I was in my third year of high school – just studying for my college entrance exams – and there was this kissaten called ‘Brazil’ near our house, and you know, the name! It just sounded so likely. I walked past it every day on the way home in my school uniform. It was always full of students from the university – intellectual types, you know, all dressed in black and smoking cigarettes and sipping coffee from little porcelain cups. Sometimes the door would swing open as I went by, and jazz music would tumble out – a piano phrase, or a trumpet. There'd be a hiss of steam, and the fragrance of the coffee would float out all the way along the street. I’d breathe it in and hold it in my nose all the way back to my house.
My mother was a waitress at a noodle place over near Ueno Station, so not very far away, but it was open late and so she stayed there to help until it closed up. My father worked as a window washer. He got the job early on, just when the first skyscrapers were going up around Tokyo back in the 1950’s. So he saw the city grow up all around us, so to speak, hoisted up alongside the buildings in his metal cage all day, going patiently along to scrub away the dirt and grime that accumulated there.
My mother worked the late shift, but he started early in the morning, and so by the time I got home from school in the afternoon, he would already be back – and he’d usually be sitting there on the couch, drinking a beer and reading one of his detective books: those American whodunitus and hardboiled novels he’d discovered as a boy, when the yankiis had still been in Japan. I used to ‘borrow’ them sometimes to read under my blankets with my torch – the lurid ones! The pictures on the covers – well, they told you everything. Later on, I tried to read the more intellectual type of books I saw the students in the kissaten reading. But, honestly, they weren’t all that that fascinating for me. I was more interested in comics: Glass Mask, Violence Jack and all those. Pretty classy, right?! There was one book that did interest me though - by Jean-Paul Sartre, and it was mainly because it was set in Paris. Ever since then, I've always had a very clear picture of that city in my mind, just as if it were printed on a set of postcards. Narrow cobbled streets and smoky jazz bars. Striped green parasols outside the cafés, shivering in the wind. Paris seemed like the kind of a place where everyone drank coffee, and as I got older, I started to think that I should start to drink it soon too.
One day, while he was at work, my dad had a heart attack. He’d been dangling halfway up a skyscraper in his cage when it happened. His work mate hit the winch straight away to take them back up to the roof, but by the time they got there, he was gone. His friend came to the house a few days later, with my dad's cap and the book he’d been reading at the time. It was a copy of ‘Mickey Spillane’, which had just then been published in Japan. He told me that my dad had liked to read it at break time, and I imagined him up there on the roof, perched above all the new towers, eating his lunch with the book splayed out against his knees.
Mom pushed me hard to study for my college exams right after my dad died – she had high hopes for me it seemed, and they didn’t include me washing windows. So when she saw that I had started to read some of my dad’s old books, she got almost worried. Pretty soon, I was as addicted as my father had been, and they really started to grow on me – the Sam Spades and Philip Marlowes. The cocky types, you know. Everyone drank coffee in these books too. But while in Paris, they sipped it with their mistresses in the café, from a little cup with a splash of cream, on the mean streets of Chicago and San Francisco they drank it straight. By the gallon from the drip machine, alone in the office: black, no sugar.
They seemed almost kind of shibui to me, you know – low key, cool. In the old days, you might have had a picture of a samurai in a garden, staring up at the moon, and that was supposed to be shibui. But for me, it was more like a man in a jazz club, frowning at his glowing cigarette. Or a private detective, hunched over in a late-night diner. Walking through the red neon mist of the city, alone.
Finally one day, I decided – it was time. My winter school uniform had this long undershirt with a high collar, and I thought that if I rolled that down, it would look practically like the turtle neck sweaters that the students all wore. The week before I’d bought a long, beige raincoat from the American market. It was a little too small for me, but it had those big floppy lapels and the belt just like Bogart wore, and when I looked at myself in the mirror, scowling at my reflection and admiring my jaw line, I thought that I might even look shibui.
I walked up and down the street outside ‘Brazil’ for a while, trying to get my nerve up. Then, as I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the window, I just thought – OK – and I grabbed the handle and walked inside.
The smell was just delicious. The old man who ran the place was hunched over the counter, grinding coffee by hand, very thin and bald, dressed in black and white like a French waiter. A record player was playing some scratchy old jazz, and a bass solo was just finishing to a little ripple of applause. The the old man limped over and took my coat just like I was a regular. I rubbed my hands together like it was a, cold, blustery day outside, and he took me over to a table at the side of the café and brought me a menu. At the table in the middle of the room were two senior high school girls, really pretty. They had shopping bags from Mitsukoshi and must have stopped in on the way home for a gossip over some cakes. A student sat in the far corner, his face pressed right inside his book. He pushed his glasses up his nose over and over again as he read. Otherwise, it was just me and the record player.
The menu showed all the different kinds of coffee they served, pages and pages of them. It was just like the long list of French wines in a high-class restaurant. Most of the names were in English, so I couldn’t understand any of them, and as the old man waited a polite distance away, I just scowled at the pages, as if I couldn’t bear to choose one over the other. Then I saw one that at least I’d heard of – 'Blue Mountain.' The price was more than I’d normally pay for a meal back then, but I thought, well, it’s about time, and so I beckoned to the man and ordered, as if drinking Blue Mountain coffee was something I did every day of my life.
Then the old man asked me what I would like with it, and I didn’t know what to say. Like – was I supposed to order a cake or something as well? I picked up the menu again, searching the list for anything I could afford.
- Milk, sir? he said. Or cream, perhaps?
- Ah! I said. Yes, please.
He gave me a look.
- I’m sorry, sir – milk – or cream?
I felt myself blushing. Oh, I said. Milk, then please.
Then, I suddenly changed my mind. Actually, no, I said – make it cream.
He wrote down the order very politely, though a little smile appeared on his face.
After he went off, I sneaked another look at the girls. They were both smoking away, and I realised that I should be smoking too – that was something you did when you drank coffee. I lit up a cigarette I’d stolen a cigarette from my mom's pack, and sucked in a big cloud of smoke. Of course, I started coughing my lungs up straight away, like I was going to choke to death, until the old man rushed over with a small glass of water. I swallowed it in little sips until I could breathe again, hiding my face in the menu.
Then the old man brought over a small, steaming cup and set it down delicately on the table. I gently blew on the surface. It rippled, the steam stuttering in the air. This was the moment. I lifted it to my lips and closed my eyes.
It was disgusting! I’d expected it to taste just like it smelled – thick, deep and rich. But instead, it was thin, astringent and bitter. I wondered how anyone could actually enjoy drinking this stuff and even wondered if the old man had made it incorrectly. I started to worry as there was no way I wanted to drink this stuff all the time, and if not, how was I going to hang around in coffee-shops like Brazil all the time? So I added a big spoon of sugar and took another sip. It actually started to taste much better – like it was opening up or something. There was a flavor of caramel there, of nuts, of salt even, I thought. I added a few more spoons of sugar, then some cream. And then, soon enough, it tasted delicious. I let out a little sigh of relief and pleasure, just like old people do in the bathhouse. One of the girls – the prettier one – murmured something to her friend and looked over at me. I must have had this dreamy look on my face, because when she turned back, they both started giggling. Actually, I couldn’t stop smiling myself.
It was raining as I walked home, so I tugged the belt of my raincoat tight. I flicked the lapels up, scowling away at the sky like a proper detective as the commuters poured out of the station. My mom was already home when I got back, and she was making dinner. She seemed surprised to see me, and asked me straight away where I’d got my new coat. She came over and reached up and touched the lapel, rubbing it between her fingers like she was testing the quality.
- What’s wrong, mom? I asked. There were tears in her eyes. She gave a little smile and shook her head.
As I stood there, I could taste the bitter chocolate of the coffee in my mouth, smell the cigarette smoke that had crept into my damp hair. She looked up at me with that strange, sad smile on her face.
- You’re really turning into a man now, aren’t you? she said.
The next day, we went up to the Yoshigawa cemetery to light some incense at my father’s grave. On the overground train back, I started reading one of his old books. When she noticed the cover, she smirked and asked me whether I thought I was going to give up my studies now and become a private detective or something. We both laughed at that one.
- You’ll be asking me to bring you home beer in the evenings next! she said.
She turned to look out of the cracked window. As she watched the tall buildings going past in the rain, I saw that she was smiling.
I’d love to tell you now that I did eventually become a private investigator – a shaymusu. That I work on tough cases in a cramped office in Aoyama with a cute secretary who’s secretly in love with me. But, of course, it never happened. I grew up – upwards and outwards, like you can see. After I finished my studies I got a post with the shipping firm where I still work. I’m just a regular salaryman like all the other guys I grew up with. I do the things normal men of my age do. Beers after work. Golf at the weekends. I’m a bit bigger these days, of course. But I’ve still got my jaw line at least. I look quite tough, right?! Rugged good looks, as they say.
The kissaten – ‘Brazil’ – is still there, believe it or not, over in Hongo-San-Chome. It must be one of the only traditional coffee shops still left in the area. These days, men like me are more likely to just get a can of coffee from a vending machine in the morning. Or we'll go to some cheap place like Doutor at lunchtime, surrounded by the smell of smoke and sweat. Recently there's been those Western places opening up though, and they're more like having a café inside a library. You see high school girls in there, housewives who come in to take a rest during shopping. You can’t really imagine Sartre in there, though, can you? Drinking a caramel machiatto? They’d throw him out as soon as he lit up one of his French cigarettes.
I go to places like that though - I go there to relax. To get away from the office and have a moment to myself, alone. I know I should order my coffee black- straight, no sugar - but, to be honest, I've developed quite a taste for caramel macchiatto myself. I’ve always had a sweet tooth. I come here and take a little corner table and drift off into my thoughts. I’ll have my newspaper on the side and no one will come bother me. Today I’m reading an old manga that I found in a second-hand store, one that I first read years ago when I was a kid. Black Jack - a total classic.
There’s something special about that moment, you know. Just floating away, wading in your imagination. When I get home from work, I sometimes go into the bathroom, lock the door and split open an old Mickey Spillane. I sit there for a while, reading away, in my own little world. You’d never believe it, but as I’m sitting there with my pants around my ankles, the kids hollering outside the door and my wife shouting at them to do their homework, right then, I still manage to feel just a little bit shibui.