Plexiglas’ed liquor stores, Elizabeth Taylor, sunless slivers, bitter green plums, calcified mops, straight vermouth, shepherd’s purse & the tart-mouthed muse of the Tropics.
Henry Valentine Miller grew up on Driggs, only a few stops from my place on Myrtle—the street he found beyond sorrow, a place “emptier than the word God in the mouth of an unbeliever.” At its intersection, a century rolled over between us, spreading itself to reveal that same magnificent emptiness: Brooklyn. Here, the stale vacuum of the Avenue’s iron shadow had only been further defined and divided between Plexiglas’ed liquor stores, illuminated by fluorescence and spliffs, blessed by the slaughterhouse’s feathers and blood. I lived near the Art Deco theater where Miller once caught plays for a dime, now gutted and stuffed with plastic forks and spoons, calcified mops, pneumatic and headless mannequins. Everything was a dollar, ninety-nine cents, on sale—sales that defied eternity. In the window of Discount City, a sad negligee gestured. Sheer emptiness.
It was the early aughts when suburban kids began filling up both sides of the Avenue. The ex-mob landlords—Charlie had a long scar across his gut—seduced us with prewar buildings sliced into sunless slivers, hallways of crumbling brick. My first room was $100, then $300, as rent began to swell under the elevated. A hip pizza place opened in the bakery that once burned bodies, though cockfights still roared in the basement. Above us, my neighbor beat his dogs like women. A girlfriend had her jaw broken over a few bucks. My doorknobs were tested halfheartedly. The ice-cream man pushed coke and the cops stole weed. Bicycles were nightly dethroned, tires slashed, windows broken. A woman slipped on an icy corner one morning, right under the downtown bus. It was all pretty maddening when sober.
The boys fumbled with pomade and I wore my hair up. We carried Monopoly money that didn’t fit into American wallets, so we spent it.
Miller hated America, and, with the exception of Roebling Street, especially Brooklyn. With ten borrowed dollars he hopped a boat for Paris, leaving behind a wife and a child, the Great Depression. He was thirty-eight, it was 1928 and he was chasing June, his tart-mouthed muse of the Tropics. Irrelevant as it was, this story fertilized my early twenty-something romanticisms—minus the wife and child, plus a Great Recession and an invitation. So, one January, I escaped not to Paris, but to Tokyo—into the arms of friends, into an apartment below the skyscraper district. Outside my window was a city without horizon, its discreet river, ever fragrant with mildew and sake.
I joined a group of misplaced Americans to act the part, however sloppily, of intelligentsia abroad. Our lighthearted rampages through vertical neon nights were abstract and ignorant, like a forgotten pleasure, like straight vermouth. The boys fumbled with pomade and I wore my hair up. We carried Monopoly money that didn’t fit into American wallets, so we spent it. Our conversations kicked around, with blind self-reflection, and misquoted, with swollen corn-fed tongues, the Lost Generation and Montparnasse. Old-Spiced Hemingway. Peaked Beats. Tangier and Burroughs and what-color nipples. The Rosy Crucifixion. Gertrude Stein was rye or bourbon. How to tie a Windsor, identify a prostitute outside the 7-Eleven, say “excuse me” with proper inflection. What he did and she did and they didn’t, the tender and the better, and altogether. The alcohol was cheap, the tobacco trumpeted “hope” and “peace,” and the diabetic elephant in the room stayed quiet, only staring at us with gumdrop eyes: Americans. But what a salve on those few dreary days, just as the emptiness began to glow, when you could always say, “…at least I’m not in America.”
Expats come with little variety in Japan. They are mostly men, and often the wealthy, the bored, the unemployable, the culturally self-exiled, the military (whom I never met), the charmless, the leftovers, too frequently the perverse. Of the smallest percentage are those decent, if somewhat listless kids with little clue what to do with their precious twenties other than drink someplace in the future. For the most part, we fell into the latter while curiously hating the former: we despised their pubs, their accents, their bulbous faces or pink, blotchy eyes, their hard R’s, aubergines and queens. Such strange divisions struck up amongst us foreigners, and the Revolutionary War always felt to be a nearer subject than WWII.
People don’t come for the oranges anymore, but because Kerouac told them to read Henry Miller, because someone had seen Elizabeth Taylor eating sandwiches up the road.
Not so for Miller. Nineteen thirty-nine and war broke out in France, forcing him to return to America. Two thousand thirteen and I, fearing my own escapism, followed suit directly to his old home in Big Sur, a stretch of rich earth along the Central Coast of California. It’s God’s country if there ever was—from the shepherd’s purse to the redwood’s flyaways—but being a damp and stoic place, all that is physically left of Miller’s time there are a few dingy letters tacked up on the wall of his best friend’s cabin, now a shabby library full of overgrown hippies hiding their age under a beard. People don’t come for the oranges anymore, but because Kerouac told them to read Henry Miller, because someone had seen Elizabeth Taylor eating sandwiches up the road.
Clinging to a Monterey cypress at the ocean’s edge, I thought how I was not much different. Slipping a little in the loose earth, I easily forgot it and wondered at the Pacific, the depth and distance between that coast and another. I wondered at the force that brought me back. Not a Second World War, of course, but also nuclear (the strong northern wind of Fukushima; my dubious thyroid screening). Back near the highway, I tried an onigiri at the multicultural gas station only to spit out its bitter green plum. I was home.
Miller left Big Sur in 1960 for his fifth and final wife, a young Japanese lounge singer named Hoki. They divorced a few years before his passing, as their marriage, he often lamented, was never consummated—she would only play Ping-Pong with the old man. Hoki now runs a Tokyo piano bar, one I never could locate, named after Tropic of Cancer, a book she never finished. In between songs she gathers tips from saps like me, saps looking for a secondhand brush against something great and dead if smeared with rouge, something I got closest to understanding twelve hours toward tomorrow. Something American.
Sadie Rebecca Starnes is an artist and writer from North Carolina. Based in Brooklyn, she has held a number of solo exhibitions in New York and Tokyo. She regularly contributes art, music and film reviews to Artforum, The Brooklyn Rail and Hyperallergic. www.sadiestarnes.com
Lead image: Jason Hogan