Higher Education (excerpt)

On the opening night of California Sushi & Grill in downtown San Jose, two blonde college girls, most likely from San Jose State, walked in and said they’d like to sit at the sushi bar. Isabelle, the elderly Japanese hostess, asked them what they were going to order.

“Oh, we just want some California rolls and some sake.”

The only two stools available on the busy night sat empty, chairs number one and two, closest to the sushi’s chef’s toaster oven at the right end of the bar. Not the prime spot—not seats three and four, right in front of Hiro-san and with a front row view of the fresh fish. Isabelle looked at the girls and glanced at the empty stools. Back at the girls, and then the empty stools. And what she did next is something I’d never forget.

“No, thank you,” she bowed.

The girls, confused, turned around and walked out of the double doors of the restaurant while looking back at Isabelle and me and the patrons having fun at the sushi bar. They even looked in through the oversized front windows of the shop as they made their way down San Fernando Street. As pretty, young blonde girls, they didn’t know what to make of the situation. Never in their lives has anyone closed a door on them. Isabelle then walked over and propped stools one and two against the sushi bar counter to indicate the seats were being saved.

“What happened?” I asked.

“They wanted to eat California rolls,” she said, in a tone that said many things about the girls, like ‘How dare they’ and ‘No class’ and ‘Don’t they know the sushi bar is reserved for high spenders’?

Those bar stools stayed empty for the rest of the night. I imagined the college girls telling their friends about what’d happened to them at the new sushi bar. This incident early on in what would be a years-long job showed me how Isabelle deals with people, sizing them up for what they’re worth, their bank account size, whether or not they’re worthy to be in the company of the wealthy and powerful Japanese businessmen sitting at the sushi bar. Is this the restaurant I wanted to work for? I imagined the sushi bar would be a hopping, exciting, and welcome atmosphere, not one of exclusion. I could’ve been one of those girls coming in with a friend for a sushi snack. By turning them down, she dismissed a whole demographic of San Jose State students, even though the university was just a few blocks away. Did the owners know she did this? Did they ask her to do this? What kind of restaurant did they want this to be?

I felt really bad that the girls were turned away and knew how confused they must’ve been. They could see the empty stools at the bar, they could see everyone else eating sushi and drinking beer and sake and having loud, boisterous conversations over the music. They could imagine themselves fitting right in. I felt at once sorry for them and also in awe of how Isabelle handled the situation. She didn’t explain why they couldn’t take those stools, she didn’t say they were reserved, she didn’t say, ‘Come back another time when it’s less busy.’ With three words and a shallow bow, she managed to convey that they weren’t welcome and she was under no obligation to provide them with an explanation, that the house had invisible rules they didn’t understand, and that their business wasn’t needed. It was a masterclass in subtle yet effective communication. I wanted to know how she did that, I wanted to be able to do that. Like with many contradictions, that scene left me both unsettled and intrigued by Isabelle’s actions.

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