09 Nov Thomas Thor Buchanan
This is what I know about my father:
He was born in 1931, in Okinawa, weighing four pounds and one eighth. It’s my belief that never once in his life was my father the tallest man in the room. As an adult he barely surpassed five feet, and never weighed above a hundred and twenty pounds. The image of his ribs is as familiar to me as his face.
He met my mother somewhere in Michigan, where they both worked at a hotel, he as a janitor, she as a canoe guide. He was thirty and she was eighteen. My father was never clear on when he’d come to the US, or where he’d been during the war, and my mother said he was inconsistent on whether he had living parents, or siblings. She described him as a friendless, withdrawn man who had nonetheless pursued her shamelessly.
I was born on the day my mother turned nineteen, and my father was already a thirty-one-year-old man. That same year, we moved to Pittsburgh, PA, and in her first winter there my mother slipped on icy steps, and had to spend the entire season laying on the living room couch, reading newspapers. Around the time of my birth, she had become engaged in a frenetic process of self-education, in the throes of which she taught herself Spanish, read early Macuse and Isaiah Berlin, and wrote letters to city aldermen. I believe she was already incredibly unhappy. Periodically my father threw her down the stairs. Periodically he talked about leaving and moving to British Columbia. He was by turns raving, helpless, ghostly. This was in 1962, the year Marilyn Monroe died and Charles Mingus stood up at his Town Hall concert and offered people their money back. My father was working in a bakery then.
He would work from 1:00 in the morning until just before noon, twisting sour-smelling wads of dough into intricate shapes and shoving them into an enormous oven. Loaves he’d broken or burned he’d bring home. At street corners he would wait swaying with fatigue for the light to change, as the midday crowd streamed around him. Over his shoulder he would carry a milk crate he’d stand on to reach the counter at the bakery. One thing about my father, he was never embarrassed about his height.
My mother once told me my father was an intensely angry person. Angry at who, I asked. She said that most people are angry because some presence they feel they deserve is absent from their life. Waiting around makes people very angry. She also said that my father had never been able to adapt himself to the particularities of poverty in America. In Japan there had always been a peasant class, who even when they were mistreated at least felt confirmed by the fact of their historical precedent. In America there was only the abiding faith in the ability of a person to change his station. And, of course, the pain of failing to do so. My father had expected his poverty to manifest an ethical dimension and instead it had manifested an economic one. Which produces a capitalist despair, she said. Which was my father’s despair. These kinds of things, she said, are what constitute a culture.
I rarely saw my father, he was at work when I woke up, and slept through most of the afternoon and evening. But one day when I came back from school I found him sprawled out on the kitchen table. Instead of coming straight home from work he’d stopped at a liquor store and bought a quart of Old Grand Dad to polish off on the walk home. He had taken his milk crate and thrown it onto some train tracks. When I came in he lifted his head from the table and looked at me. When he spoke it was in a mixture of English and Japanese, a language I rarely heard him speak. He told me about how sick this country was, how everyone got sick and stayed sick off of something. He told me that in Japan, in the south, people ate roots and that his grandmother’s piss had been clear as water. He told me that my mother thought it was all a matter of where you were born and in what century, like two axes on a graph. All a matter of who was free and who had to get to work on time. He asked me if I believed that too. He said he’d slap me back to the Stone Age and we’d see if I believed that. This was our century, his and mine. His eyes rolled up, and he lay back down, and was quickly asleep. I stood there for a few minutes, watching his breath move inside his ribs.
My father did eventually leave. Up and disappeared like Charlie Parker. One weekend he went out for the night and on his way home veered left instead of right and that was it. When we saw his friends out in the world they acted sheepish. No one had any information. My mother was so angry she avoided bakeries altogether and for a time we had no bread in the house (this is a diet currently popular with the rich).
So for a while it was just the two of us, alone in a house at the edge of the City of Bridges. In some ways, our lot improved in my father’s absence. My mother got a job as a secretary for a local radical lawyer, known defending vandals and union agitators. She had a story about John Sinclair walking into the office without a word and sitting on her desk. For a time she wrote unanswered letters to Hannah Arendt. By the time I was a teenager she could afford to give me a little money, enough to buy cassette tapes and odd copies of Bomp. When I grew tired of the tapes I had I would record over them from the radio, or from the collection of dub records a pot dealer in the neighborhood lent me. I made tapes that spliced together PiL singles with a days worth of time-share ads from public radio, or that obscured King Tubby with a mix of static and distorted background noise. I became less interested in listening to music than making these tapes. I tried to make them impossible to sit through, learning as I went how to torture anything recognizable into a something crazed and private. I did my best to avoid any patterns in the sound, and sense of structure, I wanted to make something beyond language. I saved enough money to buy a portable recorder and a microphone and used it to record traffic downtown, or people having screaming matches on Federal St. I began describing my work as “stochastic”, a word I learned from my mother.
In this way I occupied myself for four or five years until adulthood. I spent this time largely alone. I rarely spoke to anyone other than my mother. I cultivated no friendships. I can’t recall if I graduated high school. My life was reduced to a selfish and ascetic set of principles, a state in which I would sometimes become suddenly aware of a lack of desire inside of me, a total absence of any kind of appetite, only a tired, animal-like distrust of anything that wasn’t myself. Periodically I would feel a brief and lucid anxiety that I couldn’t place, which quickly passed. I lived in a state of numbing personal poverty. I continued making tapes. I think I learned from that period that life in America passes quickly, and that there is nothing essential about it.
My father sent me a postcard when I turned eighteen. The return address was for Kingston, Jamaica. He said he was living there and making his living as a horse jockey. He said that he was now 52 and weighed 118 lbs. The reverse of the postcard showed two racehorses rounding a turn, their hooves speckled with mud. Two impossibly small men crouched like acrobats on top of their shoulders. At the very bottom of the card my father invited me to come visit him. Oh, I thought, in life, we do experience contingencies.
People are often surprised, or disbelieving, when I tell them I rarely thought of my father in the years we were apart, but it’s the truth. I accepted his absence as a condition, similar to inclement weather or a tooth abscess. I remember once watching my mother getting reading for work, and pausing to lean against the kitchen counter to catch her breath, and become suddenly aware that she had become prematurely old, and that she was almost completely alone. This was as close as I ever came to thinking about my father.
Maybe I decided to go immediately. Maybe it took me a few hours, or days to make up my mind. It’s hard to remember how decisions are made. At some point I put the postcard on the kitchen table for my mother to see when she came home. She picked it up, read the back and set it back down, said nothing except to comment on the handsomeness of the horses. A few days later at dinner she asked how I intended to pay for a ticket. She asked me if I knew how much a plane ticket to Jamaica cost. She asked me if I knew how to pack for a trip. She asked me what if I even remembered what my father looked like. I looked at her and found her face unreadable. I suppose that she likely thought of my father more often than I did, but then again, what’s a guess really worth, even among family. I told her I intended to sell some of my tapes, maybe outside of the Warhol Museum. She asked me if I planned to wear a silver wig and sunglasses. I shrugged and continued eating.
The price of a mid-winter ticket to Kingston was more money than I’d even seen. It was apparent I could never pay for it with my tapes. I rarely had more than a few dollars, I would often get on the bus only to find that I had nothing in my pocket except for buttons or the plastic knobs from appliances. A job seemed out of the questions. I was always tired and couldn’t keep appointments, and people seemed unnerved by meeting me. The newspaper carried an ad for spray-washing graffiti for $3.50, week after week. Local drug dealers were knifing each other and being found in snow banks. Theft felt like an attractive option to me, having long been interested in the story of DB Cooper. Hubcaps gleamed on this year’s Cadillacs along Elmsworth Ave.
At some point, I saw a flyer at a bus station for an organization (a “cultural association” being the term they used) that gave money to Americans with Japanese heritages. What makes a person part with their money once they have it is beyond me. I applied for a grant to visit my father. When they learned I didn’t attend school I had to write an essay proving my literacy and betraying any anti-social worldviews. In early December I was invited to their Pittsburgh office, the basement of a Lutheran church near Chinatown to discuss my eligibility. A committee from the foundation’s headquarters in California attended. They arranged themselves in a semi-circle while I sat on a plastic folding chair in front of them. They asked me how long it had been since I’d seen my father, whether he had any living family in America, and whether he’d spoken Japanese at home. They asked me to describe a time my father’s status as a Japanese immigrant had been thrown into stark relief. I described a time when he’d nearly been arrested for wrestling a traffic cop who called him a chink. I also told him that I’d heard him speak Japanese once while drunk. His family was either dead, disowned, or otherwise indisposed. I gave them all the particulars they wanted, as clipped and honest as a traffic report. They asked me what my father’s experience had been during the Vietnam War, and I told them for all I knew he’d been 4F, being likely too small to hold a rifle, and anyway possessing the kind of disposition one imagines in those soldiers who become disgruntled and shoot their C.O.s in the back. Before they had a chance to ask I told them I knew nothing of why my father was in Jamaica, or how long he’d been there. They asked if, to my knowledge, he could possibly be part of an existing Japanese-American community in Kingston. I shrugged my shoulders and was dismissed. I waited in the hall while they deliberated. A half hour later I was called back in and told that they were awarding me an amount sufficient to cover the price of an economy-class ticket to Norman Manley International airport, in sunny Kingston. I booked one that same day and mailed my father back his postcard with the date of my arrival.
When I told my mother she didn’t betray any surprise, nor did she ask where the money came from. Maybe she was worried I’d tell her I’d been letting men put cigarettes out on my chest. She told me she had always been very sensitive to the moment when things became inevitable, being something of a Hegelian. The day before I left she helped me pack a bag and pick what clothes to take. She gave me some caffeine pills and anti-nausea tablets. That night we dragged our mattresses into the living room, and stayed up talking obliquely about my father, my mother drinking gin from a coffee mug. She told me about the resort where they’d met, how my father slept in a cot under a stairwell in the back of the building. She described the ways in which his body had seemed impossible to her, the strange way he unsettled a room. She talked about how a person could become violent over the course of a lifetime and how you come to a point where talking in terms of happiness and unhappiness makes you want to laugh. She told me about a dream she’d had often after I was born, where my father held me, pink and new, on his baker’s paddle, and how she could never tell if he was taking me out or putting me in. At some point I fell asleep, and when I woke up in the morning she’d already left for work. I grabbed my Samsonite and caught a bus to the airport.