April 2, 2011 9:49:00 PM
Snow was piled to the tops of doors, even to the eaves of some houses. Residents had had to cut corridors through the drifts to get out to the street. Yet, the roads were well-cleared for traffic. It was a March Wednesday; and Cameron, the young man who had met our plane, was driving my daughter, son-in-law, and me to The Point in the Adirondacks of upstate New York, past scenes of breathtaking beauty.
"We are full for the weekend," he said, "but tonight there will be just you three and a Japanese gentlemen. I probably should prepare you before you meet him. In the evenings he likes to dress like a woman. He says he enjoys coming here because people are kind to him."
Silence. Nora Frances, Vaughan, and I had to let that unexpected news sink in. As far as I knew, no one was forcing him to dress eccentrically, so it seemed how he was treated was up to him. We rallied, however, and staunchly assured Cameron that we could cope and would not create a scene. The Point is a hotel that requires some degree of sophistication, after all.
It is one of those old, former vacation homes of the rich and famous -- in this case, the Rockefellers. (One of its baths is converted from the room where Mrs. Rockefeller, a photography enthusiast, had her dark room.) Investors had bought the house and grounds and opened it as a hotel that, in turn, treats its paying guests as if they were at a big house party. Their every wish is granted. One does not dare to mention idly something he likes unless he is prepared to see it appear in his room or on the dinner table. Vaughan and Nora Frances were treating me to a fabulous birthday trip.
Wednesday was a "formal evening." I admit I, for one, wondered what the transvested gentleman would wear. Several people have told me that the Japanese people enjoy wearing costumes and do so often.
We gathered before the massive stone fireplace where a warming fire made the big room seem cozy. Manko (his name) was costumed -- and I do mean "costumed" -- in a very short ruffled white dress, white stockings, and over-the-knee white leather boots. His wig was perfectly coifed and his makeup flawless. The first thing he said was to wish me a happy birthday.
As we four sat at a table with our hostess, Megan, someone mentioned that I wrote a column for my local newspaper. Manko turned to me. "Are you going to write about me?" he said.
"Do you want me to write about you?"
He drew himself up, thrust his chin out proudly, and said, "Yes!"
"Then we''ll have to talk."
As it happened, my daughter Nora Frances was the one who had the best opportunity to talk the next day when the other guests (not me!) went cross-country skiing. She writes:
"We discovered that Manko was perplexed by Americans, such as us, who see and visit with him, but never ask questions about his varied attire. Of course, we had many questions, but when he said, ''Please ask me whatever questions you want,'' we could not get the words out. ''You Americans are just too polite,'' he said, when we struggled to do as he encouraged us. What a twist on perceptions! Vaughan, Mother and I agreed that the Japanese are known for politeness, while Americans are viewed worldwide as aggressive and hard-charging in a way that is the opposite of the ceremonious courtesies of traditional Japanese culture.
"What is going on here? We have all been affected by today''s emphasis on political correctness. Whether you like it or not, it has served, at least, to make many of us aware of things that might be insensitive or hurtful. Add to that the lessons taught by our mothers: If you can''t say anything nice, don''t say anything at all. ... Don''t ask a nosey question of another if you would not want to be asked such a question.....
"Our second evening together, he did reveal some details about how he came to dress as he does. ... Much of the story ... seems sad and strange to me -- a childhood without a father, a mother who danced in a traditional Japanese dance company but who was sick and in hospitals for years and who could not care for him, and an adoptive mother (he calls her his ''stepmother''), the owner of the dance company, who encouraged him then and now to dress in unusual ways. It is tempting to play pop psychologist with our fragmented bit of information, but much about Manko remains a mystery ... "
That second evening at dinner, Manko asked if he might sing a song in honor of my birthday. He described it as "weird." It was, in fact, pretty dissonant, as much Oriental music is to western ears. Manko said it was about shrimp and lobsters, symbols of good fortune.
That evening he was dressed in a gorgeous sheer golden cocktail dress. In answer to our less inhibited questions he said he designed his own outfits, then gave the designs to noted Japanese couturier Hanae Mori, who constructed them. If that be so, who wouldn''t want to wear them?
When I was young, I thought the greatest influence on human beings was nurture. As time went by, I became certain it had to be nature, in the genes. Now I think it is a mixture that cannot be separated. The relatively new branch of science, epigenetics, has upset many preconceived notions. It has shown that acquired traits can connect by methyl groups to the formerly "nonsense" sequences of DNA and thereby become inherited.
What makes Manko different? Who knows? This world is full of diversity, which sometimes can cause great trouble. I like Nora Frances'' principle of "political politeness." All of us are products of many influences, and everyone''s story is valuable.
We came back to Mississippi. Manko went on to Paris. I doubt if he got home to Tokyo before the earthquake, but I wish we had exchanged cell phone numbers. I really care what has happened to him, his family, home and business. We shall probably never meet again, but I feel I made a new friend who asked me to write about him.
Betty Boyls Stone is a freelance writer, who grew up in Columbus.