rings—was fascinated by manatees and dolphins.
"One time, I went snorkeling, in Florida, and they came right up to me," he said. "I even adopted a manatee, you know, made a donation to a group down there."
The girl who was sitting with him at the bar listened politely, sipping her cranberry juice.
"Well, you know," he said to her. "You've been to my house—you've seen all the little figurines I have."
"Yes," she said, nodding.
Another man, a Macallan drinker with a nervous laugh, told me about his two kids—a teenage boy and girl. He talked a lot about his daughter's flat chest.
"She wants to buy thong underwear, because all the girls her age have it. And she also wants a bikini bathing suit. So my wife took her to get a bikini, and the top was too big on her, because she doesn't have boobs, you know. She's built like a boy," he said, shaping her body with his hands. "And so my wife started laughing, so I think she's going to have to sew some padding in there. The girl's just shaped like a boy, and all of her friends have figures, like women. By the way, would you like to go to dinner this week. Sushi?"
Sure, I said. We exchanged phone numbers—the norm at Kaoru. I also gave him a business card, which was provided by the club. It would be my first dohan, or paid dinner date.
The man sent me a text a few days later, telling me to meet him at 7:45, near the 45th Street exit of Grand Central station. He said to find him near the Italian restaurant, and that we'd go from there.
And go from there we did.
"I want to talk to you more about your hometown, Tampa," he said, wiping his face and hands with a hot towel.
We were seated at the upstairs bar at Hatsuhana, an upscale sushi restaurant on the East Side. "It's so strange that you come from there. You know, I used to work there in the '80s. I was CFO at a phosphate company. It is so strange, so coincidental. Do you want something to drink? It is customary to drink beer, then switch to sake," he said.
The man kept asking about Tampa. Was his favorite hibachi place still on the corner? Was the sushi restaurant, the one on the main highway, open?
At first, he seemed normal enough. And the dohan seemed OK—sure, it was an escorting arrangement—but a purely platonic one, it appeared.
"Get whatever you want," he said. The man, who knew the chef, said something in Japanese. Slices of raw tuna, scallop, squid appeared. Then came some mystery fish, which tasted so richly of the ocean, they were undoubtedly endangered. They were followed by littleneck clams in dark miso broth, then by eel and a bowl of sea urchin. Last was a red fruit and bean pudding, with fresh strawberry slices on top.