So where do I start, I’m thinking, sitting on a bench in Hachioji Station as hundreds of Japanese commuters stomp by. First books seldom get published anyway. God’s did, but He always had enormous pull with editors and agents. Especially after he zapped the guy who tried to shorten the Pentatuch:
Agent: God, sweetheart! This Pentateuch thing. Too repetitive! You don’t need all the geneolo…
After that, the deal was don’t change a word.
Today, as cherry blossoms attain their peak effulgence all over Tokyo, inspiration strikes: Start with the travel journal! Drop Query Letter From Hell down into an optional appendix. Don’t be pushy: insinuate personal history just here and there. After all, it’s an ebook, people can jump around if they like. Maybe people will like it. Even at 74, you gotta give it a try. Look at the Angela’s Ashes guy, an sixtyish Irishman. Had a big hit, a movie too! Of course, this was back in the ‘90s, before everyone and his FaceBook friend was self-published, and Boomer eyesight began to fail. I mean, why write a book if you can’t see it?
Or maybe this effort will just be for posterity, for my great-grandchildren, if such people exist after the Great Plains becomes the American Sahara and Dolphins Stadium actually is a dolphins stadium. WAIT! An e-book with embedded YouTube links! A V-book! These days people can’t read more than 100 words without a video clip, right? Let me check Word Count right now…What? 278 words?? ROLL THE CLIP!!
The Big Sashimi
March, 1992 At dusk we landed at Narita. Winter was still in the air. On the train downtown, appalled, I saw bleak 12-story apartment houses stretching to the horizon. It was freezing in the little Shinjuku office of Kumiko’s telephone-sex company, where we would stay until further notice. In those days, long before free on-line porn, men paid to hear erotic phone recordings by voice actresses. Kumiko, a prim and proper young woman unable to work under her student visa, had stumbled into a job in the U.S. office of the company, where they paid her under the table. Then she’d wrangled a transfer back to Japan. The office was only a small bed, a sink and a bank of computers hooked to telephone lines.
My watch showed 3 AM, West Coast time. Crawling onto a futon, shivering under a blanket, I sought to shield my great nose from the frigid air. At dawn came the demonic laughter of the Tokyo crows, which should be, but is not, the name of the city’s baseball team. I looked up to see Kumiko’s sister immersed in meditation amidst the hard grey clutter of a Japanese office. I began to sneeze. To be nice, she went out into the freezing streets to worship at a nearby shrine. Why have I come here, I thought, as I walked the streets later that day. It is cold. The wind blows and the rain rains and tomatoes are $3.00 each.
But it got better. I felt my way around Shinjuku. After subways and neon, I found the most striking feature of Tokyo was the sheer quantity of restaurants – ramen, tempura, sushi, soba, yakiniku, shabu-shabu, ten-don, katsu-don and don and don, piled one atop another from basement to the top floor of building after skinny building, all brimming with customers. The Japanese love to eat out and think and talk about their myriad foods, yet no one seems to get fat. I’ve seen maybe fifteen kinds of Japanese cuisines and many skillful renderings of Italian, French, Thai, Chinese, Korean and every other ethnic food. Restaurants are everywhere. You can trip over the smaller ones.
Next I began to discern architectural Tokyo, full of contradiction. Her narrow old buildings and medieval alleys convey a sense of antiquity, while on adjacent streets ultra-modern mini high-rises abound, each a clever exercise in chrome or polished marble or textured pastels. Even in quiet residential neighborhoods, an outrageous mauve or green-gold concrete-and-glass thing will leap out at you, cool and cutting-edge. All over Tokyo, electric sliding glass doors are de rigeur. Tokyo’s department stores are first-rate and attract dense swarms of meticulously dressed, coiffed women. They stand out in elegant relief against the nondescript, harried, thoroughly managed males around them. Younger men seem like harmless, mop-headed boys, older ones are often mopes without mops. In department store basements are astounding grocery-delis with fresh fish, meats, prepared Japanese food, vegetables and fruits, endless European and Japanese confectionery and pastry counters, arrays of exquisitely formed sweet creations, artfully wrapped in the subtlest pastels. And everywhere the vendors shouting, “Irashai, irashai! – irashai masen!!” Roughly translated into New York-speak,
“Yo, check my stuff OUT! I got a throat like a bagpipe, and I can do this all day! COME ON DOWN!”
Japanese attention to detail, quality, aesthetics, is universal. Good service and courteous treatment occur with on a level unimagined in America. As time goes on however, the courtesy and its correlative confomity reveals a less attractive side or, as expats call it, the Disneyland Effect. Women at the fast food restaurants or offices chirp at you with little-girl voices, robotic movements and true-believer Macdonald’s eyes. Young girls teeter down the street in super-short skirts and ridiculous platform shoes. New fashions are edicts written in stone. “Japlish” slogans on clothes leave you dazed: “Sodomy: Enjoy Your Wonderful Life-Style!”engraved on the backpack of a first-grader. Or “The Puberty Club – Do Whatever You Like!” on an older student’s pencil carrier.
The Arigato gozaimasu! hurled at you by three different clerks as you leave a shop or the robot-speak at the 7-11 counter has nothing to do with you at all and in time grates on the nerves. And the iron rules of commercial behavior flash when a store is out of what you want. The clerk holds up his hands helplessly when you inquire who in the area might have it in stock. He may know but will not say. An American tells you, “Yeah, Grossman’s should have it over on Third Street,” figuring you’ll remember he helped you and come back to him next time. The Japanese more likely hides such knowledge in allegiance to his firm, and it feels like he’s saying, “to hell with you,” but we forget that a Japanese would never even ask the question. Rules are pretty much inflexible.
Yet despite all the formality and control, there is in Japan a pervasive interpersonal gentleness that enfolds you. A gentility of manners seeps in to your daily life until you forget about it. Only on your return to the States, when your best friend is shouting out his political views, disagreeing before you can finish your sentence, do you realize how confrontational Americans are, how we need to establish the correctness of our ideas and our own worth.
The characteristic facial expression in a Japanese interaction is one of rapt interest, as if the revelation of a remarkable new truth is imminent. Lips are pursed slightly, eyebrows raised. Wisdom, empowerment, knowledge comes from outside, from the Other. Americans listen primarily for an error, a lapse in reasoning, a chance to leap in with their own valued truth. Of course, we did invent science that way, so maybe there is an upside to this.
Once, early in the morning, I was speeding along on my bike to catch a train. I’d just made it across a major street zipping manically through a yellow light. Ahead of me two people were running along pathetically late for their train. (The only thing worse than a lifetime office sentence is having to run down the street because you’re late for a Train To Jail.) Unfortunately, as I zoomed by one man, he hung a quick left. I slammed into him, my shoulder nailing him on the cheek, both of us tumbling to the ground in disarray.
In America, you know what comes next. “Asshole!! Where you think you’re going on the goddamn bike? Where’s the fire, shit-for-brains?!” In the States, we’re talking lawyers on the cell phone right now, or lower on the socio-economic ladder punches, hell, maybe even gunplay. In Japan, the guy didn’t even have time to brush off his expensive suit, he was so busy bowing and apologizing and asking if I was okay, for God’s sake. We’re both there bowing to each other, anger the farthest thing from our minds. Anger is considered childish. Stoicism and moderation are instinctive.
There is the pleasant adjustment one makes, gradually accepting a sense of personal safety in Japan. Americans perceive their cities as dangerous places at night and are always on their guard; in Tokyo, the night carries no threat. You can set down a package and walk away knowing it’s unlikely to be stolen. The rule is simple: leave things where they are. You notice that men throw fewer hard stares at each other in the street. Instead, facial language may involve a quick glance, penetrating and severe, followed by a sudden downcast expression that speaks of self-examination and humility. It’s as if there was a kind of subliminal dissemination of social values in the daily culture. “Be tough on yourself but don’t make waves,” as opposed to the not-uncommon American street vibe: “Don’t fuck with me, I may be carrying a piece.”
Japanese alcoholism is arguably pathological, but drunkenness is a happier and far less belligerent affair than that of Americans. Grown men or inebriated teenagers clasp hands, hold each other up, stumble along arm in arm. How could they have raped Nanking, these people MacArthur called a nation of 12-year olds, with their gentle style, their blue jeans and orange hair, dressed up in imitation of all they see in the world around them? A friend once encountered a hard-eyed, heavy-metal gathering of leather-jacket toughs in a bathroom. They were staring knives at him as he entered. He took a breath and moved with trepidation toward them to reach the toilets. As he did, the wild ones melted away in a burst of bows and apologies and friendly groveling. They were future salarymen wearing costumes, playing roles. In America I’m a peripheral monkey, but in Japan everyone is so retiring I can find myself walking with a chip on my shoulder, assuming all males will get out of my way. I really must take care.
Of course, the lack of elbow-room creates stress in foreigners. I recall the first time I rode the Yamanote Line during rush hour. Walking toward the station there was a pre-roller-coaster feeling in the pit of my stomach. Then the train scraped to a stop like a huge metal burrito with people for beans. Next, everything that they say happens happened. The sausage exploded. Then I was pushed in sharply by a white-gloved attendant, a crucial part of me nearly clipped off by the closing door. Talk about in your face: we were in each other’s faces, backs, bottoms – we were in each other period.
I am a small man. I held my head high to avoid burying my nose in the right shoulder of the man pressed in front of me. I was squeezed in from the right and the left by others squeezed in by more human bookends. I thrust my hips painstakingly back to avoid inappropriate contact with the left bun of a small, elegant young woman before me. Safer contact could be made by pressing my chest outward against her back. This balancing act could be executed only by the firm application of my left butt to the butt of a uniformed high-school student behind me. The rich musk of 90 or 100 tightly packed human bodies filled the air. Every so often the trainman hit the brakes and all the butts, chests, hips staggered forward or back in unison, then reassumed their previous postures. Part of a compact mass with nowhere to fall, I remained erect. That is to say, I remained standing.
At Shinjuku station, the flood of people-beans surged down the stairways. The muffled sound of two hundred heels clicking on the tiles. Sharp-dressed women, gray-suited men with their briefcases and super-serious expressions, a silent army on the move. No one spoke, no one laughed. But from inside Berkeley-me, something else. A revulsion, a sense of insult at this dungeon march. We sheep led to slaughter. Many years now I have lived with it, and I am not an amateur. Mostly I stay out of the rush but sometimes, if I fall again into that gray mass swarming up the stairs I still rage inside, and wonder if they ever do too.
I’ve ridden the trains enough, at midnight with people packed in like arrestees handcuffed to their handhold rings. Each day some women get grabbed by sickos they fear to berate. The children go to school on the train. They grow up, get jobs and look up at the placards advertising $45,000 weddings. Then they have their kids. Years go by. At night, drunken men weave home to their sleeping families, get up early and trudge down to the station again, and then again. Young husbands grow old on the trains, staring straight ahead, not looking out the windows. Nowadays it’s cellphones they stare at, punching maniacally at video games. Falling asleep, riding drunk with red eyes, avoiding each others glances, shoving each other a just little to get in and get out. Their hair grows thin, turns white, falls out. The young girls stop giggling, become mothers looking at little boys with a severity that was not there before. Smooth faces grow wrinkled, and new faces take the places of the old. They have few options, no wild frontiers, no Phoenix or Seattle to run away to. There is duty, propriety, co-operation, rare shows of affection, and then you die.
I know they have their happy moments. Self-discipline, loyalty, sacrifice have their rewards. And they do know, when scheduled, how to party. In their own way when the time is right they shout and laugh like anyone else. I don’t really want to criticize Japan. Berkeley, my old home, was pervaded in the Eighties by so much cynicism. That knee-jerk negativity was not the whole picture. You can become a complainer. I don’t mean to do that.
Tokyo, unraveled a little, reveals its opposites. The throng rushes on, yet there is a small stillness in each human interaction. Everywhere Tokyo is new, yet there is always something ancient here. The style of expression is gentle and courteous, yet beneath it lies a system of expectations and values that cuts like a knife.
But hey, I’m out of here next year.
What year is it anyway?
May, 1945: Legal documents show that I arrived in the world at Brooklyn’s Jewish Memorial Hospital literally a few hours after Adolph Hitler blew his brains out in Berlin. There was a time in my insensible youth when I would tell people this, comb my hair off to the side, use two fingers to narrow my moustache, adopt a manic expression and try to get a reaction. But the resemblance was marginal, and the idea that the great monster of the 20th Century would be reincarnated as a smallish Jewish saxophonist is intolerable.
My life, though imperfect, is far too gentle a consequence for the embodiment of evil. He killed my grandparents and eradicated six million souls. He should be sentenced to watch film clips of the most precious moments of every family he destroyed until his black heart breaks, then Bruce Lee should be there to rip it out of his chest, spit on it and reinsert it for the next clip. He should see his failures too, for instance my wonderful aunt, who escaped Holland with her two children in 1938. She and her British South African husband became world-class folk artists. What can anyone say about Hitler? He should drink Drano in the morning forever. Selah.
My father was a Dutch classical violinist, my mother a budding American popular singer whose career was nipped in it by her marriage to Dad. But my second cousin Andre may have done the most for my personal development. Another European emigre, he made himself one of the country’s top radio and TV announcers and married a famous big band vocalist. Then, in 1954 he was handed a job he’d dreamed of: calling play-by-play for the Brooklyn Dodgers, teaming up with baseball’s smoothest, most articulate young announcer, Vin Scully. He kept the gig until the Dodgers left for L.A. in 1958. Those four years were like no others for me.
One Saturday morning in June of ’54, when I had just turned nine years old, Andre pulled up in his new Packard in front of our brownstone on Harrison Street and called up to the second floor bedroom I shared with my older sister. “OK up there, who wants to go see the Bums play St. Louis?”
Dad had told me the night before that Andre might come by and I’d hardly slept. I’d been to Ebbets Field just twice before, once with my grandfather Harry, a frustrated comedian who ran a smoke shop on the west side of Manhattan, and once with my Dad, who barely knew a double play from a pop-up. I was down the stairs, glove in hand, in less than 30 seconds. “Hop in, Arnie, batting practice starts in half an hour,” Andre smiled. I clambered in next to his son Wayne, a year or two older and a foot taller. I was the shortest kid in my class.
Andre had his own parking spot in the narrow lot behind the left field grandstands. The three of us walked down Lakewood Avenue to the main entrance, then climbed the stairs to the announcer’s booth. Scully was already there and gave us a brief, “Hello, boys, you enjoy the game, now!” in his dulcet Southern tones. Andre showed me his scorecard from the night before.
“Roy Campanella two hit homers, right over there by the Camel sign. He’s been hot lately.”
Scully took the cigarette out of his mouth. “Andre, why don’t you take these boys down and get them set up so we can go over a couple things before air-time, all right?”
We followed him down to a couple of seats right behind the Dodger dugout. Paris, the Great Pyramid, the Seven Wonders of the World, forget about it. For a nine-year old Brooklyn kid, this was heaven on earth. Twenty feet away, there was Campy warming up young Carl Erskine. In the batting cage, Gil Hodges was taking his swings, lacing liners wherever he chose. There was Jackie Robinson chatting with Pee Wee behind the cage, and everyone knew the story of how Reese had put an arm around Jackie that day in Cincy when the going had gotten really rough for the only Negro player in the majors. Now had come glory days: they were in first place more often than not, fighting for the pennant every year and only the Yankees, the unbeatable Yanks remained to darken their Octobers. From time immemorial, Brooklynites had moaned, “Wait til next year.” Little did we know in 1954 that next year would be just that.
In the moment, the World Series was not my concern. Just six feet away, here came a figure wearing a big 4 on his back. The Duke had emerged from the the Brooklyn dugout. “Hey, Duke, how ya doin?” Wayne cried. Snider turned toward us, his bat resting on his shoulder and smiled.
“Morning, Wayne, how’s your dad doing?”
“He’s okay I guess. You gonna hit one out today, Duke?”
“I just try to hit the ball hard, son. Hard to know what’s gonna happen next. Who’s your buddy?” I gulped. He’d noticed me. I existed.
“Duke, this is my cousin Arnie. He’s a big Gil Hodges fan.”
I could have killed Wayne, but Snider remained affable. “Well, that’s a good choice, Arnie,” he smiled. “We couldn’t win very often without Moonie.” That was Hodges nickname. His face looked like the man in the moon.
“You’re the best, Mr. Snider, it’s great to meet you,” I mumbled. It was like talking to God.
“Don’t you fellows eat too many hot dogs,” he smiled. The Duke turned away toward the batting cage. When Hodges had taken his swipes, he came back to the bench and we exchanged friendly waves with him. Meeting Snider was about all I could take that day. We settled back and watched Brooklyn slowly take apart the Cardinal pitchers. No homers, mostly singles and doubles and Reese and Robinson stealing the Cards blind. I got to see that Enos Slaughter looked less frightening than I had imagined him on the radio, and Stan Musial’s coiled presence at the plate was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever witnessed.
That summer I was at Ebbets five more times. When 1955 rolled around I was 10, and we came to the park so much most of the Boys of Summer would automatically wave hello to Wayne and me in our regular spots behind the dugout. In those days they weren’t millionaires, several of them lived within a few blocks of Ebbets. But that didn’t detract from their allure. Just to be known by these deities, I figured I was destined for something special in life. Millions of kids all over country would have given anything to be in my shoes. I knew I wasn’t bat boy material – too small, a step too slow. Fred Cameron and Chris Shafter were older and better connected to the players. I had one moment of glory in ‘57, when I was twelve. Hodges swung late and stroked a screaming foul ball right at my head late in a game against the Giants and I threw my glove up in self defense and the ball stuck. The fans around me gave a big cheer, and Hodges looked up at me with my glove in the air, triumphant, and threw me one of those big smiles of his. As if that weren’t enough, he took Sal Maglie deep on the next pitch for the three runs that settled the game.
I got in for just one game of the curse-breaking World Series in 1955 with Grandpa Harry, way up the right field line. Sadly, the Yanks won that one. But Wayne was with his Dad in the booth at Yankee Stadium when Johnny Podres shut New York out in the seventh game. I was at home watching with Dad and Mom and Harry and the rest of the family. That was okay, I had no complaints. I actually knew those guys dancing around in grainy black and white on the pitcher’s mound after the last out. And my friends at school knew I knew them too.
Actually, that was a problem. When you’re the smallest kid in the 6th grade class at Public School 191, you don’t want to attract a lot of attention. I got leaned on some after I made the mistake of bragging about my spot behind the Dodger dugout. Once, a pair of brothers, Italian kids, decided to slap me around after school, not a real ass-kicking, but enough to bust up an eleven year-old ego for a few weeks. The next day, Saturday, I headed down to Ebbets alone to wait for Wayne and Andre in the parking lot. I was on the ground slumped against the fence, staring at tire marks in the dirt when I heard a voice I knew, one with just a tinge of the South in it, very clear and calm.
“What’s eating you, Arnie?” It was Jackie, with that cool, edgy smile of his. “Somebody giving you a hard time?”
“No,” I lied, “I’m just waiting for Wayne.”
“Come on, man, what happened – tough day at school?”
I caved and ran the slap-down by the Italian boys by Robinson. The great Dodger third baseman looked hard at me for a couple seconds, and as he did, the irony – I couldn’t identify it as such at eleven – and then the understanding sunk in. I saw it in his eyes, saw how much more he’d been through than I had. He lifted his eyebrows and said, “Look, Arnie, it gets tough sometimes, but one day you’ll be somebody and those clowns will be parking cars in Flatbush. Maybe it’s gonna come to punches, and then, well, do not run away. But however it ends up, keep doing good in school and you’ll be okay. How’s your grades anyway?”
I smiled up at him. “Mostly A’s,” I beamed.
“Well, there you go, slugger! I figured you for a bright one. You’re gonna wind up at NYU and leave the rest of us in the dust.” Jackie reached down and tousled my hair with his big hand. “Come on, you can come in with me, let Wayne catch up later!” So I strolled into Ebbets with Jackie Robinson that day and never forgot either his kindness or his words. I steered clear of trouble after that, and when I finally picked up a saxophone in the 8th grade, I knew I’d found a weapon to assert myself in the world. Brooklyn’s no-nonsense world insulated me against the facile love-peace-and-brotherhood illusions of the Sixties. I knew in the music business it was every man for himself, and I dedicated myself to constant practice, emulating the achievements of Coltrane and Henderson and the other players who by the time I reached NYU were blowing withering cascades of notes through the clubs of Manhattan – the Five Spot, the Village Vanguard, the Half Note. From Jackie Robinson to Coltrane, Snider to Cannonball, the memories are rich and….
Well, not quite.
Actually, my family left Brooklyn in 1946. I was nine months old when they moved to Los Angeles. Andre Baruch was just a shadowy, distant relative back East. I didn’t learn about his job with Brooklyn until much later in life – I’d known he was an announcer on TV and radio, but my parents apparently never knew he worked for the Dodgers, for whom as a boy I’d rooted from faraway Los Angeles. It was only long years later I realized – saw with certainty – that naturally I would have gone to Ebbets Field with Andre and Wayne and would have met the Duke and PeeWee and Jackie in an amazing alternative universe. But it was not to be. Those guys were in Brooklyn and I was in Eagle Rock, three miles from Pasadena.
Until they came west as the Los Angeles Dodgers, in 1958. I was thirteen years old then. That was the year my dad moved the family to Oakland.
June, 2003: For five years I stood on a small platform next to a baby grand piano, pouring smooth saxophony into the room. The Cru was a cut above the more vulgar venues I’ve described. The décor was elegant, the behavior restrained. Across the burgandy and gold room the most beautifully groomed young women in Tokyo were escorted to the tables of well-to-do men for the kind of vacuous chatter perhaps possible only in Japan. I was nearly 60 now, they were all in their 20s. Did the male gaze glaze my eyes? How could it not. One girl in particular was so ravishing to me I was sure that the few times our eyes met, Chiharu (“a thousand springs”) must have seen right through me. There was a time she was given a clueless geezer whose hands kept reaching for her breasts as they sat on a couch immediately in front of my perch. Appalled, I left the stage and made my way around to blow some sax directly at the guy to distract him. He desisted and, amused, reached in his coat, and came up with 20,000 yen ($200) for my trouble. Chiharu smiled in appreciation but of course nothing came of that. This was not 13th century France. In fact, the times I was flirted with I could count on the fingers of one hand. I wasn’t tall, I wasn’t blonde, I wasn’t black. And most important, in a world where conversation was everything, I was mute.
I’d come in from the wind-blown outside staircase just off the dressing room one night, where I’d been warming up. The shabby, narrow chamber was a sad flower garden of hostesses. The girls were hunched over their cellphones, calling customers. They get business cards and call a few days later. “Where are you now? I miss you. I really enjoyed our conversation…” and so on.
Entering, I nearly kicked over a beer glass filled with old cigarette butts. One girl hunched on the floor cried, “Abunai!” (Look out!) She was smoking two cigarettes at the same time, so I thought I’d try to describe a clever Japanese picture book I had with gadgets, devices designed to be “almost useful.” The one I had in mind showed a man wearing a perforated gauze mask holding 14 cigarettes, for people who need super-fast nicotine hits. The book’s name was Chin-dogu, literally, “strange tools.”
When I said, chin-dogu, the girl looked up delightedly and shouted, “Baibu-raitoru!” (vibrator!) Chin-chin is slang for penis, and dogu means tool. Every girl in the room stopped to look at me. I cleared my throat, said I didn’t mean that, and stumbled out.
But the little one kept flashing her eyes at me. Baby face, skin like milk, trounces Julia Roberts in a lip-off. As I became a fixture at the club, she began popping out with little comments when she saw me. “Yes, I love you!” she exclaimed once in passing, apparently a real-time decision. I figured it was a joke. Soon after that though, outside the dressing room, she greeted me shouting, “I like dick! I like big dick!” What do you even say to that? “Gee, you’re in luck! I happen to have one on me right now.”
“You’re cute, Arnie!” she decided, and then began to tell me every night. “Isn’t Arnie cute?” she’d ask the other girls. “I like dick!” she shouted in the kitchen at me as I ate my dinner. The staff looked at her, then looked at me.
“It’s American style!” Rika exclaimed.
“I don’t think so,” I mumbled, picking at my teriaki chicken.
I gave nightly reports to Jack Shipman.
“She’s wants you, Arn. She’s saying, here I am, take me.”
“She’s so young…”
“Young is good. Don’t worry about that. You need to get laid.”
“But she’s twenty! She’s much younger than my daughter. And what if she falls in love with me?”
“She won’t fall in love. You don’t mean shit to her. All these girls think about is themselves. They’ve been catered to since they were five. If you can scratch their itch when they need it, they’ll let you. She says she likes dick? That’s exactly what you are to her, that’s all. So what’s not to like?”
Here I was, graced with an unheard of, full-time gig. Blowing it was the last thing I wanted to do. This was a 20 year-old Japanese girl who spoke little or no English shouting at fiftyish me that she likes big dick. For me (though maybe you) this was over the top.
One night I was sitting next to my neatly coiffed manager Kawasaki-san at the pink-marble crescent bar in the VIP room. The gig was over and I was relaxing with a beer. Rika spotted me and made a bee-line. “Oh Arnie,” she bubbled, sitting down between me and Kawasaki in her jeans and little top. Her fascination with me was palpable, her eyes sparkled, one breast rubbed lightly against my arm. Next thing I knew, we’d exchanged numbers. We agreed to go dancing soon. Despite my assumption of the iron prohibition, as she walked away Kawasaki turned toward the bar and sighed,
“I, too, am butterfly.”
Cool! The night came. I brought my car and waited on a side street for Rika to get off work. At 2:30 AM she found me leaning Bogartishly against a building and pranced over joyously. She’d shed the evening dress and was again cunningly cute in jeans and a short top.
“Let’s go to the car…” I offered.
“Go dancing!” she said evenly, so I gestured down the stairs to Pickford’s, where all my black buddies were pumping hotter-than-July hip-hop on a big stage. There was no audience left except for four young Western women and an aging Japanese beatnik. One of them, a blonde, got up and demonstrated every possible way to shake at top speed her amazing body. After a while, I pulled Rika onto the floor. We drew close to the band, and Rika stood right in front of the lead singer, grinning, entranced at a paragon of black soulfulness. The singer, undulating, singing, rapping, had no problem with this, as I danced nearby, feeling idiotic, trying to find a nice Hebrew groove.
We drifted into the group of dancing women and suddenly everyone was dancing with everyone. One of the blondes swept over, slipped her hands under Rika’s breasts, weighed them, and exclaimed, “Ah, ippai, desu-ne!” (How full they are!). Rika was this new ingénue on the scene. She was smiling like it was a new ride at Disneyland. I had my arms around the stunning blonde, people were sweaty, everything was slinky and wet. Then the scene shifted, and a wizened Japanese uncle who had been jiggling on the periphery drew Rika into his arms. I glanced over worriedly, but a lovely Italian woman in my arms was whispering, “No jealousy! No jealousy!”
Time slipped away. It must have been around 4 AM. We rested, tried to talk, then got up again and fell into a torrid front-to-back bump, my arms around Rika, my hands grazing whatever bounty I found, while Rika did nice things with her derriere. I tasted the rims of her ears…
Okay, okay, who do you think you’re reading here, Bukowski? Larry Flynt? Let’s get grounded, okay? We wound up in my car at 5 AM. I was supposed to sleep at a nearby hotel for an English intensive the next morning. I’m not Bukowski. I spent the Eighties being trained by Berkeley feminists. I figured there would be another time, so I took her home. I was George Bush Sr. not finishing off Sadaam. On the way, I stopped the car on a side-street and did research.
“Rika, my wife told me my moustache hurts her when we kiss. Does it?”
I leaned in for a couple of soft tastes of her angel lips. “Itai desu-ka?” (Does that hurt?)
Rika looked quizzical.“Nai-desu.” I started the motor. Rika seemed a little tense. We got to her neighborhood, she jumped out and sprinted down a narrow street and disappeared.
We went out again a few weeks later. She danced like a 12-year-old possessed. I kept up with her for nearly an hour. I remember her gyrating on her knees atop a bar-stool, her memorable mammaries jouncing inches from my dazzled eyes. It all came to naught. I said something in the car in front of her apartment about needing love. Everyone knows you can’t say things like that. Rika nodded understandingly and didn’t answer her phone any more.
Roppongi Nights (Get your popcorn – this one’s 14 minutes long.)
January, 1956: Two ragged eucalyptus trees rising up behind a green house, a tawny hill sloping down to Verdugo Road, me clambering up the apricot tree in our front yard for syrupy summertime fruit, nights lying in my darkened room waiting for the lights of our 1953 de Soto to appear when Mom and Dad went out together. Were they all right? Did they have an accident? The little violin Dad makes me practice when I’m five, twisting my elbow just so until one day I smash it on the table, splinters flying everywhere. Ronny Chavez, a pro boxer’s son, grabs away my basketball at six so I punch him in his mouth in the days before I knew fear. Towering Forest Lawn Cemetary wall where I bounce baseballs high into my glove for hours on end, the long walk to Occidental College pool where Dad will not let me escape down the ladder from my first-ever perch on the highboard (everyone’s watching me!) plunging into cool blue, rushing back up the ladder to do it again. Whizzing down to Fletcher Elementary on my scooter, engendering a school-wide scooter-rage until the principal announces, “No more scooters!” I call up my friend Larry Scribner one Saturday morning and his brother tells me, “He died last night, his appendix broke.” Our neighbor down the street Leo Scheer and Saul Dubman on their antique Violes d’amour, Antoinette Fredrickson on her Viole da gamba, Dad leading them through Monteverde and Vivaldi on his Pardessus de viole, rehearsing for concerts at Cal Tech or recording sessions at Columbia Records with Uncle Josef and Aunt Miranda, as my sisters and I are falling asleep in our rooms.
Mama is singing Sophisticated Lady in the kitchen, I’m standing atop the dining room table lip-syncing to Sinatra’s “Singing The Blues.” The newspaper fire I started there, shoving the cinders under a throw rug, stupid boy what have you done, a smack on your butt and off we go to the fire department where Dad reports it to a fireman. “Gee kid,” the firemen says, “you shouldn’t do that.” But they give me an IQ test and it says 140, I’m a genius or some shit like that. Sometimes I wake up at night and everything is loud, my hand moves against the sheets like thunder, my fingers feel strangely thick, I get up and sit in the bathroom wanting to knock on Mama’s door but it would be like, BOOM! BOOM! so I don’t, but now we’re at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre, there’s Joseph onstage in his tuxedo strumming his guitar and Miranda looking like a fairy queen, singing like one, pulling laughs from the big crowd with her clever asides and those big blue eyes. Some boy at school says you’re a Jew, you’ve got a big nose, so Dad explains, “You’re not Jewish, son, that’s a false belief, you’re a Perfect Child of God.” Another kid says I’m a runt. “Tell him good things come in small packages,” Mom says. Marty Bingham punches me in the stomach, but everyone had to get punched by Marty. I learn how to make kids laugh. In 5th grade, Mrs. Fisher tells me I’ve got the gift of gab. Now there’s Dad up on the podium at church, a Reader, intoning the Scientific Statement of Being, hearing testimonies of old people being healed by Christ Jesus, “There’s no Life, Truth, Substance or Intelligence in matter, all is Infinite Mind”…then down to Santa Monica in the de Soto, wading in the surf, the hot sun, the watermelon, crunchy grilled hot dogs, Dad’s head snoozing on Mama’s lap, me and my sister bedded down on the back seat all the way home at night, “We’re home now, we’re home, so good to be in your own beddy, your own beddy…”
The Dodgers win the Series in ‘55, I start clarinet lessons, getting older now, then junior high school. In the bathroom I’m cluelessly squeezing my dick – what’s this sugary leaking, this indescribable buzz? In summer, Josef and Miranda drive my sister and me up to Idyllwild to their cottage on the ridge overlooking Palm Springs where they practice new material for their concerts, Josef’s guitar ringing out on the deck, matchbook covers under a glass-top table from cities they’ve played all over the world. Meredith Willson of “Music Man” fame drops by and asks us what angels are. Good thoughts from God, we dutifully report and are given ten bucks each. One night I stay at a dorm down the hill at the Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts where M&M are artists in residence. The 18 year-old who’s playing Puck in Midsummer Night Dream settles in next to me and puts his hand into my underwear. Uh, your hand is on my butt, I say. Oh, sorry! says Puck. They nail him a few weeks later. One too many butts.
But now Dad says we’re leaving L.A. to start a new life in Oakland, up north somewhere near San Francisco, goodbye green house, hello second floor duplex (rented, not owned) but new friends in junior high, it’s all good, our little music store on Grand Avenue sells records and record players and guitars and TV sets, a mercantile anachronism but Dad doesn’t know that. I’m getting a hard on every morning on the bus, I notice the peach fuzz on the back of Kathleen Lindsay’s neck, the curl of Bebe Chan’s lips, but it’s all mystery, girls are beyond me, I’m just a happy kid, then on to Oakland High, then at a party Terry Lee grabs me and sticks her tongue in my mouth. The benightedness of me, the cheerful, leaf-floating-down-a-riverness of me. Back up at Idyllwild, I’m tootling clarinet in ISOMATA’s orchestra and at a dance party Suzy Rubini is rubbing her vulva against my leg. I mean, you’re 17. It’s summer! There’s a dark forest out there! Pine trees to brace the object of one’s passions against, but I say thanks Suzy and go back to my tent. Back in Oakland, weird Walter Hurd comes bouncing down Grand Avenue into Dad’s store, nodding and clapping his hands softly to himself, needing this week’s Top 40: Bobby Vinton, the Four Seasons, the Beach Boys. I’m the class joker in dance band, wielding a tenor sax now, and Mr. Jewel Lord, always funny in his 1940s double-breasted jacket looks down at me and drawls, “Son, if brains were hair you wouldn’t have enough to make a grape toupee.” In dance band it’s still Glenn Miller and Count Basie, but I’m all As and Bs my senior year, class valedictorian, scholarships rolling in: Kiwanis Club, California State, even the University of California is giving me money and I’ll be going there in the fall. And I got a real girlfriend now, Nancy Chan, shy, bespectacled, letting me do stuff to her as we kiss and cum in the Oakland Hills in my ‘47 Chevy. Yes, 1963 looks like a golden year. In September, I’ll start at Cal. In October, the Dodgers sweep the Yankees in four games led by a legendary Jewish southpaw from Brooklyn – just like me! I’m bopping through Sather Gate on the Cal campus, it’s November 22, 1963. What could go wrong?
March: 1998: Kumiko is in the kitchen cooking furiously. She churns out meals casually, as I would brush my teeth or order french fries, for she is action-oriented. Minutes after we get up on a Saturday morning, she raises her voice to 9.8 on the Japanese Intensity Scale (which ranges from 9.7 to 10.0) to demand if I’ve made three different phone calls we’d discussed the day before. I look hard at her and come this close to asking, “What would you do if you woke up to find me and my clothes missing?” But I don’t. She’d say something like, “Put the Beethoven 9th on the CD player and play the ‘Ode to Joy’ really loud!” She flaunts a lightning-quick, take-it-or-leave-me bravado when I make threats. I remain immobilized by a belief that she loves and needs me, and that my leaving her would bring enormous pain into her life. But why this talk of departure? Let me explain: while abandonment is not a major fear for her, neither is abandon a major joy. Since we got here, things have cooled off big time. Kumiko hugs and squeezes the cats in bed, one of which I’m clearly not. In summer, her feet protrude from under the sheets near my head (we lay on perpendicularly arranged futons) vaguely evoking a body in a morgue.
Soon after moving into our first apartment, Kumiko had a kitten named Fujiko sent from her home in Iwate. Then Tuttle appeared, a roly-poly orange-and-white tabby sunning himself on a local sidewalk. Irresistible. Next came Bob, a December kitten crouched stoically under a bush a block from our place. Then Kumiko needed a fashion cat for her collection, so on a trip to the U.S., we bought Sophie, a rag-doll. To balance things, we threw in Natasha, a Russian Blue from the Oakland Humane Society. Five cats in a tiny apartment. Oh well, I thought, we have a little back yard, I can live with it. But over the next few years, things spun out of control. Our feline population peaked out more than once at twelve, as she joined a team of cat ladies finding homes for stray cats. Ours was a half-way house. I constructed a phone-booth-sized wire cage on the veranda, accessible by a cat door, to contain the cat boxes. My job: clean them.
To free their devotees of worldly desires, Indian holy men often have them clean cow-stables of manure for decades. There is a school of thought that claims the sound of “one hand clapping” is heard only when the seeker of truth finally leaves the stable, enters the temple and slaps his guru hard in the face. For though we hear tales about self-immolation leading to transcendental bliss, skillfully concealed are horror stories of seekers who could not purify their thoughts, who died of heart attacks in the stables, old men tumbling over into the manure, gasping out last breaths, their pitiful lives finally over. On the other hand, attacking the guru is a dangerous step to take, for a true master, using pure mental concentration, can amputate an angry novice’s accusatory finger in mid-air and relocate it within the devotee’s own body, say, in that orifice “where the sun never shines.” Confronted by one such fed-up disciple, the renowned Peruvian guru, Rama Llama – the only full-blown schizophrenic to achieve satori – famously warned him, “If I were me, I wouldn’t do that!”
And we who labor in cat-boxes each day, are we so different? Do we not strive for serenity amidst squalor? Let us remember this when cleaning the cat-box, waiting for our own neko-hako satori (catbox enlightenment). Recall Abe Kobo’s protaganist shoveling sand in Woman Of The Dunes. And Isaac Newton’s seaside metaphor of his search for truth, “examining interesting objects I found on the shore, while all about lay the great sea undiscovered.” Pebbles, seashells, cat shit – whatever. It’s about enlightenment.
Your cats have done what they needed to do. Let’s look at the box and try to understand what we see. Yes, there are brown objects scattered about, but consider the scene more deeply. Hidden below are the pungent clumps of moist sand that cat sand cognoscenti refer to as “peecakes.” Your bag of catsand probably shows a cartoon of someone casually reaching into the sand with a curved scooper to remove a peecake. THIS IS IMPOSSIBLE! It represents a cat-sand industry conspiracy to sell more sand! In fact, the peecake must be systematically excavated from the cat-box.
Tilt the cat-box on end to about 35 degrees to expose your peecakes. They’re usually located on the far ends of the cat-box, but four separate tilts from each side should be standard, as this allows full inspection of the cat-box bottom. Use a big flat dust pan, which should be the full width of the cat-box, to pop the peecake up off the bottom. Some people use a small scoop, but this takes more time and represents a kind of obsession with cat-boxes, something discouraged by the American Catbox Society.
Never try to dig out the brown objects first, as you can easily strike and fragment a submerged peecake, creating numerous peecrumbs that are too small to be trapped in your sieve-scoop (your next tool) and pollute the cat-box with their bizarre smell. Time is of the essence. There’s still plenty to do: vacuuming up cat–hair, wiping up a vomited breakfast, trips to the vet, tracking down homeless cats. The words of the Bard ring down through the ages, relevant today:
“There is more in Heaven and Earth than is dreamt of in your scatology, Horatio.”
After the peecakes have been properly extricated, your sieve-scooper can move gracefully about, scooping up brown modules until only the tiniest of peecrumbs remain.
Now all of us, in dreams or even in waking reverie, have thought wistfully of defecating on a perfect white beach in the tropics, then neatly covering our work with a little mound of snow-white sand. So now, this final touch: grasp the cat-box in two hands and toss the cleaned sand in a rotary motion, as if sautéing onions in a fry pan. In this way, any remaining mini-crumbs sink to the bottom and only smooth, Bali-like sands remain on the surface, waiting for their next feline rainfall. The American Cat-box Association has set the acceptable peecrumb incidence at 2.8%, so we are not talking here about tracking down every fucking peecrumb. Yet rather than plowing chaotically through a complex ecosystem, you have now sequentially removed nearly everything that could offend the sensibilities.
Those who wish to look more deeply into the cat’s capacity for non-verbal communication should investigate the works of the German cattist, Otto Lipschitz. Dr. Lipschitz argues that after centuries of observing humans’ apparent interest in their feces, cats have developed the ability to alter fecal shapes as a form of communication. He claims that specimens in the shapes of miniature mice or link sausages represent requests for a more varied diet, for example. You can write to Dr. Lipschitz directly at the Hamburg campus of the Institute for the Study and Treatment of the Psychoses. Occasionally some of his mail is censored, but a written response from this insightful man is an unforgettable experience.
Irony, central to good art, makes its presence felt in the realm of modern sand substitutes. For when we approach a cat-box filled with those bouncy little white high-tech globules, the soul of modernity, it is the old and solid that takes priority over the liquid. Why? Well, we find that in this environment, the defecatory modules always seem to float at or near the surface. They are easily removed without disturbing the peecakes since…there are none! There is only a semi-liquid residue on the bottom. So almost as if time were running backwards, all is reversed: we remove the solid first, the liquid last. Scooper in hand, one is overwhelmed by the incongruity of it all.
Emerging from our metaphysical reverie, we realize there is work to do. For while in the first few days, the globules mysteriously absorb all liquid, eventually a remarkable “urinary pudding” of saturated yellow balls gathers at the bottom, and you must conduct the same careful tilting and scooping operations as described above.
By the way, civil engineers know various formulii that govern the maximum angle at which gravel or soil can be piled or tilted before they collapse. Tilting our cat box to expose the bright pudding below – Dr. Lipschitz calls it tapioca solinarus, we have not these formula at hand, yet we ardently wish for the little white globules not to reach the point of collapse and create an inconvenient globule spill.
No, we do not want a globule spill. We do not want dozens of little wet beebees scattered across the floor, the indelible carpet stains, the trebly, clattering sound of them distributing themselves under chairs and bouncing into crevices where the little buggers hope to escape discovery for weeks or years. We especially don’t want the emotional sea-change associated with this, the flaring anger, the hostility, the Question again rearing its head (especially for those of us with more than five cats):
“Must I spend my life cleaning these fucking cat-boxes ??”
No, we need to view cats as elegant friends. Not selfish beasts who stalk, kill and eat fragile songbirds, or conduct torture sessions with mice until they succumb from loss of blood and internal injuries. They are not cynical humorists who intentionally throw up on newly cleaned rugs, parasites that drain us financially with endless visits to the vet. They are not an affliction sent to remind us of our failures, as we laboriously scoop and dump, scoop and dump, hooligans highlighting our impotence, underscoring the claustrophobic, nightmarish dead-end that our lives have become. These are just dark dreams of anger, what Sri Rama Llama calls Yellow Clouds of Samsara, that hold us back from enlightenment and spiritualized love. We love our cats, don’t we!
We were driving home on a winter Wednesday. She turned to me and asked, “Do you know what today is?”
“Sure,” I answered, it’s December 10th.” We both knew its unpleasant significance. Six years before, Fujiko-chan had come in through the cat-door, gone into convulsions and died thirty minutes later in the vet’s office. Fujiko was my wife’s first and irreplaceable cat, one who had attached herself physically to Kumiko from early kitten-hood. She’d liked prowling the neighbor’s verandas. Unhappy with this, one of them had probably poisoned her. People do that.
The event devastated her for weeks. Now, early this year, Tuttle had died under worse circumstances, wasting away in excruciating slowness. And here it was again, December 10th.
We got home, and Kumiko looked around the little apartment.
“I don’t know.”
“She ran into the yard at 2AM last night when I was cleaning the catbox.”
“Well, she can’t climb the garden wall with those little legs, she must be around here somewhere.”
But she wasn’t. An hour turned into four hours. A day turned into two. Thus began the Sophie reclamation project. Wandering the streets, calling for Sophie, mounting yellow posters over a 24-block area, Kumiko marching into December darkness at 3 AM (“She can hear us at night.”). Endless theorizing: “Cats always move toward the west,” “Cats don’t go very far,” “Cats find a place to hide and stay there.”
We figured she must have gotten past the small, interior fences and reached the end of the condominium, where there was a way out. Sophie’s brain wasn’t up to the task of guiding her back. Sophie was one of those cat-food cover-girls, a luxurious, long-hair elegance on four little legs. Someone, we feared, had grabbed her and taken her home – especially as the second week wore on.
I gave up after two weeks or so, but I couldn’t buy a December 10th curse. It was too simple-minded, like Jesus coming back on New Year’s Eve, 2000. Yet the sense of tragedy, the tension, was crushing. Every day it grew colder. Nighttimes sank toward freezing. A Christmas-from-Hell came and passed. We ignored it. Then, on December 25th I called my Christian Scientist sister in California to wish her happy holidays. And I added,
“Please pray for Sophie to be in her ‘right place’ (a favorite Christian Science expression) as soon as we say goodbye, OK, Sis?”
“Of course I will,” she assured me.
When my big sister prays, she doesn’t fuck around. Ten minutes after we hung up, the phone rang. A woman told Kumiko she had seen a long-haired cat like ours across big Kampachi Dori, the freeway-like artery we never dreamed little Sophie could cross and survive. We rushed across Kampachi, then down a little path behind a big building. There, minutes after my sister’s promise, behind a chain fence, a brown-and-white longhair was meowing passionately at us.
Was it really her? After sixteen days in the Twilight Zone, to see her in the, well, in the fur, was dreamlike. I clambered over the fence and picked her up. She was freaked-out and pissed-off enough to qualify as Sophie. She was meowing at us, we were yelling at her; it was a mixed-species’ love-fest. We carried her home where she gulped water ravenously and ate her fill. She’d lost about 20% of her body weight, but everything considered, she was in good shape. On the 16th day of Christmas, my sister gave to me….
Kurosawa’s Woman Of The Dunes. This is my life. Our little home lies at the bottom of Kurosawa’s sand pit. Each day, I scoop away the sand; the next morning it must be processed again. Sand was a metaphor for the drudgery of common life, but his protagonist’s relationship was conjugal. And his sand was clean!
I force my face down toward the cat-box, press my nose firmly into the sand. Neighboring salarymen leaving for work stare down from the terraces above, appalled. Uncaring, I remain, asking myself again and again,“WHY is this happening to me? Surely, there is a realization here!”
I cannot attain sainthood. I cannot relinquish the desires of a normal male! I want a woman I can reach out to. Until these fires are quenched, my face shall remain pressed into the sand. I am losing consciousness, slipping down, everything spinning around. My head cracks hard against the veranda wall and darkness descends.
 The parasite Toxoplasma normally lives inside cats, and when they eliminate, it moves to its next host, a rat or a bird or some other prey of a cat. Once the parasite gets into the intermediate host, it replicates and builds a protective shell. People pick up toxoplasma all the time, gardening or handling kitty litter. It likes to be in the brain.
It’s a windy night in 1967, and June Redding has put a bullet through her head in the basement of my mother’s house in Berkeley. Ms. Redding, a butch tumbleweed from Texas with short-cropped red hair, had rolled into Oakland on a motorcycle a few years earlier. Employed as an instrument repairperson by my father in 1964, befriended by my mother, she fell into their marriage like dry ice into water: all these bubbles came exploding out, until my 1950’s family had evaporated before my eyes. Now she lay there dead, as the coroner chuckled blackly with a Berkeley cop. She had fixed clarinets and saxophones in Dad’s music shop as it was slowly going broke and he remained locked within the fortress of his Dutch severity. June Redding, cosmic catalyst, scruffy herald of feminism. My father’s emasculation, explicit or not, was brutal. His chauvinism hadn’t been blatant, just a joke here, a presumption of superiority there. But June tapped a hidden desire in my mother for independence and within a year after she appeared mom and dad were doing verbal toe-to-toes in the living room, every night it seemed. There was fiscal fuel to feed the fire: Fate, in the form of a newly-deceased New York uncle, had handed Mom a tidy inheritance which Dad saw as a way out of his troubles. Mom, not so much. To help support the family, she’d created a job for herself driving around to Oakland child care centers, singing to the kids, strumming her auto-harp, telling stories in different dialects as she did hand-puppet stories. She felt newly empowered, though she never said as much. Then June lost her apartment. The woman began crashing on our living room sofa. Dad couldn’t get her out. Everything got crazy. And then he left.
So my 13-year-old sister and I had to follow Mom and June through a series of East Bay apartments. I never knew exactly how intimate June and my mother were but hell, they shared the same bed. Any shrink worth an assault would have some thoughts on what this did to me. Wow, this weird lady is sleeping with my mom. But it was 1966, and at 21 I was still 17 and didn’t know what the fuck to think, much less say. Sometimes Dad tried to call, but Mom refused to speak to him, fearing she would succumb to his persuasive skills. One day he came to confront her, found a chained door guarded by June, and when they began shouting Dad tried to push his way in. June reached through the door and ripped at his throat. Afterwards, I sat with him in his car where he blotted at his bloody neck and where there was nothing much a father could say to his collegiate son. It was the beginning of his Jobian era, and I don’t mean Steve. Many times I’ve wanted to re-live those years and be a better friend to him in that desolation.
Mom finally purchased a house in nearby Albany, but soon June flew to Dallas for treatment of steadily worsening throat cancer. She came back from the operation with her larynx removed. Now she spoke by burping through a hole in her throat. Hunkered down in a basement room with half-gallons of Gallo Port, she grew bitter, sometimes belligerent. Finally, my mother, who all her life had shown only compassion to others, found a ruthlessness inside her and told June she had to leave. The tough little motorcycle lady, racked with pain, dying anyway, loving my mother, left a despairing note: “You’ll never get rid of me.” Then she shot herself in the head with a pistol she kept near her pillow.
My mother was 51. Everyone adored her because she was so accepting, so supportive, so funny, so there for her friends. Mom was…hey, don’t get me started. A mother with too much kindness, like a little knowledge, is a dangerous thing. But the day after that December nightmare was the first day of the rest of her life and it continued, rather happily, for another 28 years.
So, all righty then! You wanna get back to Tokyo now? I’m betting it’s a big YES!
Early on, I saw that riding trains across the world’s largest city for 2-hour classes was an issue. I found another approach – intensives. On these, I’d pull down as much in a week as in a month commuting, and in surroundings that were often lavish. Juggling English companies, I made the transition, living with students and seeing them up close.
April, 1994: I just spent a week teaching Tomen Trading freshmen, (“new faces”) at a lavish resort at the foot of Mount Fuji. The classroom was adjacent to my plush bedroom, so each morning I awoke in paradise, bathed in porcelain luxury, then walked next door to where my students were waiting for me. The bedroom was huge, with an American style bathroom, big tub, fresh towels every day, a refrigerator for fresh vegetables and, outside my window, a stunning view of Mount Fuji looming a few miles away. The dining room was modern and expansive, with white-clad cooks providing your choice of Japanese or Western fare. Outside lay broad lawns and manicured gardens, all this luxury bespeaking the wealth and power of a large Japanese corporation. Aside from the Japan Self-Defense Forces firing artillery every afternoon on its training grounds near the foot of Japan’s sacred mountain, rattling our windows with each fusillade, it was quite peaceful.
The JSDF apparently does this all year long. It is, I think, disrespectful to the mountain and risks seismic retaliation. A contingent of U.S. Marines was recently relocated to the Mt. Fuji military zone as part of the downsizing of U.S. forces on Okinawa. My friend Carl Windsor, a remarkable man you’ll meet in much more detail later, taught here at that time. He theorized that the reason Marines started firing their 155mm Howitzers one Monday morning at 6AM (two hours earlier than called for in the U.S.-Japan security agreement) was their anger at having to leave their Okinawa island paradise. Carl, a Vietnam veteran, was no less angry. Awakened with a shock, he dove under his bed thinking it was 1969 and shells were incoming. When he told his students about it, they thought it was funny. He didn’t.
Our group of teachers must have seemed a motley crew to Japanese eyes, perhaps not so different from the unwashed Portuguese sailors who stumbled ashore here 450 years ago. There was Jack Shipman, gaunt and bearded, always dressed in black. He likes to answer his phone as Rock Hartley and is always falling in love with stunning young women who stand him up on dates and turn out to have boyfriends. Jack is either telling you how he detests Japanese women or emitting lascivious groans describing The One He Passed In The Street Today.
There was Dick Handley of Nottingham, a cheerful young English army veteran of the Falklands and North Ireland who drinks like a sailor and swears like a fish. Or is it the other way around. He told me an charming war tale of being stabbed in the neck in the Falklands by an unwise Argentinean soldier who had been playing dead and soon really was. His friend Kenneth, from Manchester, had an even more unintelligible Cockney accent than Dick. Ken’s speech was unnerving due to a certain touch of the serial-killer in his eyes. Maybe I just haven’t met enough Brits.
Then there was Danny, wonderfully gay. After a few days he dropped all pretense, referring explicitly to his sexuality, though there had never been any doubt. I liked him immensely: he told lots of gay jokes and fit right in. No, that’s not what I meant.
Mine was the A class: all top students. They were reasonably fluent for beginners and totally co-operative. There is a fundamental sweetness to young Japanese guys, a generic inoffensiveness. We held mock business meetings where they discussed important issues: proposals for flex-time at their company, how to help retired workers, how to deal with an extortionist planning to poison their company’s fruit juices. Still, ten hours a day of English is a load and staying awake, as always, was an issue. In Japanese business meetings, lowering the head and closing the eyes is acceptable body language. It can signify deep thought, though everyone knows when people are nodding off.
Handling Japanese students is baffling. After ten years of no-conversation, grammar-fixated English classes, very few can actually speak the language. Meanwhile, the English schools here mold their fly-by-night Western teachers into a strange mix of cheerleader, drill instructor, entertainer and cultural poster-kid. Enforcing a kind of Western cultural correctness on their charges, “language consultants” are forever trying to cajole opinions out of people who are inherently other-directed. Japanese think teachers are there to provide knowledge they can receive in silence or simply regurgitate. Too often, teachers assault students with corny exhortations and clownish exhibitionism. Instinctively, I’ve slowed down among the Japanese. I pick up the nuanced pauses, the little verbal inflections that suggest the restrictions their system inflicts on them. Their humor, when it’s not kanji-based wordplay, is ironic and resigned.
But the hardest thing is the silence. A beautiful phenomenon, really, it can pour into a roomful of Japanese like a breeze through an open window. They sit there untroubled within it. They are processing things, waiting, editing, sensing. There’s no rush. The seconds tick by. Silence is just okay. The Westerner begins to writhe in discomfort. Inexorably, tension fills the pit of his stomach. It is as if a spotlight is shining on him – especially if he’s a teacher dedicated to “improving communication skills.” And so he breaks in too quickly with a pointless comment. Or he calls on a student to speak just before another might have taken matters in another direction, perhaps a more interesting one.
For me, it’s still tough. They do not feel our experience of silence any more than we feel theirs. They don’t know I’m suffering. But in my comical pleas for opinions is there an insight for them into the secret panic of our ostensibly confident culture? We fill silences because we are afraid of them. We batter each other and defend ourselves so often out of our underlying insecurities. We are isolated from each other in some way the Japanese are not. How nice it would be if Americans could sometimes just be quiet together.
Neither able nor willing to be browbeaten into an assertiveness they’re unlikely to achieve, my students hunger for the little English expressions, the phrases and key words to make themselves better understood. The same mistakes appear over and over: “Almost my friends enjoy to play ski,” “Please choice anything you like,” “Let me introduce you about our new product.” So I make sure to fix these and give them some short cuts to make their English easier. I tell quiet little jokes. I have a lot of tricks. Their memories of English are fraught with severity and strict testing, so they can’t help but wind up liking me. I get good evaluations. It’s a learned game.
On Friday night, all the classes gathered for a huge party. Kirin beer flowed in rivulets of gold and there was food aplenty. The boys were loosening up. The heavy weight of English study had slipped from their shoulders. They were all the way through the door now, the grind of high school competition and testing behind them, young guys who’d made it into that big corporation, set for years to come. There was a shift of mood.
A turning point in the party came when a corpulent, drunken student set himself up on a chair in the middle of the big hall and ceremoniously dropped his pants to perform the feat of snapping two sets of chopsticks by sliding them through the rear of his underpants (on a line parallel to one drawn through the empty space between his ears) and then bending over. When he had done this to the cheers of this crowd of young professionals, the one and only female member among these sixty – she had unluckily sat directly in front of his display – bent down in her chair and began sobbing. Our English school rep, the only other woman present, came over to comfort her for a moment. Then both ran from the big room, effortlessly ignored by the group, including the company’s senior personnel manager, smiling approvingly at the whole spectacle.
In 1946, Douglas MacArthur, called the Japanese a nation of twelve-year-olds. My charges were twenty-something, young men just out of college about to begin lifetimes of service in Tomen Trading, seventh largest in Japan. They’d been passive and malleable in class. In a larger group, a different mood prevailed. Other guys got up to do funny dances with their pants down or, stood on a chair to publicly compare their chests and nipples with each other. A former collegiate boxer stripped to the waist and circled the room pounding his fists into the upraised hands of his compatriots. When he’d completed one circuit, the crowd roared for another and another time around the big circle, until he finally collapsed back into his seat exhausted. Innocent horseplay, I suppose, but unavoidably, visions of World War II flashed through my mind. The other teachers sat mystified, except for our approving ex-British soldier, who was quite popular with his class for teaching them how to call each other a “fuckin’ cunt.” The young woman student who had left in tears was in fact the first woman ever to be admitted to the company’s management level program. The next day she was smiling at one and all, an inpenetrable mask firmly reattached.
At the party, the teachers were challenged to do something to add to the festivities, but everyone cowered in the back. Except for me. I know a stage when I see one. I got up and sang all six verses of the Marty Robbins classic “El Paso,” introducing the tune in a Western accent: “How many y’all been to Texas?” (blank stares), then switching to a Mexican one to teach them to do a mariachi howl: “Aaahhh-ha-ha-haaa….”
For the last line, “One little kiss and Felina….goodbye,” I lay down on the floor and died, and in so doing, killed. It was a huge hit. We left with heads held high – but a little stunned by what we’d seen.
On a cold January morning in 1995, I walked into a post office and saw on a TV a helicopter video of fires in a city somewhere. Ten minutes later, on the street, a courier was handing out newspaper extras with photos of a huge freeway collapsed onto its side. A bus teetering on the edge of an elevated road. A ten-story building lying on its side. Train tracks twisting in empty space. A catastrophe had struck.
Kobe just has had a $100 billion earthquake. The terrifying Oakland, California fire of 1991 killed 30 and destroyed 3,000 homes. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire killed 700 and destroyed 28,000 buildings. Kobe was 6,200 dead, 140,000 buildings and 300,000 homeless.I’ve tried and cannot visualize 140,000 buildings. 300,000 refugees? There are only 250,000 people in all of Oakland.
In the days after the quake, thousands of people left Tokyo on trains to bring supplies to relatives. The last part of their trip, with local trains out, was long walk through hell. For the rest of us sitting by televisions in New York or Tokyo, it was an abstraction, a disaster movie, we could barely grasp the great spread of it across the land.
But in Kobe, the inability of Japanese government to protect or help was suddenly revealed. A few hours after the quake, the Kobe mayor went on radio to urge people not to rely on the government, but “to learn to stand on your own feet.” It was the first hint that the power elite were not on the same planet. After the quake hit, the prefectural governor took four critical hours to request a state of emergency. The Prime Minister of Japan found out about the quake when he woke up, two hours or so after it happened. An hour and a half before this, a renown French rescue team had offered their services to Japan. They were refused.
That day, with major elevated freeways fallen over and broken in huge pieces, with the Japanese transportation system basically cut in half, the Japanese Minister of Transportation got up, flew to Northern Japan for a political meeting, then came home that evening to attend a banquet of some kind. I’m sure he made some phone calls though. He must have made some phone calls.
TV announcers were explaining the big delays in official response. They looked at you in all seriousness and said that the spreading fires weren’t being fought with water from the air because “there are regulations against dropping things out of helicopters.” Specially trained dogs, rushed from France and Switzerland to sniff out buried people, stayed in quarantine for two days while people died in the rubble. French doctors, also members of a famous relief group, were told they couldn’t practice medicine without passing a test and earning a certificate. A crack medical team from Los Angeles, veterans of their own earthquake, went through similar delays and only escaped official interference gradually as they made their way through the wrecked city, finding large numbers of injured people who had received no medical care at all.
The army straggled to the rescue over the next 48 hours. Later, people would say, “If they’d been here yesterday my mother (or husband or son or sister) would still be alive.” Even if you made it into in an ambulance, where most seriously injured people die, your chances didn’t improve much: Japanese ambulance attendants aren’t paramedics and provide little or no medical treatment.
Weeks after the quake, it emerged that the gas company had waited six hours before turning off the city’s gas lines. By then, 12 noon, fires were raging all over Kobe. Though they knew the quake was three times the level where regulations called for gas service to be stopped, administrators claimed they couldn’t determine how serious things were, since almost all electricity and telephones were out.
Amid all this insanity emerged the legendary stoicism of the Japanese, not given to looting, grateful for a little water or a rice ball or a plastic sheet to hide under when soon after, rain, snow and biting cold came, as if they had lived through a thousand earthquakes and seen it all before.
In English writing classes, Westerners often try to teach Japanese how to present ideas “logically.” Western arrogance perhaps, but some newspaper articles made you think twice. One writer pointed out with careful statistics how much worse war is than earthquakes, drawing the conclusion that the Self-Defense Forces should not be asked to rescue people in emergencies. His astonishing rationale was that rescue operations increase the military’s power to control society and thus lead to war. The article revealed how deeply phobic many Japanese are of their own militarism, as of a Godzilla lurking beneath Tokyo Bay.
The Japanese penchant for the indirect statement, for avoiding opinions that could offend, lead to articles that inexplicably contradicted tough headlines. Under the lead, “Rejection of Overseas Quake Aid Betrays Outdated Thinking,” the national director of the Japanese Red Cross nonetheless proudly tells how his group dispatched 23 six-member teams to Kobe the day of the quake, plus 130 volunteers from all over Japan, with no apparent awareness of the huge inadequacy of these numbers. He reviews other earthquakes, explaining how “unwanted,” or “forceful” help has often caused “confusion.” Yet in Kobe, Japanese Red Cross members arriving on foot found local authorities “in total confusion and unable to give rational instructions.” The article peters out with no clear conclusion. In Japan, confusion, is a code-word. The reason repeatedly given for the LDP’s hold on power for 40 years, through one scandal after another, is that a change might cause confusion among the Japanese.
Beyond the revelations of deficient emergency services, shoddy building and freeway construction and inept politicians, even beyond the courage of everyday people, there was the earthquake itself, overwhelming, terrifying, beyond the power of humans to predict or control, no matter how well prepared they might have been. As the weeks went by you saw articles calling for changes in this and changes in that; one writer amusingly argued that there can be “no resistance now” to the much needed decision to move government operations out of Tokyo to other parts of the country and end the centralization here and the vulnerability to paralysis from a major earthquake. There will be no such change.
A student of mine once explained: “In Japan, change is bad; continue is good.” A change of that magnitude would be to Japan what eradicating drugs is to America; it would be like moving Mecca, or like the nations of the world giving peace a chance.
In June the rains come to Tokyo, the air sweet with fragrances of decaying cherry blossoms. Late last night I walked home, a little drunk, breathing mist, head to the sky. The rain was warm and came straight down for there was no wind. You soak it up and pray for more because when it goes away summer will come, that thick sauna of smog and heat.
As July becomes August, Tokyo does not smell better every day. What assails your nostrils at some street corners is not cherry blossoms. It rises up from the deep in the sewers, and in some places you just have to hold your breath. Waves of superheated air waft from a million air conditioner exhausts, monoxide spews from trucks and black limousines idle at curbs, enclosing sleeping drivers. Exhausted, sweaty Tokyo salarymen trudge along in dark suits under the July sun. This only becomes truly surreal when you see them reach in their pockets, pull out their Peace cigarettes and let the smoke roll up over their bewildered, blinking eyes. Then they enter the ramen shops and suck up that scorching stuff until rivers of sweat stream down their faces.
Today Shinjuku had a sad, oppressive flavor. The usual Sunday crowds thronged the great main street, swept free of cars by the police, under towering department stores and commercial buildings. It was hot and humid under a gray sky that rendered everything and everyone colorless and somehow dirty. There seemed to be more injured souls among the bright and shiny youngsters, people with limps, people with wounded faces.
A bright, green-and-white cable-car vehicle, decked out in political banners and slogans, came rolling up Meiji Street toward the center of it all. Several young women with white gloves waved smilingly from the truck at uncaring shoppers. From out of this truck a woman’s voice was, to Western ears, shrieking out the name and virtues of a candidate in the coming elections. The decibel level was beyond description. The tone of her voice was of a hysterical mother imploring passers-by to save her child from drowning: “Please help Ito-san, please hurry, Ito-san’s a nice boy, it won’t take long! Thank you very much!! Thank you very much!! Thank you so very much!!”
The truck inched slowly, screamingly forward in the traffic jam, but when it reached the very center of the intersection it found a place in the middle to stop, and the woman just sat there, screeching like a mental patient holed up with some hostages, several tons of explosives and the Rolling Stones’ P.A. system. This scene, and also the blaring right-wing nationalist trucks you see from time to time, call up images of World War II, and how the people must have been brow-beaten, literally shouted into a state of war. Is it possible that the kamakaze pilots were simply pedestrians who volunteered to crash headfirst into aircraft carriers rather than listen to the loudspeakers any longer? I stood there thinking farther back to Old Japan, where right here there must have been quiet nights and green fields, stars in the sky, clean air and much less Coca-Cola. Who then could have imagined this concrete nightmare?
I watched the people just trudging wearily along through the heat. They must be so offended somewhere inside, these mannered, sensitive people. Polls show they hold their government in a sort of mild contempt, yet they always return the same party to power. There they were now, powerless to stop what can only be described as an assault with batteries. Amidst all this, a boy of nineteen or so slouched by me wearing the new reigning champion of printed-matter sports shirts. Incredibly, it said in big blue letters on his chest, “Be Very Powerful – Gain Much Attention.” The elections were more than a month away. I straddled my bike, turned, and wheeled home. The trucks would soon follow.
August 1973: So the band broke up, man – after all the booking I did for them! We’d played the On Broadway in San Francisco, me driving home drunk across the Bay Bridge every night, wailing weird semitic dirges, a Jose Cuervo bottle tucked away in my coat, but now the guys didn’t want to gig with me anymore! Something about me being unserious about my sax playing. Bummer. So I got a day gig in a record wholesale company in the East Bay. What a drag. A guy named Fud used to get me high at lunch. I scored a ticket to a Stevie Wonder concert and his after-party too. The great man is coming out of the stage door after his concert and I’m like, Hey Stevie, I’m a Taurus too! Stevie was cool. “I thought so from the sound of your voice,” he murmurs. How cool was that? At the after-party in a synagogue across the street from the Fillmore, there’s like free drinks. So I had a few and upstairs, here’s Stevie again, cooling out! And there’s a stage with all these instruments. Drums, guitars. It’s a sign! I try to hook him up with my old band – “We could come down right now and audition!” But he says well, maybe another time. He was with this beautiful girl, so I ask him, is this Syreeta? No, he says, she’s not Syreeta. Well, let’s stay in touch, I say. Sure, he says. But Stevie never called. Then our old lead singer (black Ray White) went off to tour with Frank Zappa for like the next 15 years. Everyone was touring with Zappa except me! Then I get caught ripping off product from the record wholesaler and get fired. But the boss didn’t call the cops on me!
So I guess I’m Mr. Lucky, right? Right. But I had to get out of that marriage, man. I mean, everything was so messed up. It was 1973. You had to do your thing, you had to be free! So my wife and kid moved back to her parents’ house in San Jose and I crashed back at Mom’s basement. I rented a piano and wrote this cool song, though:
Then I got a gig with Cat Mother and the All Night Newsboys! They were getting ready to record their next album! But it didn’t happen. We gigged in Marin County and I shot cocaine into my arm with this hippie girl. Then Cat Mother broke up too! That’s when I got the job in the record store with Meher Baba. I think.
Once, just after we separated, I stupidly asked my first wife what her hopes for us had been. “I thought we’d walk hand-in-hand through life and into old age,” she said. She was a sweet, uncomplicated woman possessed of far more common sense than I. A few years later she married my antithesis, one of those big macho guys who’s alternately menacing and beneficent. They drank a lot. They fought, but she could handle him. He didn’t think much of me when I came down for visitations with my daughter. “You the splittenest dude I ever saw,” he’d chide as I slipped away back to Berkeley. Once he didn’t like an arrogant look I threw at him walking out his door after he’d used harsh words towards the daughter I’d abandoned. He followed me outside, picked me up, whirled me in circles like a doll, drooped me halfway over a second story railing, then decided to back off. My murder fantasies lasted about two weeks. Then I kind of moved on.
I still have somwhere a strange, sorrowful family picture including me, a little man in a pink shirt with a scruffy beard, head held high, absurdly adopting this macho Latino look, with one arm around my big father-in-law, his arm around my waist. I am 26, so thin that a gust of wind could blow me down. My father-in-law owns his house, having clawed his way up from poverty to establish an insurance agency in San Jose. On the right my 15 year-old brother-in-law equals me in height. In a corner, seated with our 2-year old girl, nearly invisible next me, my wife Linda appears, looking down almost mournfully, as if she knows what is to come. But she did not.