I have begun my summer reading a little earlier than usual…my summer vacation actually begins this Friday, but I saw David Sedaris’ latest book, When you are engulfed in flames, in Kinoukuniya and bought it immediately. He makes me laugh out loud in inappropriate places and at inopportune times but I don’t care. I need to, sometimes, be tickled so severely that snot shoots out my nose and tears stream down my face. And, I don’t even have to be reading it. I could be just thinking about some of the off-the-wall things I read in a book of his a week or even a month earlier and have a shameless fit. A friend of mine had turned me on to an earlier book of his called, “Me talk pretty one day” and he almost gave me a brain hemorrhage I laughed so hard. I’ve been a huge fan ever since.
So, with Sedaris in hand and a box of Black & Mild burning a whole in my pocket, I sought out a place to be entertained and poisoned on the cheap. Japan is generally a very friendly place for people who desire to slowly poison themselves to death, and tobacco is one of the poisons of choice here- second only to alcohol.
I remember when I first came here to visit my friend John…He had been living here a couple of years already and raved about the place. So, I popped over and yes, I found it extremely I told you so-worthy, as well. The food was scrumptious, the hot springs were exhilarating, and the girls were off the hook; it was everything he’d claimed it was, and then some. It was exotic and intoxicating and, yappari, I was hooked. But, what was the lure that Japan dangled before my eager eyes that made packing my shit and moving halfway around the world an entirely feasible act and only half as insane as my family and friends cried it was before I departed?
The smoking section.
Unless you smoke, and you come from a place like New York where the masses have turned against you- not unlike the Puritans in 17th century Salem did on women or the Papists did on the Jews during the Inquisition-and have become a lynch mob hellbent on weeding smokers out of their midst, you can not truly know the nirvana that Japan is…for the time being, anyway.
John introduced me to Jonathan’s during that initial visit. It’s an American style family restaurant only more traditional than the American-style family restaurants in New York are today; made so by remaining loyal to that oh so traditional American value: the inalienable right to pursue happiness- even if that pursuit will lead to your slow demise- and the even slower demise of the people in your immediate vicinity passively partaking of your pursuit…yes, in all its hisashiburi-ness and natsukashi glory there was a smoking section. Even when America allowed the legal separation of the races in eating establishments, on trains, on buses, in schools, etc, people were free to pump poisonous fumes into the air and ruin the meals of people who prefer their smoked turkey wings to be smoked before preparation, not during the meal.
At that moment, while I perused through the Jonathan’s menu, replete with Japanese styled dishes (though there are a few American staples, my favorites being the BLT and their pancakes, which can be found on the dessert menu in Japan) I had a vision. I saw myself sitting at that very table pounding the keys of my laptop, writing the great American novel.
Well, let’s fast forward 6 years, shall we?
The book? Still under construction. Jonathan’s? A little stingy with the denki (electricity-they’ve told me no-can-do several times) and my old PC- a glutton for denki, would drain my battery in about 30 minutes. Thank God for Manboo, I think I’ve mentioned in a previous post.
So, I find myself at MacDonald’s in Hiyoshi the other day with the cheapest cup of coffee in Japan (about a buck $US) headed up to the 3rd floor to the 喫煙席 (kitsuenseki) smoking area…At least that was my plan until I reached the third floor. It was filled to capacity. No surprise. I hardly expected it to be empty. Despite the constant haranguing I receive that Americans are fat because they don’t eat healthy food like we Japanese do, Mickey D’s is always packed to capacity with we.
Packed wasn’t the problem, though. The problem was whom was packing it. It was a bunch of junior and senior high school kids, about 20 in all, and not a cigarette to be found among them. I stood there at the top of the staircase scanning and fuming. Some of them were reading manga, others were just chit chatting, some of the girls were hovering over Kawaii magazines with Pop Idols exploding from the pages or comparing cellphone doodads, and some of the boys were using the electrical outlets that MacDonald’s so generously supplies (as long as you don’t abuse them by staying there for 24 hours) to play with their PSPs and whatnots.
There were a few glances in my direction, of course. Hell, a big black guy with a novel held by three fingers in one cast hand, a cup of coffee burning the fingers of the other, and a look on his face like he was beholding the injustice to end all injustices, is bound to draw a little attention.
In my head I was playing with how to say the following in Japanese: Don’t look at me like that! How would you feel if me and 20 of my friends descended on your favorite Purikura or Arcade and just stood around hogging the booths and fingering the buttons of the games, not playing, not taking and decorating pictures, just fucking off…reading magazines and chit chatting? You wouldn’t like it one bit, would you? I couldn’t find the words, or rather the confidence to use the words, so I tried to telepathically Blue Tooth my message into the 20 non-smokers’ heads. But I guess my signal was too weak cause no one budged or even acknowledged that they had incoming alerts. They appeared to be totally unaware that what they were doing was just wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
It was time to step it up a bit, I decided. I put the book in my pocket, grabbed an ashtray and started walking around, examining seats more closely, giving off the impression that I intended to squeeze into an unoccupied seat amidst their cliques, which of course I had no intention of doing. This raised a few eyebrows, to put it mildly, but it didn’t raise any oshiri (behinds) from the seats. Damn, plan B, was failing miserably. The insolence! The obstinance! The Fuck you-itiveness!
Just about then I noticed two Salarymen come up the stairs, trays in hands, arrive at the landing, grab ashtrays from the service table, and survey the same scenario I surveyed with one addition: me. But if they saw anything unusual, aside from me standing around looking impatient, it was Buddhas own mystery. They glanced at each other in unsung concurrence and turned to head back down the stairs.
In my head I screamed after them, Geezus guys, c’mon! We gotta band together. Can’t you see what’s going on here??? This is an invasion! But my muted cry fell on deaf ears. They were gone.
On the third floor, there was already an area cordoned off, glass enclosed, for those who prefer their lungs pinkish and fully functional. I’d been coming to this MacDonald’s even before that incursion, and the first time I saw it I thought Oh Shit! Mata ka yo! (not again.) Slowly but surely, the troops are being rallied, the lines are being drawn, and Big Japanese tobacco had better brace themselves for the onslaught. I hd watched the same thing happen in NY. Fewer and fewer establishments made concessions for us. When I was a teen they still had a smoking area in movie theatres, ashtrays on the back of the seat in front of you. The ruckus wasn’t raised over smoking but over the substance we were smoking, which didn’t smell like tobacco at all.
Just about then, two girls came up the stairs, grabbed ashtrays and scanned. They saw no seats, and me, turned, replaced their ashtrays and headed back downstairs to the 2nd floor non-smoking area, in surrender. Fuck! Like sheep to the slaughter. Again I screamed impotently in silence, You don’t want your fine city, where smokers andnon-smokers co-exist in relative peace, to become intolerant of us like NY has, do you? We gotta take a stand, ladies, together! I might be blackish and you yellowish but underneath this skin our lungs are the same damn color: black. Let’s chase these young pink lungs the fuck outta here!
But, they too were gone.
Fuck it! I went and stood behind the boys PSPing, sparked up a Black & Mild and pretended to look out the window over their heads. I blew my smoke downward though so that they had to fan the cloud to see Doraemon do whatever the hell he does. One of them, a little more timid than the others, glanced over his shoulder for the source of the thick dark cloud hovering over their gaming, saw me, got startled a bit but regained his composure rather quickly. He stage-stretched and nudged one of his boys who had neither noticed me nor the smoke that was lingering around his head. He snapped his head up like his friend had broken a law and the only reason he would do so would be for an emergency of some sort. Where’s the fire? his eyes begged. Then he glanced around too, saw me, and his eyes said, oh! there’s the fire! Like a scene from little rascals he nudged the guy beside him, and he did the same, and so did the next guy.
A few moments later I was seated at the window, giggling like a fool at Sedaris’ wit and humanity, smoking a Black & Mild and drinking luke warm coffee. The two girls and the two salarymen who had gone back downstairs, had returned and were in the process of occupying the other seats I had made available for them.
This battle was won but the war is far from over, People. So, smoke em if you got em…