E 44th St & 5th Ave, New York, NY 10017

Neighborhood: Midtown

When Regina Moss no longer resembled the sincere sandy-haired gentleman on his driver’s license, job-hunting threatened to become Grand Guignol. The Taxi-Limousine Commission (the least friendly form of TLC) confiscated his doctored I.D., making destitution natural as sunrise — not hours away but close enough.

Bi-weekly female hormone shots had to be paid for as well as an on-going wardrobe makeover, electrolysis, voice coaching, and New York State mandated therapy. Fourteen shifts at the wheel each week barely met expenses, forcing him to siphon off a bit from the precious sum set aside for sex reassignment surgery.

He thought of it constantly, sure he was female and calling this “growth” he was having removed “a birth defect.” But no transsexual got wheeled into an O.R. on demand. There were legal requirements: living, dressing, and working as a woman for two years. After, he might re-enter the corporate game, touching up his resume where “Daniel Moss, MBA” lurked like 5 o’clock shadow.

What he’d been through! About a year left before he could cross over, though it seemed like the longest journey, the loneliest and worst in the world. He hated going through it. But he had to. He never fit in. Not with people. Not even with himself. As a child, he’d sneak off to the attic, sobbing in confusion. His mother found him once and asked what was wrong. He groped for an answer in her mild eyes. “Mommy, my skin doesn’t fit.”

Years later, a Park Avenue shrink explained it as “gender dysphoria.” The $125-an-hour-term for “gender discomfort.” For now, hormones neutralized that, the way a faucet turned on upstairs reduces pressure from the big hose in the yard. He was a scalpel away from freedom. From singing inside his own skin. Having a body that matched his mind — “my totally female mind,” he explained early on in group, amazed how fierce he sounded. In last week’s session, one wit gave the misery-loves-company view: “That white cracker who wrote our national anthem, he knows what America sounds like. He set the word ‘free’ to a note so high, nobody can reach it.”

Being free and female. Being free as a female. Regina saw these as possible and the same thing. His Fortune 500 salary had stockpiled enough for his operation and aftercare, then he needed a job that would qualify as “working as a woman.” He met the requirement by dressing as a female cabbie, though Manhattan passengers were so oblivious, he could have been a cloistered nun packaging the host behind the plexiglass. TLC inspectors were more alert. How long could he hide emerging hips and a swelling bustline under a ski jacket? Then opportunity winked in the midtown banking district. He’d gotten out of the car to break a $100 for some Japanese businessmen and discovered their destination: a karaoke bar, Club Woodstock.

The next day, Regina glammed up and applied for a hostess job there, aware that Hiro, the dapper manager, was memorizing his legs flashing out from a leather mini. The mama-san hired few Americans, cautioned Hiro. Mrs. Mayumi felt they were too loud or rude and never said “I love you” enough. Tipped off, Regina auditioned in his most demure mode, singing a sure-shot: Kyu Sakamoto’s “Sukiyaki,” downcasting his eyes during her Q & A, pretending he was as submissive Cho-Cho-San in Act I. Mrs. Mayumi and Hiro assessed their willowy blonde applicant in Japanese, and then Regina was invited to start the next day.

Regina walked into the club’s dressing room feeling like Cleopatra entering Rome. Long, hard road but he’d arrived. Selected because he passed, he fit in. He’d read about a tall, blue-eyed anthropologist, a Westchester WASP like him, working as a Tokyo geisha, her marveling clients never noticing she was a gaijin, seeing only her kimono and traditional white greasepaint. Unlike her, it wasn’t the men Regina was concerned about. They were tipsy in a dark club and hostesses were their version of scalp massage.

It was the women he was worried about. They mattered: the ones who’d accept him — or “read” and reject him. Possibly, expose him. Risky being around them in a bright, mirrored changing room. A threat yet a treat. Before the club opened, the hostesses lined up in the foyer, set off by flattering indirect light against a background of erotic art on deep pink walls, accented by exotic flowers twisted and pinned into natural arrangements in the kenzan. Living ornaments. Positioned by the entry to welcome early-arrivals.

As Regina stood with them, taffeta skirts sighing as he shifted, he thought about the latest installment of dressing room drama. He still felt like a walk-on, not a principal, but it was soothing to be around them, studying them — halfway to evening attire, doing each other’s hair, experimenting with the house cosmetics (donated by a regular who managed Shiseido). Okay to take some home, so all pledged allegiance to the Japanese brand. European hostesses, Regina noticed, scattered shadow and powder on cheeks or brows freely, like cropdusters, trusting everything would look better after, whereas Orientals favored whiter foundation and extreme caution, using brisk birdlike gestures as they brought their features to the next highest power.

He envied this gracefulness, part of a secret code they knew by heart, and wondered if his movements resembled a teamster’s. How they reached out to each other, innocent intimate contact foreign to him. Shocked, the first time he felt a hand on his back — inside his beaded bolero! A creamy Danish girl grinned at his astonishment, explaining his bra straps were “very twisty.”

Startled, Regina’s words came out too husky. To sound feminine he had to keep his voice low, blaming “laryngitis.” As the Dane disappeared into the ladies room, Regina considered what else was twisted: his penis, gaffed, disarmed under tight pantyhose. Still, terror of discovery clung to him like a stubborn seventh veil. In group, everyone confessed paranoia, even more experienced TS’s who “passed,” as he did. Possibility of humiliation loomed large in close quarters — like the time he was examining an Asian tampons box; the pictograms reminded him of the stent surgeons insert in a new vagina to keep it open.

Reiko, a dainty Japanese hostess, entered, giggling behind her coy hand. “You,” Reiko tittered. “You are queen.” Tampons scattered and Regina got busy corralling them, his limbs waving like seaweed. “Queen means Regina, yes?” Relief only sharpened his appetite for worry because maybe it would be next time: discovery, dismissal, despair. If that weren’t enough, another loss joined this litany: separation from this sorority, women he enjoyed, admired, and felt closer to every evening. Mama-san called him and other non-Asian hostesses Ne-san (elder sister), enforcing a notion of sisterhood, but there was a deeper sense of camaraderie that others counted on. Daphna, a boisterous Israeli hostess, was first to mention it. Regina observed she livened up a table more than anyone and remarked she must love her job. “Death!” Daphna dropped her chin to the lacquered bar. “It’s the girls who make it bearable. They’re a lifesaver.” Schmoozing together and kibitzing was like getting a transfusion before fresh exposure to numbing Japanese masculinity, and she dismissed the corporate shogunate as a bunch of schmucks and putzes. Daphna acted delighted, which was contagious, even as it bored her.

Regina, still struggling with spontaneity, relaxed with a script. Led to a table by mama-san, he and his co-workers sat silently till the executives stopped talking shop and wanted a mood-change. Then the Caucasians teased them while Asian hostesses giggled behind their hands, shocked at seeing a man made fun of. Artificiality was the agenda: women pretending clients were exciting and naughty, customers acting like such attentive beauties weren’t paid to do this. Dull preliminary silences, irritating to Daphna, were Regina’s chance to finetune his femininity or compare the shachos and buchos with corporate creatures he knew.

He found their sense of belonging to the firm was absolute. Even their cards stamped them as company property: Toyota’s Mr. Sato, a source of identity that was social, not personal. They were their jobs, their duties. Hostesses had duties to them and the club. One obligation was requesting meishi from each executive they sat with. These represented a hostess’s “following,” clientele she could lead to a rival mama-san. Twice a week, Regina obediently wrote to each “august guest,” as instructed, thanking him for visiting, begging him to return. As his list grew, he lightened this chore by playing ballads popular at Woodstock as he sat in his bedroom penning these love notes.

The ritual conjured up images of uchi. Over sushi, Reiko once explained their notion of uchi: a warm sense of belonging. Being on the inside where all’s familiar, beloved, safe. She told Regina Japanese are soothed by people without having to communicate with them. Woodstock orchestrated warmth: CEOs got female sunning without complications, then hugged the mike, performing traditional favorites over and over. And some nights it did seem they were one happy family, as people sang along from the low rosewood tables, heads lolling side to side — especially when a customer chose that old Japanese standard Hotaru no Hikari, “The Light of the Firefly,” the melody Regina knew as “Auld Lang Syne.” His tape ended with it, filling his bedroom with triumphant voices, including his own as he mimicked the Japanese lyrics. Uchi.

Regina entered the empty dressing room, remembering nights the dim smoky club somehow pulsed with it, enfolding them all in its deep pink walls, not making distinctions. Mrs. Mayumi crept in, too, the toes of her black and white Chanel pumps darting at him in tiny steps. She had the criminal tendencies of a cat, Regina pointed out to the hostesses, miming her to gratifying applause. Reiko shared her pet name for mamasan: kasetto ningen, cassette human. Had she come to nag? “Reiko-san has a secret.” Mrs. Mayumi fingered her pearls as she eyed the thick shaft of Regina’s card stack bulging in his purse. “Come to me with it, Ne-san. So. We enjoy it together.” Nursing iced tea moodily at the bar, Regina knew he’d never repeat what he’d seen last week: Reiko, taking advantage of mass distraction during a duet, had her mouth near the graying temples of a banking official, Mr. Nagashima. His enormous gold Rolex gleamed when his wrist shielded his reply. Regina had dismissed it but, obviously, a liaison was afoot. This puss sniffed out Reiko’s danna and hoped to snag a witness. Now what? He didn’t wonder long.

Next evening, on the way in, he ran into Daphna in the deli downstairs, lighting a Gitane before paying for them. “That yenta,” she complained, through smoke. Regina smiled, understanding who it was, privy to the secret code of familiarity. Daphna related how mama-san cornered her outside the john, inviting her to play stool-pigeon, sing like a canary for a raise. It was agreed: they’d warn Reiko. Time to take a stand, insisted Daphna, all for solidarity. Kasetto ningen must understand none of her ladies would sell out another. Their little lounge became a world’s fair of grievances bared in heavily-accented English. Mrs. Mayumi must be told everyone amassed a hefty card stack, some said. Fire one, they’d all walk.

Regina argued this hadn’t worked for air-traffic controllers under Reagan. When it had little effect, he wondered what would appeal to a roomful of mostly illegal aliens. His papers weren’t in order either, so he discouraged anything “radical.” The hurricane hit. Protests about a double standard — wherein Nagashima wouldn’t suffer, only Reiko — thundered in Regina’s ears, as if to discharge centuries of feminine grief and oppression. They decided to line up holding hands tonight, showing unity. Then Daphna and Reiko would confront Mrs. Mayumi and Hiro. Daphna marched out first with two French hostesses, followed by Reiko, her sleek black helmet of hair curving against pale cheeks. Heels rat-tat-tatted into the lobby. A breeze chilled and tightened Regina’s breasts, damp with nervous perspiration. He patted the thick shaft of his card stack till he could close his pink silk purse, straightened his red satin cocktail dress, then exited with his “following.” Eighteen hostesses, linking hands like a suspension bridge to parts unknown, looked more beautiful than ever — either because of the lighting angle or the risk of losing them. Regina glanced at Mrs. Mayumi as his heels clicked by her — and he crossed over, from behind the elegant bar to the entry, and took his place with the ladies.

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