finally back home again, after a few weeks on the road. we launched Google Earth Outreach in new york, and then i stayed a few days. when i showed up, the north east was in the grip of a heat wave that made the air seem like a thick, smothering, sweat-soaked, felt blanket. merely stepping out into the street would cause a prickle of perspiration to throw a pattern of small, dark dots across the back of your shirt. on a moist thursday, i walked out at lunch and across a few avenues to find the furniture store that jia en told me about:
-- so, you went to this neat furniture shop. what's it called?
-- do you have the name of the guy who makes the stuff?
-- i forget.
-- address, maybe?
-- it's somewhere around 17th and 7th ave. but you can't miss it lah. it's right across from the west elm.
it was, in the event, right across from the west elm on 17th street, and it was quite unmistakably a furniture shop. on a street packed with fancy clothing stores and the like, their fronts all brightly-coloured vitrines, it was dark and, within the gloom, large pieces of wood could be seen, vaguely. when i went in, a short guy in his middle thirties looked at me and said, "you work in wood." i was forced to agree. a white-haired man sat at another table, on the phone, speaking quietly in japanese. my interlocutor shared with me choice snippets of his personal philosophy:
-- i was born to this furniture.
-- oh, yes?
-- yes. my father (gesture, nod) came here from japan to be a painter. his art is in the permanent collections at the guggenheim and SF MOMA. but he decided to make fine furniture instead.
-- and i, do you know what i used to do?
-- i couldn't begin to guess.
-- i used to be an art director. (pregnant pause) but then i decided that i would make fine furniture as well.
-- yes. what i tell you is the unembroidered truth. do you like our furniture?
-- very much. i think the joinery is quite beautiful, and the wood is incredible.
-- thank you. do you take photographs?
-- (a bewildered pause) no. i don't think i could compose them well.
-- that is preposterous. making fine furniture is like taking photographs. the whole object is to capture the moment in the piece. do you like japanese food?
-- funny you should ask. i actually studied it in some detail.
-- then you understand that sashimi is like photography. you respond to the fish, and to time
; there is nothing else, no imposition of your ego on the material. with sushi, it's always about forming, shaping, imposing. with sashimi, nothing. you like kaiseki?
-- yes, quite.
-- kaiseki is like making fine furniture too.
we lapsed into a deep and ruminative silence until, in the background, the air-conditioner began to make a racket. in the glowing street outside, a short, leathery man in dress pants and bata sandals (yes, really, the faux leather variety) stopped and crushed the butt of a cigarette into the ground, then pulled open the door. it was the resident artist painting the giant thangka at the tibetan buddhism exhibit at the rubin museum down the street, and he smelled powerfully of cigarettes. they moved to the back of the room and began to play ping pong on a table at which the president of toys-r-us had been soundly defeated (he'd been waiting for a table at a nearby restaurant).
that was my day of stumbling into a 1980s movie about The Asian Mystique.