Yakitori Anyone?

Kunk Fu Zoby Kung Fu Zu7/22/15
Tokyo, in 1984, was a great place to live. Japan was approaching its post-war economic apex and the general mood was one of satisfaction, with positive expectations for the future. If a foreigner had a little curiosity, there was much to see and learn. This was especially the case if the Gaijin spoke a little Japanese, which I did. Perhaps most importantly, the US dollar/Japanese Yen exchange rate was very favorable for someone being paid in US dollars.

The country was in an expansive mood. The Japanese automobile industry was a world beater and the Japanese generally were very proud of what they had accomplished in the forty years since the end of WWII.  In those days, I believe there were less than 40,000 Westerners living in Japan. Most of these were probably older men with families. At that time, Westerner = American for the sons of Dai-Nippon. Very few Japanese seemed to be able to differentiate between nationalities so everyone with pale skin, light eyes, and a big nose was an American. And Americans living in Japan were considered a bit bizarre. This was understandable because in Japan everyone really did look alike. To see some blond, brown or especially red head standing out above a crowd looked odd. This attitude even infected me the first time I lived in Tokyo. Sometime after about five months I happened to be walking down the street and saw a busload of Europeans unloading to enter a hotel. The first thought that came to my mind was, “Those people look strange.”  After that, I knew that I needed a break.

As one might expect, in a city of almost fifteen million people something was always happening. Tokyo was a place which attracted people from all over the world. Celebrities of every kind, made their way to Japan for fun and profit — mainly profit. Golf pros were in high demand. But tennis pros, who were of greater interest to me, were also popular.

I have followed tennis since the days of Rod Laver and John Newcombe. I remember the first big money match in tennis between Newcombe and Jimmy Connors. The winner-take-all pot was a huge US$250,000. I kept an eye on Connors’ career as he was my contemporary in age and was one of the best players of all time. I even bought a Wilson 3000 racket. Unusually, Connors seemed to improve with age, having won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 1982 and the U.S. Open again in 1983. I was a big fan.

Imagine my surprise when, one week night as I sat eating yakitori at Nanbantei in Roppongi, in walked Jimmy Connors. His mother and a couple of other people came in with him. The party sat down at the counter across from me and a couple of business colleagues.

I quickly pointed out Connors to my friends who were duly impressed. As we sat there eating and talking, I mentioned that one of our customers, the buyer for Razno Import (a Soviet government-owned commodity trading company), was an avid tennis fan.  I opined that it couldn’t hurt business if I were to get Jimmy Connor’s autograph for him. But I was hesitant to approach Connors as I didn’t (and still don’t) like disturbing strangers, especially famous people who are constantly bothered by ardent admirers. My reluctance didn’t impress my colleagues, who insisted I should try to get a piece of paper with some ink on it.

Agreeing to give it a try, I kept an eye on Jimbo. After an hour or so, he rose and walked toward the door. I jumped up only a couple of steps behind him. Once through the door he headed to a waiting taxi and before he could get in I asked, “Excuse me, you are Jimmy Connors, aren’t you?”  I know this was a pretty lame thing to say, but surprisingly, he turned back to me, smiling and replied, “I am tonight.”

He did this in such an open and friendly manner that things went smoothly from there. In no time I explained about my Russian customer and asked Connors if he would mind signing an autograph for him. He said he would be happy to do so, took the napkin from me and rested it on the roof of the taxi. With a pen in hand, he looked over to me and asked, “What is your customer’s name?” I replied, “Velenchik.” Naturally enough, he then asked, “How do you spell that?” I was somewhat nonplussed, as I couldn’t recall the exact spelling. So I said, “V-i-l-e-n-c-e-k is close enough.” He looked at the napkin and in a bold hand wrote, “Vilencek, Best Wishes J Connors.”

Bingo! I had obtained the autograph and had had a brief, but pleasant, conversation with Jimmy Connors. Before he could go, I thanked him sincerely for his time and trouble. He shook my hand and replied, “No problem.”

The taxi door stood open waiting for him to enter. But, before he got in, a sly grin stole across his face. He leaned toward me with a slight tilt of his head, and while pointing his finger at me said, “Don’t forget, I want 10% of the profits.” Laughing, I told him they were his. He slid into the taxi, the door closed behind him and away he went.

Shortly thereafter, I visited Singapore where Razno Import had their S.E. Asia office. I called hoping to make an appointment with Mr. Velenchik, but was told that he was no longer in Singapore as he had returned to the head office.

I cursed my luck because I was sure he would have appreciated Jimmy Connor’s autograph addressed personally to him, even with a slightly misspelled name. As it turned out, there was no more business from Razno and no 10% for Jimmy.

Thirty one years later, I still have Jimmy’s autograph on that Nanbantei napkin, just waiting for Velenchik to pick it up.

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15 Responses to Yakitori Anyone?

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    That’s a nice story, Mr. Kung. It sounds as if Jimmy Conners was a good sport…at least in regards to your autograph request. But he wasn’t known as “the bad boy of tennis” for nothing.

    But he was nothing compared to John McEnroe who truly was one of the first living examples of the juvenile-man. Tennis went from a gentile sport to another aspect of our culture that has joined hands with the lowest common denominator. Bjorn Borg fixed things for a while, but the sport hasn’t been the same since. I certainly won’t give it the time of day.

    Conners is remarkable for two things: seeing Chris Evert naked (what a made-for-the-tabloids romance that was) and playing as well as he did at an advanced age (for an athlete). For Connors, it was about the size of the dog in the fight. Although he had a temper, he never lacked in guts or determination. Contrast that with the cheaters, low-lifes, narcissists, and sissy-boys in sports today.

    What the hell is Yakitori?

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      What the hell is Yakitori?

      Yakitori is literally, grilled bird. It is a special way of grilling chicken as well as presentation to the customer.

      The food is on thin bamboo spits and grilled over charcoal. The meal is served over a period of time, piece by piece. The server brings each item separately and places it on the diner’s plate. For example, the first dish may be chicken meat with spring onions wrapped in bacon. The next dish might be grilled ginkgo nuts, then chicken wings to be followed by grilled green peppers, then chicken livers, etc. It is really a great meal. The restaurant Nanbantei, had a slightly different style of Yakitori than most other Yakitoriyas. (yakitori restaurants). It would cover its yakitori in a type of batter or crust. It is very famous in Japan.

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    Well, good luck on that. I wonder if he’s even still alive (or indeed if his call back to the home office was a lethal one, as it easily could have been in the Stalin era). One modest group of Americans in Japan, of course, are the missionaries (such as members of JABAS — Japan Baptist Missionaries). The numbers probably aren’t very large. (One of Elizabeth’s siblings is still active there.)

  3. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Well, it doesn’t sound as if you annoyed Jimbo. Normally if I meet someone famous (rarely, and usually a politician) I can’t help but be annoying. But then I suppose those who are famous (accept Frank Sinatra who, at least early on, would regularly tell reporters to eff off) get used to it.

    It all seems silly on one level. Yes, it’s cool to meet famous people. And by meeting them, we can share in some of their mojo. I guess moderation in all things. But I’m constantly amused when reading stories about actors. Often actors will be known for playing a certain type of part or were renowned for a certain penetrating role…often as a bad guy. And apparently it is not rare for “fans” to sneer at the real-life actors when they meet them.

    This is just a bizarro world. How can people not understand that the guy playing (or at least voicing) Darth Vader isn’t likely a Dark Lord of the Sith? I mean, I guess (with your help, Mr. Kung) I’ve gained a better understanding for why, say, the Republican Establishment and the Left are so down-talking, arrogant, and want to rule our lives (and think they can). Surely it is, in part, because they’ve seen enough of this kind of raw idiocy from the American public. Or any public.

    I assume that when you met Jimmy Conner that you didn’t expect him to heckle you or argue with you as he did linesman. But it is indeed amazing how many people can’t seem to separate fantasy from reality. And part of that fantasy is expecting these celebrities to be anything special beyond their talents. Going by what I’m reading of Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner, we’re all better off *not* ever meeting the likes of some of them.

    But we live in a celebrity culture so it is suitable that we deal with this. I was thrilled, for instance, to meet Michael Reagan (son of the president) last year. And totally let down that this guy is a thorough Establishment Republican. How can one grow up in and around such a great man and not have at least his conservative instincts rub off on you? But, nope, notta, not there. He’s a Jeb Bush man and seems to think that the answer for the GOP is to just be “nice” to all factions…that is “tolerant” in the sort of ingratiating, ineffectual, milquetoast way of the amoral Establishment.

    So it will be quite some time before you see me with a Hollywood “homes of the stars” map in my hand as I cruise around the LA region. (By the way, it costs 2600.00 a night to stay at Frank’s first Palm Springs home…and you must book for three days plus $350.00 service fee…anyone want to chip in and have a proper StubbornThings reunion? It looks like a gorgeous little house).

    The glow of celebrity is ultimately a cold wattage, for to gain a sense of self and of worth through someone else’s fame is hollow. We must all accomplish our own thing. A small humble thing that is real is ultimately more meaningful than the mojo gained from mere association. And given how truly screwed up many celebrities are (who are likely celebrities because of their unbridled and unrelenting search for “love” and validation), it might be best for us to keep our distance.

    Still, it’s hard to resist. My father and a bunch of his cronies were in New York City a few years ago. They were in some restaurant when one of the guys recognized Patrick Wayne, son of John Wayne. I’m not sure how they recognized him, for I doubt that I would have. But my father, being the extrovert, was talked into (couldn’t have taken much prompting) going over to his table and saying hi. But my father would always have an angle. Instead of playing the annoying, autograph-seeking fan, he instead gave Mr. Wayne a few specially-minted coins he had (military coins) as a way of introduction. And Patrick Wayne was the complete gentleman and they had a nice little conversation. Good breeding always tell.

    Let’s see…splitting the costs by 15 people, it would come to $543.40 a piece, plus sales tax and airfare. If we could get twenty or more, we could do even better. And I’m more than happy sleeping by the pool. Glenn or someone else can have the master suite.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      I’ve never met a celebrity, unless you count science fiction writers (I’ve met plenty of them at conventions). I did have a chance to meet LBJ after my father was killed, but (having read J. Evetts Haley’s A Texan Looks at Lyndon) I chose not to. A couple of years later we were at a local racetrack when Eugene McCarthy came in briefly and sat down a few rows in front of us, but we never actually met him. (This probably helps explain one of his problems as a politician, since a glad-hander like LBJ certainly would have behaved differently.)

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Yes, sci-fi writers count as celebrities if they Arthur C. Clarke or someone generally of that stature. Probably a wise choice in not meeting LBJ.

        I’ve met governors and Senators and a couple WWII admirals of repute. I’ve got a funny story I might tell one day where I came very close (no kidding) to telling a then Washington State governor to “eff off” over the phone.

        But I don’t think I’ve met any celebrities. My father, again, has a good celebrity story. He was the emcee for an event at a retirement home for military personal (Retsil). They were bringing in Jerry Lewis to give a few words.

        Well, Jerry balked. He came in off the chopper or limo and immediately started to berate all the organizing committee members there (including my father) on what a rinky-dink, piece-of-shit (and other very harsh words, including lots and lots of f-bombs) that this whole assembly was. Everyone was so shocked, no one had time to get mad or offended. I mean, this was Jerry Lewis, the guy who would give you his own kidney for his “kids” on those Labor Day telethons.

        After quite a tantrum-laced discussion (on Lewis’ part), they finally got him to agree to at least say hi to the assembled veterans. I don’t remember the exact details on this part, but I think about all he did was walk onto the stage and then walk off again.

        A photo of Lewis cursing at my father actually made it into the National Enquirer. If I can dredge that up, I will. It turns out that Lewis was heavily on drugs during those days and has since cleaned up. All is forgiven. But — yikes — this was a real shock for everyone involved, particularly considering the nature of the event. These were all volunteers looking to bring a little cheer to some aged veterans.

        • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

          I had heard Lewis was something of an ass-hole. He would appear to have been the stereotype celebrity one so often hears about.

          I have been fortunate in my experience with celebrities. All have been unfailingly polite to me.

          I have a couple more pieces on such encounters.

          National Enquirer!!! Could your father cash-in on that?

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            I don’t know how the NE found out about it. My father certainly didn’t make an issue of it. But my brother just found the manila folder full of info on the event…including some really pissed off letters to the editor from a couple veterans. They were really cheesed off.

            I found a photo of Lewis talking to my father and the other organizer. But not the National Enquirer photo which apparently was a juicier one.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            I’m not going to bother too much more with the subject of Jerry Lewis. Yes, perhaps he’s another of those people who “loves humanity” but hates people. I don’t know. Everyone’s allowed a mistake…or two. And he did raise a lot of money to help kids. But I thought this editorial (from which paper, the clipping doesn’t say) is a good summing up of that one stumble.

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        I would have thought meeting top notch sci-fi writers counts.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          I guess it would depend on who you mean by “top notch”. I would consider Lois McMaster Bujold and Mike Resnick in that category, certainly (I once attended an Asimov lecture, but never really met him; for that matter, I once attended a Newt Gingrich lecture at a Worldcon, but again didn’t meet him personally).

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            You can name-drop Mike Resnick. I think I’ve even read at least one novel of his. But I’d never heard of Bujold.

            I think Bujold moves to the category of “in-group identity solidification.”

            • Timothy Lane says:

              I highly recommend Warrior’s Apprentice and Shards of Honor as well as many of her later books. Those who appreciate seeing stereotypes turned on their heads should also like Ethan of Athos.

  4. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    This is not as well written as Mr. Kung’s travelogues but I thought it was an honest piece of writing by John Fund: Riding the Roads on Greyhound Is an Education in People.

    This is the kind of stuff I’d love to feature at this site. And most of you can do far better than a professional writer such as Fund. Although this article is ostensibly about an “education in people,” his observations are generally thin and sparse. But it’s something outside what I consider the insane political dialogue that Americans are obsessed with.

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