Memoirs of a Jewish Geisha
Photo-illustration by Christine Craig (photograph copyright Photo-Flow)
They say Mama-san came to San Francisco from Seoul at the age of 16, and migrated to the East Coast a few years later. The dark-featured, small-framed woman started off small, working the jazz and karaoke circuit and eventually landing steadier gigs with a Korean band.
And people began to take notice—for a short while, at least. In 1995, Mama-san—known then mainly as Michelle—won first place in a New York Korean association's singing contest. In 1997, her first album, Dream of Leaves, was released.
"When I met her—what, 20 years ago—she was the best singer from Southeast Asia," one of her regulars says.
Fast-forward a few years and add a few pounds, mainly around Michelle's middle. She has transformed from siren to business-woman, swapping her wavy black locks for a sensible bob. She had a kid. She took up golf. She also started running a "hostess club" in Midtown. I recently worked at that club, Kaoru, for a month. During that time, I didn't see Mama-san take the mic even once.
Applying for jobs at Kaoru was "Angie's" idea. The two of us had met at an East Village dive a few months earlier, and I knew little about her. She said she was a cash-strapped college instructor. One day, maybe the third time we'd hung out, Angie told me that she'd heard about an easy, fun way to make extra money. She said there were a handful of special piano bars in Manhattan—called hostess clubs—where we would get paid just to look pretty and make small talk with the male clients. She assured me the place was totally legitimate and definitely not a front for prostitution or anything like that. There would be no nudity involved, she said, and no touching.
"It's more like a modern-day take on the geisha," she said over an egg-white omelet. "The men just talk on for hours about their boring insurance work and their unhappy marriages, and you pretend like it's really interesting stuff. Sometimes, clients bring their favorite hostesses gifts, kind of like a patron-courtesan thing. And the men are only there for companionship, not sex. It's very strict and very proper. Safe, too. And we're both white, so we'd have the whole exotic thing going for us."
It was a rainy Monday night when we first arrived. The club, which is on 46th Street, between First and Second avenues, is unassuming. There's a shadowy, nondescript glass door with the word "Kaoru" glowing on the awning above it in white script.
The outside looked like a massage parlor missing its neon sign. To enter, you must first pass through a walled alcove—about the size of an ATM vestibule—and another door, before you finally get to the bar. You can't see anything from the street.
We walked in. There was a low, shellacked bar, a couple of dusty liquor bottles in front of a mirrored wall, and an unopened baby grand in the corner.
A couple of pretty Asian girls were chatting with each other at the edge of the bar. They had long, brown-black hair, and both were wearing dark micro-minis. When they saw us, they stopped talking. There weren't any men around, except for the bartender. He was wearing tight plaid pants, a white shirt, a silky black vest, and a matching bow tie. He walked over.
"You must be here for interviews."
"Interviews?" Angie said. We looked at each other and shrugged. "Yeah, interviews. Sure."
"Do you mind waiting a little bit? The owner is on her way in from Long Island."
"OK, then. Come with me."
The bartender led us down a dark hallway to a square room, signaling for us to go in. There was a sectional sofa and a large TV screen, for karaoke. He asked if we wanted anything to drink, and brought back two caffeine-free Diet Cokes. He dropped to one knee to serve them.
"She should be here in 45 minutes or so," he said, closing the frosted-glass door behind him.
Angie and I looked at each other.
"I mean, it doesn't seem like a brothel," she said, taking a sip.
"I feel like texting someone," I said. "Like I should let someone know where I am."
"Maybe you should wait. We're totally being watched," she said.
Then came two knocks at the door. A short woman walked in and sat down next to me, on our coats. She was wearing glittery bell-bottoms and a poofy blouse.
"I'm Michelle," she said, extending her hand. "You girls must be the Russians."
Angie and I exchanged confused looks.
"I'm from New Jersey," Angie said. "And she's from Florida."
"Oh. Well, I was supposed to meet with some Russian girls. It's OK. I lost their phone numbers anyway, and you girls will do just fine!" Michelle laughed. "So you want to work here?"
"Yeah," Angie said. "Definitely."
"So you know what goes on, right?"
More back-and-forth glances between Angie and me. I decided to let Angie do the talking.
"We talk with the customers and serve them drinks and sing karaoke," Angie said.
"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."
"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.
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."
"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.
"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.
"When were you born?" he asked.
"1987," I said.
"Ah! That's exactly when I worked there!" he said. "I bet that at one point, your mom was walking around and holding you, and I was walking around, too, and we saw one another. It's almost like fate. Like we were meant to know each other. Like we should have known each other all along."
The check came right around then: $320. Son of a bitch, I thought. I'd never eaten so well in my life. He put down his credit card, and I saw that after the tip, the bill came to $370.
"We should go to Kaoru now, so you're not late," he said.
Mama-san started yelling right when we got in.
"Where were you?" she said.
"Dohan," I said. "Look, I brought in a customer."
"Go change!" she said.
And I did.
The bartenders said not to worry, that Mama-san wasn't really mad.
"Mama-san's crazy," one of them said. "She's, like, menopausal, you know. Her moods are all, like, up, down."
The rest of the night just felt off. The man who took me on my dohan was talking to another girl, which was fine, because he was so dull and there was little else to say about our celestial hometown connection. But now I saw that every time another hostess reached over the bar, he'd try to play grab-ass. She'd playfully swat his hand and laugh. And he'd buy her a drink.
At one point shortly after that, I went into the kitchen for a smoke.
"You like this work?" Mama-san asked.
"Good. We put you at six days next week. That OK?"
"I'll check my schedule."
"OK. Check your schedule. We put you on six days."
Mama-san was right. It takes about three weeks for the customers to warm up to you. What she didn't mention is that it also takes about three weeks for them to get grabby. And that's why it seemed like a good idea to spend no more than a month at Kaoru—I'd figured out what it was like to work there, and wanted to leave before anything really weird happened.
One night, a group of Japanese mariners came in. They had been out fishing earlier that day, went to dinner and to an all-Japanese strip club, and decided to make Kaoru their last stop for the night. One of them, the sexton, was wearing lime-green Crocs and a baggy sweatshirt.
"Some girls like smelly men," he said, lifting his arm in a hostess's face. She squealed. "You like that?"
"No, I don't like smelly men," she said, smiling.
"What about this?" he said, popping off a shoe and holding it in her face.
An hour later, or maybe it was earlier, I was in that same corner booth.
"You must be Eastern European," a man said.
"Polish, in fact."
"I could tell."
"Polish girls like short skirts," he said, putting a hand on my thigh. My bare leg was pretty hairy. He didn't say anything.
"They also like to drink," he said.
"You're right. Could I get a whiskey-Diet?" I said. He agreed.
The bartenders knew to just give me soda. This way, I could sell at least ten $13 cocktails per night. I would also keep the customers happy by "drinking" with them, but I wouldn't get drunk at all.
He left the table for a moment. Then his friend put his hand on the same spot, right above my knee. He also didn't mention the hair. I drained the Diet Coke, and the bartender brought over another "whiskey-Diet" with a knowing laugh.
When I left that night, I noticed that one of the hostesses—a tall girl in a creamy beaded gown—happened to be walking a few blocks in front of me. She was arm-in-arm with the man she'd been on a dohan with, and had sat with all night. On his other side, also holding his arm, was another hostess from the bar. I followed them for a few blocks. They didn't part ways.
A few nights later, the man who told me about the "seaweed sake" returned. He was sitting at the corner of the bar, surrounded by the three women he'd paid to flirt with him. He'd been here a little less than an hour, but had already downed half a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label. He suddenly got up and ripped open his shirt, flashing a hairy nipple in front of the girls. They squealed. "I showed you mine, now show me yours!" he said, reaching across the counter to pinch a girl; his gut swung freely, so the bargirls scrambled to keep the drinks from spilling. "Come on and show me!" he said, but the girls refused, laughing politely.
The bartender sighed.
"He's really living the American dream," he said.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in New York, delivered to your inbox.