The other morning I dropped my rent in the cash machine, settled my grocery and gas bills at the corner store, rode the train to Tokyo to buy a summer shirt and check out this art party. Early May in Tokyo feels like low tide, the Golden Week holidays draining out half the city to visit their families in the provinces. For a handful of days the city is craggy with the flotsam left behind, those of us with no grandmothers in the country to visit.
All the shirts I looked at cost as much as last month’s groceries. I bumped into a short American girl in the department store, and she replied to my “Sorry” with an “Are you, are you really?” When I started to walk away she kept after me. “You know I was just kidding right? Just the gaijin humor y’know. You probably haven’t been here long enough.” It wouldn’t make a fucking difference, but I answered anyway. “Three years.” “Six,” she fired back, as if she’d just proven something. She had her little victory.
I met up with a friend in a corner Shinjuku station, no new shirt and a dash of vinegar in my soul. We bought a stack of paper cups and a bottle of refrigerated white wine from a convenience store and found the art party on the roof of an apartment block south of Shinjuku. The roof was blanketed in blue tarps where people lay chatting in small clusters of bright summer shirts, pulling beers and screw-cap wine from a row of coolers. All around us the hotels and skyscrapers of Nishi-Shinjuku gleamed like a false smile in the late afternoon sun. TV antennas stuck out in bunches on one side of the roof, an uneven wall of metal rods spearing out at us with our sandals and plastic cups.
The host was on the north end of the roof, conducting a tea ceremony in a special hut he’d made entirely from plastic bottles. He was tall and lanky, with a scruff-beard, spectacles and a grin that bunched up to the corners of his nose. He explained the plastic bottle tea room to a gaggle of older Japanese women as “a fusion of Japan’s traditional Shinto culture and its modern ‘recycled’ culture.” They nodded, brows furrowed to better catch all the slippery English syllables. There were occasional ducks of the head and whispers between them in a frantic effort to figure out what he was talking about. I swallowed my corrections that tea ceremony was not part of the Shinto folk religion but a Zen Buddhist art taken up by peasant slaughtering warriors who enjoyed its calmness and austere sense of order. I’m pretty sure one of the customs of tea ceremony is no intellectually one-upping the host. End up with a packet of nightshade in your cup or a sword through your eye socket.
I was enjoying his party though, the guests all city folk soaked in style and ambition. Spoke briefly with a tired looking Hawaiian guy starting a fledgling English school. Met a cheery young Japanese girl who spoke English with Italian inflections; she creates “events and happenings” in Spain, where she lives with her partner. That would be a partner in love, not business. Talked photography with a young art student who was abandoning abstract still-lifes for his new obsession, cute puppies and babies, “the really tacky shit”. Poking out from the crowd was a guy from Colorado who had been here for three months, big and knuckly with a baseball hat and a goatee. I learned that he had just put down his first payment on a two hundred year old samurai sword. He lived a few hours north of here by train, in mountain country that hardens English teachers. Even English teachers from Colorado. He kept on looking around at the cityscape or laughing too abruptly. I liked him.
The hours rolled away and guests came and went, hugging goodbyes and hellos on the metal staircase. As it left the party the sun took its long golden sheets off the city, uncovering an inky blue mountainscape sparkling with stars and crystals. To the north the skyscrapers stood bright and arrogant, looking larger and prouder in the darkness.
I had just started talking to this sound engineer when a British guy in wide sunglasses and a rock magazine haircut swooped in, talking straight past me. Some urgent story about an ex-girlfriend calling the cops on a party of his, pee-in-the-cup drug testing at the station, his mother crying in confusion. I fingered my Dixie cup of wine. The conversations had begun to make me queasy, like eating a string of fine chocolates until you’re sick. The friend I had showed up with was talking to some cute girl shouldering an SLR camera, so I looked for the samurai sword guy instead.
Samurai sword was talking with a guy who wore a shirt that shimmered a bit in the low light. Shimmery shirt had dark brown skin made darker by the night and a smile that radiated charisma. He had come here three years before and was leaving in three days; our talk was a summary of the Tokyo experience. He kept on smiling and shaking his head, talking bout the clubs, the bars, the girls. It was a charmed life, and he knew it. “I’m going back to Toronto for grad school, and I don’t plan to come back, but I know I will man.” Samurai sword was nervously weighing the idea of catching his last train back to the mountains or staying out all night. “You guys are so lucky out here man, Tokyo is so... great. For foreigners.” Shimmery shirt coughed and shuffled his feet as Samurai-sword went on. “Where I live man, you just walk into a place and even if everyone doesn’t stare they know you’re there, you’re a foreigner, y’know.” Shimmery shirt bowed out at that point, said his apologies and went off to meet some friends. I gave samurai sword guy what comfort I could. The mountains can be rough on your own, the locals a puzzle of dialects and emotions tucked away when the foreigner comes to visit. If I’d stayed out there any longer I might have bought a sword too.
I left with the last few stragglers as the clock rounded towards ten. The camera girl my friend had liked had disappeared for a final private tea ceremony with the host, so we headed out with no goodbyes. We ambled down the sidewalk under a row of street lamps talking loudly with the sound engineer and the British rocker, his sunglasses shielding out the night. While passing a rock club a shaggy black man in dread-locks broke off from a circle of Japanese guys holding guitar cases and approached us. He had froth at the edges of his mouth and mumbled in broken English and Japanese. “He-help me. I... wakaranai. I don’t know wha...wakaranai.” I looked straight into his eyes and asked what was wrong, but nothing came back to me, they were opaque. The sound engineer gave him a cigarette while the Brit rocker stood back, face young and smooth behind the shades. “Probably just one of those finger-up-the-bum things, y’know what I mean?” he said offhandedly, which tugged out some ragged laughter from the group while I fell silent. I felt like punching through his fucking glasses. He looked bored. “Let’s just get goin’, alright?”
And we did, leaving the man with a cigarette dangling from his lips, shuffling back to the rock club. It was an empty Tokyo evening in the middle of spring. The families of the city would be back in two days, drowning us away in a flood of black suits and school uniforms. We said our goodbyes on a corner below the freeway. They had clubs to dance in, people to smile at, and I had a bed and a tangle of thoughts waiting for me at home.