“I’ll call you next century.” Saito The One-Eyed Dentist just completed an involved routine wherein one of my four favorite molars was reamed and repaired. The exercise took a month of weekly visits late last year.
Putting aside his sledgehammer, tongs and icepick, Saito The One-Eyed Dentist suggested I return soon for cleaning and general maintenance. That’s when I slipped him the “next century” line. Beginning in the middle of every December, Japanese tend to say that a normal one- or two-week job will be completed “next year.” (“What? My shirts won’t be ready until next year? Oh, Thursday.. .Jan. 6.”)
Saito The One-Eyed Dentist was stunned for a moment, then caught on. “I got it,” he said. “A joke. Next century. Ha, ha. A good one.” He got it.
The line between years is more distinct in the Japan way of thinking than it is for many Westerners, but I’m not certain the line between centuries in Japan is distinct. Different frames of references are involved in the summation and registry of totals in an ongoing fashion.
In any event, to his credit Saito The One-Eyed Dentist caught on pretty quickly. He thinks I’ll call him in a week or two to have my teeth cleaned. In reality I won’t be calling him to voluntarily expose myself to more pain in his chair for about a hundred years.
(Incidentally, how Saito The One-Eyed Dentist lost an eye is an interesting story. It involves, among other things, being hit by a train… not once, but twice. How Saito The One-Eyed Dentist made it through dental school, faking depth-perception tests, etc., is an even more interesting story. How I came to be a patient of a one-eyed dentist named Saito who was hit by a train twice and faked depth-perception tests in his professional training is perhaps the most interesting story of all. At least it is to me. I’ll explain someday.)
The point of this column, however, is the new century now upon us. Oh boy. We can make lists. Back in the last century we just finished, people began the lists early.
Greatest Athlete of the Century? Jim Thorpe, the Olympic decathlete, baseball and football star. That was 1923. By the late 1930s, Jesse Owens, multiple gold medalist in Hitler’s Olympics was the Greatest Athlete of the Century. Babe Zaharias, Babe Ruth, Jim Brown, Pele, Wilt, Wilma Rudolph, Ali, Bjorn Borg, Michael Jordan—they’ve all had claim to the title. The last star tends to dominate, however. Tiger Woods?!? He’s an end-of-the-century phenom and I can imagine some people thinking he was the best of the last hundred years.
The greatest tenor? John MacCormack of Ireland had the Greatest of the Century locked up in 1910 until Enrico Caruso came bellowing along. Now the Three Tenors, individually or collectively, have been deemed the best.
Rudy Vallee? Al Jolson? They were both considered to be the greatest pop singers of the Twentieth Century. Then Bing Crosby crooned in and during a 51-year career sang more songs, sold more records and touched on more genres (jazz, standards, folk, country-and-western) than anyone before or since. Singer of the Century? No doubt about it. Except Frank Sinatra became the Greatest in the late 1940s, Elvis in the 1950s, the Beatles in the 1960s. God only knows who will now be finally determined the Greatest pop singer of the last century. (If Dr. Dre is named, however, I will shoot myself. We all should.)
Movies? “Birth of a Nation” was the greatest film ever made—as of the first decade of the last century. There are now literally hundreds for which an argument could be made.
But here we are now, entering new, virginal territory. We are explorers creating the first charts and maps of the Twenty-first Century. We can make our own personal lists—and no one can argue with them!
Best Musical Show of the Century: The NHK extravaganza as the new year rolled in was the best. Dozens of androgynous “talentos” with spiffy hairstyles and screechy little voices prancing around with tightly choreographed moves and mannerisms coordinated to sounds emanating from unseen orchestras heavy into brass and strings and plunkety-plunk harps building to inevitable crescendos causing even the stage lights to go berserk. Great.
(Dig this—all the “talentos” managed to hold the mike to face in one hand and point to the horizon with the other hand. Then, and if it doesn’t blow your mind I don’t know what does, they switched mikes to the other hand and still pulled together the pointing routine using the other…well, you’d have to see it.)
Best Standing Up Meal Consumed in a Big Crowd of the Century: The fried but still cold noodles sprinkled with red things and served on a fragile polyethylene plate at Yasukuni Shrine on New Year’s Day is the best. The jostling crowd actually provides some warmth and does cut down somewhat on the soot and cinders blowing in and joining the red things (until you drop the polyethylene plate, spilling it all down the front of your coat.)
Best Athletic Event of the Century: This is difficult. It’s either the Japanese soccer game (final score: an exciting 0-0) played between two teams wearing costumes upon which the name of their teams were not displayed but corporate logos covered every square centimeter. In fact, the players were not wearing uniforms as such; they were just wearing logos sewed together.
The other best sporting event of the century was a marathon run by tiny girls with bones of birds through Nagoya (or was it Osaka, or Kobe, or Hiroshima?). Great race. One of those tiny girls won.
See what I mean? Lists. Bests of the century. We have great freedom right now, and we should use it. Come to think of it, this is my favorite column.
Will any of these items stand the test of time? For the next hundred years? I don’t know, unless I go back to Saito The One-Eyed Dentist. He might just be the best in that category for a long, long time.