Veteran’s Day, Veterans’ Night

The man at the Market Street Art Fair had Pablo Picasso eyes.  They looked right through you as he peered out from between his easels.  I hunched down to look at his work.  Scattered with abandon across his canvases, all the images struggled to express his abhorrence of the pursuit of money. Each was underwritten with an intricate philosophical proverb whose gist was: “To live from the heart is the only way to a sane life.”  The Picasso eyes widened, in amusement I thought, when I murmured, “Superb!”  “The words come to me first,” he whispered, “then the drawing.”  As I turned away to catch up with my wife and 6 year-old boy our eyes met a last time in a kind of communion. I didn’t buy anything, but then, he didn’t care about money.  And he was probably a nut.  A divine nut.

So is Harold  Nachman, who’s waiting for me as I emerge from a Starbucks near Fisherman’s Wharf.

“Are you Harold ?” I ask, peering at him.

“Arnie!  I just looked inside – I didn’t see you,” he says.

“I was using the bathroom. I had a wonderful experience.”


After 50 years, he tosses the potato right back. What the hell, he’s Jewish. But this man, as my mother would say, is a lawyer. One who resides in San Francisco, and how easy is that these days? Fortunately, he doesn’t harangue me about ducking our Oakland High School 50th anniversary reunion now that I’ve returned from Japan after 20 years.  I’d been back for visits of course, but this time was an attempt to renew my native residence and finally leave a country that, though it had been my financial salvation, had drained my wife and I with its monochromatic vistas, its hurtling trains and reticent, yet hyper-intense people.

The rubbery Semitic smile he wore at 17 is still there hidden behind a lumpy white beard. The chest and shoulders seem too big when we hug. Have I shrunk even smaller than I was then? I lead him across to the cable car terminal to meet my young, inexplicable Japanese wife who stands there looking like a movie star, and he lets out a soft, “Ohhh.”  He recovers, greets her and starts to bond with my little boy. Then he takes control of the situation. He is, after all, a successful attorney.

“I’m giving you a tour – secret places the tour buses don’t go!”

We arrive at his mini-van. Its gold paint has faded. A tornado has been inside, papers and debris scattered everywhere. His vehicle registration lies soiled on the floor behind the driver’s seat.   “I’m gonna take you down the steepest hill in San Francisco, OK?”

In her childhood, Ikuko was traumatized by a father who regularly drove the family around the Mount Fuji foothills at breakneck speed, nauseating her. But she puts on a brave front and gets in the passenger seat next to Harold.  The motor roars to life. “How’d you get the big crack in the windshield?” I ask. It extends halfway across, then divides into two long tributaries.

“Something hit the window just after I bought the van.”

“When was that?”

“2000. I left it. It’s a good luck charm.”

Up we go. Down we go. Up we go. Down again. Little Andy likes it. Mercifully, we arrive at legendary Café Trieste for coffee. An impossibly perfect parking space awaits us on the corner. Inside, he confides, “I don’t make much money. The only way lawyers make money is by ripping off their clients.” His voice fills the café. An old grizzly with a bigger white beard than Harold’s stares knives at me. I shrug. Across the street is my old friend’s first law office, where one day in 1973 I came with my father on business that probably concerned my divorce that year. “You looked so sad that day, man. I never forgot that look on you.”

I could have told him that I’d met the lady in question on the Ides of March, 1968 at a club called Caesar’s, but I didn’t go into it. I explain I lived a “counter-culture life,” playing music in the East Bay till ’92 when I went to Japan to teach English. I make a cautious reference to “substances,” and he says, “Yeah, in my sophomore year I found myself staring blankly at a picture of myself as an infant and thought, ‘what the fuck am I doing?’ So I started studying seriously and found out I was pretty smart. They sent me to Sweden to study, then I came back and went to law school.”

I think back. In my sophomore year my mother ran off with a motorcycle-riding lesbian from Texas.   My little sister and I followed them through three different East Bay apartments until finally I got money for a dorm at Cal. The woman finally shot herself in the head in the basement in ’67 when my mom asked her to leave. I decide not to bring it up.

Out to Noe Valley for lunch. Up the hill. Down the hill. Stop sign. Go. Stop sign. Go. Cornerrrrr…. stop sign! Andy’s and my stomach begin to churn. Harold  reveals he’s the Herb Caen of the Noe Valley Voice. He airs local rumors to his readers. We get a scoop: Noe valley is at the crest of the Techie Invasion Wave. The house across from his just went for 2.1 million, now they’re gutting it again. Mark Zuckerberg sent over some guys  the other day with ten million to buy three houses. Zuck said, “Give them until 5 PM. Take it or leave it.”

“So that’s good for you!” I comment.

“Well, I have a place to live.”

“I mean, you know, for your kids.”

“Yeah, they’ll have a place to live.”

I drop it.  But it’s so strange to be given a tour of a city I know so well.  We pass Delores Park, where on July 20, 1969, saxophone in hand as I performed with a paradoxically named rock-soul group called the Brothers And, I looked up at a daytime moon knowing that men were walking around on its surface.  In the 70’s I crashed, Tom Waits-like in a Geary Street hotel, then I’d bus out to the Doggie Diner to serve up hot dogs.  Later I traversed The City’s streets in great detail driving a step-van delivery truck.  Though an East Bay greaser, I had known the Queen of the West pretty well.  Now, I gaze out at her high-tech glitter like an glassed-in darky.

By the time we’re seated at the restaurant, our stomachs have recovered. The chicken salad is good. After, I pull out my wallet and money comes out. He pulls out his and says, “Gee, I thought I had more cash. Here, take this.” I refuse his seven dollars.

“OK, up there’s where we’re going next!”  He points to Twin Peaks looming above the city.

“Oh, man, sorry, we have to get back to Oakland.”

“That’s right, you’re having dinner with Apostolos. Well, all good things must come to an end,” he observes back at Fisherman’s Wharf as we part, and zooms off in his van.  He is a sweet and warm-hearted man, but I begin to realize that 50-year gulfs are not bridged an an hour or two.

It is still Veteran’s Day, the 11th of November, 11 days before the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination. I remember walking through Sather Gate at Cal overhearing the news that began those years when everything changed in America. At dusk I leave the hotel in Alameda to meet my very best friend in high school. I’d suggested a Greek restaurant to match his cultural background, and he’d found one just two doors down from my father’s old failed music store on Grand Avenue. I wait inside for a while until he appears at the door, instantly recognizable. “You look like a million bucks,” I say.

“You haven’t changed at all,” he says. The required verbiage, but I meant mine. We embrace, as in a dream I’d had a month before. We’re shown to a tiny table where we sit facing each other. I glance carefully up from the menu and begin to cry, but I control it. That face. It’s Paul, a perfect 67. There is fulfillment, completion and no deterioration in his features. It must be the years resonating invisibly in between us that’s breaking my heart. I mean, it’s Paulie, sitting there again, like it’s no big deal. It’s not that we were that close. I slept over at his house a few times in the 12th grade. Big old mansion his dad owned downtown on Jackson Street. We didn’t run the streets or make out with chicks in his ’62 Chevy. Just a couple of low-key guys who enjoyed each other. I was the academic frontrunner, he was the one always trying to catch up. I was the class speaker at graduation with three scholarships, headed off to Berkeley. He made it into St. Mary’s, over the East Bay hills in Moraga. We used to joke about how I got my As at OHS by filling my assignments with impressive verbiage. B.S., we called it.

Once, towards graduation, he sighed, “Man, if it wasn’t for all that B.S., you could do almost anything,” a casual comment that stuck with me all my life. That was the last I saw of him. Now, as if by default, he launches into a review of his career, not in a self-important way, just as one professional to, it is assumed, another. He majored in psychology, I knew that. So did I. Gradually, his overview feels like a blizzard or a jetliner idling its engines. Graduate school in Utah, or was it Chicago, an internship at UCLA, or was he training interns there. Directing a program for this agency, revamping policies in another. Research, dissertations, proposals, overhauling organizations to increase fairness in ethnic family support services. Then he got bored and flew to L.A. on weekends to get his MBA. And ongoing therapy with individuals, of course. I was talking to a therapist, which is always a little weird, for as with Heisenberg’s atomic particles, our behavior is affected by their observation of us, be it real or imagined. He doesn’t look like he sees through me, but maybe he does.

Yet on this night my central experience of the man is his uncanny embodiment of the Greek notion of virtue, of moral excellence. He has been diligent and persevered, he has been of service to his community, he radiates honesty and kindness. One thinks of Lysias’ words in the 5th century B.C.:  “…to be law abiding and self-controlled and neither to be dominated by pleasure nor driven by the prospect of profit…” Anyway, that’s my impression.

I keep him going, asking interested questions, probing lightly, fencing off the moment when it will be my turn. His dad, who used to play Santa Claus in the AC Transit Christmas parades, lived to be 99 and his mother, who gave us Greek dishes for dinner, made it to 98. Me, I provide no overview. Things come out in little spurts. I mention doing the 1981 Monterey Jazz Festival and how I’d helped Richie Cole escape from a screwed-up solo by jumping in with mine. I make occasional allusions to challenges I’ve faced. At some point he asks, “You decided not to attend the reunion. What’s up with that?” Yeah, I’m thinking, I need a class reunion. I need someone I don’t remember to walk up and say, “Arnie!  Didn’t I see you driving around Berkeley in the 80’s in an old Ford 250 with wooden sides and a lawn mower, rakes and a weedwacker in back?” And if a person does go to the reunion, odds are he has a home. Another awkward topic. But why go there with Lysias himself in a nice Greek restaurant next to your dad’s old record store? What’s he supposed to do, pass judgment? He doesn’t need my balls in his court. We should be talking nostalgically about high school memories – first girlfriends, all the hair we had on our legs, how much more intense orgasms were back then. Light stuff. I tell him my avoiding the reunion involves “issues of self-esteem.” Let him fill in the blanks. He probably already has. He’s a professional.

He asks if I’ve been a risk-taker. Well, back in ’68, there were these two roads that diverged in the wood, OK?  John Perona, the acid-head-in-residence at our dorm was standing there on Telegraph Avenue staring at me in the aftermath of a Berkeley riot, saying, “Arnie, they’re looking for a sax player down at the Lucky 13.” That has made all the difference. Of course, of every hundred souls who set out to be artists or musicians, 98 fail. Writers? Forget about it. Lawyers and psychologists have their societies and protocols, those of artists are obscure and ephemeral. When they knock you down it can take a long time to get up.  After a while, maybe you don’t anymore.  Or if you’re lucky you can you stagger off to Japan to teach English to salarymen. All you can do looking back is forgive the thick-headed youth you were and hope he’s finally gotten his head screwed on straight. And who knows? Paul might have a few skeletons skulking in a closet somewhere.  We all have our regrets, our mistakes.

Paul kindly offers that my life might be more interesting than his, but by now we’re pretty much done. I glance down at my unfinished moussaka.  His is gone.  He grabs the tab. Outside, I look up at the restaurant’s name: Ikaros.  What the hell is that in English?  Oh, yes…Icarus.  Dude flew too close to the sun, fell into the sea.  Lysias would never pull a stunt like that.

“Be well,” Paul says at my parked car and fades into the Oakland night.

I leave the Bay Area under clouded skies, reminded again that groovy towns like Berkeley and Frisco, easy to reside in before I left the States, are now inaccessible to all but the well-heeled. We wanted to stay in California, but, as we stop in Albany to munch a classic Caspar’s Hot Dog, we know we can’t cut the mustard.

Back in the forested hills above Nevada City, I start in raking up the 50,000 oak leaves scattered across my brother-in-law’s long driveway. God, stroking a rake through leaves again feels good. My sister rolls up, stops for a trip report and hearing it, comments, “Oh, Arnie, you have such a habit of putting yourself down!”

“Yes, that might be, and…” not missing a beat as a stranger approaches and rounds the car, I direct my words toward the guy…“you know that about me too, right?”

“Know what?” the guy asks in confusion.

“Oh Blake,” sister sighs, “this is my brother.  He’s here from Japan.”

“Actually, I’m from Oakland.”

“Really? I am too.”

“Where in Oakland?”

“MacArthur and Park Boulevard.”

“That’s the corner of Oakland High School.”

Our eyebrows elevate. I step toward him. We shake hands. “What year?”


“1963,” I respond. “I just had dinner with a friend I hadn’t seen for fifty years.”

“That’s amazing,” he says. “I was just now going up the hill to email someone to find out why my old Oakland High rugby coach just died. Coach Margolis. He influenced me so much. I saw him two years ago and he looked great. I think he was like 75. ‘Who are you, Jack La Lanne?’ I’d asked him.  Now he’s gone.”

“You never know.”

“I think we shouldn’t let a single day go by without reaching out to family and telling them we love them,” says Blake, and heads up the hill toward his mansion, a sprawling estate surrounded by huge cedars and oaks.

Later in the evening little Andy and I are rolling around on the couch. He needs tickling. Tonight there’s extra affection and a lot of hugging involved. It feels as if we’re getting closer now that he’s a six year-old and can express so much. This intimacy makes me happy, joyous, even. Sister Andrea comes over with hot tea, the New Age kind with words of wisdom on the bag. Andy, who reads like he’s nine, recites it to me:  “Joy is the essence of success.”

So now I’m a success? Analyze that.

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Dear Rabbi Gruenwald

I was googling “There’s someone bigger than Bernie,” the old Mel Brooks’ bit in the 2000 Year-Old Man, and I was directed to the site of your synagogue in Denver.  It was “someone bigger than Phil,” wasn’t it.  Well,  even if my name is Baruch, at 69, I’m not blessed with a perfect memory.

Then I was drawn into your Phil-based sermon. Do you call it a sermon? I don’t know from Judaism. I was not once in a synagogue. I never wore a yarmulke or experienced a bar mitzvah. I was even denied the Brooklyn Dodgers, because after I was born in 1945 on the day after Hitler died (I had cut a deal: I wouldn’t check in until the shmuck had checked out) my family fled Flatbush for California. I was raised there by my Dutch father and New York mother in Christian Science. I abandoned this at 18 when the universal joint of our minister’s 1947 Chevy fell on my head and he treated my wound with prayer and a kerosene-soaked cloth, leaving a small purple scar. In 1968 after five years at Berkeley I joined the Church of the Reefer for a couple decades, until I was directed by fate to Japan, where I now reside. I’ve had only a few Jewish friends: Bryan Kravitz, a loveable Jewish Willy Loman, and Peter Frankel, a manic guitarist/pop composer who at 64 still can’t finish a song.

But I am a Jew, make no mistake.  Rabbi, much of your sermon is admirable, but like the old Jewish man in hell (I assume you know the joke) I want to make a little trouble.
You quote this:

“It is good to thank you, Adonai, to sing of your great Name. To speak of
Your love each morning, and Your faithful [care] at night.”

OK, here it comes, and I know you’ve heard this before: the Nazis fried my grandparents. And as you’ve heard, there were several others. So I’ve always wanted to ask: how does, “Your faithful care at night” not stick in your throat?  I want to know. By the way, don’t get me wrong, I miss the Lord.  A lot.  I’m an old, if vital, man with a young wife and six year-old son and not much in the bank. I fear the pestilence that walketh in darkness and the unemployment that wasteth at noonday. I have also a little pain near my groin, and that’s been a few months now. Someone to watch over me? It would be a pleasure. I even pray at night, muttering the Lord’s Prayer (you should excuse me) or the 23rd Psalm. But it tends to echo in my brain especially when I reach, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of death…” Next thing I know, “Godwackers” is ringing in my head.  (Donald Fagen. There’s a militant atheist Jew with songwriting chops to die for.)

Excuse the musical references but really, Rabbi, I don’t envy you! After all, didn’t evil win? Weren’t the gentle promises of the Torah rendered ludicrous? Isn’t 1942 a historical moment that transcends the Exodus in importance? – the latter supposedly a journey across the desert by 3 million people totally untraceable by archaeologists.  How can Jews, how can you personally, disregard the greatest divine betrayal of all time and just go on davening? This is a real mystery. Isn’t worshipping the God of Abraham after 1945 sort of like a beaten wife returning to a cruel husband, hoping he’ll get better? Isn’t it worse than that? Don’t you sometimes get the feeling the Jews need, well…some new material?

OK, let’s calm down. You’re a lovely man, a mensch. Jews come to you. You listen, you give them moral guidance and extend compassion. Besides, you probably suffer from the same bitter doubt I do but have to hide it from your congregation! Your father was possibly an acid-head against whom you rebelled into Jewish orthodoxy – I mean orthodoxy compared to your dad, who smoked weed 24/7 and played bass in a folk-rock band and still has hair like Howard Stern.

Or not. Maybe you were compelled into rabbinical school by a severe, fear-stricken Jew like the dentist-father of the protagonist in my novel, 1961:

Joshua: crying softly. “I’m sorry I forgot to floss, Papa. I won’t…”
Father: Shh! Don’t you see? They say we are dirty!  They hate us when we do well. We have to be clean! Not just our teeth – our hands and clothes and shoes, everything. Or they’re going to kill us all again!”

If it’s not God it’s the gentiles. And then, it’s God again. (Don’t forget, He gave us the only place in the whole Mideast with no oil, surrounded by millions of sworn enemies!  What’s that about?)

I don’t know, here I am writing to you, a total stranger! Why am I doing this? Because I’m still not a fucking atheist. I was imprinted in my youth with the mystical. Christian Science, which gave my father a place to hide from what happened to his parents, tells us nothing is real except Divine Mind. Perfect. Hitler, the ovens, it was all an illusion of “mortal mind.” This solved everything for Dad, even later, when his life fell apart in ways I won’t even go into. After that he focused on the Book of Job and eventually found a nice shiksa wife. You might say the Lord had covered up his sins.

Me, I wound up a mystic. I saw signs. I lean in ways perhaps similar to you, Rabbi, into the mystic – along with Van Morrison. Actually, what finally triggered this very essay…well, it’s a long story, but in 1973 I was working in a little record shop in San Francisco for a manager who looked just like Meher Baba, you know, the legendary Indian Avatar of the Age who declared himself God incarnate but kept getting banged up in automobile crashes. “Don’t worry, be happy?” Bobby McFerrin stole that from Meher Baba. Anyway, I tripped out very heavily on MB in those days, felt Baba was looking right through me every day in the record shop trying to compel me back into a marriage I didn’t want. He looked to my addled eyes like a photo of the young Meher Baba, like a wide-eyed acid freak. Of course, by the time Baba died in ’69 he looked like your Jewish uncle Max who works in the garment district. But for me what remained as a symbol/sign of him was his moustache! Big funny Jerry Colonna brush. At a few critical moments in my life since then, a man bearing The Moustache would appear to me, on a subway, posed on a park bench, enigmatic and inscrutable. But not for many years now. So today I’m sitting on a big rock after my afternoon jog, puffing hard, pondering the universe and what I should write to you, and I sense a man strolling in from the periphery, down University Avenue here in the beautiful Kunitachi district of Tokyo. Don’t look at him, I think, inexplicably. But as he passes by, a slim professorial type, he’s got the Moustache! In the last instant before his face is no longer visible, he glances at me…and winks! So I went inside and began writing this. Once every couple of decades…a wink I get.

The mind of man has discovered galaxies without end, wondrous subatomic structures, mathematics of oceanic depth. Meanwhile, the evil within men slaughters millions and maims the planet that bore them. It’s all too much. The extent of the beauty plus the limitless pain we create leaves us speechless. Where is God in all this, Rabbi?  This patriarchal force that did Phil, but also wanted Isaac’s neck slashed and relegated women to centuries of second-class status. This invisible being that you have the unmitigated audacity here in 2014 to call “the one true God.” How, Rabbi, can you expect people to embrace a theological system rife with cruelty and stained by inconceivable betrayal? What, in the words of Marvin Gaye, is going on?

You need the eggs, maybe?

Then there’s my heart. My sister the Christian Scientist (still!) gave my young son a little book about Joseph and his brothers. He brings it to me to read him to sleep. By the time the brothers get sent home to Canaan without Simeon, he’s out like a light, but I keep reading. When Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers, I choke up in the darkened room. “I am the brother you sold into Egypt,” he says. How can I be angry at you, he says: God had a plan. Otherwise we would have all starved. Wait on the Lord, he says. Like a knife in the heart it feels, the shadowy acceptances of my youth, long before I could discern fact from myth. How I ache for the safety of belief! Don’t you too, Rabbi? Isn’t Jehovah a reach for you sometimes?

(Incidentally, here’s a possibility I often consider:  God  – and His Wife – exist, but are not almighty. They just do what they can do. We live in a world of dualities, as the Buddhists hold, and Satan hits it out of the park plenty. He scores runs in bunches. Boy, does he.)

No, this doesn’t work. Too anthropomorphic. What was it you said?

“Understanding the ‘what’ of God…is less important than our response to God…We come to know God not through intellectual speculation, but rather by responding to that sense that… there is something ‘bigger than Phil.’”

Yeah, intellectual speculation is a no-win. Try doing a workshop with Richard Dawkins. But responding, doing the right thing, as far as we can see it. Living with a measure of humility. Witnessing little miracles. You’ll get no argument from me. But please don’t talk about “faithful care at night,” don’t wax eloquent about divine protection unless a train is bearing down on your Taurus and the motor won’t start. Then, don’t talk, just yell “Oy gevalt!”

Basically, it’s all thought experiments – like Einstein used to do – who, I believe, argued that everything is lighting. Or did he say everything is timing? I have to Google it.

The irony in all my fulminating about divine impotence and evil and the Holocaust is that time and again in my life they’ve cut me breaks. I always hesitate to use the word, given my name, (the exact same as thousands who never made it out of Europe) but I’ve been blessed. I’m a wizened old saxophonist/English teacher with a beautiful Japanese wife who might as well be Jewish she’s so funny, and a six year-old angel of a boy. Is he Jewish? Of course! It’s in there! He does already a good Russian accent.  My older son does five.   My real hope is that they will gravitate toward the philosophies of the East, where no people are Chosen and there is no past or future, only a quiescent humility of spirit. My dream is that someday someone will ask one of them about his religion and he’ll say, in a perfect Jewish accent he learned from me,

“I’m Buddhist, already. Don’t make a federal case.”

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Regarding Brooklyn

Legal documents indicate that I arrived into the world at Jewish Memorial Hospital in Brooklyn 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 Jewish tenor saxophonist is intolerable.  My life, though somewhat disappointing, is far too gentle a consequence for the perfect embodiment of evil.  He killed my grandparents and decimated my family – not to mention the Six Million.  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 exquisite aunt, who escaped with her two children in 1938 and became, with her British South African husband, a world-class recording artist, the two of them performers of international folk music worldwide.  What can I 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.  Despite being a European emigre, he’d made himself one of the country’s top radio and TV announcers and had married a legendary big band vocalist.  Then, in 1954 he was handed a job he’d dreamed of: helping to call play-by-play for the Brooklyn Dodgers, teaming up with baseball’s smoothest, most articulate announcer, Vin Scully.  He kept the gig until the Dodgers left Brooklyn 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.  I had hardly slept.  I’d been to Ebbets Field just twice before, once with my grandfather Harry, a frustrated comedian who, with my grandmother, 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 what seemed like 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 the microphone and his scorecard from the night before.  “Roy Campanella two hit homers, right over there by the Camel sign.  He’s been real 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?”  Andre said OK, and 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 it.  For a nine-year old Brooklyn kid, this was heaven on earth.  Twenty feet away, there was Campy warming up the 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 comfortably 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 that 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 did have 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 just stuck 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 sometimes 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 pain 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, the 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 give you a hard time?”

“No,” I lied, “I’m just waiting for Wayne.”

“Come on, man, what happened – tough day at school?”

I caved in 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 –though 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 somewhere 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 Columbia or NYU and leave the rest of us in the dust.”  Jackie reached down and tousled my hair with his big black 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 somehow, and when I finally picked up a saxophone in the 8th grade, I knew I’d found weapon to assert myself and speak my peace in the world.

Brooklyn’s no-nonsense world insulated me against the facile love-peace-and-brotherhood illusions of the Sixties.  I knew that 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.

In reality, our family left Brooklyn in 1946.  I was just nine months old when they moved to Los Angeles.  Cousin Andre 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 somehow my parents never told me he announced for the Dodgers, for whom as a boy I had rooted from faraway Los Angeles.  So it was long years later I realized — saw with certainty — that of course I would have gone to Ebbets Field with Andre and Wayne, that I would have met the Duke and PeeWee and Gil in an amazing alternative universe.  But it was not to be.  Those guys were in Brooklyn, and I was living in Eagle Rock, three miles from Pasadena.

Until the Dodgers came west to Los Angeles in 1958.  I was thirteen years old then.

That was the year my dad moved the family to Oakland.

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A Rookie in Kabuki

So there I was, crawling home through a 2AM Tokyo gridlock on a rainy Saturday night –  just a little stoned – rolling  out  Omekaido Street past one cross-street after another, a little Toyota immersed in a sea of taxi-cabs.  After a decade or so, I recognized a large intersection as – yes! my turning point.  After that it was a piece of cake.

This is where, in my cosmology, Jesus is up there negotiating with Meher Baba, who wants to slip a Japanese senior citizen under my wheels and let me writhe in hell for the rest of my life.  “Stay thy fierce wrath, Father,” says Jesus, “the boy was smoking on that horn tonight.”  Main Baba is growling,  “A son I needed to tell me what to do with some mediocre, spaced-out saxophone wannabe like this.  You should be a lawyer already with that mouth, Jesus.  A million times a day you’re interceding for these nuts, not to mention your mother, who’s just as bad as you.  An agent, Jesus.  You could have been an agent, even.”

There have been periods when I’ve maintained the sobriety most serious jazz musician practice.  Louis Armstrong on the other hand did not.  It’s said he just stayed high, on a daily basis.  And at a jazz concert, Lester Young once sat backstage and lit up a big spliff in full view of everyone.  “Mr Young, please, this is a jazz festival!” a functionary protested.

“Well then,” Pres exhaled, “Let’s be festive!”

I had gigged in Shinjuku that night with a black brother from New York with a voice like gold.  As many club acts do nowadays, we relied on pre-sequenced arrangements, so there was only a keyboardist-singer and guitarist on the set.  Joe Ruby was effortlessly tossing off everything from hard funk to Al Jarreau.  When he sang ”Me And Mrs. Jones,” his high notes were as crisp and powerful as a Clark Terry trumpet.  I slipped into the cracks between his lines, dabbing notes here and there, trying not to muck up the works.

The club’s patrons were oblivious of us, a hundred besotted salarymen packed into a big, plush hostess bar, jabbered at by the pretty young things hired to entertain them.  Shy young guys, unclear what to say or do, patiently mothered by lean-and-mean mini-skirted foxes who flitted to their tables escorted by manic, omnipresent little waiters.  Arriving, the girls kneel briefly before their clients, then snuggle in next to them.  The bow comes from geisha days, but seeing it executed in western-style clothes boggles the mind.  Hostesses get showered with everything from Gucci to sushi by customers dreaming of further intimacies.  Gifts here are against the rules, but management can’t stop it.  There are pawnshops catering to hostesses with too many designer handbags.  The ladies just offload the stuff, and it goes back into the stores again.

Crusty geezers are scattered around with more than enough cash to prove there’s no fool like an old one.  Waiters streak around the club, bellowing like fish sellers.  In Tokyo, this scene is considered stress-reduction.  It’s a party.  You’re out a big money, but you’ve spent time with this young thing, chatting about trivialities.  What’s incomprehensible to most Westerners is the final scene where they walk upstairs and the foxy lady stands there enthusiastically waving, “Bye-bye!” as the guy staggers off empty-handed and three hundred bucks short.  He thinks he’s cool.  His wife, waiting at home, does not.

What’s he been saying to the hostess?  “I had such a hard day today.  Here, I’ll buy you a drink.  You’re so sexy.  And you always listen to me – my boss doesn’t.   My wife doesn’t.  But you do.  You want a Gucci bag?”  He waxes wise, holds forth on the business world, then asks for details about her bra size as she gigglingly adjusts it for him.  Late one night I saw an exhausted salary-man passed out next to his girl.  She reached over and began absent-mindedly stroking his inner thigh.  Nothing.  His friend on the other side moved the girl’s hand up to his crotch, and maybe ten seconds later the guy snapped awake, looked down, smiled sheepishly, and faded out again.  Then his friend put his hand on the guy’s privates – in Tokyo, everything’s okay for a laugh.

But after we played our tunes, there wasn’t even a smattering of applause for vocals that would do Luther Vandross proud.  At break-time, Joe and I went to get some conveyor-belt sushi.  Joe was a little down.  His Japanese girlfriend had cut the cord, for good, it seemed, the previous Sunday.  Then on Friday after his gig, he’d walked out of the club he played in Nakano and nearly got run over by some mob punks in a minivan.  Words were exchanged, there was some shoving, next thing he knew, it didn’t matter how many good punches he’d landed: one guy had him in a headlock while two other hoods were smartly applying brass knuckles to his legs to get his ass on the ground and make it nice and kickable.  Joe managed to remain on his feet until some club people came to help.  His face was unmarked, but he hurt all over.  The club had sent him to Shinjuku till things cooled off with the yakuza.

The Tokyo night scene is a velvet glove hiding a variety of terrors.  That night, up and down Kabuki-cho’s dingy neon canyons, mini-skirted, bare-legged pretties stood holding their umbrellas against the spring rains.  Kabuki-cho is just the biggest of Tokyo’s tenderloins; other gleamy electric alleys are scattered everywhere across her sprawling landscape.  Wherever there’s a train station, there are watering holes and walk-up “snack bars,” and not too far away, a woman to soothe your blues.  At the “pink salons,” of course, they do more than that.  If you’re Japanese.

Ruby rambled on.  In New York, he revealed, his dad had been a gangster.  He recalled a night he’d seen his father approaching their Bronx apartment with a knife wound in his shoulder.  Nearby was the man who’d stabbed him, a local drug dealer his dad had tried to shoo out of the hood.  Joe rushed to back up his father, but he was told to go upstairs.   “This is my fight,” his dad admonished, “but I’ll tell you what I’m going to do.  First I’m going to put bullets into the brains of these two dogs of his that bit up my legs.  Then I’m going to put two shots into that motherfucker’s stomach so he’ll understand not to fuck with me.  Joe reluctantly went upstairs, heard shots ring out and rushed back thinking they’d killed his father.  But the dogs were dead, and the drug dealer was bent over with two bullets in his stomach.  He would survive them.  It went down in the Bronx.  There were no arrests.

Another hot, yet perfunctory set.  Another break.  We sat talking in our “dressing room,” a large closet with a cigarette machine at one end.  Waiters had to squeeze past us, scoring packs of “Peace” ciggies for their customers.  Joe was running down to me the famous bands he knew personally and the collection of keyboards he kept at home in San Diego.  Korgs and Moogs and Rolands and Yamahas, DX7’s and PR72’s, and God knows what else.  He tossed off references to recording techniques as if he weren’t talking to a ghost who’d spent the last twenty years interpreting license plates and mowing lawns.   I nodded sagely, then asked how he got started.  “I’m a programmer,” Joe explained.  “Always have been, ever since ’81.  This blind man taught me how to program.”

“Blind man?”

“Yeah, super keyboardist and singer.  Back in New York.  I used to work around the studio for him like a gofer.  One day, he’s at the keys, and he tells me to turn off the lights and says, ‘Come on over here.’  Then he puts his hand on my shoulder and I’m thinking. ‘If he’s gay, I’m in trouble.’  Dude was six foot four, and strong.  Then he says, ‘Give me a KM930 patch.’

“I can’t see anything, I say.”

“Neither can I,  he says.  So that’s how he taught me, feeling my way around the console, listening in the darkness.  Opened my ears like a motherfucker.  I stayed with him two years, he taught me everything.”  Joe turned and went out the door to get a beer.  Fifteen minutes later, he came back with four wrist watches he’d won in the UFO grabber-machine game.  He threw out his watch-laden arm in a street pose:

“What you need, man, what you need?”

At the end of the second night, I felt pretty good.  There had been moments where I’d bumped into guitarist Darnell’s lines, but what the hell, I was just learning the ropes.  As he finished the evening’s final credits, Darnell announced, “…and everywhere on sax, Aaron B!”  That sounded a little funny.  When the last notes had faded away, I tapped him on the arm and inquired, “Hey, have I been stepping on your toes?”  I might as well have stepped on a land mine.  On the now thankfully-darkened stage, Darnell was on me like Deion Sanders on an injured rookie wide-receiver.  He was about the same size as Deion, actually.

“As a matter of fact, you’ve been stepping all over my shit for two nights now.  Man, you need to lay back!”  He looked down at me from a foot over my head.  “Don’t you ever listen?  You need to lay back.  Me and Joe have been working together for two years here, we’ve developed a certain sound.   You need to respect that!”

“Yeah, well I was trying to. . . “

“Trying?  That’s hard to believe.  Man, you’re not 18 years-old, you no spring chicken, you should know better than to play all that shit.”  Joe came over to listen, and I appealed to him, “Joe, was I playing too much?”  The keyboardist nodded sadly, “Yeah, you might need to be more careful with the guitar parts, man.”  His tone was gentle, but there was no way he’d go against his regular sideman in full, flaming attack.  I mounted some half-hearted protests, but basically hung my head and took the verbal beating.  I wanted the gig.  And every musician has a different take.  Another player might feel my contributions outweighed my mis-steps.  After all, these guys play the same arrangements six nights a week; you’d think they’d welcome some fresh energy.  But it was a moot point.  I waited for the fury to subside, then made like the ozone layer and disappeared.  It was a  lonely walk to the car.

The next night, I took the stage right at 8:30, saying nothing to no one.  There was, you might say, tension in the air.  I stood in the back and kept the horn out of my mouth.  And I listened.  I noticed that without my sax, everything sounded just fine.  I noticed the interplay between keyboard and guitar, the completeness that was already in place.  I noticed all the freedom Darnell had to express himself.  But that first set, Joe threw three different solos to me, chances to acquit myself and kick out the jams, the actions of a sensitive man and an experienced leader.  I won’t forget the few seconds after Joe nodded to me to take my first solo.  I was wound pretty tight; time nearly stood still.

As the first chord of a solo approaches and then rings out, you perceive something like a wide green valley below, into which you can swoop in a variety of ways.  Especially, the very first note, if selected correctly, can be a kind of revelation.  Miles Davis was the great master of this.  That night I was filled with a largely unconscious, passionate anger Darnell’s verbal butt-kicking had engendered.  It focused me.  I waited, say, like Joe Montana would on a three-wide-out pattern, until in the last split second I heard the note I wanted and hit it.  It hung there in the air like a diamond.  It also felt a lot like a right cross landing on the side of Darnell’s head.  Then I heard the next note, and then another and I was off to the races.  That shit felt good.

After the set, I went back to the closet/dressing room and sat in there alone, nursing a beer.  Maybe 30 minutes later, Darnell came in and looked me straight in the eyes.  He was wearing this big floppy African dashiki.  “Look, man, he said softly, “I don’t want us to be enemies.  I want for us  to get along.”

I let the air out of my lungs slowly.  “Yeah, sure, I’m cool with that. “

“No man, come here,” he said, motioning me to stand up, and he threw his arms out and enfolded me in a tremendous NFL linebacker hug.  “I’m sorry, man, I’m sorry!”  He kept saying it over and over.  “I shouldn’t have said all that to you, man.”  I patted him on his invisible shoulder pads and said things like, “No, you were right, forget it,” and he said, “No, I wasn’t right,” and hugged me harder.  I decided not to argue the point.

After that, me and him were tight.  Darnell is a sweet guy 95 percent of the time, but he just goes off on people occasionally.  Joe explained it all to me later.  Me and Darnell were so tight that naturally I made sure to visit him in the hospital a couple of weeks later after he got creamed on his motorcycle  by some lady making a left turn dead into his path at 2AM on a major street.  He got off with a broken ankle, a screwed-up back, plenty of bruises, a destroyed bike, and three Japanese lawyers as dedicated to proving him in the wrong as that nice Admiral Yamamoto was to eradicating Pearl Harbor.  You know what they say about nice guys.

I found him sitting in the very same hospital that I’d once gone with an inflamed gall bladder.  An old man sat stooped over the edge of a bed adjacent to Darnell’s.  He took the couple of books I gave him to pass the time in the stuffy little room with no TV or radio.  Not that Japanese TV would have helped much.  A couple of days later he found the strength to get out of there.  A couple of months later he was back at the club.  But I wasn’t.  I was back teaching English, hoping for another gig.   But then the month after that, in Nakano, came a chance to play all week with another superb vocalist, Luther Wilson.

This club was quieter, less frantic than its Kabukicho sister-club.  I came in after a break and saw my alto leaning on the stage.  A subdued samba was drifting through the club.  How beautiful my horn looked to me!  I said as much to Spaceman, the keyboardist, another brother from the States.  “Shit, fuck your saxophone, look at all this pussy in here, man.  There’s legs, and more legs, and all of ‘em legs that won’t quit.  Look at this young thing here!”  A non-descript nightcat swept by us.  He had that tunnel-vision possessed by so many musicians, and I’m not talking trains here.

The bands played 30-minute sets, then retired to whatever squalid surroundings the management tossed at them.  In Shinjuku, it was a closet-sized storeroom with mops, stools and a cigarette machine.  In Nakano, we sat on the staircase.  This was better than it sounds, because at least there was fresh air and, more importantly, the bar girls regularly slunk or staggered past us up to the dressing room, and what a sight.  There were heated debates about the superiority of one derrière over another.  Spaceman would say, “That girl’s ass is just more articulated.”  Joe would shoot back, “Only thing more articulated about that ass is my dick inside it.”  Spaceman, “Well, you better push my dick out the way, cause I’m already in there.”

I never learned bad-ass talk in junior high school — so I brought up the Code of Hammurabi, inscribed in Akkadian script on a 4,000-year-old diorite stele, which I’d actually seen on exhibit that very day at a museum in Tokyo.  You know, the big black, “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” pillar, incorporating the legal decisions of the great Sumerian king.  I mentioned Code Number 148 which, 6000 years ago, provided for a man’s right to throw his wife into the Tigris if she didn’t clean up the house properly.  There were no liberated-male protests from these men on that one.  Actually, after their blank looks faded, they were fairly positive about the law.  We moved on to Egypt and to Luther’s conviction that the pyramids were built by aliens.  Spaceman, who one might expect to be an authority in this area, demurred, but told of a time when he and his friends had put an apple under an impromptu pyramid and it hadn’t turned brown for quite a long time.  “You see,” he explained, “they didn’t have science in those days.  They went with what they felt in their bodies, deep inside themselves.”  Just then a cutie ascended the stairs.  Spaceman looked deep inside himself.  “I want to marry you, you sweet thing!”  he called out.  The lady smiled and kept on up the stairs.

Keep it light, I’m thinking.  “You know, regarding the power of pyramids,”  I commented, “maybe that’s why my people have stayed strong over the ages, what with all the work we did putting them up.” The two brothers threw me one of those sudden, empty stares that to me evokes a possible distrust the Jews.  (Spaceman’s thought-bubble: “Did this man’s ancestors run my people into Georgia on sailing ships?”)  We segued into a consideration of arcane medical practices like Chinese doctors doing brain surgery while their patients maintained normal conversations.  I pointed out that we had similar experiences in the Sixties, but we used LSD instead.  “We could feel our cortexes right through the skull.  All those little wormy indentations, right?  But you guys are too young to remember that.”

“What the hell you mean?” retorted Spaceman.  Man, I’m 49 years old.  They wanted my ass in Vietnam.  I went in to my army physical and failed the hearing test on purpose.”

“A musician failing a hearing test?”

Spaceman stared at me.  “What’s that?…Say what?…Speak up, man.”

“Well,” I reminisced, “I went down and handed out protest leaflets to the inductees.  They threw me out and said they’d make me 1-A anyway.  But then I came up number 335 in the lottery.”

“I remember that,” put in Luther.  “My older brother came up number 87.  My mother saw that on TV and fell down on the floor crying.  He went off a few months later and never really came back again.  He’s 50 now, still lives in New York.  He used to play guitar, but not after he got back from Nam.  He’s been pretty quiet since then, especially after his wife died.  He’s credited with 50 or 60 kills over there, but he says the real number’s probably over a hundred.”  Luther quoted his brother:

“Sometimes the kids jumped up on our tank, trying to get at our water canister.  Water, man, that’s life or death — they do that, you just opened the tank door and put a .45 bullet right through their heads.  I took out men, women, children.  You check out a hooch, you don’t know who they are.  They’d yell, ‘No VC, no VC!!’  but what did we know?  We’d just go poom,  poom,  poom  and take ‘em all out.  It was life or death.  Burial?  We’d put four or five bodies in a pile, then I’d take my tank and roll right over the lot of them.  Don’t need no graves, my tank buried people just fine.  Most times, we’d be up there in the tank smoking joints and listening to Jimi Hendrix.”

Spaceman cut in.  “Hell, I know a brother down in Yokohama, told me at night he’d go party with the VC.  They’d put it out over the loudspeakers every day: “You black GIs, this is a white man’s war.  Tonight – just come on down!   So they’d go over and get high.  Next day, the VC would ambush the crew and everyone would get it except the blacks.”  I blinked at Spaceman disbelievingly.

“It was cold-blooded,” added Luther.  “My brother said he had to watch his back with the white Southerners.  They’d take a dislike to some brother and frag him in a firefight.  Hell, everyone was fair game.  He told me about a captain in a chopper that directed their squad up and over a hill, saying there were minimal Charlies.  They got there and now mortar and anti-tank ordnance was raining down like crazy.  Half the squad got wiped out.  They had to run for their lives, but while they were doing that, they put a few rounds into the chopper and brought the captain’s ass down.  What the hell, friendly fire, right?”

Luther’s brother in New York has been better since he married again, but still talks about taking an AK-47 to his job someday and nailing half the people down there.  Luther pretty much keeps his distance.  He lives in Tokyo.

The break finally ended, and we stepped up onto the stage.  Walking onstage is like slipping into the cockpit of a jet fighter or into a race car.  A kind of physical arrogance washes over you – not toward people, but toward the “real” world itself.  What could be more real than this?  The slick attire, the sweet feeling when I reach down for my tenor.  Those magic seconds before the first song.  The keys of my horn tip-tapping under my fingers.  The soft multi-colored glow of the party room.  Perhaps a little smoke buzzing in my head.  I’d never played with these guys before.  I’d never played half the songs and only vaguely remembered the chords to the rest.  Playing here was like pushing carefully through jungle foliage, not sure of the next step until it is revealed, jumping on in instinct, melding with the keys, finding next notes and making them glitter.  I was moving with it now, not quite so white anymore.  Playing off Luther’s vocals I might have been in church, partaking of a gospel one part mental, one part dance, one part achy-braky heart.

I think it was when I first put my ears inside Chick Corea’s “500 Miles High,” that I first perceived this other world, a land across a leap of faith, a place of total dedication and total beauty.  Who goes there? Not couch potatoes. Not long-suffering religiosos.  Not seekers of worldly goals.  Only those who surrender their lives to the music.  I never quite could.  But the sax is so physical, infused with jungle wails and cries.  Listen to Joe Farrell on “500 Miles High,” how he surrenders body and mind until there’s nothing left to give.  You breathe in the horn as much as you breathe it out.

Back on the stairs, as we talked, the girls would pop through the door and slip self-consciously past us.  Luther explained the rules and the realities.  We were not to talk to them beyond a simple greeting (though each musician was bedding a hostess regularly).  The company policy for the girls was no sex with customers, but if, after stringing a guy out for a couple of months – or a couple of years – she serviced him a little, no federal case ensued.  The key point was for him to come back and spend money.  What kind of money?  Luther told of a friend of his that came by one night, stayed for two sets, and wound up with an eight hundred dollar tab.  And there were regulars here who showed up four or five nights a week.  The girls got a cut of each drink bought for her, so they were often quite drunk.  Why not fake the drinks?  The enforcers became furious and would slap girls in the face if they tasted her drink and discovered tea and not whiskey.  Something about not tricking the honored customer, whose fantasy was to get her drunk and so amenable to the “next step” –- one she was not supposed to take!  The power behind the scenes here demands faultless respect.  Luther told of a clubowner who went to visit another club and was denied entrance.  He was connected, so when the name he dropped made no impression, he made a phone call and support arrived.  The mob guys pushed their way in and cleared things up fast, making sure their client had a good time for free.  But the guy made a mistake: a week went by without his sending an omiage to the head yakuza to show his appreciation.  He didn’t even call the guy.

Wrong.  One night Luther was gigging there and the boys come in with a little Joe Peschi type, and quickly Mr. Clubowner is on the floor getting exhaustively pounded by those he’d not so long ago called on for help, emerging with a nice big cut over his left eye.  The customers bolt.  Then there’s a sit-down to discuss matters – that is, for Mr. C. to be loudly scolded and for him to kiss ass.  Joe Peschi is seated  next to him all fidgety and nervous, demanding more drinks.  Then he asks sympathetically if Mr. C.’s eye is okay.  The clubowner lowers the bloody towel from his face and says yes, it’s okay.  WHAM!  Joe pops him one more time in the same spot for good measure.

The singer sighed.  “I know a guy in Yokohama who told me, ‘Luther, you ever have any trouble, anywhere in Japan, you let me know.’  But I’ll never call him.  They do me a favor and next thing I have to bring in a package for them from the States – in my colon.  Fuck that.”

Each night, mid-way through the last set, Luther would turn to me and say casually, “Hey Aaron B, you wanna do something?”  By Wednesday night I figured I’d followed the New Cat Modesty Protocols long enough, laying low with jazz standards, so I handed my mini-disk to Spaceman and said, “Tokyo, track 5.”  It was “Leave Tokyo Behind,” my original tune, arranged to the hilt with horns and strings and background vocals, all to back up my lilting voice and blinding middle-aged charisma.   Luther stood behind me on stage, a black man who man teaches singing three days a week at a Tokyo college.  Who cares!  I’m out there, mike in hand, Frank Sinatra again, up on the dining room table, flying through my own dream.   It came off pretty good.  I mean, no one threw anything.  Afterward, Luther announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, Aaron B, an original tune from Aaron B!”  Way in the back, one guy was making the sound.  Clap, clap, clap.   I think I got five or six of those.

Each night on the stairs with Luther and Spaceman night held reminders of the black experience, echoes of my years in Oakland.  Gospel music is a fad these days at weddings in Japan, and Luther plays them regularly.  He argued that his employers, out of their rigid hierarchies, cultural insensitivity, perhaps out of spiritual emptiness, have time and again sought to restrict the outpourings of his soul.  He tells of a Japanese agent who had seen a great, bald gospel singer and was thus convinced that anyone with hair was incapable of performing genuine gospel.  Another club owner would book black musicians only.  He had a “Motown” club and was a stickler for authenticity, which he defined strictly in racial terms.  A superb white keyboardist Luther recommended, a player who’d grown up in the New York ghetto surrounded by black music and culture, was rejected.  After several appeals, the player had to pass his severe Japanese scrutiny: was he really funky?  Grudgingly, the clubowner admitted it: “Okay, ‘Michael-san’ is berry funky.”  But it still wasn’t quite right to the clubowner.  Funky musicians have black skin.  In Japan, there are so many about the fantastical cosmos that surrounds their island.  There’s a light-skinned Afro-American Luther speaks of, another fine player and vocalist, who can’t work because his skin is too light for Japanese preconceptions.  Talk about reverse discrimination. Luther’s descriptions of this insanity were hilarious.  I often had to get up and walk halfway up the stairs, bent over, from his crazy impressions of conflicted, stressed-out Japanese.  Once, Luther spoke of a Lauryn Hill gospel rendition of the theme from Beethoven’s Ninth.  He began tossing off notes with flourishes and turns, pure gospel filling the stairwell.

Joyful, joyful, Lord we adore thee

God of glory, Lord of love

Hearts unfold like flowers before thee

Hail thee as the sun above

Melt the clouds of sin and sadness

Cast the dark of doubt away

Giver of immortal gladness

Bring us to the light of day.

Instantly, tears began welling up inside me.  So hard to comprehend such sudden emotion, but I had an eerie feeling that Jesus himself had just walked up the stairs instead of one of the girls, and said hello.  But the moment passed, and Luther continued his tale.  “So they threw this Japanese pianist chick at me, who wanted to pound the theme out like a fucking march, Dum-Dum-Dum-Dum, Dum-Dum-Dum-Dum — I’ll tell you, that was some sad shit.  I told them to forget it.  They never respect that you know your own music; they have to stick their noses in and mess it up.  If they’re doing the sound, they mess that up because they’re fiddling with the faders and changing settings, like if they don’t stay busy, they’re not doing their job.”

So there he was, working six, sometimes seven days a week, for years now.  Six nights at this club, three half-days teaching singing, two or three extra wedding gigs a week, making good money, but afflicted with bitterness, misunderstood, dispossessed of his native community.  And for all his vocal perfection, when he went back to the States, he was sobered by the overflowing young talent coming out of the black community.  Spaceman, too, told of friends in the L.A. hood grinding away at some thankless manual job.  A mechanic friend of his would sit down behind his keyboard and say, “Check this out, man,” then casually rip off chords and scales and musical ideas that staggered him.

Whaddya gonna do.  It’s a jungle out there, right?  A couple weeks later.  I got called in for a few nights in Kichijoji by Bobby Ishikawa, a drummer who books me.   That day, I’d just finished a 2-week English intensive and was packing up the books with a young woman.  She knew I was playing that night and asked, “Aaron, do you practice, or don’t you need to any more?”

“Oh, I’m so busy.  Seems like I’ve got no chance these days.”

“Well, have a nice time tonight!”

Debra Hurd at

That night, I’m standing outside the club.  Luther comes up the street, says hello, and cruises on into the club.  Five minutes later, here comes goddamn Lester Young up the alley, a big-chested black man wearing a light sport coat and a slick, New York-in-the-30’s fedora tilted forward on his head, carrying an alto sax case in his hand.

Ishikawa had screwed up and hired two horn players.  I knew the guy.  He was Kalim, an East-coast player Joe Ruby said could advise me on new sax pads.  So I walk inside and introduced myself on the stairs.  Kalim looks me over balefully, and everyone is flustered what to do next.  Except me.  “I just want to hear Kalim blow!”  I comment enthusiastically.  But two altos and a singer?  Kalim turns and walks up the stairs to the rooftop veranda.  I was exhausted from a party with the students where I’d wound up dancing on top of a karaoke-room table shouting out the lyrics to Pink Cadillac.  So I returned to my cooling-out location on the street, thinking what to do next.  Maybe play a couple of tunes and split.

Then Charlie Parker cuts loose four floors up on the rooftop, getting his horn out of his case, and onto mine.  (“You wanna hear me play?  Here I am!”)  Classic, pure, saxophone soul exploding from the roof over a three-block radius, the neon nightclub district suddenly bombarded by jive and jazz – a be-bop Pearl Harbor.  Kalim is running all these slippery mixolydian scales at the speed of light, then a half-step up, then up another, and another.  I’m down on the street looking for a rubber band to tie around my head to close my jaw, which has dropped to somewhere around my knees. The brother knew how to warm up his horn.  When it comes to a sense of humor, God is highly underrated.  At three in the afternoon, it’s, “Aaron, do you practice, or don’t you need to any more?”  At 8 PM, you’re standing under a molten shower of notes raining down from heaven.  Who says Gabriel isn’t a reedman?  I pulled out my cellphone and listened to Ishikawa apologizing for the mistake.  “Just play the first set, you’ll get paid.”  Yeah, Bobby, sure.  I walked in the club, took my horn and packed it up.  It wasn’t about the money.  Luckily, at the last moment, Peter Montgomery, a fine local guitarist, showed up, and a normal trio was in place.  I suppressed the urge to cut and run and hung out, checking Kalim out from the back of the club, soaking up his Grover Washington-like stuff.  I grabbed a beer and waited up on the stairs for the set to end.  The big guy finally came around the corner, our eyes met, I paid him my compliments.  “You sound good, man.”

“Hey, thank you,” smiled Kalim, “but it all comes from God, you know.”

Rather than the Kansas City saxophone killer I’d imagined, here’s a friendly honey-bear witnessing for Christ.  So now there were hand-slaps and smiles, as my white-boy paranoia faded.  We spent the next thirty minutes in his horn clinic, going over everything from reeds to pad resonators.   A few nights later Kalim was sick and I got called in one last time.  At midnight, we finished in front of a thin, indifferent crowd, and I offered Spaceman a ride home.  Luther was already out the door heading for the last train.  Spaceman and I strode out of the club at about 1 AM. I was feeling good, feeling tired.  We made it past the local hit-man with the extra-flat face and the Hawaiian shirt.  “Abunai, yo!”  (“Look out”) he muttered as we passed him.  He was just warning us about a minivan zipping past us, but conjuring memories of the assault on Joe here a few weeks before.  He looked like he might have been the instigator.  At the end of the street, three street barkers stood talking in their formal black suits.  Our eyes met and I didn’t feel like blinking at their cold glares, so I called out the standard remark at workday’s end in Japan, “Thank you for your hard work.”  They nodded profoundly at me, stunned by my powerful stare.  As we turned the corner, Spaceman started cracking up.

“Man, it’s “Otsu kare sama desu,” not ”Go chi so sama desu.”  You just told them you enjoyed their delicious food.  That’s for when you’re leaving a restaurant.”

“I know what I said.  Music is like food to me, man.”

“Right.”  Spaceman wasn’t going for it.  We both started to lose it, and by the time we reached the car, our sides had just about split.  Driving home, Mr. Spaceman ran on about how every night he waited at his pad for his girlfriend, one of the pretties that worked at the club.  The relationship was, of course, in flagrante.  “She comes in, takes all her clothes off, I go crazy for about twenty minutes with her legs wrapped around my neck, then I crash.  She got sick last week – I fucked her so bad.  Girl came too much.  I drained all the energy out of her ass.”  He sighed.  “Man, I love Japan.  A man can be a man, you know?”

“You got that right,”  I agreed, teeth gritted.

But that’s another story.

We got to his corner and he got out of the car.  “You sounded good on that Luther van Dross tune man, let’s do it again tomorrow.”  I drove a couple blocks to the local Denny’s, slumped into a booth, told a pimply 18-year-old waiter to bring me some French toast and coffee and stared out window.  It had started to drizzle outside on the dirty early-morning sidewalk.

Photo: Scott Shepard

Posted in Music Essays | Leave a comment

Those Roppongi Blues

The Peter Principle

Peter M subs for me sometimes at the club.  He’s a Philadelphia jazz-funk guitarist in his 40s, but he doesn’t look it, save for a spot where the nap disappears on the back of his head.  Peter’s world revolves around jazz chops and pussy.  He comes over to my place to cop some of my “sequences” (the background recordings we both use in our gigs) while I try to acquire from him a better understanding of jazz scales.  Last night we drove into Roppongi together to do separate gigs.   “My guitar’s screwed up,” he complained.  “George Benson fucked it up.”

“Say what?”

“George is in town.  We go way back, in Philly, you know.  We was hanging out yesterday.  He was playing my guitar and I said I was having trouble with it and George starts messing with the bridge and shit.  He totally fucked it up.  George should know better than to do that shit.”

“Yeah,” I said.

On any given day, Peter will complain about some mysterious ailment his guitar is suffering.  It always disappears after the second set.  He uses world-class players on his self-produced jazz CDs, once even the altoist Kenny Garret.  And as a black American musician on the streets of Tokyo, he is a pussy magnet.  He has to carry this special loosening spray to detach young women when they come skittering across the street and glom onto him.  The sound of the suction being broken as the pussy falls away from his leg is remarkable.  He gets into so much pussy he goes to a Chinese accupuncturist who attaches electrified clips onto his dick to re-sensitize it.  He gets it so often his body makes involuntary thrusting movements when he’s walking down the street.

We came out of Club Fusion last night and immediately this total stranger, a cute, sharp-eyed chick with clever lips and slashy teeth was immersed in conversation with him.  She’s speaking perfect English and submitting her resume.  She’s a dancer and she’s studying art and jazz and French and who knows what else.  They’re entranced with each other.  “Hey,” he tells her, “I was hanging with George Benson yesterday – I had an extra ticket, you could’ve come.  So look, give me your card.”  She plunges into her purse.  They exchange numbers while I stand to one side listening to her escort, a pallid guy from Puerto Rico, babbling about how high Tokyo prices are.  Peter and Ms. Slashy Teeth are already hugging ecstatically.  I want to ask, look, why are you talking to this man?  I outdistance him intellectually, I’m funny, my sense of art is so far-ranging.  Why are you, with your perfect English, laser-beamed onto this guy.  He speaks Japanese – he doesn’t need your English.  I need your English.  But it’s not about any of that, is it — it’s about sex, right?  Well look, I have a dick too.  It’s not black, but it’s a perfectly good dick.  I could spray-paint it if you want.  I could make it any color you like.  I could spray-paint it green.  Would you be interested in a green dick?  It might give you a sense of being connected to nature.  It would be like being intimate with some lovely tropical protuberance.  Or we could do another color.  We could rent “The Color Purple,” and we’d munch grapes, and then after a romantic purple sunset you could explore the wonders of my purple dick.  You don’t really want black.  Black is so…so Seventies.

But I just walk away.

Driving home, Peter reflected on his ten years in Tokyo.  “Man, I don’t know about you, but I’ve had so much pussy here I stopped counting.  It’s been like a ten year vacation, just good music and good pussy.”  (He’s married to a dutifully submissive Japanese woman, and has a daughter after whom he named his CD.)  I held my silence, not having the stomach to grunt lies (“Oh, Kumiko and I are happy enough together.”)  Peter’s endless chatter covered my sorrow well enough.  An angry side of me wanted to lash out from my grim universe, but I knew that,  “No, motherfucker, my wife isn’t into me and I get no pussy at all,” would not be followed by, “Oh wow, dude!  You have some difficult sexual issues!”  Peter’s world is not one of confession or sharing.  His usual repartee involves swapping tales of sexual conquest with other black men.  Normal, healthy Afro-American male rivalry, you know, dueling Negroes.

I know, I know…just pretend I’m Howard Stern.

Street Weiss

Every night of the year, all across the planet, hundreds of millions of men consummate unions with women.  This is not to mention invertebrates and insects in their astronomical numbers.  A whole planet, seething with sexuality, throbbing and pulsing.  Mosquitos plunging wildly into their kind, bears rolling and pawing, beetles cajoling each other with little antenna strokes, Robert de Niro astride some French tart as he, too, has his way.  Why not me?   What to do?  Ah!   A personals ad in the local English rag:

Jazz saxophonist, Jewish, married/scorned, seeks romantic interlude to complete hilarious personal journal.  Think Al Pacino meets Woody Allen.  Asian woman preferred, but what do I know?  Transportation provided.  No Kenny G fans please.

Nothing, except from a largish woman in Cameroon.

The 92-Strike Handicap

On garish Roppongi Crossing, amid all the neon and clamor and rushing humanity, there’s a koban with an especially serious group of policemen inside.  Wearing frowns and steely gazes, these guys deal daily with drunken salarymen, club-related yakuza battles, and Tokyo’s largest foreigner party zone.  This year there was even a World Soccer Cup with throngs of euphoric Brazilians, Turks, Italians and the ever-notorious British.  And there’s the sex trade.  AIDS, drugs, the declining moral standards of Japanese youth – what’s a cop to do?  Not too much, apparently.  About thirty feet from the koban, right on the crossing, Chinese hookers stop you, belly-to-belly, to offer massage services.  Playing-card-sized stickers are plastered everywhere with color pictures of call-up playbunny prostitutes.  Touchy-feely nightclubs abound with “private dance rooms.”

And there walk I.  Sexologists have been able to identify a cyclical pattern in sexual desire in males.  Most men seem to experience these energy peaks at three to four day intervals.  Mine occur every year-and-a-half.   Every 18 months an urge rises to get a little love somewhere — even if the battle is all I finally wind up mounting.

“Massage?  You want massage?”

They lie in wait just past the police station.  They appraise you from a distance, and if they catch a wistful look in your eye or if you slow down a bit, they pounce.  Suddenly they’re bump-and-run cornerbacks with sweet smiles as if they really, really like you.  You’re thinking Deion Sanders this is not.  If it’s a pretty one, I stand there explaining how I’m really busy and getting hard at the same time.  There are reasons to keep moving.  It’s the very low end of the Tokyo sex-market.  By now, I know a lot of people on the street, and I don’t want them to see me, a local star, a saxophone luminary, hooked and reeled in like a tuna.  And who’s waiting inside the den of iniquity?  Yakuza thugs?  Vice cops?  Maybe the whole thing is a sting.  What do I know?

One hot July night, though, I get corralled by an especially pretty one.  She hooks her arm in mine and takes me around the corner and up some stairs.  It’s a seedy little apartment.  There’s a guy behind a counter who takes my 5,000 yen.  This is dirt cheap.  An hour of real Tokyo sex is 40,000 yen plus the hotel room.  She leads me down a shadowy hall partitioned with curtains.  I feel comforted by the dark.  At the end there’s a cubicle with an old futon on the floor.  She pulls the curtain closed and tells me to take off my shirt.  I go with the flow.  Then she tells me to take off my pants, sees me hesitate, and queries, “Hand job, right?”

“Yeah,” I shrug.  It feels like I’m in some sad-ass clinic.  She invites me to lie down on the futon, but there’s no pillow.  I’m lying prone staring at a gritty ceiling.  Now she squats next to my knees, reaches down, and pulls off my underwear like she’s changing her kid’s diaper.  Then she grabs a bottle of oil, slicks up her hands, and grabs me like she’s found a snail in the forest.  With a start, the mollusc awakens.  She’s quite good, she knows her moves.  It feels nice to a point, but it’s not an interaction, it’s a procedure.  She’s a nurse come to extract fluid.  My job: spasm and release.  It’s all very positive, she’s doing her part with a little smile, so I begin to try to achieve the Goal.  There’s this vague feeling of loneliness, but I won’t give in to that.  Squatted there at my feet, her leg is within reach.  If I touch that, it might be more, you know, human.  Okay, it’s a nice leg, it’s not a guy’s leg, it’s a woman’s leg.  I can squeeze it a little.  She doesn’t object.  I feel a little closer to her, not much, but also closer to the Goal, and that’s the main point, right?  My fingers slip higher up the leg, a centimeter at a time, because I assume there’s a limit to that sort of thing.  I’m monitoring my excitement and rationing out to myself each centimeter advance up the leg.  I’ve got the knee now, just a little more…here come some soft, conservative moans from me…a little more, yes, it’s no problem, it’s up and over and the deal is done.  Kleenex is applied to the snail, there’s some small talk, (“You should come to Shanghai, it’s very nice.”) then a brief hug, and it’s time to leave.  She heads back toward the corner calling out, “Ask for Ling next time.”

I saw her out there one more time, maybe six months later, once again at the end of my sexual rope.  Foolishly, I went for another 5,000 yen go.  Or rather no-go.  The same ministrations left me far below orbital velocity.  I sat up and embraced her, burbling something about how I needed a “friend.”  Poor little white boy.  Exiled child of the New Roman Empire.  Trying to get a romantic break from a Chinese girl who may well be $30,000 in debt to some yakuza sex-slaver, consigned every day to a rabbit hutch packed with other girls like her during the day.  She said nothing.  Wasn’t really into dealing with my needs.  In a moment or two, the self-controlled Western gentlemen re-possessed his brain, donned his tuxedo again and bid her farewell.  Harder but wiser.

Bumping with Rika

I’d come in from the wind-blown staircase just off the dressing room where I’d been warming up my sax.  The little room was a flower garden of hostesses.  All the girls were hunched over their cellphones calling customers.  They get the mens’ business cards and call a few days later.  “Where are you now?  I miss you.  I really enjoyed our conversation…” and so on.  It’s part of their job.  And the guys fall for it.  I spied at my feet a beer glass filled with water and old cigarette butts.  This girl was smoking two cigarettes at the same time.  For some reason I began trying to explain a clever little book I have of Japanese gadgets, devices designed to be “almost useful.”  The one I had in mind was a gauze mask with 14 cigarette-holes for salarymen who need super nicotine hits during their breaks.  The book’s name is “Chin-dogu,  literally, “strange tools.”  When I got to that part the girl looked up and shouted, ‘I know English word!  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 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, upstairs, outside the dressing room, she greeted me, shouting, “I like dick!  I like big dick!”   What do you say to that?  Gee, you’re in luck!  I happen to have one on me right now?  Right. “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 my buddy Jack Shipman.

“She’s wants you, Arn.  She’s saying:  ‘Here I am — take me.’”

“She’s so young, Jack…”

“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 a steady gig for the first time since the Seventies.  Blowing it was the last thing I wanted to do.  This was a twenty year-old Japanese girl who spoke little or no English, shouting at 55 year-old me that she likes “big dick.”   Yeah, I look 45 and blow a cool sax, but for me (though possibly not for you) this was over the top.  The assistant managers watch hawk-like over the girls, and musician-hostess trysts reportedly got you a one-way trip down the elevator to the street.  But one night I was sitting next to my neatly coiffed, impeccably attired manager Kawasaki-san at the pink-marble 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, hello!” she bubbled, sitting down between me and Kawasaki in her jeans and little top.  Her fascination with me was palpable, her eyes sparkled, and one delightful breast rubbed lightly against my arm.  Next thing I knew, we’d exchanged numbers.  We agreed to go dancing soon.  When she walked away, Kawasaki turned toward the bar and sighed,

“I, too, am butterfly.”

 Cool!  The night came.  I brought the car and waited on a side street for Rika to get off work.  Around 2:30 she found me leaning against a building like Bogart and pranced over to me joyously. She’d shed the evening dress and was cunningly cute in jeans and a short top.  “Let’s go to the car. . .”  I offered.

 “Go dancing!” she countered evenly, so I gestured down the stairs to Pickford’s, where all my black buddies were pumping out hotter-than-July hip-hop on a big stage.  That night there was no audience except for four hot young Western women and a aging Japanese beatnik.  One of them, a blonde, got up and showed us every possible way to shake, at top speed, an absolutely perfect 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 this paragon of black sexuality.  The singer, undulating, singing, rapping, had no problem with this.  I danced nearby, feeling idiotic, trying to find a nice Hebrew groove.  Then 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, “Oh, ippai, desu-ne!”  (How full they are!)  Rika was this new ingénue on the scene.  She was grinning like it was a new ride at Disneyland.  I had my arms around the stunning blonde, people were sweaty, everything was slinky and wet.  The scene shifted and now 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 her from behind, my hands grazing the delights I found in front, while Rika did nice things with her derriere.  I liked the taste of her ears.  Okay, okay, whose book 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?”

“Huh?”  I lean in for a couple of soft tastes of her angel lips.   “Itai desu-ka?”   (Did that hurt?)  Rika looked quizzical.  “Nai-desu.”  I started the motor. Rika now seemed to give off just a little tension.  We got to her neighborhood, she jumped out and sprinted down a narrow street toward her hidden apartment.  We went out again a few months later.  This time she danced like a 15-year-old possessed.  I kept right 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.  What was I thinking?  She nodded understandingly and didn’t answer her phone any more.


On the corner outside my club is a crew of yellow-jacketed flunkies holding out placards showing, from behind, the backs of several lingerie-clad women perched on the laps of anonymous males.  The brief period of embrace is called “show-time.”  Thirty minutes of conversation, ten minutes of touching and kissing.  We’re up to 10,000 yen now.  It’s a big operation, with twenty or so young girls at the ready.  The street flunkies have a certain area to operate in.  If they step past the fourth line in the crosswalk, hawkers for “Seventh Heaven,” another major joint, get out of joint.  Fights can start.

I’m not about to wander alone into their darkness.  Talk about pathetic.  The men seated all in a row look like steers at the trough.  The image is innately obscene.  But one night, farther up the block, I run into one of our club’s well-heeled customers, a fat-cat banker.  I stop to greet him, and right away a little guy with his hair dyed yellow approaches and asks if I want “nice Japanese breast.”

“Left or right,” I inquire.

“Ha-ha – both okay!” the guy chortles.  “This is my customer,” he says, gesturing to the fat-cat, who smiles sheepishly.

“O machi-kairi (take-out order) okay?” I inquire.

More chortles.  “Oh no, eat here only.”

“But your shop is only for Japanese, I think”

“Oh, foreigner is no problem!”

“But I think your shop is for a rich man, right?”

“No, no, I give you very good price, please you come see my shop!”  He pushes his card on into my hand.  It percolates in my mind.  A couple weeks later I called him after work, and he took me upstairs.  Past the cash register, couches were set around a medium-sized room filled with hip-hop music.  Couples were scattered here and there.  The friendly little hustler led me to an open spot and set me up with whiskey and water.  Then he bade me look across the room where seven young girls were slouched together, one couple talking, the rest staring at nothing.  A pair of eyes caught mine for an instant, and I figured she was the one – they all knew I was there, after all.  The third girl from the left was called over.  She was certainly pretty enough.  She flopped down next to me with a big smile and began speaking  some English.  Every now and then she’d lean her head softly on my shoulder.  Akami was 21, and she’d be off to Arizona soon for a home-stay.

Her youth took me back to high school and to my first intimacies with my Chinese-American girlfriend.  It just crossed my mind like a shadow.  Soon enough, the lights grew dim, and as they did, Akami stood up on the couch and drew a gauzy curtain around where we sat.  Then she stepped lightly across me and tumbled onto my lap facing me.  In an instant, she had changed from a person into a sex object.  My hands fell onto the outside of her thighs as she looked down at me, smiling.

I can’t remember when I made the association.  In the dim light, she reminded me even more of my high school paramour.  But her face was dark now, and her teeth gleamed, and I had a strange, fleeting image of a grinning skull.  I shook it away.  I lowered my eyes to deal with the primary attraction.  Akami’s breasts were now officially available, they were the main course, a limited-time offer.  I raised my hands to her now bare waist and mumbled in Japanese, “May I?”

“I’m too small,” she complained.

“No, you’re perfect.”  But some disturbing thought was lurking on the edge of my consciousness.  After a few moments (only eight minutes to go!) I was swiping softly at her nipples with my tongue.  Akami was getting goose bumps up and down her arms.  She was running her hands up and down my thighs, inside and out, but it felt like my whole body was enclosed in a condom.  I looked up and asked her for a kiss.  She tilted her head and favored me with slightly parted lips.  There was no electricity, and somehow I was not inclined to create any.  Over the years of my life, there have been very few really good kisses.  Most of them, understandably, were pre-coital and came from Sarah in the back seat of my ’47 Chevy in the summer after we’d graduated from Oakland High.   After college, Sarah spent 30 years working at the woman’s support office of a major California university, dealing with victims of rape and other abuses.  Now, as I again nuzzled Akami’s tits, a repressed thought crashed back up into consciousness.  I’d just gotten word from my sister that Sarah had been operated on for breast cancer.  They’d gotten the affected lymph nodes out and probably, after the radiation, she’d be okay.  She was being really upbeat.  Her husband and kids were supporting her.

Akami was grinding gently on my lap.  I could have touched her down there.  She was my alien automaton, my time-sensitive sex baby getting paid to be petted, and she had a pretty cool guy here this time, right?  Not a sweaty salary-man.  A jazz musician, a polite English teacher.  It was like, a party, you know?  But for me, a touch of horror had poked its way into the room.  Skulls and crosses and pretty maids all in a row, lap dancing in Tokyo.  They say Jesus never leaves you alone, but sometimes you wish he would.

The lights were coming up.  Mr. Yellow Hair darted over and explained how to give Akami her 6,000 yen and him his 5,000.  Everyone was so nice.  Now even the fat-cat banker showed up at my table with a knowing smile.  The actors in the play coming back on stage for their final bow.  I had Akami’s phone number and everything.  They saw me to the elevator.  “Is your wife wondering why you’re late?”  cracked the banker.  I grinned stupidly and  Yellow Hair escorted me out to the street.

I called her up and we kind of went out.  She showed up at Shinjuku Station in full Shibuya Girl regalia, multi-colored and bejeweled and heavily made-up, wearing killer boots big enough to make her taller than me.  I took her to this Indian restaurant where Lord Krishna looked disapprovingly down at me from above our table.  Conversation was stilted with the girl whose breasts I’d just recently licked.  I’m sure she would have fucked me if I’d turned left, then right, then left again.  Or is it the other way around?

After the meal I sighed and sent her home.

January 26, 2004

I get dressed and head out to work.  In the plush club’s men’s room, I look at myself at 60.  During the first set, Masumi is flirting with me again, winking and pouting and making funny faces, a girl so beautiful one glance stops your heart, a girl so perfect, most men can barely imagine actually being physically close to her.  Why does she even look at my faded face?  I’m singing some romancy pop tune on stage, ignored by the crowd, an ageing Jew in a faraway land, a wraith in a painless purgatory specially wrought by God built for a favorite fool.  After my last set, here she comes in her gossamer evening dress, rubbing her perfect little stomach, making faces about how hungry she is.  Masumi, with none of the expectations of an American bitch-goddess, has no idea she has issued a command.  But she has, and I flee down the elevator to buy her a pita-bread sandwich from the Turks in their big red street stand.  When I return, she’s nowhere to be seen.

It’s time to go home.

My driver and I trudge through the cold rain to his car.  He’s my favorite driver, his car has deep leather seats, and with a flick of a switch the seat slowly tilts back until I become a business-class executive in a 747 winging across the Pacific.  I take a few bites from the pita sandwich but have no appetite.  I’m fading off to sleep as we speed across Tokyo when my brand-new cell phone rings in my pocket.  It’s my wife.  She’s not so frigid at the moment.

“Did you leave the heater on in the shower?

“I don’t remember.”

“You started a fire.”

“What?  How bad is it?”

“You set my sweater on fire.  You could have burned down the house.”

She hangs up.

Twenty minutes later, we pull in front of our house.  I get out and go inside to the bathroom.  It smells from burnt plastic.  The heater is off, but in the same position I’d left it with two orange heating elements blazing about three inches from the plastic hamper.  The side of the hamper is partly melted, part of Kumiko’s sweater is burnt into a crusty mess.  If the hamper had gone up in plastic flames, it would have been the towels next, then the wallpaper, the shelves.  The bathroom is in the very center of the house; if it goes, the house goes.

She knows I’m home.  She makes no sound.  I walk into the living room, turn off the lights and lie on the floor in my winter overcoat and velvet maroon suit.  I have a roof over my head.  It didn’t have to be that way.  In another universe, we’re out in the frozen street with the cats, homeless.   That’s assuming Kumiko gets out alive.

I drift into unconsciousness, then awake with a start.  It must be about 4AM.  I go upstairs and lay there looking at the ceiling.  Outside the window, I hear raindrops spattering softly on the roof, trickling down onto the veranda.  To my ears, it is precisely the sound of grace.

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Wittgenstein – The Movie

(after reading his biography)

To: Steven Spielberg;

Date: September 30, 2012. . . . . .

 Steve, sweetheart! Just a rough draft of some ideas, but everyone here is very excited!  This Wittgenstein!  Just read his biography!  An intellectual touchstone for the new century: deep, intuitive — and still a funny guy!  And there’s the gay angle!  What’s your take?  I’m thinking Scorcese directing, Cruise as Wittgenstein… … Capo!  Let’s do cappuccinos!

SCENE ONE:  (1916 – World War One: a nighttime observation post of the German Army. Sounds of cannon and gunfire. The gray face of an artillery spotter, lit by flashes, materializes out of the fog.)

Wittgenstein:  Ach, all zis noise! I cannot think!  Und I am so scared!  Yet I must be strong because I know zat “my conscience is the Voice of Gott!”

Oh look! Behind zat big rock!  Zere are a bunch of der lustful, carefree, Italianische boys!  Ya, Central Kommand?!  I have observed ze irrational Italian enemy!  You vill shoot zem!

Zere!  Ve haff blown off zere arms.  Zis iss goot!  Now vere vass I?  Oh yes.  One must not speak zat vich is inherently unzpeakable, und never assume zat vich cannot be confirmed empirically – but vy can’t anyvone understand my ideas?!!

(Disappears into the fog.  Fade to black)

SCENE TWO:  (1935 – Ludwig’s rooms at Cambridge.  Francis, Ludwig’s lover, kneels before him as Ludwig sits morosely on the bed.)

Francis: Ach, Ludwig, I must haff you now, tomorrow, all ze time!

Wittgenstein:  Silence!  Ve are both sinful, dirty brutes, my darling Frankie boy.  Listen carefully!  I’m getting tired uff you.  You vill go to ze German factories und get to know ze real vorking men!  You vill work on ze ship mainscrews.  Zey must be perfect!  You vill polish ze mainscrews over und over —  up und down.  Up und down!

Francis:  Stop, Luddy!  I’m getting excited!  Ach, I cannot bear for us to be apart, but I vill do it, Luddypug!  But please!  Let’s clean your room together vunce more!  I’ll get ze wet tea leaves to put on ze floor….

Wittgenstein: Silence!  You vill now beat me mit zis vhip!  Don’t you know?   I am 3/4 Jewish!  I can’t run from it any more — I must be honest!  But verdammit, as a Jew, it is logically impossible for me to be honest — or even haff original thoughts!  Look at zat Jewish plagiarizer Freud!  (ach! ouch! — harder, Frankie, harder!)  Vat about Einstein?  (ouch! good! — harder!) Einstein has no originality at all!  Oh Gott, vy must I be ze philosopher?!!  I vill go to Russia und work in ze fields!   Zee you later Frankie-pankie!

Francis: Auf wiederzein, Ludwig-pudwig!

SCENE THREE:   (1939 – Berlin: The Office of Racial Integrity Verification.  A Nazi official reclines arrogantly in his chair behind a huge desk, a thin cigarette poised in his left hand.  Ludwig, now a middle-aged  philosopher, paces nervously back and forth in front of the desk.

Wittgenstein:  Now look here, mine herr! — mine zisters und I aren’t really Jews, I tell you!  Ve don’t look Jewish, do ve? Look at zis cute little nose, zis cruel German zmile! You must recognize our Deutchblutig!   By the way, you know Reichskanzler Hitler and I were schoolmates when we were fourteen.  Vat a joker he was!  That was before the mustache, of course….

Nazi Official:  Stop rambling!  What are you trying to say?

Wittgenstein:  I have done ze research und it turns out my grandfather Hermann was ze illegitimate son of an Aryan!

Nazi Official:  Vell, Luddy, it’s true, you don’t qvite look Jewish to me.

Wittgenstein: Of course not.  My lineage therefore allows me and my sisters to be classified as “Befreiung.”  

Nazi Official:  Ah!  Befreiung!  You mean German/Jewish mongrels!  Zat sounds pretty good!  But your family is zo rich.  Ze true Befreiung vill gif everything to der Fuherer.  Jews vill hold on to zer money to ze death.  You know vat ze American Jew, Jack Benny said when der thief says, “Your money or your life?”

Wittgenstein: Ya, ya, he say, “Vait a minute! I’m thinking!”   Okay, Mr. Nazi Official, how about I kick in one metric ton of gold for Der Fuehrer?  Zat’s nearly two per cent of Austria’s gold reserves.

Nazi Official:  Don’t hurt your toe vith your kicking, Luddy.  Make zat 1.7 metric tons, I’ll see vat I can do.  By der vay, I vas vondering, do you know vere I can get zome good onion und garlic bagels?

Wittgenstein:  Zis is no problem, Commandant.  However, it is logically impossible to discuss ze hole in ze bagel, as ve haff no empirical…

Nazi Official:  It’s okay, Luddy-puddy.   I vant 12 onion, 12 garlic und 12 of ze “everyzing” bagels.  Now  GET OUT!


SCENE FOUR:  (1951 – Wittgenstein’s deathbed at Storey’s End, in England)

Wittgenstein: Ach, I am dying!  Zis is goot.  All my life I zuffered und I vas miserable every day.  However, I have made zeveral major contributions to modern mathematics und philosophy.  I am certain of zis, because ze opposite of zis statement, namely, “I have not made several major contributions to modern mathematics und philosophy,” is incomprehensible.  Zo, goodbye cruel vorld.   Ach, I really don’t feel so hot today.  (He dies)   Music up.

Steve!  I’m getting chills!  It’s Jim Carrey!  The perfect Wittgenstein for the 21st Century.  Lots of physical comedy and rolling of the eyes.  And plenty of special effects to illustrate the more difficult metaphysical points.  Wait!  “Wittgenstein II!!!”  It’s a musical!  The ageing David Bowie in a funky, fin-du-siecle tribute to logical positivism. Jimmy Carter as a lustful, Faulknerian Bertrand Russell.  Demi Moore as the Ghost of Princess Diana!   I’m on a roll!  No, wait!  Cream cheese on a roll!  I need a massage RIGHT NOW!  Have your therapist call my Rolfer!

NOTE:  No answer from Steven Spielberg at this writing.

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Strange Days – Memories of Aum Shinrikyu

Strange days have found us.

Strange days have dragged us down.

– Jim Morrison

 One morning, about two months after Mother Nature leveled Kobe, everything fell apart in Tokyo.  These entries are essentially factual but, written at the time, reflect the alarm and incredulity both émigrés and Japanese felt about the events of Spring, 1995, as a state of siege descended, and a peaceful city disintegrated into a sensational carnival of terrorism.


Each morning, she rides the packed  Maronouchi Subway to work in downtown Tokyo.  She passes through Kamiyacho and Kasumigaseki stations.  Yesterday these stations were attacked with nerve gas, killing twelve luckless innocents and poisoning five thousand other souls — the first peacetime chemical attack in history on a general population.

I had dropped her at Ogikubo about an hour after it began, a station far across town.  Her train left as usual, but 30 minutes later skipped two stations with an announcement that “something smells bad and we’re passing them by.”  She took a taxi to her office at Kasumigaseki and arriving there, got the news of what was happening on the other side of the building.  With ambulances and blue emergency tents everywhere, people lay in the street, coughing, dazed, some with blood leaking from their mouths.  Some were dead.

That night I drove downtown to pick her up.  No one knew what was coming next.  But she had no choice but to ride the train each day, and for weeks after that we said goodbye each morning fearfully, telling ourselves that in a city of 14,000,000 her odds were pretty good.  In fact, they weren’t, and we all escaped by the skin of our teeth in a country where the national police acted like Keystone Kops, in the horror movie Mack Sennett never made.

The Journal


Four hours after the attack on Monday, the Tokyo governor called in the army to dispose of the gas containers and help victims.  Now, four days after the attack, with twelve dead, the police have made early-morning raids on several facilities around the country belonging to the Aum Shinri Kyo cult.

It appears that as early as 1991, Aum had been accused of illegally detaining and placing wiretaps on people who tried to withdraw from their program, one that demands total surrender of personal freedom and property.  People were being abducted.  A lawyer working a case against them disappeared along with his wife and child; an Aum badge was found in their home.  But in June 1994, the needle should have gone off the scale when nerve gas mysteriously killed seven people in Matsumoto.  Why?  Because it also wafted into a special facility housing the three judges who were about to render their decision in a suit brought against the Aum group.  All three judges were sickened and their decision was “indefinitely postponed.“

If this were the U.S., the FBI would have been on Aum like white on rice, in on their every move.  Japanese law, though, is contradictory regarding police powers.  On one hand, police and prosecutors effectively function as judges, dispensing paternal leniency or, if they prosecute, winning about 99% of criminal cases.  FBI-type infiltration or electronic surveillance, though, is forbidden, possibly reflecting deep-seated memories of fascist Japan’s military police, but also conveniently protecting the powerful in a society where secrecy and slippery money is pervasive.  So the Aumsters wire-tapped their enemies while the police were tapping their fingers.  Even when, seven months ago, local farmers reported offensive odors near the main Aum facility in Yamanashi, and nerve gas residue was detected in the area, police, incomprehensibly, took no action.  This is what the national security process looks like in a country where officials tend to assemble data endlessly and are disinclined to share them with colleagues outside their local turf.

Farmers find their crops killed by nerve gas residue on land adjacent to a cult compound.  In America, we’re talking major convoys of pickup trucks with full gun racks, and maybe some home-grown fertilizer explosives taking down the walls.  NOW.


A thoroughly disturbing article on page two of today’s paper: “More Than 100 Sect Members Flee.”  Apparently quite a few Aumsters, including Grand Aumster Shoko Asahara, jumped in their cars and buses and took off for unknown parts in the three days before the police finally invaded.  One wonders what  these folks had in their little suitcases!  What more can the cops do to not protect us?  Nationwide, over 100 Aum centers continue in normal operation.

More news dribbles out on Aum mind-control techniques.  They routinely denied food and sleep to members, handcuffed them in diapers and gave them LSD.  For $10,000, novices were sold electronic headsets, “to keep them in tune with the thoughts of the guru Asahara.”  Backsliders were confined in blacked-out shipping containers for days in blistering heat, threatened with eternity in hell, forced to chant loyalty mantras to Asahara.

Aum Shinrikyu is an extreme manifestation of a passion among some young Japanese for New Age fads, from aura-cleansing to past-life readings. The common thread is a disenchantment with a society so work-driven it makes a California lifestyles resemble Gaugin on a beach in Tahiti.  Reaching for spiritual liberation, the Aumsters got the ultimate in regimentation.

Police also now reveal they had planned to raid the Aum facilities earlier.  They had borrowed gas masks from the army and were practicing using them, but the Aumsters, reportedly informed in advance, struck two days before the planned raids.

Tonight, six days after the attack, Armed Forces Radio announced to U.S. military personnel that anonymous threats have been made against twenty-five public areas around Tokyo — subways, concert halls, and stadiums.


This new threat ran very low-key in Japanese major media. I guess they don’t want the people to panic.  Tokyo is very big — maybe it can handle a few hundred deaths now and then.  They’ll get things back under control, gradually, after some discussion and careful thought.  Japanese papers suggest the police know where Asahara is, but they dare not arrest him as he may hold, as we used to say in the Cold War days, “the balance of terror.”  How about that: a Maharishi with second strike capability!


Today’s bulletin on TV: the Commissioner General of the National Police has been shot and critically wounded outside his home.  A “skilled assassin” shot him from 25 meters away, got on his bike and rode off. Two policemen assigned to protect the Commissioner were “elsewhere,” and so could not return fire or pursue.  Later in the day, U.S. Mutual News said a threat of further attacks had been issued if the police didn’t lay off the Aumsters.

The Police Commissioner is the Japanese equivalent of the United States Attorney General and the Director of the FBI combined.  Where a Westerner would expect a state of national emergency, this government has made no dramatic steps to defend itself.  In the halls of Japanese power the lights are on, but there’s nobody home.  Meanwhile, the Aumster’s spokesperson, mop-topped Fumihiro Jouyu, a zen-master of plausible denial, has an explanation for each new toxic chemical found in their stockpiles.  Nowadays, he’s constantly on television in his turquoise sari, flashing his winning smile and glib answers.  Young girls are seen vying for his autograph, even though he is – what – a post-modern  Goebbels?

It’s a strange feeling to open the Sunday paper and read that the police are trying to determine how far along your local maniacal cult was in developing botulin — a virulent bacteria one gram of which can kill 17 million people — just before they disappeared into thin air.  It gives the coffee a special taste, thinking the next sip might be your last.   A long, strange leap from Merry Pranksters’ buses in the 60’s with acid megadoses to a Tokyo Megadeath Mystery Tour.  Where is it now?  And what a small step it must be, for a megalomaniac, from knowing the world will end next month to deciding that God is asking you to move the process forward.


The police now say they’ve found residues of the final by-product of sarin, methylphosphon acid monoisopropyl.  (One TV announcer dislocated his jaw last night trying to pronounce this.)  Credit the police for scientific sophistication building their case, but isn’t this the same stuff they found in the soil five months ago???

Friday – 4/14/95

Tomorrow is the day everyone thinks the Aumsters will strike downtown in Shinjuku, so people are staying home.  My wife won’t drink the water.  I don’t think anything will happen, but the police raided 125 Aum offices throughout Japan yesterday, arrested more of the leadership, and police were everywhere in the subway stations.  Still no sign of Asahara.

Saturday – 4/15/95 1PM

Many sirens outside our house.  Fearlessly, I jump on my bike and three blocks away find a nearby street blocked off with seven big fire trucks, blue hoses coming out of manholes, firemen everywhere.  Looking around, I see a nearby house with a second-story room slightly blackened by fire.  For this they needed seven fire trucks, three ambulances and several squad cars.  There begins to be a certain cartoon quality to it all.


The pace has quickened while I was out of town for several days.  After scores were injured in two new mystery-gas attacks in Yokohama, the government has snapped out of its lethargy and is now seriously considering removing the Aumster’s tax-exempt religious status!  Astutely reasoning that Aum’s genocidal projects will no longer be tax deductible, they are thus providing a powerful disincentive against further attacks.  Sighs of relief fill the subway stations.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., wackos have blown several hundred innocent people’s lives away in Oklahoma City.  In Los Angeles, a couple of Japanese men, reportedly Aumsters, were arrested, supposedly with detailed instructions for a sarin attack on Disneyland.  But it’s all starting to seem like Disneyland now.   Mickey leans down at you smiling, “A little mustard gas on your hot dog?”  In the U.S., a public discussion takes place on whether current FBI powers should be increased to prevent another Oklahoma City, while here, the Daily Yomiuri runs a huge two-page “Comprehensive Security Plan” proposal with no mention made of any need for new empowerments.


The gas diffuses, the plot thickens.  Hideo Murai, kingpin of Aum’s “science and technology team,” is stabbed to death on TV just before he’s called in for intensive police questioning.  A young guy with yakuza connections hurtles into Murai in the middle of a crowd.  Murai emerges smiling from the attack, unaware of his disembowelment until he notices a trace of blood on his forearm.  Then it all sweeps across his face and with his last strength he staggers into the Aum offices, collapses, and bleeds to death.  On the tube, they re-run it in slow motion in the same appalling detail as in Jack Ruby-Lee Oswald days.  Murai was apparently one of their most evil-minded plotters.  Tokyo will shed no tears.  One hopes it’s an internal Aumster hit, rather than something that will provoke some terrible chemical retaliation.


Another Aum medical “clinic” gets busted in Nakano, very near to us.  The TV reporter says Aum doctors made its “patients” drink two liters of water and then throw up; then they forced them into scalding, 125 degree bath therapies at $10,000 per bath (an 80 year-old woman and others reportedly died as a result) held drugged patients against their will up to a year, then extorted huge sums from relatives.  Local residents said patients sometimes came running out trying to escape, only to be dragged back in, while attendants explained to onlookers that they were disturbed.  You could only get away with this in Japan, with its passive citizens, and where the very last choice is to intercede on a stranger’s behalf.  After the news piece, the anchor observed straight-faced,  “That didn’t seem to be a normal clinic, did it?”  Who writes this stuff???


“Golden Week” in Japan, and Asahara is still invisible.  But on Friday, on a toilet seat in a men’s room in the big underground walkway near Shinjuku’s Marounuchi Station, a cleaning woman found two mysterious paper bags.  Despite signs all over Tokyo warning you to report suspicious packages, and with all the trash cans in the city taped shut, she judged these to be a prank, moved them near the entrance, where a river of humanity flows by, and went back to work.  An internal device soon set one of the bags on fire.  It contained two liters of sodium cyanide; the other bag had 1.5 liters of sulfuric acid. A passing salaryman noticed smoke, told station attendants, and they were able to douse it before the two bags melted together and released enough cyanide gas to kill 20,000 people.  Why that bathroom?  It was the only one having ventilator fans which drew air directly down to the train platform below.  No one hurt.

In Tokyo, we call this a pretty good day.


This morning the police have announced that they will seek permission to seize the plant where they believe sarin was produced.  If all goes well, the legalities will be completed in ten days or so.  Why are they going to do this?  Why, to preserve evidence!   This is how we DO things in Disneyland.  After all the death and mayhem, we give the Aumsters a free hand in Sarinland for another fortnight before moving in…to PRESERVE EVIDENCE!

Say goodnight Gracie.


One week later and everything’s really fallen into place for Japan’s Karaoke  Kops.  A few jailed Aumsters, no longer in Asahara’s thrall and threatened with eternity in hell, are telling all: “Yes I made sarin. Yes I carried out the gas attack March 20.”  Yoshihiro Inoue, Aum’s “Minister of Intelligence,” a pathetic 25-year-old who looks like a high school bully, was finally arrested today.  Inoue allegedly led the team of ten zombies that loosed the supertoxic gas on so many innocent people.  More arrests are coming soon, but they won’t be soon enough for the families of the dead, or for hundreds still suffering after-effects of the nerve gas.

And then there was the big balloon seen floating over Tokyo today.  About five feet high, when they caught it they found a single empty medicine bottle inside.  “A gesture,” someone commented.


Masterfully managing both the media and events themselves, police today entered the Yamanashi compound and arrested Shoko Asahara.  “Asahara To Be Arrested Tomorrow,”  ran the managed headlines the evening before.  They had known where he was all along, hiding in a coffin-sized container under some stairs.  With experts “satisfied” that the impurities in Aum’s sarin render any missing quantities useless, and with most top Aumsters safely in jail, Tokyoites feel much better.

Just one low point tonight: the Governor of Tokyo’s personal aide had a package explode in his face and blow off his fingers — sort of like the last fortissimo of a hellacious Beethoven symphony.


Two months later to the day, like a slowly rising tide, the legal system has finally engulfed the Aumsters.  Police have arrested and named nearly all the players, right down to those who released the gas on the trains.  Several of them were Aum scientists, bright graduates of top universities. Incomprehensibly, fifty years after Hiroshima, they conspired, produced and then released nerve gas on their fellow Japanese — one now says he just “had to follow the orders of the guru.”  We’ve heard that somewhere else.

But Tokyo has started to relax a little, and by the time the Millennium rolls around, I’m sure we’ll all believe that it’s really over.

[1] This sentence , written in 1995, is filled with irony for an American in 2005.

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