I’d built this trip home up in my mind to be just what my spiritual adviser would advise if I had one…an adviser, that is. I have a spirit, I think. Three years have passed since I’ve seen NY. Much too long. Long enough for home to become idealized, for NY to become a shining city on a hill, for America to become a beacon of diversity and open-mindedness cast on a rigid, small-minded world…I mean, Japan. I’ve built up Japan as, culturally, the Anti-America. And, thank god for that. If I had seen even a faint glimmer of a time in the near or distant future when Japan would become tolerant of foreigners, I would have given up my US passport years ago…and be disqualified from voting in this election. Yes, I’d be kicking my own ass all over Yokohama, regretting the worst, hastiest decision I’d ever made.
At least, that was what I thought prior to passing through customs at JFK and having that post 14-hour flight stogy that left me dizzy with a nicotine rush; a dizziness that didn’t subside until I landed back at Narita ten days later wondering why the hell was I glad to be back here.
Yes, what I learned quite cruelly this trip home is that Japan has a way of creeping up on you, and just when you least expect it…BANG! ZOOM! POW! Right in the kisser!
I spent weeks preparing for my trip. Made a to-do list, a to-buy list, a to-meet, and a to-see list; a comprehensive compilation of all those activities and things and people and places that for me make home home . Highlights included: canvassing door-to-door for Obama in North Philadelphia and a food tour of all my favorite spots all across NYC. I couldn’t have been any more excited.
But, ultimately, the purpose of the trip home was to take part in the most significant event in my country’s history: The election of Barack Obama. If any of you have had the chance to peruse my other two blogs ex-pat for obama or my latest start-up Hail to the Mutt, you know that I have been following his campaign very closely and passionately, as I intend to follow his presidency. So, of course I had to be there. Win or lose. I came prepared to shed tears, riot, protest, or celebrate. Fortunately, nothing untoward went down and all went as expected…
At least, nothing had gone awry with the election, that is. But, back in Loco’s world…
I’d called my mother a month prior, and told her she could expect to see me come Halloween and she was overjoyed…that is, until I stuck my foot in my mouth.
“Can I stay with you for a spell?” I asked
“Yeah, no problem,” she said a little tentatively.
“Don’t worry, I won’t get under your hair…I’ll probably be out most of the time anyway canvassing for Obama. Gonna run down to Philly and wake some undecideds up and I’m gonna be driving seniors to the polls and…”
“Are you coming here to see your mother, who, by the way, you haven’t seen in…what…almost 3 years, or are you coming for…”she yelped.
“Well, come on, Ma. We’re talking about history here! A black president! I mean, of course I’m gonna spend time with you but I gotta do what I can for the change I believe…”
“Jesus, you can’t get on a fucking plane for your mother, but for Obama you can?”
“Ummm…” Yes We Can, right? Fuck!
Anyway. that’s how it started. Me being insensitive to my mother’s ever increasingly fragile emotional state. Some son I am. By the time I was packed and ready to embark on my Obama mission, not a month after that ill-fated phone call, I get the news from her husband (not my father), who’s a real prick: “Your mother’s in an alcohol rehab drying out and…you can’t talk to her! She can’t get calls for 28 days.”
Thanks a lot motherfucker! “Well, I’m staying there so I’ll see you tomorrow?” I had to ask. It’s his house.
“Well…I don’t know about that…”
“What do you mean?” This motherfucker!
“I don’t know about that.”
“She didn’t tell you I was staying there?”
“I…I…” He’s an effete, feeble old fuck, did I mention?
“Listen, old man, I’ve had my fill of half-ass answers over here. Can I stay there? All I need is a yes or a no!”
“Well..I don’t know…”
Click!!! Fuck him!
It’s NY, so i didn’t sweat it. I got backups galore. I got people everywhere. I called my former landlord, who’s like a second mother- so much so that my primary mother, at 67, is still jealous of her- and she just happened to have room. Room…hell. She has a four-story brownstone in Bed-Stuy where she’s currently living alone. Though she can definitely use the money, she can only take but so much of her tenants’ bullshit. I was the only one she got along with. She just happens to be my best friend’s mother so she practically raised me. I even call her Ma.
“Sure you can stay here, but you gotta clean your shit out of the basement!” I’ve been storing a number of boxes down in her cellar ever since I set out for the Far East 5 years ago. Unfortunately, so have a number of her other former tenants, so she was feeling that her generosity wa being a bit abused. “Or at least hit me off for storage.”
“No problem, Ma. And, thanks! See you Halloween.” Did I mention she’s the coolest Mom in the world? Well, consider it mentioned.
I arrived at JFK International airport, American Airlines terminal. I don’t know if any of you have ever been there, but suffice it to say that by the time you get from the plane to the baggage rotary you know- without question- that you’re not in Kansas anymore. You walk about 12 miles through a twisting, drearily lit labyrinth of dingy carpet, droning smile-less staff, alongside 200 or so people who look like they’ve had the life sucked out of them. 14 hours in economy class will do that to most people. The line for Immigration is a mile long on account of the staff, God knows why, not being prepared for this International arrival, and though there are twenty or so booths, there are only 2 Immigration officers, who have the audacity to have a conversation with each other from their respective booths about how they’re supposed to be on their dinner breaks and how they hate this shit. Finally you get to one of the booths and the officer glances at your bona fides, notes that you haven’t been stateside in a spell and welcomes you back to America with as much warmth as the stewardess on the plane had explained what to do if, god forbid, your Boeing 777 took a nosedive over the Bering Strait.
Once you’re through Customs, a solid hour and a half after landing, you’re finally on American soil, so to speak, and are immediately accosted by cab drivers while a recorded announcement, in a language you can refreshingly understand entirely, informs you that, by no means, should you get into a taxi with a driver who is pandering in the Airport lobby. And you notice something else…something disturbing: After five worry-free years amid the harmless Japanese, living in an area where going to sleep without locking the door isn’t something you’ll be kicking yourself in the ass about the next day, where you are essentially the only threat to the serenity of the neighborhood, every American you pass looks like a threat to your belongings if not your life. You try to relax, tell yourself that this is home, goddammit, and these are the people you know all too well. You tell the third driver to get in your face, “No, sorry, but I won’t be needing a taxi this evening,” and he gives you an up-and-down and once-over. It takes a second for the reason to catch up with you. You glance down at yourself: Obama T-shirt, Abercrombie & Fitch hoodie, Old Navy down vest, Levi blue jeans, Timberland standard-issue construction boots, Kangol busket fishing hat sitting slightly crooked on your head. You’re ‘hood-friendly, well-camouflaged. What the fuck? Then it clicks. It’s your English: wayyyyy too formal. You should’ve said, “Nah, Bruh, I’m all set…I gotta rental,” or “back up off uh me, Yo! If I needed a cab I woulda got at you the first time you asked,” or something like that. You shake your head and wonder what the hell has happened to me???
The thing is, I’ve been teaching English to ESL students as well as living among English speakers from all over the globe for five years straight and over the course of that time, I managed to subdue my Brooklyn accent a bit and standardized my English substantially. Not to impress people so much as to ease comprehension. The result: my appearance doesn’t match my syntax. This is by no means a new issue for me. But, I’ve always been able to turn it on and off almost unconsciously depending on the environment I found myself in. This slip-up was a red flag.
Once I obtained my rental and was on the road, don’t you know I went East when I should have gone West. Was headed out to Long Island before I caught myself. This is a route I’ve taken so many times over the course of my life that this kind of error was jarring. For the second time in less than an hour, I felt like a tourist in my hometown. And, as I drove, something else dawned on me that I hadn’t considered while I was trying to go through the motions of being back in my element: I hadn’t driven a car in 3 years! The mechanics are pretty much like riding a bike. But, NY highway traffic takes some…let’s put it this way: for me, there’s something fatalistic about driving in NY. There’s a certain daring involved. No one gives you anything. Courtesy is rare. Decisiveness is mandatory. You wanna switch lanes, turn on your blinker and take it. And, in taking it, you also kind of take your life in your hands. But, there’s a flow, a synchronicity and a rhythm to it that diminishes the danger a bit. Having been reared in it, I never had a problem with this road culture…
…until now. I felt wayyy out of sync. It was dark and I was tired and intimidated. I stayed in the right lane and still drew horns.
I arrived at Ma’s house, shaken and stirred. I gave her a big hug and a small wad of cash. She gave me a key and the skinny on what had gone down over the past five years. We shared a joint and I tried to shed my jet lag. But, it wasn’t working. I popped open my laptop and I had a voice-mail on the SKYPE line from Sharlene, one of my best friends. I called her back.
Right off, she hit me with, “I got laid off Wednesday and Wendy got laid off today.”
“Yeah, this economy is fucked…Aaaanyway, we’re celebrating our independence…Come hang out with us.”
I heard “Ok…” come out of my mouth, but it must’ve been the weed talking.
I should’ve taken my ass to bed.
…to be continued