Saturday, April 14, 2007

ephemera

The Girl With Flies on Her Face

"Do you have a request?"
The Okinawan bartender's accented words took a while to make their way through the fog shrouding my senses, created as a byproduct of the pleasant psychoactive interaction of sake, Kirin, and what may have been absinthe. After the import of his words welled up and revealed itself like the die in a Magic-8 Ball, after I stared at him for a moment with every outward appearance symptomatic of a catatonic, I realized he was asking if I had a preference for what movie he should play next.

It was the eighties, and my friend Ron and I were drinking in a small locals' bar outlying the part of Okinawa dominated by a large U.S. Military presence and the carnival blight of sordid amusements that always accompanies it. Okinawa is part of the Ryukyu island chain, hemming in the East China Sea from the vast western Pacific, trailing out toward Taiwan and the Tropic of Cancer in a crescent pattern, like debris falling away from the mainland of Japan.

I don't remember how we happened into this particular bar, surrounded by Okinawans remarkably gracious at the intrusion of two drunken jarheads where they should have been left in peace, away from the effectively occupied part of the island (an occupation then in its fourth decade). That part, tied together by narrow alleys and streets connecting the multitude of military bases and their attendant bars, massage parlors, and police substations, was overrun nightly by American post-adolescents, bored and restless, homesick and slightly deranged, resented and resentful.
I don't know why, but the few blurry sequences of that relatively uneventful all-nighter haunt me like a benign ghost even now, almost twenty years later.

What is, after all, this process that elevates occasional random and unexceptional experiences along with the monumental events of one's life, placing them alongside more momentous experiences like awkward strangers at an intimate gathering, while cruelly and randomly submerging so many of those things that we would greedily hoard if it was only up to us after all: the contours of her face, your mother's voice in your infant ears, the sensations of your first time? Perhaps in the end it is all revealed as equally precious, momentous, absurd.

A couple of Okinawans had invited us to their table, pressing us into service with questions about America and English practice; we were paid in sake and goodwill. The bartender was proud of his state of the art videodisc system and collection, and in the spirit of Okinawan hospitality that decades enduring the uninterrupted and restless current of transient American servicemen has somehow failed to destroy, made the gesture of asking me, as a guest, if I had a preference.
I don't know why, but I thought to amuse myself by asking for the Sex Pistols. I was thinking of but couldn't name the mock-documentary from a few years before, The Great Rock & Roll Swindle.

This wasn't altogether obscure. The Japanese and Okinawans had a fascination with punk, indeed in the nineties Japan produced a garage act called Thee Michelle Gun Elephant (after one member's mispronunciation of The Damned's Machine Gun Etiquette), that can be described both sardonically as the Greatest Japanese Punk Band of All Time and, to my mind at least, justly as one of the best rock bands of all time.
Okinawan youth culture was a mash-up incorporating various American trends, current and past, at the time including punk and new wave. Transposed punk approximations were here and there, with their own peculiar decoding of the then fading away movements in New York, L.A., and Britain. On rare occasions one saw mods riding about on scooters, or leather jacketed Okinawan kids who seemed to have resurrected the cafe racing culture of sixties Britain (racing motorcycles from cafe to cafe, hence the name "cafe racers" for the Triumphs and BSAs of the time), dissecting the chaotic traffic as they dragged from one point in the city to another, daredevil blurs howling out their high-rpm madness.

Our hosts were irreverent and funny. We understood very little of what was said. After a while one tires of combining pidgen English, scraps of Japanese, and resourceful hand gestures, and just starts nodding approvingly at everything. At one point I looked over at the television and saw a punk rock girl with fake flies on her face. The bartender was playing the movie I had requested. To this day I haven't watched that film.
We found a sushi bar and ate everything they put in front of us. More sake. Later we would spill out of a bar, passing out of the blur of artificial light and noise, of strange voices speaking a foreign tongue, surprised to find ourselves in pale early morning light; as if we tripped over an invisible and dimensionless breach and stumbled upon a perfect, still dawn. Like a pair of children noisily intruding upon a sacrament. We fell silent.

And just like that, this moment embedded itself in my psyche, and it holds in its orbit these other fragmentary, blurred freeze frames. Something about the cobbled alleyway descending a graceful hill, the one of a kind hue of that morning, like every other unexceptional morning a precise composition that never before did, and never again will, occur; exceptional after all. Briefly no sound interrupted the hum of eternity that we call silence. And just like that again, it was gone.
The night had passed without taking its leave. It was time to go home. Achingly sweet and confoundingly fleet is life, as are its moments.
Do you have a request?

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Why do I have the mental image of you singing "Oklahoma!" while substituting the title for "Okinawa" in my head? (You actually sang this in our barracks in Yuma,Az one time)

-Ben

Anonymous said...

Thanks Dennis, this brought back some very pleasant memories...seems like just yesterday walking up that hill as the sun came up.

Mark L.