Driving down the Sunset Strip has always felt a little like being in a magazine. The billboards loom and beckon, towering and untouchable and yet still totally in your face. Today they advertise luxury brands and new TV shows, but once upon a time—back when the Sunset Strip was at the heart and soul of rock ‘n’ roll—they were hand painted musical monoliths, larger-than-life variations on album art and psychedelic interpretations of soon-to-be hit records. As Hunter Oatman-Stanford put it, “in the 1970s, you knew you’d made it big if your record label paid for a hand-painted billboard on the Strip.” The hand painted rock billboards on the Strip were an art form specific to LA’s car culture, intended not for gallery walls but to be seen through a windshield at cruising speed, and preferably with the convertible top down.
According to the Los Angeles Times, each billboard took roughly ten days to produce, with costs ranging from $1,200 to $10,000. Craftsmen would hand paint the illustrations on individual wood panels at warehouses in Mid City, before ultimately reassembling the pieces on location in the wee hours. And they were by nature ephemeral—each was destroyed after its contract ended.
Luckily for us, a photographer named Robert Landau documented many of the billboards during their roughly decade-and-a-half heyday (from 1967 to the advent of MTV in the early 1980’s). Landau was a teenager living with his dad in the hills above the legendary Sunset Strip Tower Records when he first started documenting the fleeting masterpieces, shooting with a Nikkormat camera and Kodachrome film. A few years ago, he published a complete catalog of his photos with Angel City Press, and in a few weeks the billboards will finally grace museum walls, when an exhibit of Landau’s work opens at the LA’s Skirball Cultural Center.
Over at Collectors Weekly, Hunter Oatman-Stanford has interviewed Landau about his work and the billboards themselves. Below is a short excerpt:
Collectors Weekly: Who started the music industry’s billboard trend?
Landau: As far as I can tell, it was the Doors in 1967 for their debut album. I talked with Jac Holzman—the head of Elektra Records who signed the Doors—while writing my book. In 1967, he had just come out here from the East Coast and opened an office on La Cienega Boulevard, not far from Sunset Boulevard, and it occurred to him that billboards were being used for everything except promoting records and music. A lot of radio stations where popular disc jockeys worked were farther east on Sunset, and he knew they drove on the Strip, and that the entertainment industry in general was based there.
The Doors were really into it; the whole band even climbed up on top for a photo shoot. Jim Morrison was quoted as saying he thought it was cool he’d be hanging over the Strip like a specter. I think at that time, it cost about a thousand dollars a month, which was quite a bit of an investment then. Elektra signed on for a year, and they had several different billboards. Little by little, the other record companies caught on.
How Clive Davis and Arista won the battle to sign Whitney Houston—then went searching for songs for her debut:
“Two years later, Griffith got a call from a friend. Had he ever heard of Whitney Houston? She asked him. He remembered her name immediately from the show he’d seen and said so. ‘You better move fast,’ she cautioned. ‘She’s negotiating with Elektra for a deal.’ The news shook him up. ‘I said, “Uh-oh – I better check this out,”‘ he recalls. As it turned out, Houston was performing that very weekend at another New York club, Seventh Avenue South. Griffith called Houston’s manager, Gene Harvey, and had his name put on the guest list.
“‘So I went down, and I was completely floored,’ Griffith says now. ‘She was mesmerizing. I couldn’t believe she had grown so much in that two-year period. She went from a teenager to a woman. She had a mature look, her voice was more mature, she had obvious star quality. It took no genius to see it – all you had to do was just see her and you knew. I’ll never forget, she sang the song “Tomorrow” from [the musical] Annie, and it was a showstopper. After I got up off the floor, I just knew that I had to bring her to the label.'”
Daisy Alioto | Longreads | March 2019 | 14 minutes (3,722 words)
“I beheld thee rich in sorrow,
Graceful in the bloom of youth,
Where, like gold within the mountain
In the heart lies faith and truth,
On the Danube,
On the Danube, bright and blue.”
—Karl Isidor Beck, “On the Danube”
“At last I penetrate into the distance, into the soundproof blue of nostalgias.” —Jean Arp
I have an adolescent memory of walking along a lake near my Massachusetts home and finding a child’s blackened shoe caught in the murky inch of water at the shore. I knew that not long ago a pilot had died crashing a single-seat Cessna into this same lake, and I had lately been looking at piles of shoes as part of the school’s Holocaust curriculum. The combination of these two facts — totally unrelated — filled me with deep dread, and I turned around and hurried back to my family.
Artist György Román’s childhood was characterized by such dread. The painter was born in Budapest in 1903 and suffered a bout of meningitis in 1905 which left him deaf and temporarily paralyzed in both legs. As a result, “his mind was swamped in the chaos of meanings around visual images,” writes Marianna Kolozsváry in her monograph of the artist. (Kolozsváry’s father was one of Román’s first collectors.) Although Román regained use of his legs, he was deaf for the rest of his life.
Out of vivid dreams and passive observation of the surrounding world, Román formed his own vernacular of symbols and omens. Cats, monkeys, carnivals, and men in mustaches were imbued with evil intentions and disease. The glowing red signage of shops and brothels were both indistinguishable and sinister. Toy soldiers were the protagonists of this world.
The Hungarian actor Miklós Gábor wrote of Román’s work, “He paints dreams, but he is not a surrealist. He paints naively, but he is not a naive painter. He is a clever man, but not intellectual. He sees nightmares, but he is no expressionist.” Read more…
Danielle A. Jackson | Longreads | March 2019 | 7 minutes (1,853 words)
“The patriarchy begins at home,” acclaimed Atlanta-based novelist Tayari Jones told the Atlantic last year. “They call it ‘patriarchy’ because it’s about your father and your brothers and your family.” My brother became a conservative Republican in the late ’80s due in part to a strong moral opposition to abortion. He’s 16 years older than me, and one of few men in our family. We were raised in the same missionary Baptist church in North Memphis our family belonged to for three generations. I was baptized and went to Sunday School there; my grandmother had been a white glove-wearing, note-taking member of the Baptist Training Union 50 years before. They taught Baptist doctrine to congregants. I found pages of her meticulous notes in a closet in my auntie’s house decades after she died. Despite years of service and prominent roles in the church, women couldn’t sit in its pulpit, much less aspire to ultimate leadership. In all of my time there, I can’t even recall having a woman from another congregation speak to us as visiting pastor.
The seeds of whatever belief system my brother came to uphold must have been planted in that sanctuary. Later, when I was a teenager who’d developed her own thoughts on the matter, we spoke about the biblical underpinnings of his values. We didn’t talk about our grandmother, who may have had an abortion in the ’50s when she became pregnant for the ninth time. Or our mother, who, with me, had a troubled delivery, with preeclampsia, induction, and a caesarian section. I spent my first days in a neonatal ICU. My mother was 21 when my brother was born and 37 with me — an “advanced maternal age.” By the time my brother and I were talking about the “sanctity of life,” it was the ’90s; yet, even now, when male pundits and politicians speak about pregnancy, abortion, and God, I do not hear a concern for the lives and experiences of would-be mothers, for women, that is as strong as their concern for the unborn.
Attorney and scholar of race, gender, and the law, Dorothy Roberts, describes “maternal-fetal conflict,” as “policies that seek to protect the fetus while disregarding the humanity of the mother.” It’s a concept that helps explain how many of the same states with the most restricted access to abortion care have also refused to expand Medicaid, denying uninsured, low income people access to contraceptives and other healthcare services. It helps explain how rates of maternal mortality have increased while rates of infant mortality have fallen.
It’s likely, since Brett Kavanaugh replaced Anthony Kennedy and the Supreme Court’s ideological balance shifted, that federal protections guaranteed with Roe vs. Wade will disappear. Several cases that would prompt its annulment could make it onto the Court’s docket. Many people already effectively live in a post-Roe future. In states throughout the South and Midwest, including my home state of Tennessee, more than 90% of counties have no clinics that provide abortion services. Mississippi and six other states are down to a single one. The Hyde Amendment prohibits use of federal Medicaid funds for elective abortions; 11 states restrict abortion coverage in private insurance. Twenty-seven require waiting periods of 24 to 72 hours, meaning two visits to a provider that is possibly already a prohibitive distance away.
New York’s Reproductive Health Act passed on January 22, 2019, the 46th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. It codified the Supreme Court decision into state law, removed abortion from the criminal code, and relaxed some restrictions on abortions after 24 weeks. Last month, Virginia’s legislature considered a bill that would also expand abortion access at the state level. Since then, the phrase “late term” abortion, an imprecise, lightning rod of a term used to describe a set of complicated procedures that account for less than 2% of abortions, shot through the discourse to, it seems, reignite a moral conversation about abortion in general. New York and Virginia are part of a rash of states that rushed to pass bills clarifying their positions. On February 20, the governor of Arkansas signed the “Human Life Protection Act”; it will “abolish abortion” in the state, except in cases where the mother’s life is in danger. Tennessee’s legislature introduced a similar bill in February. Both would become effective should Roe v. Wade, or its supporting decisions, be nullified. Mississippi, Louisiana, North Dakota and South Dakota already have comparable “trigger laws” in place.
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“We lose people when we center and focus on abortion,” Jalessah Jackson told me on a phone call from Atlanta. She’s the Georgia Coordinator for SisterSong, a national, membership-based network of organizers focused on reproductive rights. Founded in 1997, one of SisterSong’s main aims is organizing in support of people all along the gender spectrum who are living in the South.
A major priority for SisterSong is “culture shift” campaigns, which develop partnerships with faith organizations and leaders. “We recognize the role of the church in people’s lives,” she said, so their organizers “meet with progressive church leaders to talk about their responsibility in making sure their congregation is living and thriving. They should attend to the part of their congregation that might want to have children as well as those that might not want to.”
Jackson and team hope to “change narratives,” because many people “think faith and reproductive justice are in opposition, and they’re not.” Indeed, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), started by a coalition of ministers after the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott and led, at one point, by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote a policy document for the federal government’s family planning program in the mid-60s. Before that, in the ’30s, W.E.B. DuBois thought black churches should invite leaders of birth control organizations to speak to their congregations. DuBois had a progressive-era classism then, and believed in population control especially among the “least intelligent and fit.” But there’s something to his call for “a more liberal attitude” within the black church that remains salient.
According to Loretta J. Ross, an activist and one of the pioneers of the concept, and historian Rickie Solinger, the core of reproductive justice is the right to have a child or not, and the right to parent children in safe and healthy environments. Using reproductive justice as a frame for thinking about women’s health exposes the limits of the pro-life / pro-choice binary. It makes room for concerns about mass incarceration, public education, affordable housing, air pollution, and the ability to earn a living wage — all of which influence what choices people actually have, and determine whether the children they carry to term are able to thrive.
Nearly 60% of women who terminate pregnancies are already mothers. About half of patients seeking abortion care live below the poverty level. Black women in the US are almost three times more likely than white women to have abortions; Latinas have them nearly twice as often as whites. Since a growing majority of US blacks reside in the South, and poverty rates for blacks, Latinx, and indigenous people double that of whites, abortion access is a “race issue,” and a Roe annulment would disproportionately affect brown and black people. Many black pro-life organizations and church congregations have co-opted the language of progressive movements to buttress their opposition to abortion, linking reproductive rights and family planning with genocide. It’s an old but powerful strain of thinking that acknowledges medical racism and the early associations of Margaret Sanger, a founder of Planned Parenthood, with leading eugenicists. But it fails to note Sanger’s reliance on W.E.B. DuBois’ research, and it does not account for the lived experiences or needs of actual women.
Nikia Grayson, certified nurse midwife and director of midwifery care at Choices, a reproductive health center in downtown Memphis, told me their providers like to “talk about all of a woman’s options,” to unearth and address what kind of care she needs. They aim to provide “high quality, non-judgmental” healthcare in which they remove the stigma from abortion and serve the needs of the city’s LGBTIA population. They are one of few clinics providing the HIV preventative medications PrEP and PEP in a city that is eighth in the country for rates of new HIV diagnoses.
Choices is a model of full spectrum reproductive care, offering prenatal and postpartum care, pap smears, pelvic exams, STI screening and advice, and (through coordination with a local rape crisis center) treatment specifically for sexual assault survivors, all under one roof. It’s the midwifery model, in which women are attended to “from menarche to menopause.” Abortions are also provided at the facility. One of only two back certified nurse midwives in Memphis, Grayson said the majority of Choices’ patients pay for their services at least partially with Medicaid, and the center often raises funds to cover what the state will not. If all goes according to plan, later this year they’ll open the city’s first standalone birthing center, where women who could not otherwise afford a home birth can have an alternative to hospital delivery. Advisers to the World Health Organization and the UN Population Fund recommend “integrated comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services” like this “for women and girls to enjoy their human rights.” It decreases the likelihood of unintended pregnancies, addressing concerns about abortion closer to the root.
I asked Grayson about church groups, and she said Choices receives support from social justice oriented congregations, like Christ Missionary Baptist Church. “They understand that the work Choices does saves lives.” Christ Missionary’s senior pastor, Dr. Gina Stewart, is one of the first women to lead a Baptist congregation in the city and its surrounding areas.
If Roe is dying, it is, so far, a slow burning death, with gasps for breath and short, hopeful bouts of recovery. Several weeks ago, Chief Justice John Roberts delivered the decisive vote in blocking a law in Louisiana that would have further restricted abortion access in the state; the week after, the Trump administration published a “family planning rule” that would block providers who provide or counsel on abortions (such as Planned Parenthood and Choices) from access to certain federal funds. It is is helpful to note how institutions like Planned Parenthood, Choices and SisterSong already do their work in a climate of opposition and disinformation. “I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding about abortion.” Jaleesah Jackson said. The disinformation comes from everywhere, nowhere, and the top — the president falsely claimed in his latest state of the union address that later term abortions “rip babies from the mother’s womb moments from birth.” As Jackson said, “SisterSong advocates for comprehensive sex education, and comprehensive sex education would cover abortion. All genders, all folks need access to this information because they’re all charged with the responsibility of making decisions about their reproductive lives.”
But abortion is, in many ways, beside the point. “We’re autonomous human beings.” Jackson told me. “And part of having bodily autonomy is being able to make whatever reproductive health decisions we deem fit for ourselves and our lives and for our families.”
Matthew Komatsu | Longreads | March 2019 | 24 minutes (6,092 words)
This piece was supported by the Pulitzer Center.
Obā-san tasted ash. Yes: ash and dust. Her youngest son’s kanji and hiragana on paper could not assuage the bitter news the letter delivered: that her youngest son would not return from America to his hometown of Kesennuma, Japan. He would stay to marry the American woman who carried his child. Dishonor. Shame. Betrayal. And I was the ash she tasted: the end of the pure line of the Komatsu name. Nothing more than an accidental flutter in the brine of my mother’s womb.
My grandmother would not have considered this metaphor of the sea, despite the proximity of her home to it, the wind-borne scent of the waterfront fish market and processing plants mere blocks away, burbling down the streets, seeping through the window and door cracks of her home. And beyond, the vast blue-gray of the Pacific Ocean, heaving and rolling the life it contained. She would not have thought of the sea’s power to both create and destroy.
A soccer ball washes ashore on Middleton Island in the Gulf of Alaska. On it, handwritten script in permanent marker that identifies its origin as a grade school in Rikuzentakata, Japan, 30 minutes north of Kesennuma. Its owner, Misaki Murakami, survived the tsunami but his family lost their home. It is a personal effect recovered from his home. On one of the panels are kanji characters inscribed by a classmate that read Ganbatte. Good luck.
I can only imagine what changed Obā’s heart. Perhaps it was my grandfather. According to my father, Ojī was more sympathetic. It was Ojī who responded to my father’s letter to say that he understood. Or maybe the simple need of a grandparent to hold her grandchild eroded her pride. But these are all, in a way, little fictions: my American need to emote in conflict with a Japanese inclination to accept.
Regardless, Obā and Ojī came to the United States. I wonder what they thought when they held this chubby black-haired infant boy, whether they struggled to pronounce my English first name. What it felt like to stare into the deep, brown eyes of a grandchild whose blood ran mixed. Or if any of this mattered at all.
What I do know: When Ojī and Obā journeyed halfway across the globe to the unlikely destination of Duluth, Minnesota, they didn’t know my parents arranged to leave me with a family friend at the beginning of a cross-country road trip across America that doubled as both honeymoon and getting-to-know-the-in-laws. When Ojī said goodbye to me, he wept. It was the last time we were together and the only time my dad saw his own father cry. My grandfather died in Japan, in 1987.
The only Japanese uttered in my home was spoken into the telephone on holidays. On those days, I rushed to answer the phone in the hope of hearing the voices of my Japanese relatives. Moshi moshi, came the greeting. When I answered in English, the caller usually responded, Ahhhhh… Toshifumi-san?
Dad, for you.
If my mother answered, the single phrase she knew: Chōttō matte, kudasai. One moment, please. I would sit on the brown shag carpet speckled with gold and red and yellow, my back to the heat vent, shirt lifted so the hot air blew up my skin and ruffled the black hairs on my neck. The book on my lap stayed open to the same page as I listened to one half of a conversation, mouthed words whose accented syllables I will never utter with any meaning. A pause for the delay, then the muffled return. A smile, a laugh, an imperceptible head bow from my father.
A Canadian finds the rusted hulk of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle on the shores of British Columbia and traces its license plate to its owner, Ikuo Yokoyama. Photos of the bike reveal a year at sea: spokes rusting away and missing, corrosion widespread across a frame whose gleam has been replaced with a forlorn absorption of the light that reflects upon it. Yokoyama resists an outpouring of internet-fueled financial support to restore the bike and repatriate it. Instead he asks that it be preserved in a museum as is, a memorial to what was lost.
During a precious summer break from the Air Force Academy, I joined a family trip to Japan. Eager to show the Japanese I’d picked up over two years of college classes, I greeted Obā. My father told her that I knew Japanese now, that she should speak to me. We sat down in the living room of the small family home in Kesennuma. The air was heavy with the smell of the nearby ocean, mothballs, dust, and paper. But when she spoke, I could not understand.
Here is a list of Japanese words. Tsunami. Pronounced “tsoo-nah-mee.” Translation: “harbor wave.” E. Pronounced “a-ay.” Interrogative. Translation: “What?” Hayaku. Pronounced “hi-yah-koo.” Translation: “hurry.” Hashitte. Pronounced “hah-shht-ay.” Imperative. Translated to English: “Run.”
At 2:46 p.m. on Friday, 11 March 2011, a 100-mile-long section of the Pacific tectonic plate 19 miles deep thrusted beneath Japan. Richter scale needles twitched. Japan shifted eight feet east. The Earth shuddered off-axis. The seabed rose, lifting the ocean above it by 25 feet. All that water had to go somewhere. And it did — away, in a series of waves that raced west at 86 miles per hour. The tsunami made landfall roughly 45 minutes later on the shores of my father’s hometown of Kesennuma in northeast Japan’s Miyagi Prefecture.
My 11 March dawned no different than any other. I woke up and checked Facebook over coffee. My sister posted something about a big earthquake in Japan, but the family was fine. Big earthquake, Japan: happens all the time. I didn’t think much of it during the 45-minute drive from Columbia, South Carolina, to Shaw Air Force Base, NPR now revising the magnitude, the Richter climbing. I paid it no mind during my 12-mile run before work. It was spring in South Carolina, flowers opening under a rising sun, the air heavy with their dewy scent.
The tsunami made landfall on the shores of my father’s hometown of Kesennuma in northeast Japan’s Miyagi Prefecture.
It wasn’t until after I showered and changed into my uniform that the narrative unraveled. I turned on the car and the radio cascaded breaking news of a large tsunami in Japan. But even then, I did not think of the risk to my father’s hometown, a fishing city in northeastern Miyagi Prefecture directly in the tsunami’s path.
At work, I punched a code into a keypad and walked through a door into the cubicled space I shared with close to 50 other officers. The room was quiet, all eyes glued to the televisions on the wall. I looked over my shoulder and from the second floor of the Air Forces Central Command Headquarters, I watched 22,000 Japanese die.
In the years that follow 3/11, I will often open my laptop to type “Japan Tsunami” into a search engine. In a half second, tens of millions of results cascade down the screen, many of them videos.
No phones were allowed in my office. I left to use the bathroom, checked my phone: a missed call and a voicemail from my mother: Matt, call home. My gut twisted.
My mother answered. They were driving from their home, nestled in the green pines and gray popple outside Duluth, to an aunt who had cable. My parents had never paid for cable television — considering it either unaffordable or unnecessary. Now, for the first time in their lives, a luxury became a necessity. The internet was too slow; they needed to see.
Yes, I’ve seen the news, I said. But Lauren posted something on Facebook. Everyone is fine.
No. Uncle Kazafumi called from his office in Kesennuma — it lasted eight seconds — to say he was okay. Then the call ended.
And he tried to call him back?
Nothing. Dad can’t get a hold of him, or anyone else.
11 March passed. Friday. 12 and 13, Saturday and Sunday. Monday, 14 March. Still nothing. I watched the same scenes looping on the office televisions.
A coworker blurted, “I’m just waiting for some Japanese person to show up on the TV and yell, ‘Godzilla! Godzilla!’” Someone nearby laughed mirthlessly.
The morning of the 15 March, my youngest sister, Lydia, received the news from our cousin in Tokyo. She spoke no Japanese and his English was broken but somehow he conveyed the news.
My uncle and aunt had survived. Tokuno Komatsu, our grandmother, was dead.
Sendai, a city two hours south of Kesennuma: Empty cars wash across the airport tarmac. The reporter flying above an ocean-covered Minami-sanriku: Where have all the people gone? Rikuzentakata. Ōshima. Ishinomaki. Miyako. Natori. And finally, Kesennuma, now burning an orange horizon of flame into the black pall of night.
Ten days after the tsunami, I boarded a flight to Japan. The U.S. military mobilized a relief effort called Operation Tomodachi. Friend. I called in every favor I had to deploy as a Tomodachi rescue planning officer.
Before the flight, my father told me that he was proud that a member of the family would be in Japan to help. He asked what I’d be doing there, but I didn’t know. I told him I sold my language abilities hard, maybe oversold them. That I was worried. Don’t worry, he said. It will all come back.
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The flight from Dulles to Narita International Airport was all but empty. Once aboard, I reviewed old Japanese textbooks and watched Harry Potter once in English, then twice in Japanese. I tried to sleep, but nightmares woke me with linguistic versions of the naked dream: Me, aside the American general to whom I’ve been assigned as a translator. His Japanese counterpart speaks a torrent of Japanese, then pauses to look at me and await the translation. The American nods intently, casting ever-increasing looks my way. I recall one word in 10, try to divine meaning from inflection and posture. My mouth works, but the words do not come.
The bus ride from Narita to Yokota Air Base on the outskirts of Tokyo bore no witness to the quake and tsunami. No billboards hung precariously, no cracks split the roadways, and the lights were on. It was as if nothing happened at all. At Yokota, I disembarked to a cold, snowy night and entered a hangar to process into the Tomodachi task force. Airmen, clad in multiple layers, walked between different stations in the hangar, pausing at powered space heaters to warm themselves in the frigid night. I thought of the thousands of Japanese shoved into tiny makeshift evacuation centers. I imagined how they huddled, warmed only by blankets and each other.
Yokota fell away from my window of an Air Force HH-60G helicopter as it lifted off and flew east. I needed to see affected Japan for myself. It wasn’t until we were out over the ocean, flying outside an imaginary bubble around Fukushima that I did.
Rivers of debris from the tsunami appeared on the surface of the Pacific and streamed to the horizon, a flotsam road of shattered wood and plastic. We flew low, eyes out and scanning for life. The last survivor had been pulled from the water a week prior, but we hoped despite the odds, knowing we were far more likely to spot the dead.
A crew member saw something, and the helo banked hard. Over the intercom, he admitted it was probably nothing but worth investigating. Lower, slower, we orbited until the rotor wash beat the sea into mist over what turned out to be a white sheet rippling into the depths.
The farther from Japan, the larger the debris. Refrigerators and freezers. Orange tiled roofs bobbed in the blue and gray, impossibly buoyant. The wall of a home, the glass of a window somehow intact, offered a view into the saltwater beneath. All of it surrounded by a mass of splintered wood.
The shivering woke me again. I blinked into the darkness of the Sendai Airport first class lounge and pressed a button on my watch. 0300. I retreated further into the insulation of my puffy coat. Snores came from airmen off-shift from their post on the airport roof. Periodically throughout the night one would return and hand off a radio the size of two stacked laptops, then pop a sleeping pill while the other ran air traffic.
It was supposed to be a short visit, an hour or less. Just enough to make contact with the senior officer on the ground and determine what, if any, help I could provide as a planner. But the sound of the helicopter was only audible long enough to make radio contact with the airman on the roof: Tell Major Komatsu that we have to return to Yokota. We’ll be back when we can.
The cold shook me awake every 15 minutes until I stood up at 0600 and crept out of the dark room and into the daybreak of the terminal. Behind glass windows stories high, I wandered the vacant space, pausing at the vendor stands. The airmen were initially ordered not to take any food, but soon after they arrived, vendors themselves showed up and told them to take what they wished. The stacks of dried cuttlefish and shrimp-flavored crackers vanished, leaving only inscrutable books of manga and the assorted comforts required to heel the modern traveler. I lifted one of the books and perused a few of the oddly colored pages, taking in black and white lines of manga from back to front. I set it back in its place and looked out the glass.
Refrigerators and freezers. Orange tiled roofs bobbed in the blue and gray, impossibly buoyant.
In between the east end of the runway and the coast, a road once connected Kesennuma with Sendai; I’d made the drive twice during family trips. Now, I thought about packing my ruck, stuffing it with MREs and walking north, picking my way through the detritus until I reached my father’s hometown. My grandmother lay in the freezer of a morgue. The old family home, gone. Dozens of extended family — great uncles and third cousins and aunties once-removed — missing.
The morning of 27 March, I sat in my room back at Yokota alone after a run inside the confines of the base perimeter, under the pink-white beginnings of the cherry tree bloom washing the country from south to north. A rebirth of spring, of hope, of all things green and full of life.
Three hundred miles away, my relatives cremated Ōba’s remains.
Our rescue helicopters and crews went home, the work of finding and extracting the living long over. Only the dead remained missing, and the Japanese government politely declined U.S. military support to the search. My job as a rescue planner turned to playing games of what if. What if an American aircraft transporting radiation measurement crews crashes inside the Fukushima no-fly zone? Who will rescue them and how will we coordinate between Japanese and American operations centers?
These questions could only be answered in conversation with my Japanese counterpart at the Japanese Rescue Coordination Center, located 53 minutes down the Ome train line, on Fuchu Air Base. When we met in the lobby of the Japanese Air Self Defense headquarters building, a fellow American officer acting as my linguist introduced Okahashi-san. We smiled and bowed, then he presented me with his meishi (business card) in the manner I learned in my sophomore Japanese class at the Academy: Both hands present, both receive. Study the card, then place it only in a chest pocket; never, ever in a disrespectful pants pocket.
Fatigue lined his face and eyes — Okahashi-san has worked twenty hours every day since the tsunami. Lt Col Okahashi said something, smiled and gestured toward an imaginary flat surface a few feet off the ground. He sleeps on a cot in the back of the Rescue Coordination Center.
As we ate pork katsu at the Japanese dining facility, I attempted Japanese the best I could. I explained my last name, and when I said Kesennuma, he said, haltingly, “Your daddy. From Kesennuma?” Yes, I said. He simply frowned, lowered his eyes, shook his head and said no more.
Cell phones document the tsunami’s arrival in Minami-sanriku from ground level. A woman’s voice reverberates across the town, alternating with sirens to warning the residents over a citywide loudspeaker system. Impossibly, it continues even as the tsunami piles into the streets and people scream to those who’ve not yet made it to high ground, continues even as the ocean continues its inexorable rise. Until it falls silent. And all that remains are the cries of the Japanese who have survived.
When I met my Japanese cousins for dinner, I’d been asking my father for weeks to arrange for me to visit Kesennuma at the end of my deployment. I missed my stop on the train from Yokota, had to double back at the next, then wait at the eki for the only cousin who spoke any English to walk from the restaurant. All around me, life streamed through automated ticketing gates amid the wall of sound that is a Tokyo train station during evening rush hour. And yet, not so far away, their countrymen were digging through rubble with their bare hands. Posting desperate signs for missing persons.
We did our best to converse around our sukiyaki. They showed me pictures from Kesennuma. The old family home, gone. My uncle’s two-story office, first floor hollowed by the tsunami. My uncle, passed out on his floor with an empty bottle of whiskey nearby. Uncle drink lot now.
When I asked my cousins about my request to visit Kesennuma, their eyes dropped and they picked at their food. Mizuki — the English speaker — pulled out his phone. We call your daddy. He dialed, spoke Japanese when my father answered. I could not interpret Mizuki’s body language. He handed me the phone. My father talked around the question — his mother’s death, the family shock, the loss of the business and deaths of two employees, the destruction, how his brother wouldn’t say no to my visit but wouldn’t say yes either — until I interrupted him.
“Dad, what’s the bottom line?”
“Culturally, they would lose face if they said no. But the timing is bad.”
“I’d be a burden.”
“But I have to make the decision.”
“Yes. You will have to tell them you do not want to go.”
“OK, then. I’m not going.” I handed the phone back to my cousin, and the relief on his face told me everything I needed to know.
Of the 12 million tsunami videos, I will not watch them all. And yet it will be too much, as well as somehow not enough.
On my last day in Japan, I sat with the Air Force colonel who led my shift. He was a pilot without a cockpit anymore, his jet long mothballed. He’d flown a desk for years now, he said as he smiled and removed his glasses; this was his last hurrah. Then he asked about what drew me to volunteer for this. When I told him, he fell silent.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “We should have found a way to get you to Kesennuma.” Then he handed me his card, thanked me for what I’d done, and I walked out of the operations center for the last time.
Before boarding the bus to Narita, I walked to a nearby cherry tree whose branches drooped under a blooming mantel. It stood above a patchwork of dirt and a browning white carpet of fallen blossoms. I found a living flower within reach and pinched its green stem, careful not to disrupt the delicate petals above it. Once free, I carried it two-handed; one pinching its base, the other cradling the bloom in my palm until I was back in my room. A book of devotions lay open on my desk, a gift from my parents. I placed the flower in the book, closed it.
2018. The shinkansen pitches us north from Tōkyō, picking up speed until the bullet train hits 200 mph and the endless series of the Tōhoku region’s ubiquitous rice paddies visible through my window blur green, flickering as dike-top roads come and go. I have returned to hear, yes, but also to touch. Taste, smell, and once again: see.
We strategize. Three of us: my father, the linguist I’ve hired, and me. A cousin produced the name of the rest home where my grandmother perished: Shunpo. A classmate worked at Shunpo on 3/11, but my cousin is unwilling to connect us. So the linguist puts on her fixer hat and determines the former manager not only survived, but rebuilt Shunpo in a new location and now speaks internationally on tsunami readiness. It’s as good a lead on determining how my grandmother died as we’re going to get. Anticipation builds as we get off the bullet at Ichinoseki for the drive to Kesennuma until I’m straining against my seatbelt and we finally get where I could not go seven years ago.
I have returned to hear, yes, but also to touch. Taste, smell, and once again: see.
Kesennuma. No longer confined by glass or screen, I step from a cousin’s car in front of the vacant lot that was once 2-13-16 Nakamachi-cho. My father and he speak quietly in Japanese. The home I remember. His home. From where I stand, I could have reached over the street’s gutter and touched the house’s wall, perhaps taken in that odd mothball scent that seems to accompany my few memories of the texture of the place. But there is nothing but the tang of salt air in between me and the violet dusk of a sun long since set behind the hills of tall pine that mark Kesennuma’s western edge.
The tsunami is everywhere.
Blue placards on buildings show its maximum height with typical Japanese simplicity: a horizontal line and measurement in meters, in white lettering. Buildings still slated for demolition next to the orange-brown of cleared earth. Construction signs and workers and new roads unimpeded by human artifice. Signs along the sides of the road that undulates up and down through the endless series of ria (“bay”) that pocket the Sanriku coastline mark the tsunami’s maximum inundation points. Dystopian reconstructed landscapes behind massive seawalls that stretch across the horizon. The “Dragon Tree” of Kesennuma — a gnarled pine that survived the tsunami only to later die and be preserved where it stands on the cape of the Iwaisaki area of the city. The “Miracle Pine” of Rikuzentakata: the sole remaining tree of an estimated 70,000 that made up a coastal forest, eventually felled by the saltwater left in the ground by the tsunami, then preserved in detail at an estimated cost of 150 million yen (close to 2 million dollars based on the exchange rate at the time). O-tsunami, the survivors say, applying the honorific “o-” prefix because they cannot adequately capture in words a full integration of all senses. It roared. Smelled of salt. It burned, pulled, swept.
It was incomprehensible in a way that can only be assembled by a comprehension of what it left behind.
We climb a path beneath old-growth pine and cedar until a panorama of the city reveals the tsunami’s reach, still clear, even now. Gray and green mark the untouched. Yellow earth, the scar of the destroyed, the still-being-rebuilt. My cousin guides my father and me to the family gravesite. A light breeze, cool with the ocean across my skin, the sound of traffic. The smell of needle and ocean. I grasp at the sensory through the mantle of jet lag and culture shock, hoping to hold on to this moment. My father stands in front of a polished granite marker, brings his palms together and lowers his head to offer a silent prayer.
It’s been a decade and a half since I last saw my Aunt Fumiko, but her face remains cherubic, her skin pale and smooth. She apologizes for not having the snack she recalls as a favorite: a mix of salted peanuts and chili-flavored rice cracker crescents. She looks thin but well. I show her pictures of my family. When I produce an app on my phone that lets her see my infant daughter at that very moment sleeping halfway around the globe, she smiles.
Kawaii, ne. So cute.
She tells me that the earthquake found her in the midst of shopping. When the world ceased shaking, she felt an overwhelming urge to immediately head home. Something horrible was going to happen. She followed her instinct and drove straight to the new house, three miles inland from the old one that no longer exists. Her son called at about 3:15 p.m. after seeing tsunami warnings on the news. Obā was at Shunpo, but my aunt thought it would be safe. It had two floors, a good flat roof, was a fair distance from the ocean. She worried about my uncle, whose office was on the downtown waterfront at the tip of Kesennuma Bay.
“I want to live in Los Angeles, but not the one in Los Angeles.”
— Frank Black
One night not so many weeks ago, I went to visit a friend who lives in West Hollywood. This used to be an easy drive: a geometry of short, straight lines from my home in the mid-Wilshire flats — west on Olympic to Crescent Heights, north past Santa Monica Boulevard. Yet like everywhere else these days, it seems, Los Angeles is no longer the place it used to be. Over the past decade-and-a-half, the city has densified: building up and not out, erecting more malls, more apartment buildings, more high-rises. At the same time, gridlock has become increasingly terminal, and so, even well after rush hour on a weekday evening, I found myself boxed-in and looking for a short-cut, which, in an automotive culture such as this one, means a whole new way of conceptualizing urban space.
There are those (myself among them) who would argue that the very act of living in L.A. requires an ongoing process of reconceptualization, of rethinking not just the place but also our relationship to it, our sense of what it means. As much as any cities, Los Angeles is a work-in-progress, a landscape of fragments where the boundaries we take for granted in other environments are not always clear. You can see this in the most unexpected locations, from Rick Caruso’s Grove to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where Chris Burden’s sculpture “Urban Light” — a cluster of 202 working vintage lampposts — fundamentally changed the nature of Wilshire Boulevard when it was installed in 2008. Until then, the museum (like so much of L.A.) had resisted the street, the pedestrian, in the most literal way imaginable, presenting a series of walls to the sidewalk, with a cavernous entry recessed into the middle of a long block. Burden intended to create a catalyst, a provocation; “I’ve been driving by these buildings for 40 years, and it’s always bugged me how this institution turned its back on the city,” he told the Los Angeles Times a week before his project was lit. When I first came to Los Angeles a quarter of a century ago, the area around the Museum was seedy; it’s no coincidence that in the film Grand Canyon, Mary Louise Parker gets held up at gunpoint there. Take a walk down Wilshire now, however, and you’ll find a different sort of interaction: food trucks, pedestrians, tourists, people from the neighborhood.
Atlantic City covers the northern third of Absecon Island, a barrier island made up of an alarming amount of sand. It is a bad town to die in — there are plenty of vacant lots but no cemeteries. In many places, if you dig down more than eight feet you hit water. A couple blocks away from the beach, the Absecon Lighthouse is built on a submerged wooden foundation for exactly that reason — so long as you keep wood wet and away from oxygen, it won’t rot. “We haven’t tipped yet,” said Buddy Grover, the 91-year-old lighthouse keeper, “but it does sway in the wind sometimes.”
“The problem with barrier islands is that, sort of by definition, they move,” said Dan Heneghan. Heneghan covered the casino beat for the Press of Atlantic City for 20 years before moving to the Casino Control Commission in 1996. He retired this past May. He’s a big, friendly guy with a mustache like a push broom and a habit of lowering his voice and pausing near the end of his sentences, as if he’s telling you a ghost story. (“Atlantic City was, in mob parlance … a wide open city. No one family … controlled it.”) We were standing at the base of the lighthouse, which he clearly adores. He’s climbed it 71 times this year. “I don’t volunteer here, I just climb the steps,” he said. “It’s a lot more interesting than spending time on a Stairmaster.” The lighthouse was designed by George Meade, a Civil War general most famous for defeating Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg. It opened in 1857 but within 20 years the beach had eroded to such an extent that the water was only 75 feet away from the base. Jetties were added until the beach was built back out, but a large iron anchor sits at the old waterline, either as a reminder or a threat.
A little more than two years ago, when I was an intern at a now shuttered website called The Awl, I went out to Atlantic City to cover the Trump Taj Mahal’s last weekend before it closed for good. My first night there I met a woman named Juliana Lykins who told me about Tucker’s Island — New Jersey’s first seaside resort, which had been slowly overtaken by the sea until it disappeared completely. This was a month before the election. The “grab ’em by the pussy” tape had just broken, it was pouring rain, the city was on the verge of defaulting on its debts, and 2,000 casino workers were about to lose their jobs. At the time — my clothes soaking wet, falling asleep in a Super 8 to the sound of Scottie Nell Hughes on CNN — it was hard to understand what Lykins was saying as anything other than a metaphor for the country. I missed the larger menace and focused on the immediate. Trump was elected obviously, but Tucker’s Island wasn’t a figurative threat; it was a very straightforward story about what happens to coastal communities when the water moves in. Read more…
Sarah Menkedick | Longreads | February 2019 | 29 minutes (7,983 words)
In December, I turned in the first draft of my second book. I assumed that when I finished it, I would stand up and scream. Actually scream “YES!” followed by a stream of sundry obscenities, then collapse on the floor and make my husband take a picture for Instagram.
Instead, I was in a quiet back room of Hillman Library, on the University of Pittsburgh campus, drinking a 99¢ mug of coffee, googling Erich Fromm quotes, when I suddenly realized I was done, and I just sat there mildly stupefied, then caught the bus and went home. It was an appropriate end to a writing process that felt a lot less like glorious creation and a lot more like survival and persistence: just getting through one day, one page to the next, trying to keep the pyramid of information, ideas, and sentences from collapsing into a wet heap. It sucked, but in the way most serious creative endeavors suck, with a lining of deep gratification that afterward allows one to pretend that it was all in the service of a mystical something and not really, at base, insane.
It was an appropriate end to a writing process that felt a lot less like glorious creation and a lot more like survival and persistence: just getting through one day, one page to the next, trying to keep the pyramid of information, ideas, and sentences from collapsing into a wet heap.
What made this second book so difficult was research: not the process of doing it, not compiling and organizing it, but the quandary of how to make it creative. How to write a book that felt like it spoke to huge questions — the meaning of life, what matters and why, all the things one gets misty-eyed about around a bonfire — via gobs of information.
Jeff Gold has lived many lives. He was the first employee at Los Angeles’ Rhino Records back in 1976. He served as VP/Marketing and Creative Services at A&M Records, and as Executive Vice President/General Manager of Warner Bros, where he worked with everyone from Iggy Pop to Herb Alpert. He’s currently one of the most active, respected music archivists and record dealers in the world, a status he cements through frequent donations of historically important memorabilia to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He helped drummer Ringo Starr catalogue the first copy of The Beatles’ White Album, numbered #0000001, which sold for $790,000. While searching through the collection of Rolling Stone magazine cofounder Ralph Gleason, he found a previously unknown, live recording of Bob Dylan playing Brandeis University in 1963. And he also identified 149 acetates full of unreleased songs that Dylan made during the Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait, and New Morning sessions — they’d sat in a Manhattan apartment for decades. Those are monumental musical discoveries!
At his core, Gold is a dedicated listener who’s collected records since his parents’ collection first enchanted him at the age seven or eight. He just loves music, and he’s turned that love into a multifaceted career. If you’re an Iggy and the Stooges fan, you have him to thank for a few things.
Various Stooges message boards have breathlessly wondered how an unknown Stooges outtake named “Asthma Attack” ended up on the 2010 deluxe reissue of their debut album, The Stooges. And there’s been whispers about who found John Cale’s original, rejected mixes of that album. We now know — Gold found them, waiting in Danny Fields’ unpaid storage locker. Gold’s diligence saved those recordings, along with the earliest known live Stooges recording: live at Ungano’s in 1970, from certain death.
Somehow, no one had formally asked Gold about how these recordings were discovered, so I did. I’m just an excited fan, too, and since a documentary impulse drives a lot of my writing, I wanted to save the story of Gold saving music, and share it with you, fellow Stooges fans.
Aaron Gilbreath: How did you get to look through Danny Fields’ storage unit?
Jeff Gold: Danny and I have a very close mutual friend. That guy knows that I am always looking for memorabilia to buy, and he hooked me up with Danny who had a lot of stuff he wanted to sell to raise some money. So I flew from Los Angeles to New York [around 2002]. Danny was one of those guys who saved everything, so he had file cabinets full of stuff. You’d look up ‘1971,’ and there would be everything from postcards from Lou Reed to a Christmas card from his printer thanking him for his business, or dry cleaning receipts, you name it, and it was indiscriminately saved. I just sat on his floor for days and went through it, file by file, item by item, and pulled out anything that I was interested in buying. I found lots of amazing stuff that Danny was very happy to convert to cash. I probably spent two and a half days at his place the first time, then came back a few months later for round two. While I was looking I said to him, ‘Hey, do you have a storage locker?’ And he goes, ‘Yeah, I haven’t really paid the bills in a while, they’re bugging me.’ I said, ‘Danny, you have to pay the bills. If you don’t pay the bill, they open up the lock and sell the stuff at auction or, if it looks uninteresting, throw it away.’ He sounded very uninterested. I said, ‘How about I pay the bill and go look and see if there’s anything I can buy from you?’ He said sure. So he called the place up, which was maybe five blocks from his house, and told them that I was gonna come pay the bill, which was three or so months in arrears, and that I had permission to look in the locker. It was a funky storage locker. With no lights and no windows, this place was a dark jumble of boxes. I kind of looked around for a couple of hours and pulled stuff out.