Writer in Residence · 01/11/2012

Concrete Steel Forest

In 2002 I was 26 and living in Tokyo and wanted to write HARD.  What I thought that meant was, chain-smoking and drinking bourbon at a 4 AM keyboard.  Which made for the most pure writing fun I’ve ever had, and a manuscript complete in a little under six weeks.

The writing life ain’t so hard, I thought.

These florid lines, released with a grimace on my part, belie that thought.  They were meant to form the opening pages of a novel, and now finally see daylight as an exemplar of what not to do.  (Though I’m still fond of some of them, in a grandfatherly sort of way.)

I still write at 4 AM, only sober and just awakened.  Not near as much fun, but there are no hangovers, and a lot less grimacing later.


As the rotting corpse of the day wasted away, the lights in the vending machine next to Hendy blinked on. Across the street, over neatly trimmed bushes, Hendy could just make out the side street running away from the T-intersection across from the low brick wall where he sat. On either side of the side street were apartment blocks, a squat acid-brown five-story insult to architecture with a noodle shop out front, its red and black sign blinking doggedly in the lengthening inkiness, the other, white maybe twenty years ago, black water streaks trailing from ledges and eaves.

No glasses tonight, the world fuzzy around the edges, everything vague as an old color photo. He could see blurry people shapes coming and going down the side street, but he was watching for the ones crossing it. Every once in a while, a man would go in the brown building on the left, emerging a few minutes later, crossing to the white one on the right. He’d open the door there, glass catching dull yellow streetlight gleam, something clutched in his hand, and go inside. Soon after, a woman followed, plenty of leg and arm showing, walking swiftly, limbs like swaying tree branches through a frosty window. Sooner or later, one of them, one of these women, would be Reiko.

Sweat rolled between his shoulder blades to the crack of his ass. Pant legs clung to thighs. The vending machine hummed beside him. He crossed his legs, massive Atlantean Hotel rising sixty-five stories directly behind him. He wanted a cigarette. He had no lighter. He could only make out mirage profiles, no faces. Reiko he’d know by her walk, or just the blurry outlines of her long fine legs.

It was already an hour he’d been here, waiting, squinting for detail. Somehow he’d thought she was more popular. Maybe it wasn’t her night.

Hendy was just glancing at the men, not really taking them in. A bad mistake Which he realized when Reiko finally came out, and he couldn’t remember who she was following. Was it the short frumpy one with the yellow shirt? The one with hunched shoulders and gray jacket? The one with the bald patch big enough to see glisten in reflected street light? She was wearing a mini skirt he hadn’t seen before, sheer purple, maybe the one she kept at work, a black T-shirt he had seen before, midriff-baring, skin-tight, knee-high boots, long hair flowing around her shoulders even though there was no breeze at all. His heart abused his ribcage. He stood up. Reiko looked straight ahead. She walked with her own languid cadence, for all the world just another beautiful girl crossing another plain street, another splendid butterfly flitting in the concrete steel forest.

Yes, it was her all right, the crush and the pull and the gagging despairing emptiness pressing against his lungs, twisting burning screwdriver in his gut, that sucked away his appetite and his thoughts, the fuzzy blurry aura of her swimming at him, all the intoxication of her, all the kidney-shot of her, walking the twenty or thirty paces across the street to the brown building where the man, many men, had gone before her. And then she was gone. Inside.

So that’s where it is. And that’s how it works.

Not totally believing it before, but now knowing where she was, and almost knowing what she did inside. Since he was already standing, he walked off.

Away from the Atlantean Hotel, sublime hexagonal monument to the surreal, down the Senta-gai, down to Shibuya Station. Touts in all the places you expected them, outside hostess bars and massage joints and “aesthetic” parlors, everyone pointedly ignoring him, the foreigner, six foot two, blonde hair, blue eyes, a walking Aryan advertisement, no chance they’d mistake him for a potential client. Further down, with no school young girls thick in wandering droves, all short skirts and yellow-bleached hair and acrylic make-up, young dudes mixing and mingling with them in the flowing crowd, teased hair and mouth-clenched cigarettes, barking at each other in the slang like a fight about to break out. Ubiquitous salarymen. No one but Hendy sweating, it seemed, even in the waves of the evening’s heavy humid heat, Shibuya not the place for that kind of thing, thank you. More touts, for karaoke boxes and izekaya restaurants. A kid with a ball cap on sideways and white coveralls, baggy down to the tattered dirty hems, clutching a tote bag, squatting in front of a silver-only body piercing shop, spiked gold hair, Hendy moving closer, a cigarette dangling like an accessory. Hendy asked him for a light. The kid looked annoyed, maybe because Hendy momentarily blocked his view of the proceedings, but Hendy got the light. A group of Iranians on the corner, looking to push speed or dope, tall women in three-inch stiletto heels with French and Italian bags, trying to be noticed not noticing anyone else, a couple bobbing in front of him, he in saggy hip-hop jeans, she in a camouflage tank top and hot pants. A few matronly types, clutching sun-block umbrellas and overstuffed purses. Neon glittering, ear-splitting bursts of music from every door, death metal for the leather-and-chain shop, reggae for the tie-dye shop, murky store fronts his smoggy horizon.

It was good, this swirling world, sweeping him up in it, his twisting crackling inner silent monologue washed away in the surge of it. You couldn’t have your own feelings, not here, steeped in a collective river of humanity, cold-running in this urban torrent, a mélange flowing with its own irresistible current.


posted by Origin Stories