As I grow older, I have come to appreciate the power of stories. I collect them as I go through life, sometimes seeking out experiences because a good story may come out of it. I was invited this past week to join the staff of The Long Now Foundation to share a story that I have been telling for years but never took the time to add to this blog.
Back when I was living in Tokyo, I had a several university mates that stopped by to visit. Like any host living overseas, I had gotten things pretty well wired where I could suss out what they wanted to see and could arrange from a number of “module” walks that could be strung together to make for an interesting day. But there was one visit, by an old fraternity brother, that really stood out. Mike was legendary for living life to the hilt, his laugh was infectious and he always went for the most extreme just to see what it was like. While most people traveled through Europe in between high school and college, Mike went to Africa. He was that kind of guy.
When Mike said he was coming to Tokyo, I of course planned an epic evening of carousing. We started at Shimokitazawa at around 4 pm and hit Ginza, Shibuya, Harajuku, and finally, at around 2am, stumbled into Shinjuku where I planned to show him Golden Gai. It’s hard to describe this area except to say it’s about the size of a city block but houses over 200 tiny little bars piled all up on top of each other. It’s been described as Ridley Scott’s inspiration for the street vendor scene in Blade Runner if you want to put an image into your mind. The place hasn’t changed since the war and each bar there has it’s own story and storied clientele.
Remember, it’s 2am and Mike and I have been drinking since the afternoon so we’re basically stumbling around leaning on each other but I feeling good, knowing whichever bar we pick it’s going to be weird. In a good way. I’d been here several times and each time, it’s kind of like a Disneyland for adults. Go into one bar and you might meet a bunch of John Wayne fans where the bar stools are saddles, the drinks are burbon, and music is strictly C&W. Hit another place and it’s all old Zero fighter pilots drinking sake and telling tales from the war. Another place is a haunt for movie buffs that have a weakness for Fellini. Each bar is tiny, they only have 6-10 seats so they are real cozy. But in the wonderful openness of Japan, each bar will welcome anyone that joins them with the proper deference and curiosity.
So I was feeling pretty good and turned fate over to Mike. I slurred out to him to, “Pick any one you’d like, they’re all fantastic in their own way!” and asked him to choose where to go. He spun on a heel and waved his left arm and pointed to some rickety stairs that went up the side of corrugated steel, painted a shade of faded blue.
We made our way up the stairs and stumbled through the door into a place that was amazingly elegant compared to the jumble outside. It was dark but lighting under the bar and via colored sconces on the wall gave the place a very sophisticated feel. There was some jazz playing, something like Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue – very cool. There was only one other patron, off in the corner with his whiskey and the “master” or owner of the bar. He’s there, beard and glasses, slowly polishing a shot glass with a linen napkin.
Mike & I stumble in and made a bit of ruckus but quickly quieted down and settled into the open seats in front of the bartender. He keeps looking at me, slowly studying my face over his glasses. Finally he says,
“Moshikashitara, Kennedy-san no musuko jyanaidesuka,” which is the basically, “If I’m not mistaken, you’re Kennedy’s son aren’t you?”
I look up, incredulous. How does this guy know me? And my father? I have been to a few bars around here but have no recollection of this place. He tells us to wait a minute and then goes into a back room where we hear the clinking and clanking of bottles. He returns holding a bottle aloft like a prize-winning catch. It’s a whiskey bottle with about 1/3 left in it and as he places it on the counter I can see my handwriting on the side of it.
It all comes back to me then. A couple of nights before I went away to boarding school, leaving my parents at 13 to fly halfway around the world to Concord, Massachusetts, my father took me to this bar to have a drink with his son. He bought a bottle and we wrote our names on the side and, as is the tradition in most Japanese bars, the owner would then keep it there for us whenever we returned. This is the Japanese tradition of “bottle keep.” Only in this case, I had not been there in over 10 years and not only had the bartender somehow recognized me, he also had been hanging on to this bottle in case either my father or myself would return.
It was at that moment that my friend Mike fell off his chair. He could not believe that such a thing was possible. That you could have a relationship with an establishment over such a long arc. The funny thing about this story is that the bar was called “Gu” which is the word for “closed fist” as in the closed-fist from scissors/rock/paper. Basically hanging on, determination.
So full circle back to The Long Now. A friend, Mikl-em not only heard me tell this tale but remembered it as something that might interest the folks from The Long Now Foundation. Their mission is to help people think about the long term and one of their more famous projects is the 10,000 Year Clock which, if you don’t know about it, you must read more about as it will change your perspective on technology and human permanence.
The reason my Bottle Keep story is relevant is The Long Now Foundation is opening a Salon and will stock it with a special batch of gin distilled by the folks at St. George’s Spirits using juniper berries for the 5,000 year old bristle cone pines that happen to grow on the side of the mountain in Texas where they are building the 10,000 year clock. The idea is that for a donation, The Long Now Salon will hold your bottle for you on site so you can come at any time and enjoy it with your friends. As my sister says, “With bottle keep, no need to ‘buy’ someone a drink and all that implies.”
I’m happy to hear that they are bringing the bottle keep concept to San Francisco. It’s the perfect thing for The Long Now Foundation to do and they are going about it with the same sense of care and craftsmanship as they are with their other projects. Indeed, my visit was part of their learning. The staff took in my story and weaved in their own experiences and asked questions for more details. The conversation was relaxed and philosophical. It was a beautiful day outside and their offices in Fort Mason look out over the San Francisco Bay and Golden Gate. We drank tea. Before I knew it, I had lost track of time and realized I had to get back to work.
Thank you Mikl-em and thank you Long Now folks for a wonderful afternoon.