Toad in the Hole

December 02, 2005


I have very little to say about racism that I don't expect someone else to say first and probably better. But I do have one exemplary experience to mention, and that's about how it can sneak up and shock even expect-the-worst guarded old cynics like me.

A decade and a half ago, I apprenticed for a couple of dazzling years with the best tree man I've ever met, a local guy named Dennis Makishima. Dennis has since become rather more well-known, lectures all over the world, heads projects, gets called to consult with the big-tree hotshots, all that. But even then he was known locally as the best gift you could give to your landscape tree. He uses a combination of traditional Japanese landscape and bonsai methods and the more recent and scientifically informed work of Alex Shigo. He's also incredibly generous with his time and energy. I got bazillions of dollars' worth of training for absolutely free. He didn't even make me (or any of his students -- he's taught a number of them and still does) start with sweeping up the debris in the traditional Japanese apprenticeship's fashion.

What he would do with students he'd accepted was take us with him to selected clients' trees, and let us work on a particular tree under his supervision. So I'd go up to his house and we'd go somewhere in his old Toyota pickup or sometimes in his bigger newer Ford pickup, depending on, well, I still don't know for sure, maybe the amount of debris we'd have to haul away.

He's about my age, and then we were both in our early 40s. I am by no means good-looking, and for this work I generally dressed in jeans and a Tshirt, hardly glam. Dennis dresses similarly, is a balding and at the time yer-basic-moustached Japanese-American (obviously) guy, pretty ordinary-looking if you don't know him. (Wish he'd grow that moustache again, it was pretty cool. Maybe he thought he looked too much like Pat Morita)

On one job he said he'd buy lunch at a handy not-quite-fast-food joint which, come to think of it, was just down the road from Chris Clarke's. We had something Italian, as I recall, and talked trees -- we can both get pretty wound up and yakkety with the right kind of stimulation. I was about as high as ever on the subject; I generally was that way on days when I went out on the job with him. Working on a tree puts me into a kind of excited trance, and so does learning about them in that hands-on fashion.

So, lunch over, back in the truck and back on the road. As we left the parking lot, a (like us) middle-aged white guy in another pickup was entering. He gave us such a look I was physically startled. I knew what it was, though I hadn't seen it often or in a long time -- what John Howard Griffin in Black Like Me called "the Hate Stare."

And it took me half a mile to realize why.

Where and when I grew up, Asians and people of Asian descent were pretty scarce. I do remember one Chinese laundry way downtown, so there must have been at least one Chinese family; and one newly arrived Japanese-American family who ran the local head shop, whose elder son was considered a hot date by the highschool kids a bit younger than me. He certainly was good-looking. I suppose there just weren't enough of them for racism to apply -- they were just exotic, at least to most folks, at least overtly. But I was, as I've said, naive then; I was shocked to the core when my dad stopped speaking to me for three days because I went out with an African-American guy. (I believe he was shocked at himself, too; he'd been fairly liberal up to that point. Funny.) So maybe there was stuff I failed to notice.

But this is California. I'd learned at least that much history even then, about anti-Asian stuff here; I must have known by then that Dennis' older brother had been born in an internment camp. It just... wasn't quite immediate, was something of the olden days, was some ideological ancient artifact, until that moment. In that moment, I figured out that what the guy in the other pickup saw was an Asian man with a white woman, and that was all that mattered.

I felt a very complicated sort of outrage in that moment. All else aside, that asshole was dissing my Teacher.

Dennis didn't let us call him "sensei" but that's pretty much how we all felt towards him. What he is is a sort of custom-made sensei for adult Americans, neither Lord nor Daddy. So, Teacher with a capital "T." And this oaf, in passing, had presumed to insinuate his mealy opinion into that relationship... I felt soiled, and not even because of any sort of sexual inference the asshole might have been making. Ugh. Damn, is nothing sacred?

No, I guess, in the face of that sort of crap, nothing is. You might say history came alive for me in that moment -- the way it might for a Valley Forge re-enactor who loses a finger to frostbite. Thanks but no, thanks.

Posted at December 2, 2005 01:47 AM