"After a few blocks of running we had to stop because we were laughing so hard," my father once told me. He was recounting a tale I'd heard about his time living in Tokyo in the late 70s. One evening after work, he and a close friend went to grab a beer before heading home. They decided on a bar neither had been to before, taking a booth close to the front door. "The place was absolutely empty," my dad said. "We were the only people in there."
Both ordered a beer and sat in the eerily quiet watering hole, kept company by a lone bartender and heavily tattooed bouncer standing watch at the back of the bar. “He may have been a Yakuza now that I think about it,” my dad added.
After a few drinks the check arrived, as it always does. But this bill was unique in that it read $100; a pretty penny for a couple of beers even for Tokyo standards.
My dad and his friend glanced at each other, pondering their hairy and potentially painful little situation. "There's no way we're going to pay this. These guys are trying to rip us off," my father whispered. "On the count of three we're going to get up and run."
The two took a moment to muster up the courage to carry out their bold master plan, while their large Japanese friend gradually grew more suspicious. Then, without warning, the two bolted out the front door running for their lives in the middle of the Roppongi District. The disgruntled bar guard started to give chase before deciding it wasn't worth the effort. Several blocks later my father and his friend stopped to catch their breath and celebrate the beginnings of a humble and short-lived dine-n-dash career.
The first time I heard this story I couldn't help but think, I'd never be caught dead in a situation like that. I was a kid and thought such run-ins were avoidable with just a little common sense and discretion. But as it turns out, the very same continent would offer the backdrop for a unique little run-in of my own nearly 30 years later.
When I was twenty-four years old, I had a once in a lifetime opportunity to live and teach in Shanghai. I was going through a very difficult transition in my young life. I'd recently gotten out of a tumultuous relationship, and now two years out of college, still had no promising career prospects. Understandably, the patience of my normally poised parents was beginning to wane.
Then one evening, while visiting my closest friend Jennifer, her mother matter-of-factly said to me, "Nick, please convince Jen to go to Shanghai." She paused before casually adding, "You should go with her." I shot Jen a puzzled glance, not sure if her mom was pulling my leg. My childhood friend and I were in very similar places. We'd both recently parted ways with our significant others, felt rudderless after school, and needed a jolt to offer some clarity.
"Is she serious?" I asked. "Yeah. My godfather is the Senior VP of all Hyatt Hotels in China. He's invited me to come and be an English teacher at one of the hotels." I struggled to grasp why anyone would need any convincing. "Jen!" I cried. "You have to go. This is an incredible opportunity." She paused briefly, before looking up to say, "I'll go if you go." Three months later we were eating breakfast on the 54th floor of one of the tallest hotels in the world in perhaps the most remarkable city I'd ever seen.
About the second week of our trip I decided to take a little stroll down Nanjing Lu, a very busy and popular street lined with restaurants and shops. It was a nice afternoon, and like any other day in China, was packed with scores of people as far as the eye could see.
For some mysterious reason, I decided to wear a suit my father had passed down to me several years before. Perhaps the only thing more confusing than my decision to sport such an outfit was my choice to bring it to China in the first place.
I was in a bit of daze as I slowly recovered from the drinking escapades of the night before. As I made my way through a sea of people, it parted abruptly, giving way to two girls who stopped me. One of the young women grabbed my wrist and said something to be in Mandarin.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I don’t speak Chinese,” I said. They each smiled.“Oh, you American?”she asked. "Yes," I beamed.
The three of us tried desperately to make conversation despite not sharing a language and throngs of people bumping into us. Finally, they asked if I'd be willing to teach them English. I nodded and suggested we head over to a park. They seemed to like the idea, but I was confused when we began to head in the opposite direction of where I'd pointed - towards the Huangpu River.
In rather broken English, they managed to communicate to me they were on vacation from the Northern Province of China. Shanghai, it turns out, had been a placed they'd long desired to see. I certainly couldn't blame them.
Eventually, the crowds abated and the roads narrowed. We arrived at a restaurant that was quite literally off the beaten path. It was the kind of route you take when searching for knock-off merchandise...so I've heard.
Admittedly, the place was posh, lined with Egyptian themed statues, spotless marble floors, and sleek modern furniture. The waitresses were all beautiful, sporting long black dresses to compliment their slim and youthful bodies.
On the surface, a drink at such a place seemed harmless enough, but my sixth sense kicked into overdrive, as I scanned the nearly empty lounge. The only other customer was a middle-aged British businessman who'd taken a booth and conveniently surrounded himself with no less than four girls half his age. My mind started to race as I considered how to extricate myself from a situation well beyond my comfort zone.
Instead, the three of us took a booth in the corner a few steps from the restroom. Immediately, a waitress asked if she could get us something to drink. We politely asked for more time. As she made her way to the bar, one of the girls noted, “Her accent is different. She is not from here.”I didn't think much of it. How would I know anyway, I thought.
One glance at the menu and I knew instantly I wasn't in Kansas any more. A cup of hot tea alone was $7.00. As the girls scanned the glossy pics, I was, for the first time in my life, grateful to have a hangover. I had absolutely no desire for anything, even the tea I eventually agreed to order.
“You like whiskey?” one girl asked.
“No, no. I drank too much last night. Very sick," I muttered.
“Are you hungry?” another prodded.
“Not really,” I said.
It turned out the status of my appetite was really beside the point as the two girls began ordering fine whiskey, fruit, and various other snacks ranging from chocolate M & M's to dried octopus. As we awaited for the feast to arrive, conversation was stilted, all energy dissipated. Whatever enthusiasm the girls had supposedly felt for meeting an American in a foreign land had without question subsided.
Eventually the food arrived and I was silently relieved; not so much about eating, but the distraction it would provide for the eery silence. I was suddenly grateful for occasional laughter we could hear from the heavyset businessman we passed on the way in.
The girls tried valiantly to get me to drink, but I was having none of it. Not only was I not a real fan of whiskey, but my head was still throbbing from the night before. Instead, I nibbled on a few snacks in an attempt to get along by going along.
After what seemed like the climax of a Pinter play, peppered with awkward and long pauses, one of the girls asked, "You want to go somewhere else?" Why on earth any one of us would want to prolong this silent pain was beside me. So naturally, with every ounce of 24-year old earnestness I could muster I said, "Sure." One of the girls then signaled for the bill.
When the check arrived it was accompanied by an entourage of waitresses and what I gathered was some type of manager - a youngish looking man in his mid-30's, roughly 5'7, and stocky. A beautiful girl smiled as she delicately handed me the bill as if it were the code for a secret antidote. It read, 1600 RMB. Dear God, I thought. That's over $200. In an instant, everything became crystal clear as I kicked myself for not picking up on the vague, but discernible signs leading up to this event. I was experiencing my Roppongi moment.
I could feel my heart pulsating beneath my chest, galloping like a wild horse through an open field. The difference was, I saw no light, no way out of this self-imposed predicament.
Still, for reasons that confuse me to this day, I asked the girls if they had any money for the bill. A look of bewilderment instantly fell upon each of their faces. One girl indulged me, opening a cheap brown wallet revealing nothing, not even a trace of lint.
Meanwhile her friend decided to offer a lecture saying, "I'm sorry, but in China women don't pay for men." Suddenly, words were no longer minced, her English now impeccable.
Admittedly, there was still a small part of me that thought this was all some elaborate joke. I anxiously waited for someone to yell, "Gotcha" or for some Chinese funny man to reveal himself from behind the bar telling me I was on candid camera. Of course neither scenario occurred.
Despite everything, I asked the waitress, who at this point was accompanied by a manager and his sidekick, if I could go to an ATM machine...alone. Strangely, they didn't go for it.
But after several minutes of prodding the two men agreed to accompany me to the nearest Citibank so I could withdraw some cash.
As the three of us began our leisurely stroll my heart felt as if it were going to leap from my chest. To make matters worse, the younger of the two was trying to make small talk in an effort to ease the tension.
“Where you from?”he asked.
“Uh, Chicago,” I said. Not knowing what difference it made.
“Oh, Chicago,” he nodded.
“Yeah, Chicago,” I hummed once more.
Walking among masses of people on a lazy Sunday afternoon, when everything from the outside looking in appeared just fine was utterly surreal. I felt as if I were in a coma powerless to gesture, blink, or speak, but able to hear everything. In some ways, I'd never felt more alone.
The walk to Citibank took roughly 5 minutes. When we arrived the two men insisted on entering the bank with me so they could watch me dispense money from the ATM. I drew the line, insisting I should at least be able to do this much alone. Strangely, they obliged and waited for me outside.
I stared blankly at the touchscreen for what felt like hours. My mind continued to race, fiercely brainstorming ways to get out of this horrible movie. All I could come up with was not to dispense any money, not even a dime. And so I didn't.
I stepped back out onto the busy street where the men were waiting. Of course, my value to them had increased as they were now convinced I had $200 on me. Now, we were heading back to the lion's den. The journey back seemed to take a tenth of the time it took to leave, but I'm sure it was no different. As we rounded a corner I could now see the restaurant clear as day. As we got within a few yards of the entrance I said, “Uh, I need to go in there,” pointing to a convenient store across the street.
“No, you have to pay,”one man said.
“Yeah, but I need to get something first,” I shot back.
Whatever flexibility these conmen had show at this point had now been squandered. The older of the two raced inside probably to get back up. Suddenly, it was just me and the younger man. He was a few inches shorter but likely weighed about the same. Thoughts of a frantic scuffle clouded my my mind before realizing I hadn't been in a fight since I was 12 years old. I had no interest then or now of resorting to such measures and quickly forgot about it.
Then my survival instincts took over. Not knowing what else to do, I ran. And ran. And ran. I never looked back. I felt as if I was racing on clouds, each step lighter than the one before. I could have run to Beijing and back I was so full of adrenaline.
Up ahead, I could make out a cab and headed towards the bright blue car. I opened the door and literally leaped into the backseat ducking low to ensure my escape. "Jin Mao Tower!" I screamed. My driver, an older gentlemen in his late 60, gingerly turned around and looked down at my crouching body completely dumbfounded by my little charade.
Slowly, I sat up, and said more calmly, "Uh, Jin Mao Tower." He turned back and glanced out the windshield mirror as we both sat silently in bumper to bumper traffic. We weren't going anywhere.
Several weeks later I was walking down the same street with Jen. I'd paid no heed to my father's words, "Don't go back down there," he'd said. Instead, I wanted to show my friend where the debacle had taken place. As we made our way down Nanjing Lu I stopped as if I'd seen a ghost. "Jen," I said. "You're not gong to believe this." She looked at me confused begging to know. "The girls that ripped me off are across the street."
I pointed to three people casually making their way down the same street but in the opposite direction. The two women had clearly not been sentimental about our break-up, moving on to another young gentlemen who looked to be roughly my age. "You have to go and warn that guy," Jen told me. It was exactly what I feared she'd say. "Oh, man. I don't want to get involved. I already made such a mess of things." But she pushed on saying, "Nick, I know you. If you don't do something it'll eat away at you. You know it's the right thing to do." She was right. Perhaps a testament to our long friendship or the Catholic guilt we'd both been conditioned to feel, or both.
We turned on a dime and began to make our way towards the group. We hid behind lamp posts and even felt compelled to tip-toe; grown-ups acting as though they were Maxwell Smart. Finally, we raced across the street just as they were about to round a corner towards the lounge. "Excuse me!" I yelled. A tall gentlemen with an accent I couldn't quite make out, slowly turned to me, clearly startled. "Did these two girls ask you to teach them English?" I asked. "Yes," he said. "They're going to rip you off," I explained. I quickly confirmed how he'd been approached, even the script they'd used, gradually building credibility as Jen looked on. Meanwhile, the two girls looked at me as though they'd seen an apparition before calmly walking away.
The young man thanked me for my help and went on his way. I got the sense he was disheartened not only by the girl's scheme, but the ugly side of human nature - the hustle to make a dime regardless of the cost. I'd felt the same way just a few weeks before. Now I knew better. This must happen happen every day. I thought.
Kartik, a 21-year old student from Dublin, Ireland shared this bit of advice with me: I don't know if this counts but it's the best I can think of for now, it's a song which is called "it's never too late" by Tommy Emmanuel. I saw him play it live and he explained what it's about and whenever I hear the song it reminds me that it's never too late to find happiness, and it's never too late to chase your dreams.