Purposely arriving an hour early for a private lesson at a Starbuck’s in Yokohama, I sat at the only available table in the crowded cafe, placed my tall sized cup of Sumatra coffee on the tabletop and whipped out the reason for my over-punctuality: A book I’ve read four times since it was first published about 30 years ago. I’ve been savoring it for the past few days. I was three quarters through its 320 some-odd pages and thinking I might unfortunately finish today. I hoped for some miracle- like maybe I might have forgotten huge blocks of the story, prolonging the payoff a bit.
Hey, you never know, right?
I took a sip of the elixir of life, took a deep breath (trust me, the story requires it), and dove back in:
“Even the educated colored, the long-school people, the doctors, the teachers, the paper-writers, and Businessmen had a hard row to hoe. In addition to having to use their heads to get ahead, they had the weight of the whole race sitting there. You needed two heads for that. “
An abrupt movement distracted me. The couple seated at the table to my right, who had been comfortably smiling, making eyes and making love with their hands across the table when I arrived and had, subsequent to my taking the table beside theirs, lost all semblances of joy, replaced by a discomfort you’d expect from a couple being instructed at gun point- barrels pressed against their temples- to pretend convincingly to be in love, or die!…Well, they’d decided, halfway through their lattes, that death was preferable and it was time to go.
Part of me wanted to shout, “what the fuck do I have to do to make you motherfuckers comfortable enough to be the decent people I know you have the capacity to be??? Cuz apparently spending my day off sitting silently and unobtrusively reading a Pulitzer & Nobel prize winning novel while sipping a cup of over-priced coffee in a trendy cafe aint e-fucking-nough!” And, man do I hate that part of me. But, I groaned, inside, instead.
Another part of me wanted to forgive them for they know not what they do nor do they know of the creature they are stirring in the doing!
When I felt them smearing their fear over me one last time before departure, I turned to them and said, “Sayonara,” with a smile and a wink, and returned to the book:
“Whitepeople believed that whatever the manners, under every dark skin was a jungle. Swift unnavigable waters, swinging screaming baboons, sleeping snakes, red gums ready for their sweet white blood.”
I felt an itch on my neck, a tingling almost burning sensation. I rubbed it and caught a shadow in my periphery. I turned about. Another couple had arrived. The guy was standing stark still behind me, holding the tray, his girl teetering on pumps beside him, holding his arm. I’d just caught the edge of his eyes turning away from the hole they’d been boring into my neck. She was still staring. But, making eye contact with me must have broken the spell for her eyes kinda rolled from me up to the ceiling.
He was scanning the room for available tables. I did so, as well. There were none aside for the one beside my own. There was, however, a short line of people extending a few feet from the staircase landing, blocking the bathrooms, waiting patiently for tables to become open. There were also 2 or 3 anxious staff people looking to accommodate them, apologizing profusely for the inconvenience. I turned back to the couple. They were making eyes at one another communicating with nods and awkward expressions, obviously discussing, in this muted lingo, whether or not to sit beside me.
I turned away and looked at the page without reading, cause the goings-on behind me was turning my stomach. As it always does.
I told myself, “ignore it, ignore it, just ignore it” over and over.
After a solid 45 seconds of this, apparently they’d come to a decision. The guy placed the tray on the table, ever so gingerly, as if the table were a part of something dark and demented and that merely placing the tray upon it might awaken the evil that lurked within it. They sat, eyes on me, thinking I was reading, then back at each other, silently reassuring one another that they’d made the right call. “He looks alright…”
I took another deep breath and adjusted my focus from the page to its words:
“In a way, he thought, they were right. The more coloredpeople spent their strength trying to convince them how gentle they were, how clever and loving, how human…”
A chair near me turning to the side with a screech drew my attention. I knew what it was before I turned to look but, like watching a nature show, you just gotta see these chimpanzees eat their feces or throw shit at one another. The guy, seated on my side of the table, had turned his chair so that his back was partially to me and the only way he could see me is if he were to look over his shoulder.
After I kicked their table and sent it, and their lattes, and cellphones, flying across the cafe- in my mind- I returned to my book:
“…the more they used themselves up to persuade whites of something Negroes believed could not be questioned, the deeper and more tangled the jungle grew inside.”
The guy sitting on the other side of me packed up his stuff and left, and as he did the next people in the queue, two girls, came over, empty handed, giggling and chatting with one another. They placed their coats and pocketbooks in either chair, totally carefree, talking about what some guy at the offfice had said to one of them the other day. They turned to go back to the counter downstairs to get their drinks. They had taken a few steps that way when one of them suddenly turned and came back. She slid open her pocketbook and pulled out her purse. Then, she looked up and, in doing so, saw me for the first time. She stumbled on her pumps a bit, like she’d been pushed.
I was looking at the page of my book…but I could see her at the same time no problem. Eight years of observing things without people knowing, while living in an environment where everyone is trying and failing miserably to do the same to you, and one can develop a knack for such a thing. Most Japanese I’ve come across do it poorly. Unaccustomed to the need to do it- in a country where most people avoid being stare-worthy, and those who don’t usually want to be stared at and are unperturbed by it- the result is a city of people who, at best, do so like rejects from the counter surveillance unit of the Japanese Secret Service, trained but unable to successfully pull it off in the field so they’ve been restricted to desk work. Nevertheless, they still feel this compulsion to relive their failure over and over with me as the subject to be surveilled.
After a 10 second scan around the room, where the only thing she is really scanning for is the thing right in front of her- me- she grabbed both pocketbooks and trotted to the staircase, glancing back at me one last time, just in case there was any doubt in my mind the reason for her sudden and otherwise unnecessary safety measure, or maybe wondering if she should go back for the coats, as well.
The coats I was setting a-flame in my mind.
I wish I could really read at these times, instead of just looking at the pages. But, not only can’t I read, I can’t do much of anything aside from process. It’s like I’m trapped in a quagmire, where ignorance is not an option. Nor is action, really. I feel, nonetheless, obliged to acknowledge it, and record it, and analyze it. I must process it. I must experience it. It feels like I’ll die if I become the kind of person who can be unaffected by it. No, worst than that. That I was never alive in the first place. That I was never really human.
Somehow, I was everything they were afraid of. A lusty, bloodthirsty, unintelligible savage from the darkest jungles of the soul, trying to hide the truth about myself in plain sight, outfit it in respectability and civilization, in a cafe, behind a book- of all things- and an expensive cup of coffee. How ridiculous and terrifying I must look to them!
Read! Don’t think! Just read…
But, I kept thinking. I couldn’t stop. I thought, a man didn’t come to Japan. Something sub-human did, and I was just the disguise it wore. But these people can see through my disguise, easily, and that is why they react the way they do…
“…But it wasn’t the jungle blacks brought with them to this place from the other (livable) place. it was the jungle whitefolks planted in them. And it grew. It spread. In, through and after life, it spread, until it invaded the whites who made it. Touched them every one. Changed and altered them. Made them bloody, silly, worse than even they wanted to be, so scared were they of the jungle they had made.”
The girls returned with their drinks, pocketbooks in their clutches, smiles gone, joy vanquished by apprehension and suspicion. They scanned the room as they approached the table. The line had thinned. A table on the other side of the room opened just as they were slowly, warily, planting their asses in the chairs. They sprung into action as a unit, both spotting the opening at the same time, and telling the other at the same time of its existence. It was really silly and horrible at the same time, to witness the ease, the thoughtlessness, the innocent savagery with which this was done.
My stomach bubbled and gurgled, like diarrhea was a-brewing. I took deep breaths through my nose. Watching them cross the room, drinks and bags and coats in hand, I tasted bile in my mouth. I lifted the coffee mug. It was shaking in my hand…just a little, just enough to confirm my humanity. I actually felt better watching it shake. I took a sip. It tasted like shit. I looked down at the book. I had spilled a few drops of coffee on page 235.
I read through the drops:
“The screaming baboon lived under their own white skin; the red gums were their own”
You know, after each of my first four readings of Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer and Nobel prize winning novel, “Beloved” – either immediately or within a few days, I would look in the mirror and say something to the effect of, “See, that’s what writers do, Loco! You’re not a fucking writer! She’s a writer! You’re, at best, a hack! You don’t have any idea what life is about, what people are about, what’s going on in the world, or even in your own heart and mind. You’re a liar, and a piss poor one at that! You don’t even have the capacity to deal with the kind of truths that Toni illustrates so poetically and astutely.”
These are not the kind of thoughts a writer likes to have after reading a book, I gotta tell you.
I used to wonder, who the fuck was Toni writing this book for. Who was her target audience? Black people? Black women? White people? Educated people? I mean, this book defies demographic marginalization. But, I just knew I wasn’t the target. For some reason I felt that she knew that I, and people like me, wouldn’t get it. That she had created a challenge. I imagined she said, “I’m not gonna bring the story to you. You gotta come to it. You gotta go brush up on life, live it, have it embrace you and kiss you, have it take care of you when you’re sick and listen to you when you need an ear, hold you up when you need support, have it kick you around a little, spit on you and shit on you. And then read my work.”
I accepted her challenge. Went out and lived a little. Came back time after time only to find that I hadn’t lived quite enough. Get back out there, Beloved told me, and live some more. So, I did.
I moved to another world called Japan. I lived in it for 8 years.
Then, last week, I came back to Beloved.
Beloved had changed and grown in that time. And, something so transcendental that even those silly fucks in Starbucks couldn’t sully it with their foolishness has happened: I just finished it for the fifth time today, and after 8 years of living , and loving, and changing, and growing, I have finally done it.
It’s official: I am Toni Morrison’s target audience now.
I feel like a better man, like I’ve just gotten a promotion, and a corner office with a view… from God.
So how do you win both a Pulitzer and the Nobel prize for literature?
First of all you gotta live, love, change and grow. Then, you gotta write something that lives, loves, changes, and grows. And, if that ain’t enough, it has to inspire readers to live, love, change and grow into the kind of humans that can fully appreciate life, love, change and growth.
Probably a lot of other political nonsense, too. Who knows? Who cares? Accolades with prestigious and monetary value have their uses, of course, but ultimately the only thing that’s important really is the work!
Thank you so much, Toni, for teaching me so much! You are the miracle I was hoping for.
PS: And if you haven’t read Beloved, and plan to now, take a deep breath and brace yourself!
And, whatever you do, don’t watch the movie first. Most books don’t translate well to film, as we all know, and Beloved the movie, though hauntingly well done as a stand alone film (thanks Oprah- I sincerely applaud your effort), is unfortunately,IMHO, another example of this.
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