Nagoya Writes

February 14, 2008

Peter Hawkins’ War by Mike Sloan

Filed under: Issue: 2004,Prose,Sloan — usbengoshi @ 4:11 pm

I was standing in Peter’s small apartment staring at over 50 kilos of sugar, fifty empty cans of fluorescent paint, over one hundred full cans of an even brighter paint, odd contraptions straight out of Dr. Seuss, a myriad leaflets, all with basically the same message, bizarre signs on the wall which said things like “WRD Area” and “WM Area.” There were hundreds of small, burnished nails on the floor, and a rotational sharpening machine mounted on a gun metal gray desk in the corner. I was standing there asking myself: What had happened to Peter? What had Japan done to Peter? What had Peter done to himself? and a thousand questions just like these when his tall lanky frame appeared at the front door wearing fatigues and a cycling helmet with camouflage markings.

I first met Peter fifteen years earlier when I spilled a pint of beer all over him with a pool cue. I wasn’t even playing pool; just aping a then-aging and now-aged rock star I had been to see the evening before, hanging out in a local bar just off campus where, as it turned out, both Peter and I were students. An incognizant spin, the subsequent, and more rapid following of the fat end of the pool cue, and there went the pint glass all over Peter. The glass itself slapping flatly into his chest, rolling through his waist, caroming off his thigh and onto the floor, where it didn’t break. Most of the beer never made it to the floor. It stayed damply reminiscent of my foolishness all over his Hawaiian-floral shirt and Bermuda shorts until he left. The funny thing was he didn’t get angry. He didn’t know me after all, it wasn’t until the next semester when we found ourselves taking the same course, that we even realized we attended the same university. Had the roles been reversed, I would have been upset, perhaps even demanded beer and the cleaning fee, but Peter didn’t get angry. In fact, he refused my offer to buy him another beer. It may have been this that allowed us to form a solid friendship the following semester when we found ourselves in the same classroom and had a laugh over the incident. After class he did allow me to buy him a beer and we’ve been friends ever since, until recently. In Peter’s defense, I must say that for fifteen years he has been the most gracious friend, an utterly reliable companion in earnestness and in jest, in our cups and in our hangovers, friendly and without malice to those who know him and to those who don’t. .

It was actually Peter that brought me to Japan. About five years after we’d graduated I was moving furniture and trying to establish myself as a folk singer in the local scene in Los Angeles, when the letter came. I was spent from a hard day’s work moving the ridiculous glut of a household of idiots with entirely too much money to spend on nonsense, and nursing a beer on the front porch of the little bungalow I rented. Peter had been corresponding since he left for Japan just after graduation, but lately the letters had been less and less frequent. He had mentioned in several previous missives, that I should give some thought to living in Japan. We could have a great time, he said, they were paying him an absurd amount of money to do exactly absolutely nothing, and he knew the local scene well. Why didn’t I give it a try? This had always been at the end of previous letters. I had thought about it once or twice, but never a strong thought such as one which makes you jump up from the couch and fix yourself a sandwich..

This time was different, I was exhausted, drinking Lucky Lager, (which if you don’t know, is about the cheapest beer you can find in Los Angeles), sitting on my porch and deciding which of the bills that had come in the mail to pay, and which to ignore. I hadn’t written a song I was pleased with in over six months, in fact I hadn’t touched my guitar for a long time. I threw all the bills to the side and opened Peter’s letter. This time there was the definite offer of a job..

This is the story of Peter Hawkins’ war however, and only peripherally my story, so I’d better leave my own presence in Japan at that. When I arrived here, Peter was already an established teacher at a school with an opening and he slid me right in. “The Japanese teachers,” he said once we were in from the airport and sitting in his apartment with beers in front of us, “don’t want to make the decision on foreign teachers themselves in case something goes wrong, so they ask a foreigner they trust to make it for them. I’m one of those foreigners.”.

He finished this statement with a wink and a cheers, and to be honest I found out later I was lucky in terms of the job Peter ushered me into. You don’t know when you arrive here — anyplace I guess, — the lay of the land, and it takes most people a while to find out that although they thought they were in Fat City, they really weren’t. I was lucky. It did of course take me a while to figure out I actually was in Fat City, but that is exactly where Peter had landed me. That being said, there are always greener pastures just the other side of Fat City, and eventually I moved on to them. So did Peter..

I haven’t seen much of Peter the last few years. His green pastures turned out to be in Nagoya and mine are in Toyota City. These two places are actually quite close, only about 40 minutes by train and the same by car, but far enough apart that we only get together a few times a year. In the past our girlfriends often hadn’t liked each other and sometimes that got in the way of us getting together. We had both started out with a string of girlfriends constantly in flux. I settled on one a few years ago, but Peter has never been able to. He always has a girlfriend, it’s just not often that it’s the same girlfriend. I won’t criticize that because, after all, I was in the same boat, or rather the same series of boats, myself for quite a number of years. .

That’s not to say we aren’t in contact. In fact since the advent of e-mail a decade or so ago we’ve been e-mailing each other at least once a week, sometimes more. It was in fact through e-mail that I first began to notice the change in Peter. About four months ago, there was a note from him in my inbox, addressed to Mr. Sloan. I thought it odd and I began to look for the joke, but there wasn’t any joke. Peter has always called me ‘Mike,’ and this was in fact my first inkling that something was wrong..

Peter is a cyclist. Well, he doesn’t call himself a cyclist, he just says that he rides a bike. An extraction from an e-mail he sent me a few years ago will explain it better:.

“ I wish you would not refer to me as a ‘cyclist.’ Cyclists have bright clothing with Italian names splashed down the sides. They ride ‘machines’ worth the equivalent of two of my monthly paychecks. They shave their legs. They take off on weekends in big packs for long rides in the countryside. They have bottles of water and bananas attached to their bikes. They wear shoes with metal clips to make them one with their bikes… I, on the other hand, don’t do or have any of those things. I simply have chosen to ride my bicycle everywhere I go. I would prefer it if you would call me a bike rider…”.

In hindsight, even the tone of that e-mail should have clued me in that something was up. It didn’t though, Peter and I often wrote in such a vein attempting to be humorous. Peter literally did ride his bike everywhere he went, and knowing this about him, I skipped right over the portents hidden in that e-mail..

The first e-mail that came addressed to Mr. Sloan, was an invitation to a bicycle rally. Peter and some friends were going to ride through downtown Nagoya blocking traffic and urging the city to create more and better cycling lanes. The e-mail said they would be holding large banners between bikes and wearing t-shirts saying “I Like Bike” and trying to snarl up the traffic as much as they could in the hopes of a television news crew showing up to give them some air time. I thought at the time that perhaps he had some software which sent out mass e-mail and automatically changed the salutation. I didn’t attend the rally, I had to work and although I do ride a bike myself, it’s not often enough to be up in arms about cycling lanes. I e-mailed him back saying I couldn’t go and why. This began an intense series of e-mails between us. Peter elucidating the horrors of cycling in a big city like Nagoya, and me telling him that while I understood, I still felt it incumbent on him to take better precautions. A few examples:.

“Dear Mr. Sloan, You fail to see my point. Let me illustrate. Two months ago, I was riding down a street where a number of cars were parked illegally. I sensed a large bus behind me, which due to the narrowness of the road could not pass me while there were parked cars to my left. In spite of the fact that the parked cars ended but another twenty seconds or so of cycling time up the road, the bus driver decided to pass me anyway. The front part of the bus cleared me but the back part of the bus clipped my shoulder. Only adrenalin kept me from falling off the bike and perhaps under the rear wheels of the bus. The driver continued on as if nothing had happened. He might never have known he hit me if I hadn’t managed to catch the bus stopped at a red light about a hundred meters up the road. I parked my bike directly in front of the bus, and I’m sure I was no more that a red angry blur to that driver as I stood and screamed profanities. I realized he couldn’t go anywhere if I left my bike directly in front of the bus. I first tried to get him to open the door, and when he refused -refused to even look at me, in fact – I went around to the driver’s window and began to yell at him. He was still refusing to even look at me. The cars backed up behind the bus began to honk as I continued my invective in harsh Japanese. Finally, he looked out the small window and down at me. He made a shooing motion with his hand. I told him clearly I wouldn’t leave until he gave me his name. After several shooing motions which only served to make me redder, he pointed to his name badge which read “Kato.” I began yelling for him to give me his first name. A few minutes later he finally said it. “Shoichi.” I don’t think he even realized that he might possibly share some of the blame for this public nuisance of a foreigner blocking his bus and screaming at him, until he actually uttered his own first name. It was only then that I saw a light of recognition flash through his eyes; recognition that he might be partly to blame for this unfathomable event…” .

My own response to this:.

“My dear Mr. Hawkins, ( I have returned the favor) You fail to point out that it was in fact you who were breaking the law. In the bus driver’s eyes you were at fault, because the law here in Japan clearly stipulates that bicycles must be ridden on the sidewalk with pedestrians, and not in the streets with motor vehicles. Of course, he didn’t want to recognize that you were blocking his bus, or that you were yelling at him in Japanese. In his mind you were where you were not supposed to be, in the first place, you were at fault in the second place, and finally you were yelling at him in Japanese, a language you are not supposed to be able to understand, much less curse in. How could such a creature exist to him outside of the television or at the movies. You did not exist in his bank of immediately recognizable clarifiers. Had you not been upset, you yourself would have been cognizant of this fact, knowing Japan as you do…”.

This manner of e-mailing back and forth went on for a few months. Peter’s e-mails began to include more and more choice phrases like, “we are being chemically and biologically assaulted by automobiles,” and “they are a threat to the safety of the region.” Later on, they began to make direct reference to what was being done to counter these “threats” with phrases like. “We have developed the perfect counter attack,” and “we’ve found a godsend, a fast drying paint which takes ages to scrub off if not noticed within five minutes,” plus scarier bits like “we’ve developed the perfect weapon, silent, surgical, and not noticed until a few minutes later when the deliverer is long gone.” The interesting thing was, all of the e-mails referred to “we” and never to “I.”.

It was around this time that I sent Peter an e-mail comparing him to the then-strident, now much-tarnished Mr. Bush (think pretzel, think non-existent weapons of mass destruction). I had been answering all of Peter’s rants with my own view of things, and to this point our imbroglio had still been covered by one of those silent agreements that exist between friends. Our agreement held it permissible to agree to disagree and yet to continue discussion, held that spoofing and satirizing were part of the search for truth, and held that while logic and reason were always the foundation, inanity in words was prized as well. Apparently our silent agreement ended after I sent the following: .

“Mr. Hawkins, I believe that humanity has reached a point in the evolution of its intelligence at which it is capable of manipulating its own subsequent evolution. I believe that the conscious decisions each and every one of us makes daily will greatly affect the evolution of humanity from this point forward, as they have affected it to this point, the difference being that we understand our world well enough to have no more excuses. I believe that you are right when you express that ‘anyone who drives an automobile is making a conscious decision to continue the destruction of the environment.’ However, I more emphatically believe that anyone who chooses, as you and Mr. Bush choose, to further add to the warrior strain of human evolution is manipulating the future of humanity towards a terrible, ruinous conclusion..

Compare your logic of the last few months to his: He speaks of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ and an ‘axis of evil;’ you speak of ‘chemical and biological assault, ‘ and of ‘taxi drivers, bus drivers, SUV drivers whose one wish is to see us all dashed like bugs against the windscreen, or immobile and gasping for oxygen at the side of the road upon which they spew their evil, noxious gasses.’ Certainly you won’t fail to see the comparison. You talk of your ‘precise paint ball quickly released from the launcher hidden in the handlebar finding its mark on the offending auto;’ his generals speak of ‘surgical strikes’ and ‘smart bombs.’ You speak of your ‘most ingenious device yet, a small dart released from a pneumatic tube into the side wall of the tire rendering the auto useless,’ his ‘talking heads’ speak of bombs that completely stun all electronic devices, making them inoperable. I have no doubt that you are working to develop your own ‘Mother of all Bombs” or whatever the official language was..

You see, Mr. Hawkins, I believe that modern wars begin when two belligerents come up against something in one another which is outside their grasp of acceptable reasoning. Mr. Bush possesses no mirror, nor can he step outside his contrived world, and view it from another’s eyes; another who might rationally view the combined business and military power consolidation and strengthening of the status quo as evil. The other side possesses no windows, nor can they step outside their own house to allow for the possibility that benign power might conceivably exist. Thus, we have had war. In your own case, I believe the incidents with the bus, taxi, and other drivers you have described explain it best. You find it impossible to conceive that in general, Japanese drivers in Nagoya assume they are following the law, and that you are breaking it. They find it impossible to conceive that a foreigner in Japan — at best a guest, in general nothing more than entertainment — would take issue with their right to drive an auto within the limits of the law. I suspect most of them would not even vaguely consider you as having any right to tackle Japanese laws and regulations, and would probably suggest you go home and tackle the laws in your own country. They would have a point, Mr. Hawkins. You can hardly suggest the streets of Los Angeles are any friendlier to “bike riders” than those of Nagoya…”.

After I sent that e-mail however, I have had only one terse response, and then nothing. That response said: .

“Mr. Sloan, due to the increased incidents of intelligence leaks and security threats we have gone to ‘Code Tiger.’ All communication with outside parties will cease until we revert to ‘Code Wolf.’ .

A few days ago I got a phone call from one of Peter’s ex-girlfriends, Tomoko. My girlfriend had always gotten along well with her — that a rarity in itself — and she was unusually for Peter’s girlfriends, level-headed. We had often gone out as a foursome when they had been dating. It was clear from her tone that she was very worried about Peter..

“Don’t tell him I called, but I saw him the other day, and…”.

“I didn’t know you still saw each other.”.

“We do sometimes, but don’t say anything. His girlfriend might get angry. “I won’t.”.

“He… I don’t know… I think he’ll be arrested, and sent home.”.

“Why?”.

“He’s… I’m not sure. He’s involved in some kind of cult, I think.”.

“A cult?”.

“Well they ride their bikes around together and wear weird stuff, and…”.

“Oh, the bike thing. Yeah, he mentioned that.”.

“Mike, please go talk to him. I still love him and I don’t want him to be sent home.”.

“Does he know you still love him?”.

“I don’t know. I guess so. We still meet. I don’t know. Don’t say anything, but please go talk to him.”.

“All right, Tomoko. Take it easy. I’ll go talk to him.”.

That’s how I found myself standing in Peter’s apartment with all that craziness around me. The door had been open and I’d let myself in. He wasn’t alone when he arrived. Their were four other “bike riders” who came in just behind him, all dressed just like he was — in camoflage cycling helmet and fatigues. One was a foreigner, a little younger than Peter and I, and the others were Japanese college students, from the look of them. Peter didn’t introduce them. He said:.

“Mr. Sloan, you can’t be here unless you’ve decided to join us.”.

“Peter, what’s with all this sugar?”.

“Classified. Let’s step outside.”.

“Let’s go get a beer, Peter” I said with a hint of antagonism in my voice..

“I don’t drink anymore, Mr. Sloan. Let’s step outside.”.

I left a few minutes later, when it became clear Peter was not going to call me Mike, or even sit down and discuss things with me, without his lackeys hanging around..

That was this morning. It is evening now and I’m writing this at home. I doubt I’ll hear from Peter again, until he gives up his war, if he ever does. I guess Japan has changed him. It has certainly changed me, but I think the more powerful force at work is time. Time has a way of cementing humans in their thoughts, and in their blind fields of acceptable behavior. Japan can do no more than slightly alter the mold in which the cement dries. Peter Hawkins, who during most of the fifteen years I knew him never uttered a malicious thought, has dried at war.

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