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Seasonal word in Key West?

 I’ve enjoyed the past weeks in New Orleans and then Key West. Both places looked to be very different from the rest of US I’ve visited so far. I guess that my itinerary of this journey was a wise one, although if you start from the West Coast, this would be the natural course of the American tour. Anyhow if I had started from these two cities, I might have found it difficult to continue with the incentive of the journey.


Visiting the source of civilization in Oxford, MS

 It is not so easy a task to do a traveling like mine in the USA. I don’t drive. I don’t fly. I just visit places by either by train or by bus. That’s fine as long as there is a public transportation available. I would not mind walking some distance to a station or bus stop if I had to. At least it burns my surplus fat I seem to be gaining in this journey.
 In one recent trip to Oxford, Mississippi I had some difficulty as there was virtually no ordinary public transportation available into Oxford from nearby cities.
 However what makes me really sad is not only that. But it is the fact that in this country the sidewalks often disappear suddenly in front of your eyes. Oh, how many times I had to look for walk-able pass nearby and negotiate crossing busy streets to the opposite side for more walk-able pass. It is not only dangerous but also depressing, especially if you find your only shoes sopped in muddy grass after a rain of the previous night. On such occasion it hits you that this country’s roads have been constructed for the sake of cars first of all, not for pedestrians.


Coming across two booing in New York

 Since I wrote my last column in English some time has passed. All this while I have been traveling in New York and then to New England area. I’ve never been in this part of the United States before. So I was very glad to be able to visit and see the so to speak major “birthplace of the new world.”
 I understood vaguely why the north-eastern states of this country is called New England. Now I understand better. According a book “Albion’s Seed” written by David Hackett Fischer, in the period from 1629 to 1775, this country was settled by at least four large waves of English-speaking immigrants. The first one was “an exodus of Puritans from the east of England to Massachusetts from 1629 to 1640,” then followed by “the migration of a small Royalist elite and large numbers of indentured servants from the south of England to Virginia.” No wonder the six present states including Massachusetts are called New England.


Thank you, Mr Poe.

 I have been in Philadelphia the past several days. This was a place I wanted to visit in this journey. I had stayed for a very short time in here at the end of the year 1974. I was a student at that time, studying in a small city in Georgia. Then I wanted to come up to taste the atmosphere of the northern big city.
 I had happened to meet with a Korean family in the Georgian city. They informed me of a Japanese missionary in Philadelphia. I have no memory how I had got in touch with the missionary. Maybe I wrote a letter, asking him to give me a room and board for free for a week or two during the Christmas holidays.
 The missionary, Peter-san, was from the same Kyushu Island in Japan. He was nice to me, taking me into various gatherings of his faith in Philadelphia. His wife, Hisako-san was also a very kind lady. They had two little sons, the youngest one just born then. I still remember the older boy, maybe 3 or 4 years old, calling me for a supper with his clear voice every evening. (Please understand that we Japanese respect our elders, always referring them with honorific titles of san.)
 I and Hisako-san happen to share the same birthday, Feb. 5. While I was back in Georgia the next year, she had sent me a Happy Birthday card, with a 50 dollar bill inside. I was studying with a very limited budget. Oh, I still remember the shine of the bill in front of my eyes. It was a fortune for me then!
 (By the way Peter-san has been leading the Christian faith called “Kohitusuji no Mure“ (Flock of little lambs) throughout the world, based in Japan.)
 Now coming back 38 years back, of course I don’t remember anything. But the fact alone pleases me that I came back after all these years. I had one particular place I’ve wanted to visit. It is the house where the writer, Edgar Allan Poe used to live. I remember the visit there I did with Hisako-san.
 After arriving at Philadelphia I’ve checked the address and found out that the house was on 530 North 7th St., not so far away from the city center. After seeing those historic sites related to the Independence struggle of this country, I walked to the house. When I was in the old city district minutes ago, there were many tourists around me. But On the way to the Poe house, I saw very few people walking along the rather desolate area. At one point I thought I was walking into the wrong street.
 No I was on the right track. Eventually I saw a signboard “Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site.” It was thus authorized, I learned, as a unit of the National Park Service in 1978, four years after my visit. When I arrived there, it was just the time for the day’s last guided tour of the house. The guide took us, around 10 visitors into the rooms up and down, and into a basement.
 We know that Poe lived with his wife, Virginia, and her mother Maria Clemm in Philadelphia for six years, and a part of it in this house probably sometime between the fall of 1842 or June 43 and April of 44. The Philadelphia years were very productive for him as a writer and also happy for him as an individual. While living in this house such famed works as “The Gold-Bug” and “The Black Cat” were published.
 Honestly speaking, I find some of Poe’s works hard to read. But the above mentioned two are those I’ve enjoyed reading. Yes, I enjoy the horror factor in “The Black Cat” but what I like more is the description like the following: Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or a silly action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not?
 The house seems to be a bit different from that I have seen 38 years ago. When I visited the house then, there was a particular door knob, which is said to have a magic power to anybody who touches it, for improving his or her writing ability a great deal. Although I had not thought of becoming a journalist then, I had touched it with gratitude. Now looking back, I kind of feel that maybe it was partly due to the magic power that I could have survived all these years as a journalist.
 To my surprise there was no more such magic door knob in the house. I’ve asked several people working there about it. They all said they had never heard of it. Since the National Park Service took over the care of the house, the door knob must have gone with the necessary renovation of the facility.
 I was a lucky one then.

 (photo: The basement in Poe's house with a toy black cat welcoming visitors)

Ubiquitous tragedy

 Now I’ve just arrived at Washington DC. It was a very good stay in Chicago, partly due to the hospitality of Larry, Judy and her father Tom. (I’ve met Larry in Hannibal. The good luck is still continuing.) Certainly I’ve enjoyed the vigor of the third largest city in this country. Those skyscrapers in the city were something worthy of seeing. How many times I had to look up to see the top of the buildings. As a short man of 5 feet 4, it had been a tough week.
 The view from the top of the Willis Tower was also memorable. We are now in the middle of building the world tallest skyscraper in downtown Tokyo, called “Tokyo Sukai-tsurii” (Sky Tree). When completed in May next year, it would be 634 meters high, 222 meter higher than the Willis Tower. When you think that we are expecting another “Big one” any time in the foreseeable future in and around Tokyo after the Great earthquake and tsunami in March this year, which had hit the northern and central part of Japan, this tower is all the more significant.
 In Chicago, I wanted to visit a place related to an American writer, Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945). Unfortunately I couldn’t find any such place. He is the author of such novels as “An American Tragedy” and “Sister Carrie.” As he lived and worked briefly during his life, I hoped that I might come across something related to him or his work.
 “An American Tragedy” is a story of a poor young man, named Clyde Griffiths who struggle to climb up a social ladder, relying on a connection of his father’s rich brother. When he finally reached the very entrance of the rich world, with a beautiful girl with a rich family, he finds his girlfriend whom he picked up to satisfy his young sexual needs at his work place pregnant with his baby. If this fact were revealed, it is all over for his dream. Clyde eventually goes to the scaffold with the crime of the alleged murder of the girl.
 The novel was published in 1925. It was a time, I suppose, America was in full swing to the capitalist society, with millionaires’ life glittering from magazines and posters along the streets, enticing the poor youngsters like Clyde with envy and longing. I just wonder how the situation is different now from those days in early 1900’s. Judging from the talk I’ve had so far since my arrival at the US late June, it seems to be the same or worse.
 Lots of young people, I hear, find it difficult to get a job nowadays. After graduation some of the university students just go home to live with their parents to make ends meet. It is nothing unusual in Japan to see young adults to continue living with their parents, though. Graduating from universities or starting to work did not mean leaving their homes right away in our country. But it would be, I suppose, quite an unusual sight here in US.
 The Chicago Tribune recently cited a finding that the disparity between the CEOs of a company and average workers are increasing: 42 to 1 over 30 years ago to more than 300 to 1 now. Staggering figures. With all the economic ailments in Japan, I don’t think that the disparity in the same categories is more than 10 or 15 in our country.
 When walking on a street one day in downtown Chicago, I came across a man selling magazines. I thought it must be something like “Big Issue,” which has originated in Britain but now spread to other countries including Japan, with an aim of self-help of the unemployed people. I stopped to buy it so that I can contribute the vender’s profit in the sales. Actually it was not at all like the “Big Issue” type magazine. It was just a leaflet of movie notices. I wished to leave at once. But I had already started up a chat. It would be, I felt, a bit rude to do so. I asked him how much he expects from a passerby buying the leaflet. “Oh, it depends on the person. Just leave anything you feel like.” When I dipped my hand into a pocket, a five dollar bill came up. He saw it. I knew it. OK, Goodbye my precious 5 dollar bill!
 When I was about to leave the man, he thanked me, with something like “You are very kind-hearted. Thank you, young man.” I froze with the compliment. I returned to the man and said. “Listen, how old do you think I am? Maybe I’m older than you. I’m 57.” He replied to me smiling, “Oh, you don’t look that old. I’m getting at 50 years old soon. But you are a fine young looking man.”
 I know I look young as long as I have a cap on my head. I feel young and act young. Somehow I feel that there would be lot more years to go in my life. Maybe from now I should call myself “Dorian Gray” from Japan, although I don’t carry with me a picture, which absorbs age for me.

 (Photo: “Tokyo Sky Tree” in Tokyo’s Asakusa area, as of early June this year. The tower is about in the middle, although it looks very tiny.)

Mark Twain experience

 I have been in Hannibal, MO for the past week. Oh, it was a very wise choice to come here. Sometimes I really think that somebody up there, probably God, is taking a good care of me during my journey in America.
 While in California, I had a mail from one of my good professors in college days way back in 1970’s that there would be a conference on Mark Twain in Hannibal, America’s Hometown, where the famed writer and humorist had spent his childhood days. Twain was born in Florida, MO, in 1835 and moved here to Hannibal in 1839 and grew up here. When I checked the website of Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum, I found out that the conference, which was held for three days from Aug. 11 to 13, was the first of its kind sponsored by the Museum.
 On arriving at Hannibal, I found quite a few renowned scholars and reseachers coming to the conference. I’m a novice, although I had managed to translate one of his stories, “Pudd’nhead Wilson” into Japanese and published it two years ago. I only thought just being among the noted scholars on the writer would give me something precious for my American literary journey and I would be cherishing for the rest of my life.
 It turned out to be far better than I had hoped. All the people I came across at the conference were just good-hearted and many of them gave some tip on the writer. Some of them also gave me some useful information on the other American writers whose related places I’m planning to visit and write about later on.
 One of the questions I’ve had on Mark Twain was just how he could drift away from the Civil War, which had ravaged the South and surrounding regions in 1860’s. Before coming here I almost believed that this part of Missouri was part of the Southern region, therefore the Confederacy. I have thought amazing the fact that Mark Twain, who lived throughout the Civil War era, had managed to be somehow free from the aftermath of the war and continue to write on various aspects of human beings beyond the war. Whereas such a fantastic writer as William Faulkner, although born after the war, seemed to have lived and written always lingering on the Southern cause and being a Southerner.
 I was glad when I asked Barbara Snedecor, and she did not consider my question irrelevant. Barbara is Director of The Center for Mark Twain Studies, Elmira College, NY. She agreed with me that it was very lucky for him and for us to see him go to the west right after the start of the war in 1861. She also enlightened me into an aspect, until then I had not been aware of. His first piece, a jumping frog story, made his name travel throughout the country and made the nation laugh. Although it’s a simple and maybe dumb story, after the bloodbath of the Civil War, people had needed it.
 Don’t think please that I’ve enjoyed and understood all the presentations during the conference. Some of them were too deep for me, I’m afraid. And some of the presenters talked too fast for me to catch up with, although I had no doubt that they were good presentations. Among them I thoroughly enjoyed a presentation by John Pascal. He spoke on “Artemus Ward: The Gentle Humorist and His Lecture Influence on Mark Twain.” It made me understand better now with the American tradition of the literary comedians in which Twain also had a great talent and used it to pay back all his debts. John is a high school English teacher from New Jersey. No wonder his talk was crisp and easy to understand.
 After the fruitful three days, I decided to stay in Hannibal for a few more days. I had to find another place to stay. Oh, I almost forgot to thank the venue of the conference, Hannibal LaGrange University. We could stay at the student’s dorm, 15 dollars a night! What a bargain, especially for me struggling always to find a good and reasonable price hotel. And of course I wish to thank Henry Sweet, Cindy Lovell and other staff from the Museum for their wonderful work and hospitality.
 When Kent Rasmussen and Tim Champlin, both independent researchers, drove me to a B&B downtown on their way out of Hannibal, Kent kindly explained to me the historic fact that the B&B, called Lula Belle’s, had been actually once a famous bordello. His departing shot was: “Shoichi, are you single? If so, you can order a special room service later on? Enjoy your stay.”
 No, Kent. No thank you. Those days are gone for me. I’m a born again atheist.
 On the first night, I woke up at the middle of my sleep. I found my bed shaking in the room named "Angel of Delight." No. I didn’t order any room service. I soon found out that it was the vibration coming from the nearby freight railway traffic.
 (photo: The last laugh boefore leaving the University dorm. Tim drove me to the B&B in this car. Kent insisted sitting on the back of the car, letting me sit on the front seat. )

Locking the door, but not the heart

 Now I’ve spent a few days in Garden City, Kansas. The object of coming here was to see this city and the neighboring town, called Holcomb. Holcomb was once, I guess, a household name to many American people in 1960’s. It was a place where the notorious murders had happened in November of 1959, which was highlighted in “In Cold Blood,” a novel, or rather in a new literary genre of “nonfiction novel,” named by the writer himself, Truman Capote.
 On the morning of Sunday of Nov. 15, 1959, all the four Clutter family members were found dead at their home, brutally murdered. At first it was investigated more likely as a crime of hate or vengeance. But the family, which consisted of a hardworking farmer, Herb, his sick and warm-hearted wife, Bonnie, a 16-year old beautiful and kind girl, Nancy, whom literally everybody in the neighborhood loved, and her younger brother, Kenyon, were “the last people you would ever murder” according to their neighbors.
 After the news had spread all over the US, Capote came to Holcomb to write a “piece” for The New Yorker. He was accompanied with his childhood and loyal friend, Nelle Harper Lee, author of “To Kill a Mocking Bird.” For some time the investigations headed by detective Al Dewey ran into difficulties and seemed to go to a maze. However with luck they could eventually arrest two parole breakers, Perry Smith, 31, and Richard Hickock, 28, on the end of that year. Capote had been fascinated by the development of the case. Thus he had followed it for the next 5 years or so, interviewing many people in Holcomb and Garden City, including the two criminals.
 The case turned out to be a failed burglary. According to their confessions, when he was still in prison, Richard heard from a cellmate that Herb Clutter had kept a safe, as being a very wealthy farmer. He then decides to raid the house and steal the money from the safe and kill all the eyewitnesses. He lured Smith, with whom once he was a cellmate, as he had thought him a ruthless man capable to do killings easily.
 It turned out to be so. Perry massacred all 4 members singlehandedly whereas Richard could not join him in the murders. Yes, Perry could be a ruthless man at times, but one cannot forget the fact that he had to go through miserable childhood days without the love of his divorced parents. Dewey and Capote seem to share a feeling that “Perry possessed a quality, the aura of an exiled animal, a creature walking wounded.”  They were sentenced to death at a Garden City court. After more than 5 years since their arrest, in April of 1965 they were executed while being watched by invited guests, among whom, Capote and Dewey. Dewey could not feel any “sense of climax, release, of a design justly completed,” which he had imagined at the final execution.
 In Garden City I have had another “Midwest hospitality.” Sharon who works for Finney County Historical Museum drove me around the city and to the Clutter house in Holcomb. She eventually took me to Finney County Public Library. People there gave me related files on the saga. I feel like almost obliged to speak up to my folks back in Japan, “Hey, if you plan to visit the US by any chance, think of extending the trip to the Midwest region, be it from the West coast or from East coast.”
 Now back to the book. It was produced from a horrific case of murders of a whole of innocent and very respectable family at Holcomb. The shock had sent the local residents here into “until then unthinkable thing to do” according to Sharon. “Locking the doors.” Even after 47 years of its publication, not a few residents here regard the book as something not worthy of talking, let alone reading. But the fact remains, I think, that it is a beautifully and powerfully written novel.
 The last paragraph of the book goes like following. It is a scene at a graveyard in Garden City, called Valley View Cemetery, where the Clutter family is buried. Here Dewey happens to see another girl he met in the course of the investigation, Suzan. She was a very close friend of Nancy. She comes to the cemetery “once in a while,” she tells to Dewey. And she departs after a chat.
 “And nice to have seen you, Sue. Good luck,” he called after her as she disappeared down the path, a pretty girl in a hurry, her smooth hair swinging, shining—just such a young woman as Nancy might have been. Then, starting home, he walked toward the trees, and under them, leaving behind him the big sky, the whisper of wind voices in the wind-bent wheat.
 As if looking at a beautifully drawn picture. Oh, I’ve almost forgotten to add that the residents in Garden City and Holcomb might be locking the doors of their homes, but their hearts are wide open to the visitors.
 (photo: The Clutter family’s gravestone in Valley View Cemetery)

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