[22 June 2008]
In general, it is a good policy not to generalize. To talk about what is typical or normal or usual; it is best to avoid harping on the average, predictable, foreseeable or calculable. Life being so full of ferries whose engines stall then, in the face of unexpected typhoons, capsize, killing 600, or earthquakes that unleash a cascade of boulders down hillsides that crush the lone fisherman who happened to have risen at 4:43 a.m. in order to seek out that precise spot after a year and a half of Sundays angling to claim it ahead of any other angler.
Life being unpredictable; un-reasonable; never twice quite like that; always and forever and infinitely distinct.
So, when I say that I sat in a typical sushi-ya when I visited Tokyo the other night, we share understanding, right?: there probably was nothing typical about it, nothing from which we would be able to generalize about human experience. It was what it was – nothing more or less – all things being equal (although they rarely are). It just happened to be a place serving sushi, around that particular corner, near Meguro station, in Tokyo, that particular moment that I happened to be hungry, with that random group of friends and acquaintances, that certain Saturday night.
I mean, sure, the place had that pebbled glass door that they all do – the one that you slide to one side, just as you duck beneath the slatted cloth curtains smeared by years of hairspray and sweat and gel that you (along with everyone else for over a decade) has been required to duck to avoid (but more often have simply pressed their heads through as they passed into the recess of the establishment).
And sure, as you passed into the establishment, multiple cries of “irrashaimasei (welcome to our humble home) rang out in unison, emitted by the staff, as is true of any business in any city or town or berg in Japan.
And sure, the space that you passed into was no different than any normal sushi-ya: about the size of your average business hotel single: its main feature: the usual bar for receiving and finalizing the orders; with 7 stools configured in a two/five el-shape; and two tables along the wall beyond the bar: with three chairs arrayed around each. As per normal, there were two male chefs in white slacks, smocks and caps, with their names etched in blue cursive script on their left breasts; behind them, on brown strips of wood, bearing white brush-stroked Japanese lettering, were the usual itemization of offerings for order; before them, in the traditional small glass cases for inspection by the patrons, were cuts of tako (octopus), maguro (tuna), and awabi (a shellfish delicacy), all resting atop beds of crushed ice; and, as always in such establishments, behind a curtain there was a kitchen, manned by an apprentice pouring beer, brewing tea, steaming rice, and prepping fish.
But beyond any of this, who could say whether typicality reigned?
The chief chef might have been beset by all sorts of worries: unable to make his overhead, contemplating whether he’d have to let any of his staff go, relocate, or perhaps up prices once again; or maybe back home a kid wasn’t buckling down enough with the studies; or maybe his wife’s recent distance when he tried to talk to her made him wonder whether she hadn’t met someone on-line, where she seemed to now spend most of her time. Or maybe none of this – since such scenarios are all rather typical for the general population; maybe the head guy had just heard the felicitous, but nonetheless troubling, words from his brother-in-law: “join my company. Come on, you’ll make twice – maybe three times – what you’re making now and you won’t have to sweat all the little things so much. It’ll be good for my sister, good for my nephew, and even better for you!”
“yeah . . . except that this is what I really love doing.”
The head guy is short, wiry; his demeanor as taut as his physique. He is stingy in the word department; into his professional persona. It could be because the five of us who have just traipsed in under the greasy curtain and through the sliding pebbled glass door are foreigners. None of us “typical” in any sense—except that we probably all, in our own ways, fit certain “types”. We all possess tics, manifest quirks, evince insecurities, strike poses, get away with more than we should be allowed to, in part because each of us has managed to achieve certain milestones or produce certain results of note (or so we’ll quickly tell anyone even half-way within ear shot).
As for the head guy, he doesn’t treat us as if any of that matters; as if any of that has made any impression on him. To him, we share commonality—we are the first-time customers who all traipsed in through the sliding pebbled glass door hungry and rarin’ to order a couple platter-fulls of raw fish. Which may account for his remoteness from us. We knew what we wanted and we wanted it now. So, off his fingers went - getting right down to it. He launched into slicing up some strips of maguro maybe fifteen in all—3 for each of us—then slapping a healthy tablespoon of rice into his left palm, working it up into his curled fingers as he tamped it down two-three-four times with two strong fingers from his right hand, then dappling some green wasabi paste with his right forefinger over the white surface, finally overlaying a strip of raw beet-red fish—pressing it lightly atop the white rectangle of rice cake—then setting it just so on the ceramic dish he then lifted in front of each of us, one after another.
Uttering no more than “here you go” in the process.
On the other hand, later on – when he discovers that we can handle a little of the language – he strings enough words together to inform us that the dish we all find particularly delicious – a corn-flavored cube of tofu lathered in a light soy syrup and garnished with green onion – is his own original recipe. Whether out of humility or embarrassment he grows silent as we five gush about his ingenuity and deft culinary hand. Whether in spite or because of the praise, as time passes, and we have finished off the standard assortment on the menu, he starts passing us items that aren’t written beyond his shoulder; things we haven’t ordered, but that he thinks we might enjoy sampling.
Which we all do.
The younger man to his left – perhaps 27 to boss’s 46 – works up plates for the three mid-twenty salaried workers smoking at the table in the back, guys who probably knew one another in college and now find less and less time to keep up. After a round of shochu – Japanese style sours – they ask if there is any grilled fish.
“Aji would be great,” one of them utters, by which he means “Spanish mackerel”.
“Oh, man, aji would hit the spot!” a second concurs.
The boss, breaking whatever character I have generalized he possesses and is wholly governed by, shouts out: “no aji tonight, boys. But I happen to have three sanma left.”
Sanma, whose Chinese characters mean “autumn knife fish”—and which you might know better as “Pacific saury” or “mackerel pike”—is, in this particular case, on this particular night, in this particular sushi-ya in Meguro, contorted into an S-shape on a wooden stick driven through three points of the fish: tail, body, and head.
“Sanma!” The young men immediately jump at the word. “Even better!”
Spit-broiled over an open flame, rotated every three minutes, maybe two, possibly three-times a side, the fish will be served with a wedge of lemon, and flake off their bony skeletons in moist, salty chunks; those succulent morsels will go perfectly with a frosty draft. Three of which the college buds immediately order.
Sometime during our stay, a couple in their early twenties strolls in, and commandeers the last two stools at the bar. The guy pulls the stool out for the girl, pushing it back into place as she sits. He extracts his hand from the seat before her butt settles in on the hardwood. Just barely.
A lot of fantasy and wish projection apparently going into that timing.
The gal fits into her slinky, V-cut, black and white patterned dress like strips of lamb in a pita; it is hard not to notice, though, that there is barely any suggestion of topographical variation in the spot that the cleavage is normally supposed to abundantly flow; the guy, shorter than her, is all spiky hair, glasses flush with thick reddish rims, and swimming in a pin-striped suit over a pink shirt. He might even have a lime green scarf stuffed in his left pec-pocket. The glasses make it hard to focus on any other detail.
The girl looks as Japanese as anyone milling around Meguro station, but speaks English fluently, with an Oregon accent; the guy, who she wouldn’t likely look twice at on the streets of Salem, is busy explaining to her the intricacies of sushi culture, and the inscrutabilities of Tokyo life; he offers a version of English that couldn’t possibly notch him a passing grade at the local Berlitz.
Fish gets ordered by the guy, platters pass from the younger chef across the bar, the minutes pass. As much attention as I pay this developing story, it is hard to gauge which way this one is going to end up. The guy increasingly leans toward the gal, but she doesn’t much reciprocate; at the same time, she doesn’t retreat toward the wall. I don’t hear either of them laugh even once. They don’t share plates, nor do they try feeding one another morsels from their trays. He orders some sake which she sips occasionally, circumspectly.
First date the inference goes; as for predicting an outcome, who can say? Generalizability fails in the face or each unique condition. Circumstance must be our guide.
Books on Japanese culture often trumpet how outsiders – whether foreign or domestic – are treated with skepticism, with a certain amount of distance, by “insiders” in any local group, however defined. It is only after a period of time, or else a certain event that can engender trust, that the barrier will be dropped; that intimacy or, at least acceptance, can result.
Praise for one’s very own recipe for corn-based tofu, for instance.
I am not much for generalization, though. I see life unfolding generally in a random, unplanned, chain of happenstance that defies formalization into invariant law. At least, in general . . .
I may be foolish that way. But to me, the three buddies from college wanted something grilled and the sushi-ya just happening to have three remaining fish on a stick was a happy coincidence. It could have been planning based on years of experience . . . but just as likely not.
And our favorably receiving the chef’s personal choices wasn’t as much the result of crossing some invisible barrier and gaining entrance into his establishment’s secret society. Hell, if he bumped into us at the station the following morning he wouldn’t likely recognize us, or if he did, probably wouldn’t acknowledge us.
Although another vendor might.
Two people being anything like equal.
Independent of some general principle we’d receive differential treatment simply because that is who those people are. Or else—like the girl who wouldn’t give the geeky guy the time of day in Salem but would in Tokyo—who they are given the particular situation, at that particular time . . .
. . . for instance, with that random group of friends and acquaintances, in that sushi-ya, on that Saturday night, in Meguro.