Something is vibrating deep within these walls. I thought it was the window panes for a while. But it’s deeper than that. I hear it downstairs. Maybe it’s in the floor. Or a floor, between the two levels. I can’t quite locate it in a way that I can say what it is that’s vibrating. But it most definitely has to do with the water pipes. Pipes run all over through these old buildings, having been installed and re-installed, and routed and re-routed according to changing needs over decades. Every structural adjustment invites the possibility of degrading stability. Attachments fail, conduits angle, and air is introduced where only water should be. Crooked and imperfect pipes are rumbling deep within these walls. Or perhaps it’s a fan with a shaky blade, spinning around unattended in an adjoining living space. I think the neighbors have a washing machine. It could be the spin cycle that I’m hearing. Especially if they have a great heap of laundry that needs doing. It also sounds like a faint version of the automated garage door we had when I was young, opening each night as my mother returned from work. Garage doors line the lower floors of this building, and people are coming in and out all the time.
Whatever it is…wherever it is…it’s starting to drive me to distraction. I tried to watch a movie tonight, hoping that my hearing and attention would be absorbed by something else. I turned the television volume all the way up, and still I could hear that soft whirring. The neighbors pounded on the door, and when I finally heard them rapping and opened up they kindly asked me to turn down the sound. I said of course. I’m sorry for the trouble. I asked them, since they were already over, if they could come inside and listen with me. They did so, but denied hearing anything. I don’t know if they were being honest or just wanted to escape the awkward situation. They didn’t really stand still enough to hear it, like I asked them to. And one frumpy woman kept breathing, which makes the gentle jack-hammering impossible to hear. But I need someone else to hear it. It’s a light bass-ey sound. Like a muted helicopter rotor. Somewhere in the core of this building it shivers, conducted by these beams and boards, through the air and into my ear. I need to try and sleep for a while now. Tomorrow I’ll call over some friends and see if they can come over and listen.
I don’t know London very well. Not the authentic city, at least. I’ve been to the Tate Modern and the National Gallery. I’ve stood next to Big Ben and the Eiffel Tower and that sort of thing. And of course the great opera house near the Harbour Bridge. Of course that! But I’m not familiar with places in the city where people actually live, and I wanted to find out what they’re like. So yesterday, having my whole afternoon free, I chose a quaint London neighborhood to stroll through.
Albert Street is in the center of the city’s northeast quadrant. It is a long, haphazardly configured row of small shops and eateries. Avenues stretching away from this main drag are lined with homes. These houses are unremarkable, and so I didn’t spend much time away from the commercial spine of this district. Trees line the sidewalk along Albert Street, each one growing up and out of a small unpaved square embroidered with bright red brick. It’s so impressive, the care taken by the area residents with little details like this. Somebody must have spent entire days deciding on, locating, and learning how to set these bricks. You’d never find anything like that in the United States of America. We’re all too pragmatic.
But anyway. The most lovely store window I saw that day was that of a shop called Soleil (‘sun’ for those who live near Albert Street and speak the native language). An orange-petalled yellow-hearted flower made of papier-mâché took up nearly the entire window. Radiating away from it were crinkly orange streamers. It sounds simple, but really it was the most elegant and unpretentious window display I think I have ever seen. I was across the street, so I didn’t go into Soleil. But I must imagine that they sell weathered gold candlesticks and small rustic furniture pieces, and just generally everything that a home full of white linens – probably like those in the adjoining neighborhood – would need.
Taking in rich surroundings provokes the appetite. “Though the eyes eat, the stomach may not be fed,” I think the saying goes. The first place I considered was in a multi-level building that looked like an Escher creation with three intersecting levels. His childhood home being not far from here, it is conceivable, though nobody told me this, that the architect of this building was inspired in design by the 18th-century artist’s work. The exterior was covered by brown shake, and the upper level of the boxy building had a balcony that added to the overall structure’s complexity. A man stood alone on the balcony in a short-sleeve floral shirt and straw fedora. He looked out into the distance, over the other buildings, seeming to contemplate the rolling hills and forested land just a mile of so off. “BRE-AK-FAST” was scrawled in chalk across three contiguous blackboards hung from the overhang. As charming and full of repose as this place seemed, I didn’t have a taste for breakfast and so kept walking.
I’m thankful I didn’t stop! I would have missed out on the splendid Bone 7. This is a true locals bar. The walls are orange and blue, and the tables of simple Scandinavian design. People in fashionable attire line the bar, some waiting to order a drink while others chat with drinks already in their hands. All are dressed in that at-ease yet young professional manner required for positions in philanthropy, or advancing responsible business practices across borders and oceans. The tavern’s owners must be true lovers of their picturesque little town in the valley, since the aperitif menu includes a cocktail called The Stockholm. Which reminds me! I passed a man on the street wearing a blue sweatshirt with white lettering that read ‘Stockholm’. It’s not only the bar’s owners who love their city, it seems.
I sat at one of the two-tone tables inside, but through a doorframe I could see a fenced area out back. Bamboo reeds shot up parallel to the fence-line, shading two rows of wood benches. Exposed beams supported a translucent roof. A giant patinated Christmas ornament-looking sculpture hung off the segment of fence that I could see. The metalwork housed a light, the beams from which shone determinedly through round gaps in the bottom hemisphere. I could smell the no-nonsense ocean between slats in the fence, and I envisioned the clay red cliffs standing parallel with the shoreline that lay just beyond.
I had a catfish sandwich, fries, and an Old German, after which I spent the rest of my afternoon walking it off up and down Albert Street. The sky opened up and rained down on me for most of the afternoon. But isn’t that to be expected in the heart of dreary old London?
“Things will turn.”
“The market will turn.”
“It feels like things are so close to turning.”
I have heard these comments and dozens similar over the past twenty months, at least. Here’s what I can’t help wondering lately: will it? Will it really turn? Does anyone really believe that, and if so, what proof do they have? Or is this where we are now? Is this the new order that we must resign ourselves to march bravely forward into? Without turns.
I know that New Zealand is waiting. I know that goats make amazing cheeses. I know I might have some strange and resonant work within me to write. Worrying about return value may bring nothing at all. Comfort breeds anxiety. There are more books to be read than spare time to read them in. Tai Chi is challenging yet possible to master. Unwelcome work may bring more unwelcome work, but pursuing delight may cause flowers. Death is going to visit whether insurance is available or not. Somewhere there is a road.
What if it turns and we still don’t know who we are?
If you get the opportunity at some future point to have Japanese omakase (お任せ), please do it; especially if that opportunity arises at Tanuki in Southeast Portland, just west of the redline. We call this experience ‘chef’s choice’, but I like other various translations such as ‘I’ll leave it to you’ and ‘entrusted’. Name your per-eater price, and the chef – in this case the delightful owner Janis Martin – will craft a line-up of small dishes with huge flavor that arrive at your table with the persistence of lapping ocean waves. Combine these fresh culinary miracles with an equally constant flow of small-batch sake, cheap Asian beer, and sensational Japanese whiskey, and you have the makings of a experience that will stretch one hour into five without anyone at the table knowing how or when it got dark outside. (You also have the reason why this “daily exercise” took a day off).
The thing is, omakase is not at all particular to Tanuki. Nor, obviously, is sake or beer. What makes omakase at Tanuki feel special is the establishment’s rag-tag sensibility. You’d better know the address (8029) if you go, because there’s no sign on or above the door. My longtime friend, Eric, and I arrived a few minutes before opening and, from the locked door and look of the place, momentarily thought we’d have to find different digs than this out-of-business business. But then the deadbolt popped free and our absolutely adorable server for the night set up the discreet sandwich board that announced in scrawled pink chalk “No sushi / No kids”. Then she invited us into the dining room. It feels like a lower Manhattan performance garage / studio apartment / storage facility borrowed each night for the purpose of serving some food. The sparely placed tables themselves seem foreign between the well-stocked bar, Ikea showroom sitting space, and piles of boxes with provisions in the corner – mostly beer. A card table holds two self-serve jugs of water – one that broke during the night – and a garage door remains halfway open to a parking lot out back. Pin-up girls from alcohol-sponsored calendars adorn the wall near the bathroom, and two huge television screens in opposing corners are inescapable (all night, Eric watched soap operas out of his peripheral vision, and I was oppressed by blood-bathed Korean and Japanese cult grotesquerie). A hastily plugged-in stereo perched on the sill of the covered storefront window blares away. Everything is dark when you start, and it just gets darker and more luscious from there.
I know very little about what I ate. I mean, of course I know what muscles looks like and what nori is. But specific details regarding preparation and minor ingredients of the twelve plus dishes we were privileged to taste remain a mystery. Our server announced each one as it landed on the table, but the ambient sensory chaos conspired against comprehension. I rarely followed up because it really didn’t matter. What mattered was diving unabashedly into each offering. Not everything worked, but the rewards are more than worth the risks. And seriously: Japanese whiskey.
Food and drink deepen the environment. The environment bolsters everything you taste. Of course, the night was biased to begin with. I was in exceptional company, and together we were willing to let table after table around us turn over as we staunchly occupied our place in the middle. It also strokes the ego to have one’s server sincerely name you “drinking champs.” So omakase if you can, but have some bus fare ready and don’t assume you’re driving home. We didn’t.