Context: This vignette is set in the supermarket I frequented in my town in Miyagi Prefecture
Originally posted on April 30th, 2013
“There’s a sucker born every minute.”- David Hannum, critic of P.T. Barnum
In early February, a modern-day snake oil salesman came to town and set up shop in my supermarket, in the corner formerly reserved for gachapon machines (dispensers of small, 100-400 yen toys that I thankfully quit, cold turkey, about a year ago). For the sake of this piece, I will call him by his initials, ST. He enthusiastically called out to shoppers passing by, inviting them to try a unique “healing” experience. Within the fenced-in corner were six ordinary looking chairs. After confirming that the experience would be free of charge, I took a seat.
“The process has already started!” ST declared with a smile. I paused, closed my eyes, concentrated, and then felt it. A slight tingling at the base of my neck. “Oh! You must have excellent circulation if you’re able to feel it!” I didn’t rebut him with the fact that I’m borderline anemic and have, several times in the past winter, had to actively bring back circulation to my ghostly white extremities with buckets of hot water and vigorous rubbing. “Is that so?” I replied, adorning my face with a single raised eyebrow and a smirky curl of my lip that would be permanently etched onto my visage during all successive visits. ST then explained to me and several senior citizens also sitting in the chairs that his company’s creation was a white, suitcase-sized device with Apple design sensibilities, off to the side. From the moment we sat down, 14,000 volts of electricity had been coursing through our bodies, hence the tingling. It was administered via pads on the chairs, hidden beneath cloth covers. “Even bullet trains only run on 12,000 volts,” he exclaimed, and the not-quite-untrue-but-still-doubletalkish fact elicited oohs and ahhs from the easily-impressed seniors. My raised eyebrow and smirk weren’t going anywhere.
ST went on to explain the process, without any real mention of the science behind it. These electric chairs are supposedly capable of healing all of one’s physical woes by balancing hormones, massaging the organs, and reversing the aging process. A number of posters attached to the fences displayed buzzwords connected to each other by arrows, as well as a diagram of a plant with roots meant to be a metaphor for the rotting of our bodies, all of which helped him in his explanation. More oohs and ahhs. “So how much does this thing cost?” I asked. ST replied that he wasn’t even sure that it would ever be for sale to the public at all, so advanced was the technology at play here. My raised eyebrow threatened to recede into my hairline.
What followed was a series of delightful parlor tricks. First, he touched the tip of a small black device to each of our palms. It gave off a loud buzzing noise and lit up, like an EMF-scanner for ghost hunters. This was proof that there was indeed electricity coursing through us, as the device did not react when pressed against anyone or anything not connected to the circuit. I was dismayed that the buzzing was significantly louder for many of the old folks than for me, which supposedly implied that they had superior blood flow. I brushed off that depressing thought by imagining my own blood was simply heartier, like a good meaty stew, with an extra +20 Elec. Resistance.
The next trick involved a bottle of water and was used to demonstrate the “massaging your organs” aspect. When someone in one of the electric chairs balanced the bottle on the tips of his/her fingers, the surface of the water inside would roil. “That sort of ‘micromassage’ is happening on every surface of your body, inside and out!” ST declared. “It can even eliminate wrinkles…with enough use!” The antediluvian ladies gasped excitedly. For the final trick, ST pulled a two-foot long fluorescent light bulb rod from seemingly nowhere and invited me to grasp it in the middle. I did, and when he touched his car key to one of the tips, the bulb lit up dimly, and my arm hairs stood on end. I convulsed and twitched exaggeratedly with a bit of frothing at the mouth for the easily-alarmed audience of ancient ones, and ST thanked me for my “Nice reaction” (in English).
He told us that the recommended dosage was a 20-minute session every day, for at least five days in a row. We all got business card-sized folding calendars with which to track our visits to the healing corner, on which he wrote our names and specific ongoing health problems. I asked if we would receive 10% off a large soft drink after 50 stamps on the card. ST said he’d share his lunch with me if that day ever came. He then produced a poster with a massive list of negative symptoms, citing them as potential reactions to the treatment that would occur right before an overall improvement in one’s condition. “If you experience heavy diarrhea or excessive eye crust, that’s perfectly normal! It means the healing is working. Even intense nausea and migraines are signs that you’ll start feeling better than ever quite soon!” ST proclaimed. Those side effects would apparently disappear and all our previous ailments would follow suit. I mentioned my malformed ankle bones and asked with a straight face if those too could be cured with enough shock treatment. “Perhaps.”
The village elders left, and ST chatted me up. After covering the essentials (“Why are you here?” “When are you leaving?” “Why can you speak Japanese?” “Can you use chopsticks?”) I learned that he was also a fan of the manga, One Piece, which always makes for an engaging connection and opportunity to nerd-out. I was unable to eliminate the eternal smirk entirely (the very premise of the experience did not allow for it), but the corner of my lip calmed down a little bit. This guy was good.
I sometimes ask myself why I returned the next day. And the day after that. And another 36 times over the next three months. The inevitable conclusion is that I appreciated the interaction with natives, which is surprisingly sparse on the job and, regrettably, nearly absent in my life outside of work. As a regular of the healing corner who was 50 years younger than the average user, I became ST’s audience plant and partner in crime by helping to demonstrate the various tricks for the geriatric grannies too afraid to grasp the light bulb, or by asking him leading questions about the nature of the product.
The man himself was as important to the narrative as the electricity, and his company-issued goal of reaching 150 users during a single day became well-known to all, to the extent that he tacked up a counter on the fence to record the number from day to day. Should he fail to reach that goal by March, he would be shipped away by HQ to a far-off prefecture (probably even farther to the north, in the inhospitable frozen lands), leaving his poor family behind in Miyagi. Becoming invested in ST’s wellbeing and doing everything possible to ensure that he was not ripped away from his wife and children was inevitable for anyone with a heart. I did not doubt that a soulless tech company would go that far to incentivize their salesmen, but of course I knew that every word out of his mouth played to the vulnerabilities and emotions of the other patrons.
But I liked the guy. His friendliness was infective, and being in the healing corner naturally led me to recite my life story to any fellow electricity junkies who asked. When we were alone, ST would engage with me genuinely, despite our friendship not serving his career goals in any significant way. He knew from the very start that I would never drop a single yen on this product (which was still conspicuously not for sale), so we talked about manga, the education system, why he should visit the U.S., and about my crippling loneliness in this wasteland devoid of people between the ages of 20 and 35. He loved history and literature but was not particularly good with the sciences, although that apparently presented no obstacle for a salesman of a high-tech medical device, as the target demographic was impressed enough by pseudo-explanations, “essential core balance dynamic synergy” jargon, and hand-waving.
We reached the 150-people-in-one-day goal, of course (his wife even dropped by to bump up the number), and his permit to squat in the supermarket was extended to the end of April (sometimes I did doubt whether he really went home at night). My visits became less frequent, but I was always well-received by ST, whose enthusiasm never waned, and by the retirees, for whom I was an endless source of fascination, like a rare zoo animal. As tiring as the xenophobia from generations born before the war quickly becomes, I don’t turn down free language practice.
Finally he opened for orders, and the prices went up on the wall. It was ~$6500 for the bare-bones kit (unit + pad), ~$6800 for a set with a heated (and electrified) attachment that could be strapped to one’s arms/legs/trunk, and ~$8000 if you wanted the chair itself in addition. These special prices were for a limited-time only, of course, and would shoot up by an extra ~$1000 if one waited too long or wanted to place an order via any other means besides Mr. ST himself. My smirk morphed into a full-on eyetooth-baring grin. Had he told me the prices three months earlier, when I asked (instead of denying that purchasing the wonder device would ever be possible), I never would have thought that a single unit would sell. But at this point I knew his efforts would soon pay off, because he was that good. I never noticed a single change in my own health (we turned this into a routine where he would ask how my “condition” was, and I would draw a flat line in the air and go *beeeep*) but plenty of the octogenarians were convinced that daily use of service had reinvigorated them and cured their chronic constipation and scoliosis. In the end, nineteen of them placed orders, and their names and selections were plastered up on the fence (about half used pseudonyms, apparently embarrassed about having quite so much disposable income to waste on such a thing). A few frugal fossils pinched their pennies by deciding on the basic set, but the heating pad variation was the most popular. Even more surprising, a number of them had apparently been convinced that the rather ordinary chair was worth over $1000 and opted for the deluxe package.
In the end, ST said that HQ might ship him away anyway, despite his fabulous success here, and that his wife has no intention of relocating. It’s just that sort of job. I asked if he would receive commissions or some sort of bonus for sucking a clean $130,000+ out of this town. “No. No money, just ‘points.’” I couldn’t help but imagine his own version of the punch-cards he had distributed, good for 10% off the product if he wanted to buy it himself.
Right before leaving, I shook his hand and congratulated him. Smirking the smirkiest smirk I could smirk, and with the coyest tone I’m capable of in Japanese, I apologized for not buying the unit myself.
“That’s all right, Caleb-san.” he whispered with a wink. “I wouldn’t really recommend it anyway.”