It was a year or so after the war. Joe was lying on a single box spring mattress staring up at the ceiling. He was feeling the draft from outside. The sun hadn't been up very long and already Joe's mind was busy.
He just laid there trying not to think about anything at all, but it was useless. His mind wouldn’t stop. It kept replaying scenes from his life so far: particularly those times when he felt most like an outsider to the whole world. This morning, perhaps because of the cold crispness of the air, he was thinking about the long days in the internment camp at Tule Lake. He thought about how gambling helped him pass the time. He was good at handling a deck of cards…like he had some special gift. He had spent almost 6 months at Tule Lake and, to keep from going stir crazy, he concentrated on perfecting his gambling techniques by playing with the other inmates: being able to control a deck of playing cards made him feel like somebody. He was interned there along with his best friend Eddy Uehara who had come from Montana. Eddy and he were still friends and they had shared a lot of hardships together. He wondered how many more hardships would come.
Joey sat there contemplating the cold air against his body. It pissed him off the way he had been treated by his fellow countrymen, but he didn’t want to whine about it. Instead, he used his anger to toughen his resolve to improve his situation. He thought about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He could understand why the American government would want to corral permanent resident first generation Japanese, but what the fuck about all of those 80,000 American citizens who happened to have Japanese ancestry…whose rights were clearly violated. 80,000 victimized by circumstances and prejudice…and he was one of them. From a deep place in his being, Joe wanted more control over his life, his destiny and how he would be remembered.
Though he lay on his back, Joe’s eyes wondered around the small one room apartment. He looked up at the high ceiling with cracked and pealing paint. He looked over at the walls with old mildewed wallpaper. He observed that the room wasn’t very well insulated from the outside cold. In fact, there were holes and cracks all along the wall. He smirked as he realized it wasn’t that much different from being cooped in a prison camp except he didn’t have to share such a small space with a dozen other people who smelled bad. Ah, hell, things aren’t so bad as then; he thought….trying to appreciate what he had now.
His mind continued to drift back to one of the last days he spent at the internment camp…the day he joined the army. Not because he felt any sudden inspiration of patriotism for the United States of America, but because he couldn’t stand being confined in a fucking concentration camp. He decided to go overseas to fight and risk being killed, not for the United States…the country where he was born, but because he wanted freedom.
Fall of 1941
Joe was shown into a small room and asked to take a seat in front of a large wooden desk. There were several soldiers in the room and they all had on jackets and stood next to a small wood burning furnace. The soldier behind the desk was Lieutenant Bourne. He locked eyes with Joe almost immediately. Lieutenant Bourne noticed the man walked differently than the others he had questioned all morning. This one had confidence…even defiance in his manner. Joe looked directly, unflinchingly at the lieutenant as he sat down.
The staring contest ended when the lieutenant glanced down at the paper in front of him. An aide brought him a fresh cup of coffee. Steam swirled up from the mug like some kind of smoke signal. They hadn’t exchanged a word yet and already there seemed to be a contest of wills between the two men.
“Ken Eto?” asked the lieutenant.
“Joe. My name’s Joe.”
The lieutenant continued, “Says here your name is Ken Eto…you’re Japanese-American…”
“I’m an American.” Ken quickly corrected him.
“Your ancestry is Japanese…”
Joe interrupted, “Look, I was born in Stockton, California. I’ve lived here my whole life. I’m as American as apple pie.”
A soldier stepped directly behind Ken’s chair and knudged his shoulder, “Just answer the questions,” the solider commanded. There was the noise of a crowd collecting just beyond the door. Joe could hear the word “Jap” whispered behind him.
Lieutenant Bourne studied the man in front of him for a moment, then asked, “Where were you before here, huh, California?”
“Montana,” replied Ken.
“Why do you want to join the United States Army?”
“I don’t like the accommodations here.”
A smirk appeared on the lieutenant’s face, “Maybe it’s not the swankiest hotel but at least nobody’s shooting at you….”
“I’ve been shot at before.”
The lieutenant reads from the paper, “Will you pledge your allegiance to the United States of America unconditionally and defend the country from any act of aggression either foreign or domestic?
“Yeah, sure, why not…”
“Yeah, sure, why not….” the memory of his own words echoed in his mind as he lay on the thin box spring mattress in a New York apartment years later. Back then, during the war, the military and the government always had him down as Ken Eto despite the fact he had changed his name to Joe when he was 14 years old. Kids on the block used to call him “Jap Slim. Then the Jap became Joe. They used to call him Slim because he was skinny. Now, he was stocky but the nickname stuck.
After the War
Although it was still very early in the morning, Joe had been awake for awhile. He could feel the icey metal springs beginning to poke through the mattress. Damn, it was too cold to sleep.
Joe tried not to think at all but for some reason he kept thinking about being called “Jap” everywhere he went. It made him feel like he didn’t belong any where. He certainly wasn’t Japanese and it seemed like no one wanted to treat him like an American.
His mind working and busy with memories helped him ignore the freezing cold that filled the room. Suddenly, the phone rang. Joe looked disdainfully over at the phone. Christ! It’s early. Who the fuck could that be. He wondered for a moment if he could grab the phone without getting out of bed.
On the third ring, he sat up and swiveled around so that his stocking feet touched the hardwood floor.
A steady stream of cold air, blowing in from cracks in the wall, cut against his bare shins. He became very aware of the cold and he could hear some of the automobiles driving on the street below. Ring. Joe shivered and reached for the phone with both hands. He guessed it would be his best friend Eddy. Who else could it be? Joe held the receiver to his right ear and muttered into the transmitter, “Yeah.”
The voice on the other end was low and sounded like the speaker had marbles in his mouth. Joe didn’t recognize him. Whoever it was had a strong Brooklyn accent, “Is this Jap Slim.”
Joe finished cleaning his front teeth with his tongue and said, “Yeah - Joe. What have I won?”
“You know Don Patriarca, right?”
“Yeah, I heard of him, why?”
“I gotta a secret offer from him. You can’t tell anyone. The boss wants you as a card dealer for a party he’s throwing to some very special guest…”
Joe heard the man on the phone as he fell into a trance. Visions from his childhood lapped over him like ocean waves. He remembered having to dodge rocks being hurled at him by the white neighborhood kids. Gradually, he came back to a consciousness of the moment. “Ya hear me or what? You should take the job, you know. Cause you’ll be compensated well.”
Joe felt neither despair nor fear. There was just the moment and he sensed the opportunity that fell into his lap. It didn’t seem like a real question but more like one of those rhetorical questions that everyone already knows the answer to. “Yes,” Joe said calmly into the transmitter.
“Okay. Be at the Century Hotel in Manhattan this Friday at 5 PM. Don’t be late.”
“Yeah, I’ll be there.” Joe hung up the phone and threw his fist into the air yelling, “Yes!”
Later Joe met with his friend. When Joe told Eddy the news, Eddy panicked. “This is nothing you wanna fuck around with Joe! I mean, you’re getting way out of your league here.”
Joe and his best friend Eddy walked along the sidewalk in Little Tokyo. Joe spit out a sunflower seed he had been chewing on. “Fuck, Eddy, what are you talking about? What’s the big deal?”
“Dealing for the Mafia is not like scamming jerks in some railroad poker hustle…”
“The guy said I’d be well compensated. I wanna buy a big fat juicy piece of steak. You know how long it’s been since I had a piece of meat. I’m fuck’n tired of being broke all the time.”
Eddy replied very quickly, “Yeah, you know what their compensation is, right? It’s a bullet to your thick head. You’re going to get yourself killed Joe.”
Joe began to chuckle, “That’s what you said when we landed in Salerno.”
Eddy remembered, “We were damn lucky to get out of that alive.”
Joe continued the story, “I remember you lost a thousand dollar bet over that one.”
“It’s not a game Joe.”
Joe stopped in his tracks to make his point. “That’s where your mistaken Eddy. This whole thing is a game. Look! I’ve been thinking all morning...”
Eddy jumped in, “Thinking about what?”
“I don’t wanna talk about it. I’m tired of thinking. I just wanna do, you know. I think you’re over-reacting Eddy. When I answered “Yes” on the phone, I had an intuition that told me, ‘Hey! I ain’t going to lose.’” Joe noticed the look on his friend’s face. He appreciated Eddy’s concern and put his hand on his shoulder. “I’m not going to get killed.”
Eddy looked directly at him, “You don’t know that.”
Joe straightened his back and held out the palm of his hand, “Wanna bet?”
They both started to laugh. Eddy said, “Son-of-Bitch, you shit head! Do what you like, but I’m coming with you.”
Together, they walked across the street. Joe looked over at his friend. “I like you Eddy. We ain’t gonna die. It’s another Italian front.”
“Well, die or not, we shouldn’t go on an empty stomach. Let’s eat Italian tonight and toast with glasses of blood red wine.”