Spam and Books
I thought I had been a few places and seen a few things, but when the old Greek shopkeeper in Cairo put out the Spam and the canned baked beans on his dusty shelf, I thought I would burst into tears. For several hot months I had showed up at the Greeks grocery at 4pm every Thursday looking for American food. It wasnt that I was starving; Egyptian food was very good with lots of unprocessed fruits and vegetables grown in the rich African mud of the Nile. But it was lamb almost every night with only the odd bit of camel thrown in on special occasions. I was starving for American food. Anything. The Greek had the only store in Cairo in 1976 that sold imported foods, but there was no telling what he would import from week to week. For months it had been Marmite and Barrys Tea and little tins of god-knows-what from Germany. I had told the friend I was staying with that I was almost ready to eat a Brillo pad as long as it came from the States, and here was Spam and beans both showing up on the same day.Dont get me wrong. At home, I could only just tolerate the occasional plate of beans and as for Spam; it was more like a dare than a meal. But now I knew I was going to have to have a Spam-and-beans party and I knew that people would come to it. Lots of people.Spam cans still opened with a key in those days and the first turn of that key on my friends kitchen table was like the first turn of a Q-Tip in an itchy ear. As I slid the meat by-product out of its jewel case and saw the fat or whatever that was glistening in the light, I wanted to cram the whole thing in my mouth. But I knew my friend was watching and I assumed that he wanted to do the same thing. The beans were already happily bubbling away on the stove. It took great self-discipline for me to wait for the guests, but it was one of the best meals I ever ate.Six years later and I am living in Japan. Ive been there for a year as a graduate student. I have studied Japanese for four years, so I can now speak it about as well as a four year old. The articles my professor assigns to me to read every night are college level and trying to translate them is like hitting myself in the face with a hammer. It seems like I have to forget every word seven times before I can remember it and I cant even read the funny papers unless I plan to set aside an hour and a half. The only English Im reading is definitions in the dictionary and rules in a grammar book. Its not the food thats killing me this time; Japan has little American food stores that are large enough where you dont have to dance the Macarena when you find a can of Spam. Im hungry for a book.
Theres a bookstore in the shopping mall in Kobe that has English books and one day I tell my professor that Im dying of something and play hooky to go there. The English book section is nothing impressive and hungry as I am I note with dismay that all the books seem to be about Japan. Japanese history, Japanese economics, Japanese culture, food, sociology, politics in other words, its the same stuff that Im trying to translate every night.But not quite. I see off in the distance a display of what looks like a best seller. As I get close to it I realize that I recognize the authors name. Martin Cruz Smith. Gorky Park. I like Smith. I like him a lot. I remember an interstate driving trip I took once where I was hours late because I kept stopping at every rest stop to read a chapter of a detective novel he wrote. I dont remember anything at all about the novel, but I do remember that I had thoroughly enjoyed it. And here he was again, in Japan.Was my hand shaking a bit when I reached for a copy? I dug past the first few in the front because I wanted to get a perfectly untouched one; the kind where you have to jiggle it a little bit to shake it loose from the stack. The cover was smooth and un-creased. I felt the edge of the pages and then I brought it close to my face and smelled it. A new book and it was going to me mine.There was going to be no parties with this meal. I could see its seductive outline in its little carrier bag as I took it down the stairs. I walked out the front door slowly and scanned up and down the street praying that I wouldnt see anyone I knew. I was giddy. Part of me wanted to crack it open on the spot. But maybe Japan had done something to me, for I decided to endure the sweet suffering while I searched for the perfect spot to read it.I needed solitude. A park would be too public and the last thing I needed was to run into a chatty friend. A restaurant would have well-meaning but curious waiters interrupting me. I knew what I needed a very discreet Japanese coffee shop.The most discreet one I knew happened to be up the street. Nishimuras Coffee Shop was in the basement of some sort of non-descript mutual aid society. At the end of the twisty staircase, the coffee was rich and the cream was thick. It was a place for tired shoppers and old friends to sit for hours. I liked the place because I had never seen a foreigner there even once. But it wasnt just a discrete shop itself. It had a room in the back with a corner from which one could see but not be seen. I had used that corner before when I was translating something awful and didnt want my obscene mutterings to disturb the other guests.I walked down the stairs hoping that the spot was open. The place was almost empty and it was. Could I get to it before someone burst out of the bathroom or something and grabbed it? Now I realized that I was being silly. Still, I walked across the room stiffly like I was carrying a kilo of cocaine in my bag. I sat down and ordered a hot coffee from the waiter with the hunchback. I knew that he didnt like me and that once he brought me my coffee I wouldnt have to worry about seeing him again.Then I was alone with the book. I put the bag on the table and felt its form through the plastic. I was a bit ashamed of myself, like I was having a rendezvous with a lover. It took it out and stared at it for a moment. I know you take place in Russia, I thought, and thats all I know. But I knew we were about to spend some beautiful moments together.The waiter plopped down my coffee with a grunt. I nodded at him and when he was well away I took the book and opened it with a delicious little crackle, and then we were off.