Thursday, March 31, 2005

La révolution est au menu

I'm on my way to the movie theater to see "Gunner Palace", a documentary about a unit of American soldiers in Iraq. It turned out to be an uncompromising look on the soldiers' life there but also not a very good documentary, lacking a thread or a narrative. The authors clearly thought that they could just show smartly edited footage and call it a day and it shows. There is no substitute for structure. It is still a somehow controversial documentary and I am not entirely surprised to see a crowd of people gathered in front of what I think is the theater. As I get closer I realize my mistake. The theater is still a block away and the crowd is standing in front of the "Hard Rock Café". Mostly kids, captivated by what one guy perched on a mail box is telling them. He is dressed all in black, shaved head and a chain hanging from his front pocket to the back of his pants. I can't imagine what political discourse he is brainwashing them with when I hear him say: "And the special tonight...". These kids at the heights of concentration are listening to a waiter describing the menu of the restaurant they're about to enter. About 30 or 40 kids, listening to a list of appetizers.
The Fidel Insalata or the Bush Omelet?

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Real diamond

At the post office near Union Station. It's about 8 PM and the line is long. This is the only post office in town which stays open until midnight.
A teenager is here with her mom (?). They're about the same height, both wearing bleached jeans and short jackets. The teenager is smiling a braced smile. She plays with a ring she is wearing on her right hand. It's a ring mounted with what seems to be a forest of diamonds. She puts her hand next to the glass door just behind us and she slides the ring on it, focusing on her task with the concentration of someone taking a test. The stones leave a mark on the glass. "Maybe they're real" she says to her mom. Smiling.

The guy at the front of the line. A very stern and serious looking, lanky black guy dressed with a real nice suit. He must be at least 50 or 60. He suddenly takes support on the counters on both sides and raises his body above ground, flexing it without any particular sign of effort, playing like a kid. He lowers himself down after less than a minute in the air. It looked beautiful. The real diamond of the evening.

"A diamond is a chunk of coal that made good under pressure".

Friday, March 25, 2005

Rocking the kid

At the back entrance of a great bookstore. The parking lot is packed because of the reading going on: Jonathan Lethem on his new book. A collection of essays. I listened for a while and left unimpressed while he is still talking. About himself mostly.
My car is tucked into a corner at the other end of the lot. I hurry when I see two guys almost hidden in one of the doorways. They're talking, probably on a smoke break. One of the guy is moving his arms up and down and it's only when I get closer that I can see what he is doing: trying to put to sleep a small baby, smaller than his forearm.
The kid is wide awake, his yes looking up at his dad, who cannot be more than 30 years old.
The dad is still talking to his friend, the motion of his arm regular as if he was pushing something up and down. As I reach my car and leave I notice in the rear view mirror that the kid is barefoot. It is cold.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Theology 101

I'm walking on Columbia Road toward the heart of Adams Morgan, the party place of this town.
It's almost 7:30 PM and it's already dark. I can see the two shadows of the men walking in front of me. I hear.
"So you see, GOD in reverse reads DOG, whereas Allah in reverse is still Allah". The other nods apparently in awe of the revelation.
They both start reciting loudly the Shahada, the fundamental statement of the Muslim faith:
"Ashhadu Alla Ilaha Illa Allah Wa Ashhadu Anna Muhammad Rasulu Allah"

They make no comment on the fact that the sentence backwards reads:
"Halla ulusar dammahaum anna udahhsa aw halla alli ahali alla udahhsa".

Friday, March 18, 2005

Tokyo (III)

My last images of Tokyo.

The festival at the temple. We stumbled onto it by chance. It's a huge parade with a giant dragon and singers with white make-up. At the end of the dragon dance, everyone rushes to its head to touch it for good luck. My friend does not want to do it but I rush along with everyone else. I explain to him that it is to know what the dragon is made of, but frankly it's because I can use all the luck I can find.

The kids in the subway who bowed to me when I looked at them too long. A way of introducing themselves I suppose. I bowed back and we went on bowing for a good 2 minutes.
When they leave they all say in English "Nice to see you!" obviously as eager to practice their English as I was my bowing.

The fish market and all the sea creatures that I didn't even know existed. A giant killing field, stinking but surprisingly clean. The tank from which the fish is taken out for superfresh sushi.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Kyoto -Hiroshima (I)

At Kyoto train station, waiting for the Hikari Shinkansen (bullet train) bound to Hiroshima.
I've decided to leave Kyoto early and go south to see the city that symbolizes both the end of WWII and the change of our understanding of war.

Kyoto the celebrated city, the jewel of Japan is a city that one cannot see in a couple of days and after two days trying to cram as many temples, shrines, sites that I could, I felt that this effort was not only useless but deeply misguided.
There are pleasures that one can enjoy quickly or slowly. Sex and food are good examples of that type of pleasures. Definitely not the same pleasure at high speed but still pretty good.

And then there are pleasures that don't even exist at a quick pace. Like feeling your love for someone grow or watching a child mature.
Visiting Kyoto is on this scale. It is no use to see one temple after another. The quality of the city is hidden, hidden among the most hideous buildings I've ever seen. Going from one temple to the next not only does not reveal this beauty but destroys it by its haste.

Maybe I can someday spend a month or a year in Kyoto and learn how to love it. I don't know. What I know is that I could not just go from one temple to the next. It just didn't seem fair to the city and its treasures.

So I am heading out, on the platform in the early morning, waiting for the train to come.
I notice two kids standing next to a set of recycling bins.

The train is about to arrive when a man, wearing a black suit like 90% of the businessmen here, comes to drop a magazine in one of the bins. I can't see what it is (and even if I did, I doubt it would make a difference!) but the kids obviously can. The man turns around and leaves but they look with amused air into the bin, then to each other and start what sure seems to be joking around, acting as if they were going to retrieve the magazine from the bin.
Even in Japanese, I'm pretty sure I can guess what that guy was reading...

Kyoto (VI)

I noticed it this morning as I was ready to leave for the train station.
Above the table in the dining room of the ryokan, there are several identical clocks set at different times.
The first one is labeled London, next to Taipei, Singapore and Hong-Kong all at the same time.
The central clock gives the local time and is marked with Kyoto in larger characters than the other clock. Another is marked with "Sydney". That's it. The last clock, which seems to give the local time as well has no label.
The USA is just not there, not mentioned at all despite the fact that some of the people here are coming from the states.
I leave soon so I cannot ask the owner if this is a way to express some anti-American sentiments that exist in Japan.
A silence protest, a la Japanese. The protest of the clock.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Kyoto (V)

The place is a mad house. A supermarket located in the basement of a large department store in Kyoto Central Train Station.
The man walking right in front of me is huge, his legs touching one another making a noise at each of his steps. He is a sumo wrestler out for some shopping.
He has a small pony tail and people are noticing him and let him go through doors, lines and such. He walks as if the entire world is his.
I see him later on buying a large cake covered with white cream and strawberry. The woman behind the counter is bowing repeatedly.

Kyoto (IV)

I don't think I've ever seen anyone trying so hard. A worker all dressed in blue with reflecting pads around his waist. He is assisting a reconstruction crew working on a new pavement in the road.
His role consists in putting small orange cones to prevent people to walk anywhere near the new path. He is also directing traffic. This means that he basically stands there where people would walk anyway and acting as if he is the one who told them to walk there.

I'm in the bus, stuck in traffic so I can watch for quite a long time. It is his way of running that first caught my attention. He runs with an eagerness that borders on comical. His steps reminds me of the way, in an old movie, obsequiousness would be portrayed. Running, but not like a real run, more like someone walking fast, his bust pointing forward, in anticipation of the task ahead.
His task seems to grab the orange cones from one side and put them in the other side of the newly paved path. Someone else is pouring water on it and the vapor that comes out adds an air of danger each time the man jumps from one side to the next to put more orange cones.
Finally he is done and stands erect directing traffic. He is there for less than 4 seconds when another man comes by. By his behavior, I can tell that this new guy is used to give orders and have them executed. He clearly wants some more orange cones and calls after the first guy who comes running back, bowing several times before speeding toward the other side of the path still bowing. The bus finally comes through the intersection. My last image of him is that of a fast walking man bowing his head in front of an invisible master.

Kyoto (III)

I'm on my way to the imperial palace. The first stop on what I hope to be a long day of sightseeing and hiking.
They are on the sidewalk, practicing gymnastics. Movements to the side, extension. A group of about 10 men, in circle following the lead of a short and quite stocky guy. One man (with his back to the bus), is clearly showing off: he holds the position longer, his movements are perfectly smooth, his body seemingly obeying all the orders it receives. He is now squatting and his legs make a perfect rectangle with his body completely straight. None of his comrades even comes close. This is a rather strange assortment of people practicing gymnastic a bit before 9 AM. The bus passes them and I see that they are all standing in front of what appears to be a fire station.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Kyoto (II)

I stumbled into it by mistake: I thought it was the Kyoto Museum of Modern Art and found myself into a competition for high-school bands from the nearby Yokohama.
The kids at the entrance were very nice and invited me to have a look. The program announced about 20 bands. Currently playing was "Sounds great" followed by "Sexual excitations". About one third of the bands playing have English names. Talk about cultural domination.
I stick around for 3 bands. They all sing in Japanese and all have a rebellious, heavy sound to them. There are no obscene gesture on stage, no wild scene show. They play like rebels but behave like nice kids.
The public, though, is the greatest surprise. Almost everybody in the audience is a teenager but the all amphitheater is silent, well behaved. Small clapping at the end of a set, no shout, no scream. It is as if they were listening and reacting to another concert, some classical music that I cannot hear.

Kyoto (I)

I left my luggage at the hotel (a self proclaimed Ryokan with a TV blasting in the Japanese common room) and head to town. I decided to walk, walk everywhere to get a better sense of the city. Big mistake. The city is big and the map I have not very accurate. I am not lost though, finding my bearing quite easily. Japan feels safe and I soon find myself in small, deserted and silent streets. One such street borders a small canal. There are plants put on suspended planks above the water, as if to claim space from the water and there are shrines. Shrines places are set according to the good spirits which means that they can't be moved. There are shrines next to garages, shrines right below telephone poles. A shrine by a door. And there are Nazi signs.
Rotated nazi signs to be quite accurate. They are everywhere, on every shrine. I know what they are, thousand year old signs dating from long before they were claimed by the Nazis, but it is still a bit unnerving.
One after one, after one, in this deserted street, near that small brook, I came across the sign of evil and each time I am startled for half a second, each time calming down and laughing at myself.
After a while though, the cumulated effect of all the signs around starts to get to me and I am happy to get back to the streets with the ugly buildings that disfigure this town.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Tokyo (II)

I'm on my way from the airport to the city. I will head out to Kyoto tomorrow early morning.
The train is not the express Keisei Skyliner but the regular train filled with Japanese and very few tourists. The seats are facing each others, like in the New York subway. Maximum capacity for the same space.
A woman, in the seat in front is reading a book called "Start late, finish rich at any age" by David Bach. She is about 40 years old. Her travel companion about 80.

Tokyo (I)

In the line to get my passport processed. The line for foreigners that winds down several layers of people. There is a group of young people joking around. A young woman, part of the group, is wearing a short coupled with very heavy boots. The combination is striking, which is probably the desired effect. A young man in the group calls her out "Hey! what's up with the ski boots and the short?"
She laughs.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Chicago (I)

On my way to Japan, I have a stop over in Chicago. I have not slept all the night before so the flight is spent recovering from that abuse. I wake up as we approach the windy city.
We're flying over the lake and I have a magnificent view of the downtown and the skyline.
The buildings look like small legos aligned by a clever kid. We keep going north and I can see Wrigley Field, then we turn and the lake disappears as we are flying over the west part of the city. The plane is still going down, slowly approaching the ground. Cars are still toys but more details are visible. We pass over a snowy field inside the city and I see that someone took the trouble to write FUCK! in giant letters in the snow.
A silence insult invisible by all except planes and God.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Violence or dog training?

The dog was beautiful. A black giant poodle (or at least looking like one) walking with an almost aristocratic air. Head straight and paws moving with a dignified attitude strangely out of place (This is a dog after all!). The owner, dressed with a red sweater with the brand name visible in the back, was holding the leach and walking toward me. The dog stopped to look or to smell something behind, its head even more erect.
The thug from the leach made it jump. It stops again and the owner, once again, gave a yank full of rage on the leach to make his dog follow him.
It was done with a vengeance, not a hint of compassion for the creature at the other end of the leach. I was so stunned by the violence of the gesture that I kept watching until they both passed behind me.
The man with the red sweater may be teaching his dog that he is in charge, but he is, in the process, revealing to everyone else in the street, the violence that inhabits him.

Monday, March 07, 2005

They just collapsed.

The whole day was rotten. Insulted by the bus driver in the morning with a ever friendly "Go fuck yourself and get your fucking mode of transportation if you're not happy with my fucking bus!", locked out of my place, I was on my way back to work to get the keys I forgot on my desk. Two hours totally wasted.

I'm reading the most recent issue of CJR in the subway. A guy leans toward me and asks "What does CJR stand for?" I stop reading to answer "Columbia Journalism Review", and add, hoping to clarify it a bit more "It's a magazine for journalists on journalism. OK, but not that great. " I subscribe to it although I am not a journalist. It helps me take the pulse of the profession. See what concerns them. How do they see themselves.
The guy does not seem to get it completely, so I add, again hoping to be helpful "it's a bit too much on the left for my taste but it's interesting."

"A bit too much on the left" is probably what did it. The man launches in a rambling about politics, Iraq, greed, money, oil. Every other word in his mouth is a "buzz" word.
I am not paying too close attention until he starts talking about 9/11. He never mentions the event by name. There is no need. When he says "There was no plane, the buildings just collapsed" it is clear he is not referring to the demolition of a casino in Vegas.
and there's more: "The Pentagon was never hit. A ploy of the military and they got their budget increased."
His voice is powerful and everyone onboard can hear him. Few people react. Monday evening, on their way from work. Everyone is tired.

"Just collapsed?"
Where does one start with a sentence like this?

Friday, March 04, 2005

Baby you can drive my car!

I took a three hours car mechanics class yesterday. I am late and I arrive to find 6 or 7 people clustered around an old man wearing a clean and ironed shop uniform with Mr. Cooper embroidered on the right side. I am asked to bring my car in the shop. It is going to be a "hands-on" class. We are all working on a car. On my car to be more precise.
Mr. Cooper lifts it and inspects the break, and the exhaust system. He fixes a noise that had been worrying me for sometimes (loose heat shield), brings the car down and cleans the battery, tops all the fluids. I am getting a complete check-up.
We've done with my car. We go on to some of the others.
A man, balding with a beard, is standing in front of a shining Golf with "Go Vegan" written on the license plate holder. The hood is open and all looks so clean that I have trouble to believe that this car was ever driven. Mr. Cooper comes by and says with an unmistakable southern accent "I see nothing wrong with this car" then moves on to the next car.
The guy is not happy. It is as if he wanted to have some problems. I see him later asking quietly Mr. Cooper for something. I can't hear the question, but I hear the answer clearly "Your oil's fine". He is not getting anything repaired. He is not getting an oil change. He seems unhappy with the class.
He is not the only one who wanted to get more from the class. As we are all leaving, I see a young guy giving his card to the woman who came with the large white pick-up.
Silence, oil, number. We all got something from that class.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Bon Appétit!

In front of the theater the kid was stooping, eating Chinese food from a white take-out cardboard plate. As I entered the lobby I turned and told him "Bon appétit". As I was wondering why I had said that, the "Merci" that came back was smooth and un-accentuated. A French guy eating in the cold, squatting in front of a theater!
I saw him later on in the lobby at intermission.


I was in the hardware store of my neighborhood, a small store with no space but lots of stuff piling on every direction.
There are 3 people in the store when I enter. The owner, Todd, is talking to a costumer about the product he is about to buy. One guy walks out almost as soon as I enter. I hear Todd saying "Excuse me sir, can I see your pockets?"
The guy turns around. He is a middle aged black man with a strong Hispanic accent. "No" he says. Todd is now right in front of him and telling him "I saw you put the locks in your pockets, I want to see your pockets." The man protests and takes out some medicine boxes from his
right pocket. "The other pocket", Todd insists.
"No, no" the man says and shrugging off Todd, he leaves. His left hand is still in the pocket of his bulky jacket. Todd dialing the police furiously, giving the description of the man to the operator, describing where he is going. He has left the shop and had left us, the three remaining costumers by ourselves. I can hear him talk on the other side of the entrance door "Well, by that time, he'll be gone already! Thank you." He hangs up and comes back inside, apologizing for the incident. As soon as he is back in, a policeman shows us at the door "Scott!" Todd cries while rushing out again. Scott is soon on his way to catch the man.
When he comes back empty-handed a couple of minutes later, I hear them discussing the guy. Todd knows him. He has seen him in the neighborhood a couple of time. Always drunk. He says "I should get a picture of him next time he comes, so he knows he is not welcome here." A picture! Like a favorite relative.