Friday, May 15, 1998

A Night Out with Mama and Kato Tokiko

The day before yesterday I bumped my head. Bumped it so hard I had to sit down for a while and look at stars. I heard the phone go, heard Taku’s voice on the answering machine, and, instead of realizing I could actually call him back at cheaper rates, my instincts made me leap for the phone through the door jamb to my study and nearly crown myself.

Ordinarily, I would have taken to my bed and worried about losing my mind, but I had a date with Taku’s mother. She had tickets to a concert and I had either not checked to see what the concert was, or it’s possible I bumped my head on an earlier occasion and lost all memory of what she said. The concert began at 6:30, so I had to leave at 2:15 to be sure to meet Mama in Shibuya by 4. The rain was still coming down in torrents, so the normally insane conditions on the street kicked into surreal. Shibuya is where people gather on Friday and Saturday to just mill around or go to one of sixty thousand hangouts for the younger set. In front of the main station, each time the light changes there are no fewer than two thousand people in the intersection at the same time, probably 95% of them between the ages of 15 and 25.

Now I like this age group sometimes, but not when there are more than ten of them in one place. And certainly not when it is raining. Under normal circumstances, crossing the street makes you feel you’re in a science fiction movie about overpopulation, but when these folk are all carrying umbrellas it creates the gridlock from hell. Those milling around and those trying to move become permanently engaged in a battle to rival Armageddon, and you find yourself wishing you had a cellular phone to order a rescue helicopter.

La Mama and I went and found sixteen square inches called a table in a coffee shop that served curry rice omelets (delicious) and congratulated ourselves on our keen skills at keeping out of the rain and nightmare until five-thirty, when we then walked the four blocks from the coffee shop to the theatre in only thirty-five minutes. By that time, I had gotten poked in the eye by umbrella spokes fifteen or twenty times, and only the calming presence of Okaa-san kept me from transforming into the Green Hulk that ate Shibuya.

Much too grouchy, I worried, to sit and listen to music I probably wouldn’t listen to in the best of circumstances. Our seats were in Row 9, right up close. The Orchard Hall must hold 2500 or 3000 people, and being this close to the stage means you are also right next to what makes Japan run—electronic systems the rest of the world can only dream of. In this case there was little doubt we were sitting next to a Sound System that could kill you dead by magnifying the sound of a pin dropping. If it chose to. Fortunately, along with such power comes discipline in this country, and our lives were spared. Only after sitting down did I learn that the concert was, in fact, a performance by a popular singer named Tokiko Kato, a kind of music that in Europe and the West is taken as hokey, even camp, but in Japan is still the rage. At least with folk of a certain age. The average age in the theatre was probably about fifty and I didn’t see a soul under thirty. Overwhelmingly female. Oh Christ, I thought, a friggin’ Lawrence Welk Concert. A full 50-piece orchestra. All in tuxedos.

They start at 6:30 on the dot. Lovely swells of music. Popular stuff. Not campy at all. Out comes Tokiko wearing a quilted skirt that must weigh 30 lbs, an off the shoulder top and an Easter bonnet, which she takes off after the first number. The music is chanson-like. Love songs. She talks to the audience. “Years ago,” she said, “I used to love men. Now, I just sing them love songs. Sad, right?” The audience is in the palm of her hand. What a treat to have somebody sing for you with a 50-piece orchestra behind them. By the third song, I’m entranced. Hokey or not, I’m a sucker for romance and this is positively lovely.

“Wait,” says Mama. “This is the song she’s famous for - ‘Hyakuman bon no bara’.” - “A Million Roses.” I’ve heard it before. It’s a Russian song, actually, and terribly catchy. I can’t get it out of my head and have been singing it all day long today. “I want to give you a million roses...I look out my window onto the square (hardly a Japanese reality, but never mind)...I see the roses there...I will give them to you some day...” The music carries me away. I’m sitting among some 3000 folk, but it’s like sitting in a cocoon. Warm and cozy, romantic and pensive. Outside is the modern world, the Macdonald’s hamburgers, the international set, the Japan I live in. Here, now, I’m with folk my own age, people I spend very little time with, and I begin to see what I’ve been missing. The love songs are by and for people who have lost their illusions but not their desire for romance.

On the stage is glamour; in the audience are the ordinary folk who have chosen duty over passion. This is a moment for dreams and imagination, nostalgia and sentiment, memories of lost loves real and fantasized. I’m hidden in this Japanese crowd. I want to be here. I want to do this again. Maybe I’ll stay here after I retire. How can I go live in a small town after I’ve lived in Tokyo. Where would I ever go to see stuff like this? There are no other foreigners in sight. I don’t have to worry I might be seen enjoying this hokey stuff. I can get into it bigtime. Like when nobody is around and I play Wagner. I feel I have to hide my love of this music. It’s not politically correct.

Intermission. I’m not drinking champagne at $10 a glass like the ladies standing next to me, obviously enjoying their big night out. I settle for a ginger ale and grab a handful of peanuts. Mama is delighted that I’m obviously enjoying myself. Last time we were out on a date like this, it was to hear the Hungarians do Tosca. I liked it, but she fell asleep. This is her kind of music, and she’s delighted I can share it with her. She took a big chance, and won, it seems. I had no idea this was going on in her head.

Back in our seats. The orchestra swells, and in comes Tokiko, this time all in black. She’s wearing a dress that looks like it was designed by an architect. Two stories. The bottom story is this quilted material, as in the first dress, but it only goes around her three quarters of the way leaving one pie-shaped cut-out section, from about one o’clock to four o’clock, so you can see this lady still has gorgeous legs, showing from above the knees. On top of that lower tier of dress, which waves in and out, and which means she is carrying twice the material she would if it went straight around in a circle, is an upper tier, and the upper tier goes from about 11 o’clock to about 2 o’clock, just enough to give the impression of a mini-skirt. The whole image is unsettling. Kind of like watching Little Bo Peep standing in a half-eaten cheesecake, in mourning.

On her head, Tokiko has a black bonnet, with a full length veil trailing behind. Something Queen Victoria might wear, except that the modesty of the veil is countered by the fact it trails behind and doesn’t cover, and it only stresses the off-the shoulder skimpiness of the bodice. As if to rub it in that modesty is not what she’s after, there is a terribly busy terribly clumsy looking piece of material that looks like a crumpled window screen sticking almost straight out in front of her. Black buckled high shoes. Diamond earrings reflecting prisms of light to stab you in the eye each time she turns her head. What do I know about fashion? Part of the effect. This lady might be from Takarazuka, that truly campy truly hokey all-woman revue where the women play men’s roles in Barbara Courtland romances set to music in a gender-f*** complement to Kabuki where the women are actually men.

She has a strong face, a powerful alto voice, and her hair is cut almost to crew-cut length. She’s clearly marked as a member of the entertainer set. High fashion. High glamor. High individual in-your-face singing style. And yet, this is Japan, and what might elsewhere be aggressive comes across as play-acting. She’s glamorous and theatrical to these fans of hers, whom I have now joined, and she’s giving a magnificent good show of it. The concert ends with an homage to French chansons and to Edith Piaf – Père LaChaise, La Vie en Rose. She sings two encores. One of them is Danny Boy. By now, I’m so taken in by this Japanese music, this Japanese atmosphere, this Japanese sensibility, I don’t mind at all it isn’t about the pipes, it isn’t in a tenor voice, and it isn’t being sung by a redhead. None of the same words or sentiment. Parody, I would call it in other circumstances. Camp. “Oh, Danny Boy,” she sings. “I can’t ever forget you. I am waiting. I am waiting.” And the tears well up and spill over.

I stand in line for an hour. I shake her hand and smile. “Loved the concert,” I say. “Thank you,” she says, shakes my hands, and smiles, scrawling Kato Tokiko across the booklet of the CD I have just bought and have spent the day today listening to over and over again. Who says the 50s and 60s set can’t be swept off their feet by romance.

May 15, 1998

Thursday, May 14, 1998

Eulogy For Harriet Buchanan

THIRTY one years ago this November, when we would do almost anything for adventure and our bodies were still capable of astonishing abuse, Harriet put herself on a Greyhound Bus in New York and arrived in San Francisco just before Thanksgiving. I knew who she was because my friend Craig had written from Spain that he had met this girl, that they had hit it off, and that they were going to travel together across North Africa.

There was clearly something special about her, but at some point the story took a surprising turn. Craig had trouble with the idea of settling down at the time, and was preoccupied with the notion of going to his home town and making good, so they had parted company. Just another vacation romance, I thought, a flash in the pan.

One day the phone rang, and the caller was this girl Craig had told me about. She knew who I was, too, and could I come pick her up at the Greyhound Bus Station? How transparent, I thought. She’s chasing after him, but can’t very well camp on his doorstep in Tacoma, Washington, so she’s going to try to get at him through his best friend. I’ll get rid of her.

By the end of the first bottle of wine that first evening, we were already old friends. Craig, I decided, was clearly a fool, and this great lady ought to put her energies into somebody who appreciated her. As far as I know, she knew nobody in the Bay Area but me. I got her a place to stay with my friend Linda, in the Haight Ashbury, and we began to build what I would later come to call my chosen family. Linda and I would be joined by Jerry and eventually Karl, soon after by Mike and Carla, later by Anthony and Jason and others, and before long the chosen family, along with the Buchanans and the Arants would grow into what you see around you today, a villageful of people whose lives intertwine and help define home and the center of things.

Things have changed considerably since that circle began to grow. If we could have looked ahead thirty years, our eyes would have had trouble taking in what you see here today. In those days we were rejecting the familiar, and looking to build the world from scratch. Harriet might be a little surprised to find her mother here and her brother Johnny, her sisters Neel and Lizanne, and learn that the years would bring them this close together. And would she believe it when we told her that not only did Craig come back to say, “I’ve had time to think it over, and you’re the one I want to live my life with,” but that along with the two of them, somebody named Amy would join them at the center of a large and loving chosen family.

We never thought we could actually have it all. Harriet said to me once, at a low moment in her life, “The only thing I’ve ever done competely right was have a daughter. That’s the only thing in my life about which I have no doubts.” Actually, she did much else that was right, and if that had not already been evident to all of us who loved her, it would be made clear when it came time for her to die and her house spilled over with neighbors from over the years, with colleagues who would mourn her passing, and with more friends than we could ever get into the house at any one time, including, perhaps especially, a powerful testament to her identity as a women-centered woman, her friends Valerie and Gigi, Kay and Elly, Monique, Amy’s friends Tara and Cata and Jacinda, Craig’s sister Jane, and Marta, and Carla, all of whom would put their own lives on hold to care for her at the end.

I saw one of those nasty greeting cards recently which carried the message, “Be good to your kids. They will get to tell the world who you were after you are gone.” What is missing there is that the story will be told not only by your children, but by a whole bunch of others as well. In the end, you are destined to become what your friends and family can remember about you as well.

When Craig died, nearly five years ago now, something quite remarkable happened. We gathered at the house, quite spontaneously, after the memorial service and toasted his memory. And then, one by one, people began telling stories about him. We laughed and cried, laughed some more and cried some more, and this image of the man emerged from our stories that none of us had ever seen in its entirety. Until that moment I thought the phrase, “lives on in our hearts” was something said only to take away the pain, an illusion to make it possible for us to go on. But as I saw this collective personality come out from the stories, I realized that I really would always have him around, as long as people could be made to talk about him.

Last Christmas, at another of the many occasions when the house was full of the life that Harriet could create with her dinners, at one point Amy spoke up. “Would anyone mind,” she asked, “if I proposed a toast to my father?” “Mind!? Are you kidding?” we thought. And we did it again. We started the stories, and once again this man, whom I thought I knew better than almost anybody else in the world, rose from the story-telling and came alive. And the nicest part of the whole thing was the realization that this picture of him, the most complete picture I had ever seen, was possible only when we came together, all of us who loved him. Because no one of us had the whole story. We had to work together to get it. The life that Craig had built was here in us, but his friends had to stick together after his passing if we wanted the full benefit of his presence. It was a remarkable discovery for me that, unlike his presence in my memories, his presence in our collective story telling was still growing and changing.

Now it’s Harriet’s turn. Her passing is cruel to us. We will grieve and mourn and there will be an ache to contend with for a long time. Of that there is no doubt. But the stories will start, and this wonderful lady will be around as long as any one of us here today says to any other one of us here today, “Tell me what you know about Harriet.”

A couple weeks ago, when I was sitting at her bedside, she said to me, “Is there enough food in the house for everybody?” “Yes,” I said. “There’s plenty.” “Good,” she said. “Make sure everybody has enough to eat. And if you run out, go get some more.” We never had to. Without having to ask, the house filled with flowers and food, the coins of Harriet’s realm. So come to the house now and we’ll have a party. I want to hear your stories. Tell me all you can in the time we have today about the life of Harriet Buchanan. And what you don’t get to say today, save for another time. I will be back for more. I think we will all be back for more.

May 14, 1998