I was sitting here, considering pouring my second cup of tea of the day, wondering whether or not to pull out the guitar or put on some music when eerie music wafted from the street to my window. I do not live in a great part of town, I try not to look out the window too much, I don’t want to see whatever crimes or suffering or disasters are playing out down there. I want to give the people who live on the street just outside- my neighbors- their privacy. I have caught glimpses of love affairs, a cute male Romeo and Romeo couple declaring undying love, shouting each other’s name before falling into some horrible quarrel, I accidentally see people smoking crack, or shooting dope, no privacy, no tent, no bathroom to hide in. I see people painting pictures on easels, and sitting around in masks just shooting the breeze. I’m always touched when I see people with so little care about others so much, they put a mask on.
But this music, back to the music. The faint metallic clang of a xylophone, strains of Billie Holliday, followed by a heavy jazz beat split the sounds of the sirens and the ambulances and the shouts and barking dogs, the background hum of the city, what passes for peace, for normality, for mundanity, for harmoniousness, for Wa. I love this city. I love it like a member of the family, a best friend, a companion. It is not the brash in your face drunken uncle of a city that is New York, it is not the darkly amusing infinately cool teenage cousin that is Seattle, both fine cities. San Francisco is another kind of animal. It is as if LSD has seeped into its very bones, built on the machinations of beatniks and hippies, a draw to every soul that does not quite fit in. It doesn’t feel wholly American, and yet quintessentially new world, as if this is the direction the USA could have taken as a whole, if every single city had had Kerouac and Ginsburg and Ferlinghetti and Cassady, the Merry Pranksters and the Grateful Dead providing the soundtrack. It is a city shaped by its climate and its geography, slotted into the hills and valleys of the bay and it’s fog and temperate summers. San Francisco exists in this bubble of not wholly benign hipness. Of course nothing was helped by the invasion of the tech, but with those guys and girls driven off by the virus and finding more appealing and conservative places to ply their trade, San Francisco feels like it might just rebound. In this transformation, this burning of the phoenix that is this city, so it can regrow, regenerate, and be retaken by the artists and the freaks and the real people on the streets, San Francisco is determined to scare the heck out of me. There is a steady stream of stabbings and shootings, of robberies and side shows of cars spinning donuts and racing across the bridge. Things are going back to how they were before the tech, and it is a good thing…but boys, can we try not to upset the Wa on the way down!
Billie is still singing outside, her voice reedy and rich and full of desperation. There is an eerie sense of uncanniness. Something does not feel quite right out there. The inhabitants of tent row have rigged up a stereo to play tapping into the electric of what appears to be a parking meter. I want to give them a round of applause. This is where it is at. Parking meter powered stereos. abandoned buildings, people trying to have a bit of fun as life and the world tries to drag them down. It’s crazy. It feels like we have all been tagged and recorded. Controlled. Reduced. And I don’t even feel much like arguing with it, the powers that be have the trump card, the beats every hand, the be all and end all: comply or risk adding to the already half a million deaths the USA has already borne, and I just ain’t that selfish, brothers and sisters.
The Japanese call societal harmony Wa. I was continually making waves, upsetting the peace while I lived there, and that was not something I could help. I could cause ripples in the harmony, in the peace, in the calm surface of genteel restraint, just by lumbering my gaijin self on a train, and unable to move in such grace and unflappable coolness in the summer heat, sit there panting and sweating, messy and forlorn, with my headphones up just a little too high, the thin sounds of Billie Holliday or REM, or Fleetwood Mac (the good kind with Peter, not the crappy rock band with Stevie) piercing the total silence. I upset the wa by dropping my chopsticks, by making sound while I was being beaten up, by failing to use the wrong counting word for long thing things when trying to buy skewers of yakitori. I spoilt the wa by simply existing, by putting tamari on my rice, by being me. My existence caused ripples, and for that I was made to feel continually sorry.
This pressure to conform. To have the right colored hair (black, even if it is naturally brown, the schools insist on it, even for my curly haired half Japanese children), to have the right quiet kind of voice. To not eat in public, or drink as you walk, not even water when you are hot. There is a saying ” the nail that sticks out gets hammered down“, and society polices itself, by institutions and conventions, by the reprimands of peers. Eventually I would hide my mouth behind my hand as I laughed, I became neater, quieter, more restrained, more acceptable, and assumed this new mode of being into myself. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I am not much of a conformer, I’m simply not built to play the games society demands of us all. I can’t play nice and so am not invited to play at all. However, not upsetting those around you, not breaking the wa has value in it’s right place.
I’m glad the boys outside played Billie Holliday, upsetting the background wa of city negative mundanity with the beauty of her voice, injecting some fragile artistry into the harshness of the day. While people are getting stabbed and shot on the streets, Billie sang, immortal, sacrosanct, pure. She sang I’ll be seeing you, as I sat here typing and thinking and wondering about the wa, the spirit of San Francisco as she staggers into the spring of 2021. Somewhere Billie is sitting talking to Kerouac and the boys, telling them about another city, a harsher, faster bolder one. Oh what I would give for a place at their table, just to listen and love and smile at the best the human race has to offer.
Sometimes you just have to upset the apple cart, to smash the wa with something better, something new, something different. Sometimes you just have to be you. Anything else is phony and tiring. Sometimes, I guess you just have to hack into that sweet parking meter energy and send some Billie Holliday into the ether, and see if she has anything to say to the woman on the second floor sitting there typing and picking at the guitar. Sometimes the wa is there just for the disrupting, sometimes you have gotta make some waves, and when you do….Ill be seeing you…