This is an excerpt from my book, BIG LIKE: CASCADE INTO AN ODYSSEY.
Tokyo, April 1996. The problem is money. It dematerializes in multiples of 10,000-yen bills. There’s even a word for ten thousand: man. Anything less is change. You pay two man yen for dinner and drinks, plus one man yen for a love hotel, plus one man yen for breakfast, lunch, and miscellaneous expenses. You’ve blown four man yen, or about $400, without having done anything fancy. Man-yen bills are always pristine. People remove them fastidiously from their wallets and hand them over with reverence. Cashiers accept them with humility and stash them away even more fastidiously. And when I wrest a crinkled, sweaty wad of these sacred bills from the front pocket of my jeans, they gasp, barely able to contain their horror and despair.
And now I need a refill. I stand at the pay phone on Mejiro-dōri and dial my broker. It’s 4:00 a.m. A pink veil is floating above the roofs. The street is quiet, and half the block can listen to my side of the conversation. The brisk air invigorates my head, which is still smarting from having hit the rail of the accordion door. I’ve been hitting it every morning on the way to the bathroom. Ducking, like so many things in life, occurs to me only after it’s too late.
I give a guy named Mark my account number, name, and social security number, hoping that no one in my neighborhood is taking notes. We go through my positions. Everything is up. Wall Street is funding my trip. Based on valuations and future potential, I pick one of my stocks and have him liquidate the position. Making these financial decisions in the quasi-dark at a pay phone on Mejiro-dōri is quite something.
In the afternoon, I meet Izumi at First Kitchen in Takadanobaba. We have coffee at the counter against the shopwindow and watch the street scene. I gripe about the apartment rip-off. She says “N” and nods every time I take a breath, and when I’m through, she says, “That’s how it is in Japan.”
“Renters are getting fucked.”
“They should revolt.”
“Against getting fucked.”
“I don’t know.” I stare at remnants of artificial crema in my cup.
Frustrated, we go to Asakusa. The hundreds of shops in the arcades around Sensō-ji temple sell everything from Edo crafts to postcards. It’s the opposite of Ginza. It’s low-rise, low-tech, run-down, and bazaar-like, exactly what we’ve been yearning for. In a kelp shop, an old guy with a scraggy face is shaving dried kelp. He offers Izumi a piece.
“May I try also?” I ask him in Japanese.
He holds a piece in my direction and says something to her. I’ve gotten used to being on the verge of nonexistence. The fact that people don’t acknowledge me or don’t talk to me when I address them doesn’t bother me anymore. We move on, chewing kelp shavings.
“What did he tell you?” I ask.
“He was talking about me, wasn’t he?”
She doesn’t respond.
“I recognized ‘gaijin-san.’”
“He was unpleasant.”
“Tell me what he said.”
She hesitates. I prod her. The more she hesitates, the more I want to know. We’re still chewing kelp shavings.
“He was wondering if gaijin-san could understand this taste,” she says finally.
“I have to admit, he’s right. I can’t understand this taste.”
She zeroes in on a booth where a guy is baking rice crackers, and we buy a bag. Pepper flavor, and so hot they set my mouth on fire. We chase them with daifuku—rice dough stuffed with sweet red-bean paste. Inside Sensō-ji precinct, we buy our fortunes. It’s one of the cheapest things you can buy in Tokyo, after the flimsy tissue packs they hand you on the street, which are free. I unfold mine. Columns of kanji on wispy paper. I give it to her. She scans it.
“Category Good Luck, subcategory End of Good Luck.”
“Is that good or bad?”
“It’s above Bad Luck.”
“It says if you’re humble and if you don’t think stupid thoughts and if you work hard and if you have a lot of patience, your plans might come to fruition. If you’re proud, disaster occurs. Your illnesses last a long time but can be cured. A good match may happen, but it takes a long time. It’s a profitable time to buy and sell. If you try hard and wish very seriously, your wishes may come true. If you don’t try hard, your wishes don’t come true. It’s better to think twice before traveling far. The person you’re waiting for may come, but you have to wait a long time.”
“Sounds like an uphill battle.”
She unfolds hers. “Oh no!”
“Big Bad Luck.” She reads silently.
“What does it say?”
“It seems nothing works out regardless of how hard I try. Even if I’m humble, disaster occurs. My illnesses—” She doesn’t finish. “This is not fun,” she says.
We fold the fortunes and tie them to one of the racks to which thousands of other middling- to bad-luck fortunes have been tied so that the gods can take care of them.
Excerpt from my book, BIG LIKE: CASCADE INTO AN ODYSSEY.