It was a beautiful September day in Yushima, near the apartment complex where I lived in the ‘80s. I was standing on a street corner midway between Yushima Tenjin and Yushima Station, and this stylish lady walks by with her teeny dog, and that’s basically the whole story…
(Picture taken in Yushima, Tokyo in September, 2013)
It was a clothing store in the Ameyayokochō district in Ueno in April or May of 1988. I got my father to shoot this photo for two reasons: the obvious name of the shop; and memories of David Byrne’s big suit in the movie “Stop Making Sense”, which I’d seen in a South Street movie theater in Philadelphia four years before.
I went back to look for this shop twenty years later when my wife and I were on a 10-day vacation in Tokyo, but it was long, long gone. The memories and this picture remain, though.
(This image looks crummy because Costco does a rotten job of digitizing old Kodachrome slide images.)
For my mother, on her 72nd birthday…
This was 1988, in Tokyo, and my parents came to visit me. My mother was in her forties then, still vibrant and drinking from a cup that was full of the life of the world. I don’t know what happened. At the end of October I moved from Tokyo to my parents’ house in Maryland just outside the D.C. beltway, and everything turned to shit. Early in 1989 I tried, and failed, to get into Yale photography school, and my father’s alcohol abuse got so bad my mom and I had to force him into a rehabilitation hospital. The kind where you don’t wear jeans and a t-shirt, but a cotton robe and a printed plastic and paper wrist band. That was the beginning of a downward spiral that left my father functionally dead on his feet until his de facto death in 2008. In all those intervening years my mother was his muse, babysitter, lover, wife, and emotional triage for a man who took nearly two decades to die.
All those years killed her too, in a lot of ways. Emotionally, anyway. She’s dying for real now, of primary biliary cirrhosis. She continues to pray this hereditary disease does not strike me. So far, so good, my doctors say. Her doctors can’t seem to figure out how long she has to live. Another year or two, perhaps. My mother is resigned to her fate. She told me when I visited her in Dallas last year that life without my father has dried up of any happiness and meaning. They were married for 45 years. She said she has seen all she wants to see and done everything she wanted to do. “I’ve had a rich life,” she said to me. I have known since the day she told me she was dying about a year ago that her mind was made up and it was pointless to try to force her onto whatever liver transplant list her hospital maintains. Such is life. Its wildest variables are always other people.
So I don’t know if this is my mother’s last birthday, but it is her 72nd. I doubt she will ever see this, as my mom isn’t the most digitally wired of people. She has an iPhone but getting her to look at web links on the damn thing is hit and, mostly, miss. So I wanted to honor her a little, with images from some of the best of my days with her. In another place, on another planet, when my mom and I were both younger and had more of our lives ahead of us than we do today….
My mother in Uenohirokoji, not far from my apartment in Yushima.
Mom and me in my apartment in 1988. I wish I still had that Clash poster.
Mom’s red hair on the Imperial Palace Grounds, against a sea of Japanese schoolgirls.
Mom and me on the ground floor outdoor lobby of my apartment building.
I can’t remember where this is, possibly Ueno near Ameyayokochō.
Most of these images look like crap because Costco did a rotten job of digitizing these photographs from slides that my father shot. I’ve put my copyright on these images because, well, my dad is dead and these are my memories and streets and places. They’re mine.
Thanks, mom, for being an everlasting part of happy memories of the Tokyo that I love so well.
One fine, warm day in late September, I was in Akasaka, Tokyo, and I saw a couple of dogs. That’s basically it, except one was a teeny terrier and one was a large pit bull.
(Pictures taken in Tokyo in September, 2013)
It’s thirsty work, watching the world go by as it filters through Tokyo.
For your own good, and the good of your overall health, your really should leave it to the professionals.
(Pictures taken in Ueno Park near Shinobazu Pond, Tokyo in September, 2013)
And kept walking…
Then the doors closed and the train moved eventually into the elongated burrow that would take me to my transfer at Ōtemachi.
(Pictures taken in on the Tōzai Line, Tokyo in September, 2013)
He was leaning on a doorway frame of a building labeled ESPACE on Chuo Dori near Ueno Park. His left index finger was missing, and I wondered if his pocketed right hand was in even worse shape. He didn’t appear to have any of the physical features typical of dwarfism, but he stood a few inches short of five feet.
I wondered what he stared at, and how he saw it. How does life look on the hard streets of Tokyo filtered through the perspective of a digital handicap and a height disadvantage? Even if I had known enough Japanese to ask, I would have refrained. It would have been, I think, in bad taste to violate this man’s personal space and the quiet reserve and seeming disdain with which he silently stood and watched the world go by…
(Picture taken in Ueno, Tokyo in September, 2013. The title of this post is an allusion to this movie.)
It was a beautiful September day and the world was wide open and I was back in my old Tokyo, the places in Ueno where I spent so much time when I lived nearby in Yushima. The day was warm and I felt young and carefree again, in a place that created me as much as did the flawed swirls of DNA I inherited from my mother and father.
In the middle of the wide street, with the whole of the world’s greatest city before me, it was glorious this day and the women in passing were all goddesses…
(Picture taken on Chuo Dori, near the south end of Ueno Park, Tokyo in September, 2013)
It was just a spring day in a rundown part of Tokyo in the week before Golden Week in 2012. The patrons of this outdoor bar were rough and shabby; but they were drinking in the early afternoon sun and even in this booze- and urine-soaked Tokyo neighborhood the spring air smelled fresh and clean. There was a dingy freedom to the scene, and an uplifting sense that even though this was low life, it was robust and vibrant life nonetheless…
Asakusa near Sensō-ji on a warm and dry Sunday afternoon in October is one of the best places to be in the world. On this day, after a long and often furious rainy season, so many relaxed and smiling people were in Asakusa’s streets they seemed as uncountable as the stars.
And there were plenty of street performers, like this fellow, who kept the passing crowds continuously entertained while earning a bit of cash on the cuff. This guy’s shtick was plastic road cones, a fairly ubiquitous symbol of construction, progress, and inconvenience in Tokyo. As he chatted up the crowd, he prepared the cones…
And he kept talking as he positioned the cones above his face and established his balance…
Then it was done. It was, as most of the folks in the crowd probably knew, a foregone conclusion that he’d succeed. There’s no point in trying to make money this way if you aren’t quite good at it.
Still, it was a hell of a lot of fun to watch…
(Pictures taken in Asakusa, Tokyo on October 6th, 2013)
In Tokyo it is often hard to tell if someone is homeless, or merely down on both their luck and available resources. On a warm late summer day in Ueno Park, this man was sitting quietly by himself on several well-worn layers of salvaged cardboard. He wasn’t drinking, nor was he carrying on in any way. But the premature and uniform silver color of his hair and the symmetrical discolorations on his pant legs suggested that he had seen more prosperous days, and that he might be spending the night on the very spot where he was sitting.
But it is good that he was in Ueno Park in September. Ueno Park is usually safe and warm in September.
(Picture taken in Ueno Park, Tokyo in September, 2013. Also published on Scholars and Rogues.)
I am never full of
your hounded depression.
But I look down the streets,
hoping to find you.
But often I don’t.
Okay, I never do.
I never find you.
But I keep looking for you,
on these streets,
in the home of my mind,
(Pictures taken in Sanya (Nihonzutsumi) in September, 2013.)
(Picture taken in Nakano 5-chome, Tokyo in September, 2013)
If you live in Japan, I bet you’ve wondered what kind of batteries these things take.
(Picture taken in Nakano-ku, Tokyo near the Life store in September, 2013. This picture was previously published here.)
My brains are in great scarred depths,
and I am nothing without the Japanese people.
They are a certain kind of life to me,
which is helpful,
because I was born in their land.
I am of them, yet not of them.
I am my own thing, and not a thing.
I am a man, your man, if you’d like.
And we can wander around the park,
and feed the birds,
watch the children go home,
and make love with all our monkey breath
until the sun rises again on Shinobazu Pond
and we realize that,
maybe getting drunk and staying out all night
wasn’t the best idea we ever had.
Life along the long wall
comes in inches, millimeters, and pain.
I travel it every day,
I love it.
It supports me
and makes me whole again.
The long wall takes me to the past
faster than it does the future.
I live in them both,
I can see them both,
and I am not scared.
The long wall is my starship.
It helps me love you
faster than the speed of light.
Note: This is a color treatment of a monochrome photograph in a 10-image exhibition of mine currently on display at Brisbane City Hall in California. If you live in the San Francisco area, drop by for a look. Click here for details.
What caught my eye during a transfer from the Tōzai Line to the Yamanote Line was the Osamu Tezuka mural across the street from Takadanobaba Station. What held my attention was the lone man selling a street magazine called The Big Issue. This magazine is sold exclusively by Tokyo’s homeless, who have to provide proof of homelessness in order to become a Big Issue vendor. The Big Issue Japan Foundation oversees this magazine sales program in order to offer a “hand-up rather than a hand-out” by providing a means for Japan’s homeless to have a personal source of income.
Now I don’t know how well-regarded or effective this program is, but I have a lot of respect for the concept. And I have even more respect for this lonely fellow, selling magazines on the streets of Tokyo, trying to rise up and out of whatever hole life dropped him in.
I wonder if he chose the location in front of the Tezuka mural for the quality it added to his work environment. I imagine whatever gives you a sense of happiness and hope when you’re trying to raise yourself up makes the hard days on Tokyo’s streets pass more bearably.
But I could just be projecting how I think I would feel in this man’s place.
(Pictures taken at Takadanobaba Station, Tokyo in September, 2013)
“These just became very precious photos to me.”
I have been a bit depressed lately. Well more often than usual, considering depression is a chronic medical condition with me. I miss being in Japan. I miss my dad, though we did not get along all that well. I miss, as I said a few days ago on various social networks, being able to see the magic in ordinary things. I miss a sense of inner peace. I haven’t felt that in a long, long time.
When I get like this I take a look at my work, at photos that bring happy, or at least satisfying, memories to me. I stumbled upon this, just a throwaway shot of a faceless young man playing with his smartphone in the street outside an apartment I was renting in Tokyo last year. It’s not a prize winner, but the shot is simple, the scene rather peaceful. And it just might help me feel better and make it through the day. Maybe it can make your day better in some way too.
(Picture taken in Nakano 5-chome, Tokyo in September, 2013. Photo also published on Scholars and Rogues.)
I came upon the scene after the hole had been dug and then filled in. I was passing by the Nakano Life store on my way to get some cheap kakiage soba at a place I like in Nakano Sun Mall. The workmen had finished the street repairs and were just cleaning up when I got there. But the Japanese can be so meticulous that even watching some men cleaning up a mess in Tokyo can be a thing of interest and even beauty…
(Pictures taken in Nakano-ku 5-chome, Tokyo in September, 2013)
Behind this glass
you look at us.
And we look at you.
But to you
we are just
some scenery you chew.
Pass by, pass by
we are now done with you.
I come for the soju,
I stay for the pictures.
The entire fucking history of Japan,
and of Tokyo,
is in the eyes, the skins, the frosty cocktail glasses
in these pictures of the lives of the
people on these walls.
I like it here.
(Picture taken in Seoul Bar, Sanya (Nihonzutsumi), Tokyo in October, 2013. Published concurrently on Scholars and Rogues.)
I had a finished poem written about this photo, and what might be going through this man’s head. It started with the line “I am stranded in my own blood” and got weird after that. But I scrapped it because I don’t think words can entirely convey how cosmically tired this fellow looked. He looked tired in a way that didn’t suggest utter defeat, but also didn’t suggest he was on an upswing. The kind of tired where you just have to sit quietly for a bit and take the time to consider which limb to move next, which finger to flick. The kind of tired that emanates from you so perceptibly that some schmuck standing near you only long enough to snap a few pictures of you can feel it.
That kind of tired.
(Picture taken on the west side of Shinjuku Station in September, 2013)
This is the seriously-no-bullshit soup plate,
Where it all falls asunder into metal,
and I don’t mean angry white men playing guitars.
It’s peaceful, the undying here,
and I’m trying to figure out how to make some art out of this monstrous tranquility.
I throw compassionate grenades,
and perform brutally humane triage.
I’ve crushed my skull for genius
and I’ve banished my excellent demons for you.
There is no distance I would not
throw my combat liver over the Sea of Japan for you.
I will become a great ape for the sight of you,
and holler my guttural mating call
down into Tokyo’s darkest gutters to summon you.
There is dark growth here in my muddy extremes,
and the old Edo gods who once bore you you bear,
and I still think I’ll start drinking before noon today.