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Deaf & Mute

April 8, 2011

(A post from the archives)

 

Day 17 (of 30)

I lived in Okinawa for two years. During that time I was visited by an unusual man four times. It felt like something out of a fable or legend where the old man turns out to be a dragon or Jesus.

His first visit was sometime after dark when I was home alone as usual. I heard a scooter come up the drive and stop at my house. I didn't think much of it because my landlord's house was literally 10 feet away, and he had people over all the time. But then I heard the tapping on my door. Well, I'm not sure if he actually knocked since I had my main sliding doors open to the screen. I think he just hollered and pushed the screen aside.

Before I knew it, this older, bald Japanese man was in my house smiling politely and handing me a small laminated card. Nothing was really unusual until I noticed that the card was in perfect English; this is pretty rare in that part of the world, even with the constant contact with Americans. It was also a bit odd since I lived in a Japanese neighborhood away from most other Americans in a traditional Japanese house.

The card said something like: "I am deaf and mute. Would you like to buy some of my paintings?"

'What the hell am I gonna do, say no?' I asked myself. Then I saw that he had already unslung his art tube and unrolled a sizable stack of oil paintings on my floor. He smiled, bowed and waved his hand over the stack like Vanna White. I smiled and knelt with him. He slowly pulled one painting after another off the stack and made a new pile.

I politely nodded and carefully considered each one. Many were interesting, a few were pretty good. He went back through the stack and I chose four or so that I liked. Why not? He then took out a small pad of paper and scribbled on it. I think the total for all four paintings was something around $800 even with some sort of buy-three-get-one-half-off deal. I tried not to look as surprised as I felt while trying to politely tell this man to get the hell out of my house.

After realizing that I would have to buy something at this point, I tried to pick one that I would actually hang somewhere. I chose a traditional Mt. Fuji view with the famous Shinto shrine in the foreground. I thought it would make a good souvenir with a story attached.

Before I committed to buying a painting, I wondered how I was going to pay for the thing. It's not like I kept a stash of 20,000+ Yen in my house or anything. Conveniently, the artist scribbled on his pad that he takes checks just as long as the writer's commander's name was on it; I guess he'd had some cold checks in his past. Now, this might not seem so unusual, but it really is. I never saw a local establishment that would take an American check in all my time in Japan. Anyone trying to pass one would probably be carried out on a bamboo sled and publicly shamed. I really got suspicious at that point, but I was already balls deep into the transaction.

After he had pocketed my check and gathered up his things, he wrote me another note, "When can I come back?" I tried not to laugh, yell or push him out the door. Instead, I picked some random date four or six months in the future. He smiled and nodded and hopped back on his scooter.

I'm pretty sure he scooted around the island looking for Americans because I knew at least one other person who saw him while I was there. It is pretty easy to pick out foreigners in Japan since they have special license plates markedly different from native Japanese drivers. 

Sure enough, he came back four or six months later, and I bought another painting. That happened two more times before I left the island. I have two of the paintings gallery stretched and hung in our apartment. The other two are still rolled up waiting to be framed. I'm sure that guy is still scooting around the island looking for Americans too polite to say no.

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