Se-Souvenire de

I just got out of the shower and slipped on a memory.  It’s my hot weather post-subway ritual, to cool my skin by taking a shower with Dr. Bronner’s peppermint soap and then, while still just a bit damp, wrap myself in this yukata.  For five minutes, maybe ten, I feel not only cool but also serene.  I cross the bridge from the work day to my truer life.

It’s just a long thin sheet of navy blue cotton, with an asymmetrical white pattern that mimics woodblock prints.  An ordinary summer kimono.  Very ordinary.  You could buy something like it in thousands of shops around the world, at least a quarter of which are probably named something like “Oriental Bazaar.”  In fact, I bought this one in a shop called Oriental Bazaar.  But that Oriental Bazaar was in Toyko, and that’s what makes this yukata so special to me.  Each and every time I wear this yukata, I recall picking it out from piles of similar ones at the Oriental Bazaar.  I remember that afterwards, the end of an exhausting day, my friends and I found a sushi bar near the train station, a sushi bar with a conveyor belt from which we daringly selected random plates and our conversation consisted mostly of “no, that one’s not the eel, the eel is the one on the green plate.”

On the other side of the day, before we’d ended up at the Oriental Bazaar, we’d visited the Meiji shrine.  In my memory, I see the cool silvery-brown of the Torii and can almost feel my fingers touching the wood.  I see an elegant minimalism, nature respectfully tamed by light and empty spaces.  A family, the women dressed in elaborate kimono, bringing a new born child.  And in the park, the iris garden, tortoises in a pond, and a man making his own calm in watercolour.

That same day began with my friends and I waking up on our futons in the hotel in Itzukogen.  On the way to the train, we bought hot coffee in cans at the station shop, a shop that carried everything from dried fish to Hello Kitty keychains.  Next door was the little bakery where we had not yet figured out which pastry was filled with what, but that was fine with us.  We sat in the train, sipping from our cans and eating our pastries, until we got to Atami where we could switch from the spur line to the Tokyo train.  We made this trip for six days, because wherever we wanted to go, we always had to change at Atami.  On this day, the second trip, we already felt experienced and were emboldened to walked the market for the first time and stare eagerly at everything that was on offer.  I try, but can’t remember if this was the same day we bought the white peaches that came individually wrapped in tissue paper.

This is why we call them “souvenirs”, those things we bring back from trips.  It almost doesn’t matter what they are, but the best souvenirs are the things we actually use because in handling them, we go back to the time and place when we first picked them up and we remember.

By the way, my Dr. Bronner’s is a kind of souvenir, too.  I remember the first bottle I bought, one sticky week in Poughkeepsie, my sophomore year of college…

Time’s Carcass

“We should not say that one man’s hour is worth another man’s hour, but rather that one man during an hour is worth just much as another man during an hour.  Time is everything, man is nothing; he is at the most time’s carcass.”    Karl Marx

An episode from my 1990 travel journal was brought to mind by anticipating Audrey Niffenegger’s new novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, which is set around Highgate Cemetery:

“You shouldn’t have to pay to go to a cemetery,” the pensioner said with a grin that made the most of his three remaining teeth.  He lifted the chicken wire fence a meter off the ground….

An unemployed actor, I was making a short visit to London on horded pennies and had decided it was a waste of money to take a bus from the tube station.  Trekking stubbornly trekked uphill, against the wind, I must have made a turn I shouldn’t have.   After more than the 10-15 minutes the guidebooks implied, along roads that seemed oddly deserted for midday, I found myself near what looked like the back end of some cemetery — but not necessarily the famous one I was looking for.  Two shabby men were deep in conversation on the street. They were the first people I’d seen since getting off the train. If there had been only one, or if they’d been standing in front of a pub, I might not have had the nerve to approach, but as there were the two and it was a library, I asked if they could tell me where to find the entrance to Highgate Cemetery.

The more animated of the two, a grey man in a duffle coat of uncertain color and a raveled muffler, eyed me from head to toe.  Taking in my too-thin sweater, long black skirts and boots as dusty as his own, he must must have judged me more of a pilgrim than a tourist.  Travel in jeans and running shoes, and the logo on your jacket might as well say ‘Made in USA – Rip Me Off or Lead Me Astray.”  Me, I disappear into the scenery.

“The main gate is up the road, but I can show you my own particular way.”  He winked and led me around to where the tower block was hidden from the random visitor.  I’m not guessing these were council flats — I know they were because along the way he told me so, together with his thoughts on unemployment, disaffected youth and Mrs. Thatcher’s government.

We crossed an empty cement courtyard, where a few abandoned bicycles rusted gently under the scrubby trees.  I didn’t see another living soul.  Where was he leading me, this character out of Dickens, with his carbuncular nose and fingerless gloves?  “Nearly there,” he winked again.  “Now when you get in, you don’t go telling anyone how you got there.  If they found out about this hold, they’d be after closing it up.”

I don’t know what I’d been thinking, but this was the first I realized he was sneaking me in.  I started explaining that I’d been looking for a regular entrance, that I was okay with an admission fee, but he was insistent.  “You shouldn’t have to pay to go into a cemetery,” he said and he lifted the chicken wire a meter off the ground.  “With all they collect, the upkeep is shocking,” he added, by way of making his case.

I ducked under the fence, yanking my skirt out from under the portcullis as he let the fence back down.  I was facing what looked to be a construction site.  Surely this wasn’t the grand Victorian mortuary garden I’d read about?  Was he trying to teach me some kind of lesson?

“This here’s the new part over this way,” he nodded reassuringly.  “They’ve been doing some digging up.  Mind how you go.”

“Thank you,” I started to say.

“No thanks,” he said, “but what you could do is pay your respects to Karl Marx.”  He pointed over my head at the far corner of the section.  “You’ll find him alright.  You can’t miss him.”

He was right; it was impossible to miss that big black stone head.  I quickly paid the admission fee my particular gatekeeper had asked, then rambled the grounds for several hours in search of residents I wanted to visit for my own sake.

That was 19 years ago.  The hole is certainly closed up by now, and the cemetery’s  upkeep is no longer shocking, so I don’t think I’m betraying a trust to set this down where it can be read.  Whether my pensioner is still doing gentle battle for his ideals or is by now himself resting in some quiet plot, I send him my respects.