Allamakee County Chronicles XXXI – The Code

Note:  A preview from my upcoming autobiography, Life’s Too Short to Smoke Cheap Cigars (Or to Drink Cheap Whiskey.)

The Code

There are rules to civilized behavior.  Some are codified and enforced by various levels of government.  We call those laws.  Some are enforced only by social feedback.  We call those manners.

Then there is the larger set of rules, rules young men live by when engaged in various nocturnal adventures after reaching drinking age (wink).  Those rules are known as The Code.

The actual by-gosh Utsunomia Station.

The Code includes such cautions as “do not seek to score with your buddy’s ex-girlfriend,” “wash your truck before picking up a girl for a first date,” and so forth.  One of the primary rules in The Code is this: “When drinking with another guy, if he gets too shitfaced, you are responsible for getting him home safe.”  This item has been known to cause some regrettable missed opportunities, as happened to me once in Japan, in the Tochigi Prefecture city of Utsunomia.

On the Friday evening in question, having wrapped up a workweek, I had gone back to the hotel and donned my usual jeans, RCS (Red Cowboy Shirt), tooled boots, big belt buckle and big white gus-crown cowboy hat to go out on the town.  I wandered the town more or less uneventfully until, after passing the main train station, I was approached by a Japanese salaryman still in his near-uniform black suit, white shirt, and dark tie.  He was not walking so much as staggering, clearly on the point of collapse.  He shouted “Hey, cowboy!”  Approaching me with a huge grin on his sweaty face, he stuck out his hand for a handshake.

He indicated a nearby brightly lit sign advertising what is euphemistically known in Japan as a “girl bar.”  “Want to go have beers?” he asked me.  “I pay!”

Needing a moment to mull this over, I took one of my big cigars out of a shirt pocket, trimmed it, lit it, and took a couple of puffs.  Seeing this, my would-be drinking buddy’s grin widened, so I trimmed another, gave it to him and lit it for him while thinking hard.  On the upside, it might be entertaining, and he was offering to pay.  On the downside, the guy was clearly on the point of passing out, and if I took him up on the offer, I would have had to make sure he got home safe somehow.  Why?  The Code.  Sadly, my Japanese language skills are less than minimal, and his English didn’t seem like much, leaving me with little confidence I could figure out where he lived, making it difficult to get him safely home when he was, to use the medical term, plastered.

In the end I smiled and politely declined, claiming fatigue.  He smiled, shook my hand again, and staggered off down the street, cigar clamped in his teeth, trailing clouds of fragrant blue smoke.

Sometimes abeyance to The Code can be harsh, but I thought I had done the right thing.

This One Time

To describe my first experience with this aspect of The Code, we must look back a few years.  Run the clock back to the Christmas season, 1979.  At the time I was in the final year of a three-year sentence in the penal institution known as high school, and had a job in the Woolco in Cedar Falls selling guns and fishing tackle, which for me was as close to a dream job as I was likely to find with the skills and experience I had to offer at the time.  Woolco, for those of you who aren’t familiar with the chain, was sort of the Wal-Mart of the day, being the big discount store chain of the F.W. Woolworth company.

The greatest thing about working for Woolco was the employee Christmas parties.  Every year, the company rented the clubhouse of a big nearby apartment complex, and had a couple of kegs brought in.  My fellow employees generally showed up with a few bottles as well, so there would be no small amount of comestibles.  Given the 2-1 ratio of female to male employees and the free booze involved, my old friend Dave generally was anxious to take the place of my allowable +1 to the party.

Such was the case on a fateful December Friday in 1979.

As was usually the case, the evening proceeded liquidly.  The trouble began with the disappearance of one kid, let’s call him Kevin, a seventeen-year-old who worked part-time selling shoes.  Our involvement began when one of Kevin’s co-workers came to Dave and me a half-hour after midnight with a dilemma.

“We can’t find Kevin,” she said.  “Nobody’s seen him for a while now.”

“Is that the kid from Shoes?” Dave asked me.  “He was pretty drunk last I saw him.”

“That’s him,” the young lady asked.  “We’re a little bit worried.  Can you guys check the men’s room?”

Dave and I generally moderated our intake in these deals, hoping to score some entertainment more scintillating than booze, so we were still in pretty good shape.  Agreeing to the search, we proceeded to the men’s room.  Kevin wasn’t at any of the urinals or sinks, so we started checking stalls; I was on my second when I heard Dave loudly exclaim, “Oh, shit!

I walked over and took a look.  Kevin had passed out on the toilet, his pants around his ankles.  A trail of vomit ran from his mouth, down his front, to form a puddle in his pants.

“What are we gonna do with him?”  Dave asked.

“Better take him home,” I said.  “I know where he lives.”  Kevin’s jacket was hung on a hook on the back of the stall door, so I checked the pockets.  “Yeah, here are his car keys.”

The actual by-gosh Woolco.

We didn’t bother trying to clean Kevin up.  Instead, we got him stood up and squidged his jeans up, fastening his belt around his waist.  To get him out of the clubhouse and into his car required enlisting the help of a couple of my fellow employees, but finally Kevin was in the back seat of his old Chevy, smelling of puke and breathing out eye-watering tequila fumes.

Dave had driven us to the party, so it was up to me to navigate Kevin’s old Chevy the three miles to his parent’s house.  The night was cold, as is usual for northern Iowa in December, but the odors emanating from the back seat made it necessary to drive with the window open and my head positioned to take the blast of cold, yet clean air.  Dave followed me in his old Cougar.

On arrival at Kevin’s parent’s house, we did a quick recon from the street.  “Looks like everyone’s asleep,” Dave observed.

“Yeah.  Let’s get him out of the car.”

I had parked right in front of Kevin’s suburban home, so we had only to leverage his inert form out of the car and bundle him up the sidewalk to the front door.  There, only a little experimentation found the right key to open the front door.  We stood Kevin up, slapped him until he roused a little, and gave him a push.  The kid staggered into the front door and collapsed into the entryway, where another round of heaving seized him.

“Let’s go,” Dave whispered.  I tossed Kevin’s keys inside, closed the door and rang the bell.  Then we ran for Dave’s Cougar and returned to the party, which was still going in full force.

I next saw Kevin on Monday afternoon, when he wandered into the Woolco for his part-time evening shift selling shoes.  Curious, I wandered over from Sporting Goods to Shoes to see how he was doing.

Kevin looked awful.  His face still had a faint green tinge, and his eyes looked like two piss-holes in the snow.  “I hear you got me home Friday.  Thanks.”

“Glad to help,” I told him.  “What happened after that?”

Kevin grimaced.  “My folks yelled at me all weekend.  Basically, I’m grounded for the rest of my life.”

I sympathized with him and walked back to my department.  Hopefully he learned a lesson from the experience; for my part, The Code was satisfied.

And Then This Happened

Of course, there are certain cases in which it’s not necessary to get a guy delivered to him home; for instance, if you can deliver him to a sober family member, that’s just as good.  Case in point: Fast forward thirty years, and I find myself in Japan, back on my first stint in that lovely country.

In case you didn’t know, drinking is a big part of social life in Japan.  On the occasion in question, to celebrate this hiring of several staff in the Quality department, the company I was working with sponsored a big Friday evening dinner in a traditional local restaurant, where the food was great and the beer, sake and shochu flowed freely.

In the course of the meal, I became aware of some odd behavior on the part of my primary counterpart with the company, my “factory buddy.”  Let’s call him Takagawa-san.  Takagawa-san had taken it on himself to repeatedly fill my glass whenever it was empty; out of politeness, I was doing the same for him.  Throughout the night he became increasingly unsteady, but I recognized the challenge; he was, as the saying goes, ‘seeing if he could drink me under the table.’

Takagawa-san’s plan went awry for two reasons:  I was approximately twice his size, and second, unbeknownst to him, I had been imbibing a wide variety of alcoholic beverages, some store-bought, some not, since I was about fourteen.

In the end, we all left for the train station, with me half-carrying, half-dragging the nearly comatose Takagawa-san.  I managed to get him on the train and, holding him up with one arm and holding the strap with the other, cudgeled my brain as to how to figure out where he lived.  I knew he got off the train on the normal commute at the stop before mine, but that was the extent of my knowledge.

I shook him as the train started moving.  “Takagawa-san,” I told him.  “Where do you live?  Where’s your house?”

He took out his cell phone, causing me to breathe a sigh of relief, thinking he was going to bring up some kind of mapping app.  Instead, he started scrolling through photos with a wide, drunken smile plastered on his face.  “My son,” he grinned at me.  “My wife.”

It was apparent there would be no relief from that quarter, so when Takagawa-san’s stop came, I got him off the train and headed out of the station, hoping some opportunity would present itself.  One did.

Once again, I was half-dragging, half-carrying my inebriated Japanese counterpart up the sidewalk when I noticed a young woman walking towards us, with a small boy holding her hand.  As she drew closer, I recognized her from the photos on Takagawa-san’s phone.  “Ah!”  my comrade blurted out, pointing at the young lady.  “My wife!”

As she drew closer, Mrs. Takagawa’s gaze narrowed like Swiss Servator contemplating a string of puns.  As her face darkened, I patted Takagawa-san on the back.  “Ok, buddy, you’re good, then.  See you Monday!”

I fled, making it back to the station just in time to catch the last train to my hotel.

Once again, Monday found me seeking out a friend to see how his weekend had gone.  I found Takagawa-san at his desk in the plant, cradling his head in his hands.  When I asked how he was, he looked up at me blearily, and sucked in his breath through his teeth.

“Oh,” he said.  “Weekend was not good.  My wife, very angry.”

I patted him on the back and sympathized.  After all, that, too, is part of The Code.

These Days

The Code still applies, of course, but these days it doesn’t affect me much.  I don’t often go out partying with buddies and, on the rare occasions I do, us older guys usually don’t drink enough to require someone else getting us home safe.  The cautions on how to behave with regards to your buddies’ ex-girlfriends and dating don’t really apply much either – not to me, that is.

But were the situation to arise, I’d still have to abide by The Code.  If you’re drinking with someone and he gets too many sheets to the wind – get him home safe.

It’s The Code.