Walking the Keihin Factory Belt with Stuart Dybek

As usual, the boy missed the fly ball that anyone else would have caught with his eyes closed, and it rolled into a thicket of reeds by the river.  The audible sighs of the other kids were like knives in the boy’s back as he trudged after it, reeds wrapping themselves around his shins while he searched for the ball amid the empty cigarette boxes and candy wrappers scattered on the ground.

Of course he didn’t find it.

It wasn’t like these kids had a bunch of extra balls lying around, either.  If he couldn’t find it after searching a bit more, he would have to call out to the others and ask them to help him.  He looked up hopelessly at the sky.  Just as he looked back down, though, he caught sight of a somehow familiar-looking man standing with a tall foreigner on the other side of the high reeds.

*

“I used to come here after school, to play baseball.”

Stuart nodded.

It was a brilliant autumn morning, and we were standing by the river at the Rokugo embankment.

“In hitting, fielding, and running, I was useless all around.”

Stuart laughed.

“And grown-ups were always asking us to let them play.  They must have been unemployed and looking for something to do, I guess.”

“Probably.”

“There was one guy who made quite an impression on me . . . But I seem to have forgotten what he looked like, and at some point . . .”

“Yeah?”

“At some point, his face was replaced with that of a certain writer from Chicago . . . I recently wrote about it in the afterword to my translation of Streets in Their Own Ink.”

Stuart laughed again.

“Especially the time when he hit a huge homerun all the way into the river, and his expression was seventy percent sorry, but the other thirty percent couldn’t hide his pride and delight.”

“Ha ha ha, that definitely sounds like me.  It could have been me playing baseball here with you guys.”

I wondered whether kids still showed up here to play after school as we used to.  Of course these kids wouldn’t be wearing shorts and sneakers, they’d have real uniforms and cleats, and every kid would bring his own bat and glove . . . Everything was so different now.

And yet, I thought to myself, the scenery hadn’t changed, the smoke still puffed out of the chimneys of the factories lined up across the river.  As I looked around, I noticed a boy, almost hidden among the high reeds at the riverside, standing there staring my way.

If you came across your future self, how likely would you be to recognize him or her?

If you encountered your past self, though, you’d be apt to say, Ah yes, that kid is me.

*

Let’s start from the beginning.  At ten o’clock in the morning on Tuesday, October 22, 2008, Stuart Dybek arrived at my house, and we then set out for a tour of the Keihin Factory Belt.

The first time I met Stuart, fifteen years earlier in 1993, he had taken me on a downtown tour of Chicago’s South Side, where he was born and raised.  When I saw the big-rig trucks whizzing by the dusty weeds that grew alongside the roads lined with factories and mills, kicking up even more dust, I was struck by how similar it was to where I grew up and, ever since, I had thought that someday I would like to show Stuart the Keihin Factory Belt.  He had been invited here for the first time by the Japan Foundation and was now looking forward to this tour as a highlight of his trip to Japan.

Of course, I don’t mean to imply that the South Side of Chicago is exactly like the Keihin Factory Belt.  For instance, the whole issue of race is more complicated in Chicago (although Japanese complacency and insensitivity may underlie this assumption), and the scale of things was obviously different.

Here’s an excerpt from an essay that Stuart wrote called “You Can’t Step into the Same Street Twice,” published in 1992:

We lived on the near South Side of Chicago—first on 18th Street and, later, on 25th—in a neighborhood that would today be labeled “inner city,” an old, industrial area in which apartment buildings and factories coexisted, though not necessarily peacefully.  It was a landscape of contrasts between the gigantic and the small, of sprawling truck docks and tightly bunched frame two-flats; of towering smokestacks, and sunken asphalt playgrounds that looked as if they had been compressed to fit into a vacant lot; of eight-lane expressways, and side streets too narrow for delivery trucks to pass.

Within the Keihin Factory Belt, this sounds more like the scene across the river in Kawasaki City, in Kanagawa prefecture.  We all know that Kawasaki has the huge industrial plants lined up on the other side of the river, while the smaller factories are over here on the Tokyo side, in Ota ward.

But then, would such a difference really matter to an outsider?  The way I saw it, what the two places had in common was much more important.  The fact was that his portrayal of Chicago, with its “factories, railroad tracks, truck docks, industrial dumps, scrapyards, expressways, and the drainage canal” (“Blight”) described Ota ward and the area around Rokugo almost perfectly.

On our way toward the river from my house, I chose the alleys whenever possible.  There was the side street where we saw the cherry tree in front of my kindergarten (naturally, the tree was older than me), and the quiet lane I always passed on my way to buy the latest issue of Shonen Sunday, which had an elegant kimono shop, oddly out of place in this neighborhood.  I knew that Stuart preferred the back streets.

Dove had nicknamed them Alley Heartaches earlier that summer when they walked the alleys instead of streets to the dentist.  The alleys made them almost forget where they were going.  Trees arched over wooden backyard fences like a green arcade, the fences were lined with garbage cans to pick through, smells blasted from black ventilators behind stores and factories.  Steve had made up a double called the Butchie, who lived in the Alley Heartaches, distinguishable from Steve only because of the clothespin he wore in his hair.  The Butchie would ambush them whenever Steve ran ahead and turned into a gangway.  Dove would find Steve unconscious, a victim of the Butchie, or the Butchie himself would appear, grinning like a maniac beneath his clothespin, to bombard Dove with garbage.

  [from “Blood Soup”]

In Stuart Dybek’s fiction, alleys were always gateways to different worlds.  Or rather, it was more like the alleys themselves were different worlds.  Within those alleys, boys discovered mythical realities, domains inhabited by transformed versions of their own selves.

Of course, I liked alleys too.  It wasn’t only for Stuart’s sake that I chose to walk this way.  But perhaps I used them for more “introverted” purposes.  As far as I was concerned, alleys were places where I needn’t pay attention to cars passing, where I could keep my eyes on the ground, lost in thought.  I remember walking through alleys, usually alone, while sort of peeking into the open windows of the houses that lined both sides.  The people inside must have thought the gloomy-faced kid peering into their home was kind of creepy, but that wouldn’t have occurred to me back then.  I had convinced myself that in the alleys, I was invisible, although I wouldn’t have used the word.

And so today, we walked along, staring at the cracked surface of the concrete, sometimes looking up to take in the streetscape, as we called up various memories.  I got the feeling that perhaps our two worlds weren’t all that different.

“When I walk the Chicago streets where I grew up, I’m never just walking through the present, I’m walking through the past,” Stuart said.  “So now here, walking the streets where you grew up, I’m trying to see everything the way you used to see it.”  Imagining the way another person sees the world must have been how he had managed to write so many wonderful stories.

And even though I was hardly likely to write a novel, now I tried to see these streets the way that Stuart would have seen them.

We emerged from the alleys and passed through a shopping district where privately owned shops were still holding their own, despite the advance of chain stores and supermarkets, before arriving at the Rokugo embankment.

We went down by the river, which could hardly be described as beautiful.  The Ajinomoto factory stood on the bank. (“In the summertime, when the south wind blows, it stinks of artificial flavoring.”  “Artificial flavoring stinks?” “When there’s enough of it, it stinks.”)  Standing there, we traded information about our boyhoods.

Did you fish?

Yeah, sure.  We’d use sticks as poles and little triangles of squid as bait, and fish for crawfish.

There are crawfish in there?

They were imported from America to feed hungry people right after the war, but they got out and spread like crazy.  There were tons of them.  (I later found out this was wrong.  It was bullfrogs that were imported for human consumption, and the crawfish were brought over to feed them.)  Did you fish in the canal in Chicago?

Yeah, we used chicken liver as bait.  But the water was so dirty, any fish we caught were either missing scales or had weird things growing out of them—they were disgusting.  You’d never want to eat any of them.  I mean, after all, it was a sewage canal.  Its official name was the “Sanitary Canal,” but we all called it “Shit Creek.”

Ha ha ha.  Nowadays the public swimming pool is totally clean, but back then we used to call it “Piss Pool.”

Right, so did we.  Did you swim in the river?

Of course not.  It wasn’t like it is now, it used to be much dirtier, full of waste.  What about you?

Not in Shit Creek, of course . . . But there was this big water tank that I did swim in once.  The water was stagnant, and who the hell knows what was at the bottom, but whoever lost a bet had to dive into it.  I’m surprised we didn’t get an ear infection . . .

We chatted like this, moving on to the baseball conversation, and just as I was about to suggest that we get some lunch, I noticed the boy standing among the tall reeds.

Of course, I knew it was my past self.  The kid I was would never have had the guts to play hooky from school to come here on a weekday morning, so I guessed it must not have been the same time of day for him.  Or else somehow he had wandered outside of time altogether.  I decided to call out to him and invite him to join us for lunch.  I figured it would make it easier for Stuart to see this place the way I used to see it.  And a part of me hoped that, if my past self came along, maybe Stuart’s past self might show up too . . .

But as I moved toward him to invite him to lunch, for some reason he suddenly glared at me, turned around and disappeared into the thicket of reeds.  His expression seemed to imply that he recognized me as his future self.  I wondered if his hostility and anger were caused not just by his disappointment that his future self turned out to be such a dull-looking guy, but by his realization that he had no reason to resent that (he himself wasn’t all that good-looking).  But the kid may have just been freaked out by some strange guy approaching him.  At the time, stories of kidnappings were all over the news.

I had no choice but to give up on the idea of my former self coming along with us, so my present self and the present Stuart walked over to the Katanaya, an udon and soba shop a couple of neighborhoods away.  As planned, we were joined there by Satoshi Kitamura, the illustrator for my essay collection, who was back in Japan from London for the time being.  The Katanaya is run by a married couple, Takashi and Shizu Kurahashi, and their udon and soba is so hearty and deliciously chewy.  Ever since my wife and I discovered their place about sixteen years ago, we come here regularly, about once every other week.  Takashi is a big Dybek fan, and he’s always recommending or even giving my translations to his friends and family.  Takashi and Shizu are good friends of ours, and they are also close with Satoshi as well as with his older brother, Osamu, another artist—there were several of their works hanging on the walls of the Katanaya.  On this fine autumn day, the back door had been left open and I could see the somewhat cluttered back garden, actually a rather pleasant sight.

This was already the third soba shop we had been to since Stuart had arrived in Japan two days earlier.  We’d had soba at both other places, so this time I recommended the udon to Stuart, emphasizing that here it was unlike any other.  Satoshi is fond of poetry, so we had a lively conversation about some of our favorite poets (such as Charles Simic) while we waited for our udon (Stuart) and soba (Satoshi and me) to arrive.  “Oh, this is good.  The tempura is delicious, it really goes with the natto,” Stuart said.  We all hummed with pleasure as we chomped away intently on our respective noodles.  What bliss.

Suddenly, I heard the grass rustle in the back garden and thought somebody was spying on us, but when I looked out, nobody was there.  I told myself it could have been someone who lived in the building on the other side of the garden, but of course I knew who it had been.  I also knew that there was nothing I could do.  If I tried calling out to him, surely he would just run off.  That’s the kind of kid I was.  There was no point in telling Stuart and Satoshi, Hey, look there, that’s me, so I kept quiet and went on slurping my soba.

The world’s best lunch was followed by another highlight to go along with our riverside stroll.  We were going to be shown around a local foundry.  It was run by the Hirokawas, who were friends of the Katanaya’s owners, the Kurahashis.  We had already glimpsed, at various times during our way, welders face-to-face with a riot of blue sparks like fireworks—for the streets here are filled with small factories—and both of us had talked about how much we loved watching them as a kid, how we had wanted to be welders.  But the foundry was much more intense.  Inside a large, shed-like structure, they were casting aluminum and copper.  Once the metal melted in the furnace, they poured it into a mold to manufacture the product, which is a simple way to describe the process, but the molten metal reached extraordinary temperatures.  They poured this liquid, glowing red-hot, as nonchalantly as if they were doling out soup.  The finished products would be used as airplane parts, so this required an extremely high level of precision.  What might almost be considered elegant articles (by a casual observer, at least) were produced within a weathered wooden building with dirt floors and gaps here and there in the walls.  If I had to compare it to something, I might say it was like Yoshiharu Tsuge’s Oba’s Electroplate Factory, although work here seemed to be carried on in a much more easygoing environment than in that dark manga.

Obviously that’s not to say that it was easy work.  Especially in summer, the heat was literally hellish.  And there’s no doubt that it was a dangerous job.  That was what had the most effect on Stuart.  “The metal, the flame, the work, and the unprotected body—I never realized how vividly connected they all are,” he said.  He was impressed by the quiet dignity of the men as they worked.  Satoshi and I felt the same way.

Hanging on the walls were various items and tools and molds, all of which, as objects, possessed an overwhelming power and a strange beauty that was on par with any work of art.  As we were gazing at them in utter amazement, I saw a figure in shorts and sneakers whiz by one of the gaps in the wall.  Hey, c’mere! I called . . . No use, I guess.

*

After all the excitement from the factory tour, I thought we might rest a little before that evening when the two of us were giving a talk and a reading at the Junku-do bookstore in Ikebukuro, so we drowsily walked back to my house.  By now Stuart fit right in, and as we headed home he looked as if he had known these streets his whole life.

If we get tired we can take a taxi, I had said, but we ended up strolling the whole way.  We arrived home and just as I was about to open the wooden gate, a voice behind me said, “Hi.”  Stuart, Satoshi, and I all turned around at once.

“Hi,” he said again.  His eyes were peering out intently from beneath his noticeably scruffy hair.

“What is it?” I asked.

“We need one more,” he said.

“Huh?”

“For baseball.”

“You mean, you need one more to make up a team?”

It was just an excuse.  We never had nine players for a baseball team.  We’d just split up however many people we had and covered what we could.

“Is that what you’re talking about?”

At first I hadn’t understood why he was mumbling, but then I realized what he meant.  It wasn’t me whom he wanted to come along, it was Stuart.  He probably would have settled for Satoshi, but the one he was really after was Stuart.  It wasn’t surprising.  With my own average close to zero, not only in batting but fielding as well, why would he pick another guy who was just as bad?  I realized that what he had been trying to say all along was “I don’t want you,” but the constraints of the second person in Japanese made it difficult to express.  Really, how should he have addressed his future self?

“What does the kid want?” Stuart asked me in English.

Before I could mumble a reply, Satoshi—whose English was much better than mine anyway—answered, “He wants you to join him.  To play baseball at the riverside.”

Hearing this, for a moment Stuart’s face belied his desire to go with him.  I could see that he wanted the chance to hit a home run out of the park, all the way to the river.  Did I need to remind him that we still had the talk at Junku-do, that his readers eagerly awaited him there?  But Stuart Dybek was a grown man.  He turned to speak directly to my past self.  I’m still not sure what language he spoke to him.  It seems to me that it must have been English, yet it was clear that my past self understood him perfectly.

I really would like to go with you, Stuart Dybek said.  But I’ve got to give a lecture at a bookstore with Moto—ah, you’re Moto too, well then, I mean with the present Moto.  I’m sorry I can’t join you.  But, if you head back to the Rokugo embankment, I think you just might find my former self hanging around there.  If you see him, I’d really like for him to play on your team.  And would you tell him that I said hello?

 

Translation of “Suchuaato Daibekku to Keihin Kogyo Chitai wo aruku.” Copyright Motoyuki Shibata. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2010 by Allison Markin Powell. All rights reserved.