Gasa-Gasa Girl

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Gasa-gasa. That's what Chizuko called her. Their gasa-gasa baby, constantly restless, constantly moving. Once, when Mas Arai returned from his gardening route to their home in Altadena, California, he found her in the living room chewing on the leather case for his favorite pair of pruning shears. Five minutes later she had gotten into his bowls of Japanese go playing pieces, a spray of black and white stones all over their linoleum kitchen floor. And five minutes after that, she had moved into the hall closet and pulled down all of Mas's long-sleeved khaki work shirts.

"She movin' all the time," said Chizuko. "Can't watch her every minute; I have enough to do around the house."

Mas didn't dare criticize Chizuko's mothering skills, because what could she say about him as a father? It was one thing when they were at home, when the walls of their McNally Street house could contain her. But out in the larger world, Mas and Chizuko had to keep their eye on their daughter at all times.

If they didn't, Mari would have for sure stumbled into a dry ravine in Elysian Park during a gardeners' association picnic, or run away with a band of ravenous deer at the old Japanese Deer Park in Orange County. Mari always seemed to be on the move, yet she still somehow escaped falling off the edge. Where, Mas often wondered, would the gasa-gasa girl end up next?

Chapter One

"To go far from the noise of civilization, to live the simple country life and breathe deeply of pure airthat is the cleanser of life."
Takeo Shiota
New York City, August 1, 1915

March 2000

Mas knew that New York City wasn't for him as soon as he saw that its gardens were under lock and key. Even in the best neighborhoods in Beverly Hills or San Marino back in Southern California, lawns lay open like luxurious carpets to the edges of sidewalks, beckoning guests and the glances of envious passersby. Of course, back home there were also visual threats and warnings—the blue and yellow Armed Response signs on metal stakes. But it was one thing to pierce grass with a sign, and quite another to put a garden behind bars.

"It's called a community garden," Tug Yamada explained. "Everyone pitches in to make it green."

They were stuck in traffic on Flatbush Avenue. Tug had picked Mas up in a white Mercury rental car, a pearl amid the black Town Cars that had circled JFK Airport. Mas could always count on Tug to help him in a pinch. But then again, Mas guessed that Tug was behind this recent turn of events. It would take an outside force—specifically a six-foot Nisei, a second-generation Japanese American—to push Mas's daughter, Mari, to place a call from Brooklyn to his home in Altadena.

"Community? Like Japanese ones back in Los Angeles?"

"No Japanese gardeners over here, Mas. At least no more than you can count on one hand." Tug stretched out his palm, magnifying the missing half of his forefinger, a remnant of his war injury in Europe.

This was no place for Japanese gardeners and no place for a Kibei like Mas, who was born in the U.S. but raised in Japan. Kibei—"ki" meaning "return," "bei" referring to America—was a word made up by Japanese Americans to explain their limbo. So while America was actually home for the Kibei, many of them weren't quite comfortable with English; on the other hand, they weren't that comfortable speaking Japanese, either.

Mas was used to not belonging, but he felt an especially strong sense of displacement the minute he'd gotten on the plane. A bunch of hakujin and blacks, and a few young Chinese. There were a couple of Japanese, but they were business types who wore blue and black suits with ties and hard shoes even on the airplane. They sat in the front, behind a curtain that separated the first class from the rest of the plane, called economy but really meaning bimbo, for the passengers with no money, like Mas. Even when Mas returned to America from Hiroshima in 1947, he bought the third-class boat tickets, which turned out to be a large open room full of other teenage dreamers lying on goza, straw mats, on the bottom of the ship.

In the streets of New York, there were black and brown teenagers with the same look in their eyes. Wrapped in puffy jackets and their heads topped with knit caps, they seemed to hold their dreams casually, maybe recklessly, as if those dreams could never dry up.

"Everyone gasa-gasa ova here, huh?"

"Yeah, everyone moves around in New York, Mas. You should see where Joy lives in Manhattan. It's like rivers of people walking at night."

Tug had been in New York for a couple of weeks now before the opening of his daughter Joy's art exhibit. In Mas's eyes, Tug was the closest thing to an expert on Manhattan. "Joy live close to ova here?"

"You have to go over the Brooklyn Bridge, but it's just a short subway ride away."

"Fancy place, dis Manhattan?"

"Well, Joy lives in a postage stamp of an apartment. The water comes out all brown." Tug stroked his white beard. "And you know how I love baths, Mas."

Tug, in fact, had installed a Jacuzzi tub, his and his wife Lil's only extravagance, in their modest home just two miles east of Mas's. There was no doubt that this love for baths started when Tug was a child simmering nightly in the family furo, the huge Japanese wooden tub, on their red chili pepper farm. Mas asked a few more perfunctory questions about Joy, then cut to the chase. "So you knowsu whatsu goin' on with Mari?"

"I'd better let her and Lloyd explain."

Lloyd? Mas had barely thought of his new son-in-law. "Not the baby—?" Mas couldn't even say the name: Takeo Frederick Jensen. It was too long; and why had they named the child Takeo, anyhow?

Mari had sent a photo back in December of a little red monkey-faced infant with fists curled up like cooked shrimp. You couldn't tell if the baby looked more Japanese or hakujin or something in between. Mas remembered when Mari had been that small. He was almost afraid to touch her, and even Chizuko told him to keep his distance. But, in time, he got the hang of it—support the neck, watch the soft spot on top of the head. The first and only time he gave Mari a bath, he noticed a dark-blue mark above her buttocks and thought he had done something wrong. "Masao-san, most Japanese babies have that," Chizuko said, laughing. Later Tug's wife, Lil, explained that doctors called it a Mongolian spot, which seemed like a fancy term for a temporary birthmark on a baby's behind.

Tug stopped the car at another light, and Mas noticed another one of the community gardens. This one was a triangle of green trapped next to a fancy white store that looked like it sold overpriced basketball shoes and jerseys. Mas could make out a Japanese cedar, and even some kind of makeshift pond. It was still cold in New York, a good thirty degrees lower than L.A. Were the people of New York City so hungry for trees and flowers that they had to create this spring oasis in the middle of melting snow?

Tug seemed to read Mas's mind. "Lloyd was telling me about that place. Even has a name, Teddy Bear Garden, or something like that."

Teddy bear? Kids' stuff, thought Mas.

"A developer was going to get rid of the garden, so the whole community, even Lloyd and Mari, protested. Early on, somebody had thrown a teddy bear into the area, so I guess the name stuck. You know about these community gardens, Mas. There's one across the freeway from Dodger Stadium, I think."

Tug was a die-hard Dodger fan, so it was no wonder that anything remotely involving his baseball team would stick in his mind. Mas himself recollected seeing the small clumps of flowers and vegetables against a hill right above one of the tunnels of the Pasadena Freeway. And there was another garden in Alhambra, a few towns south of Altadena, where Chinese immigrants dressed in cotton pants and sometimes straw hats tended stalks of corn and vines of cherry tomatoes. But those gardens were primarily vegetables, while these ones on Flatbush Avenue were filled with trees and flowers struggling to bloom. In L.A., everybody had pride of ownership in their personal flower gardens—a concept that had led Mas and several thousands of other Japanese Americans to get jobs as gardeners, whether they could actually grow anything or not. Everyone assumed that Japanese had green thumbs. If only they knew the truth: that most of them starting out could hardly tell the difference between a weed and an impatiens plant. But they had caught on fast enough, making money to feed their families and send their kids to fancy schools as far away as New York.

"How long youzu gonna stay?" Mas asked.

"Well, Joy's exhibition opens in a couple of weeks. You, Mari, and Lloyd are all invited, you know. I don't know about the baby, though. I don't know what people do at art gallery openings."

Tug's daughter, Joy, had recently traded in her white coat and stethoscope for poverty and paintbrushes. It had been a bad blow, but in typical Yamada fashion, Tug had bounced back, in full support of his daughter's new career. Mas had never been much into support; at least that's what both Chizuko and Mari told him time and time again. That's why he had been surprised to hear Mari's quavering voice on the other end of the line from Brooklyn: "We're in a bit of trouble, Dad. We might need your help." Help? When had Mari ever asked for help? Mari didn't want to get into the details but told him that she and her new husband, Lloyd, were going to buy him an airplane ticket. "You'll need a driver's license to board. And don't forget a credit card, just in case," she said.

But there was one problem: Mas didn't have a credit card. He'd had one briefly, when his wife, Chizuko, was alive, but that had been about fifteen years ago. So he went to the bank, and within a week, he had his own shiny piece of plastic bearing on it his full name, MASAO ARAI.

Now, with his driver's license and new credit card in his worn leather wallet, he had both an identity and money. He wasn't sure whether they were enough to help Mari, but he knew if he didn't come through this time, he probably would never get the chance again.

 

© Naomi Hirahara.