Daily • Weekly • Monthly
My rigidly conservative Nisei father could never understand why I would want to do HIV-prevention in public housing or volunteer at needle exchanges. He never understood that San Francisco’s skid rows reminded me of his mother’s SRO hotel in Stockton, California.
The inner city neighborhood where my father grew up in the 1920s and 1930s was obliterated by redevelopment in the 1960s when the new crosstown freeway drove through the heart of Stockton’s Japantown, Chinatown and Manilatown. About thirty blocks of inner-city storefronts, residence hotels, restaurants and temples were flattened into a parking-lot desert that took decades to fill. The close-knit ethnic communities drifted away from the shattered heart of the city. Gradually, the gaping holes were filled in by banks, government offices and housing, but the makeover never delivered the promised boost to the economy. The City of Stockton filed for bankruptcy in 2012.
Today, a Howard Johnson parking lot paves the site of Baachan’s single-room occupancy hotel. The now faceless neighborhood reflects nothing of the richly textured community whose daily, weekly, monthly lessons gave rise to both my father’s drive for success and security and my own compassion for the marginalized.
My dad remembers the close-knit, working-class Japantown of his youth, but I only saw the blighted neighborhood it became before it was torn down. For him, it provided motivation to get out and away. For me, it was a reminder never to leave the poor behind.
Dad was one of ten kids raised in a hotel operated by my immigrant grandparents. They opened the hotel in 1917 as a way station for Japanese immigrants seeking work in the fertile Central Valley. In 1924, when the influx from Japan was halted, the demographics of the hotel’s clientele shifted, and their income declined. By the Great Depression, it was no longer a transition for immigrants on their way up; it had become a dead-end for unemployed whites on their way down. During World War II, my family was incarcerated with the rest of West Coast Japanese Americans. Afterwards, my baachan, my grandma, returned to operate the hotel. By the 1950s, when I knew it, the whole neighborhood was sliding into skid row. My mom, whose prosperous family had lost control of their 140-acre Central Coast farm because of the incarceration, found Stockton challenging. For a sheltered, but curious, kid like me, visits with Baachan set my moral compass for a lifetime.
When we visited Stockton, Dad had lots of old friends to see, so Mom and I would go to Baachan’s. Mom would park our big, two-tone Pontiac on Center Street, then linger in the car to reapply her lipstick in the rear view mirror. When she got out of the car, she checked to make sure her stocking seams were straight and that my ponytail was so tight it made my scalp ache.
She grasped my hand firmly, and pulled me down the street, walking as fast as she could. She looked neither to the left nor right as we picked our way among splats of dried vomit, past a drunk lying twisted on the ground just as he fell. As a man on crutches headed towards us, I tried not to stare at the empty Army-green pant-leg folded up and secured with a safety pin, dangling where a leg should be.
Grandma’s hotel was in the middle of the block next to the pool hall. As we sped past the Jesus Saves mission, I stole a peek through the open door at the men who sat on folding chairs. They were listening stoically to the preacher and longing for a chance to sleep on one of the iron beds lined up like soldiers with white sheets pulled drum tight.
“Rooms • Daily • Weekly • Monthly” read the faded sign of the Senate Hotel. The stench of stale piss hung heavy in the doorway. Mom fished a lacy handkerchief out of her purse and held it to her nose as she and I climbed up the greasy, threadbare stairs. “Don’t touch the walls,” she warned, gathering her skirts tightly so they would not brush the stamped metal wainscotting stained with grime from many hands.
Grandma was waiting at the end of a dim, narrow hallway lined with closed doors. She was four-foot-ten, thin and stooped, with a mouthful of crooked teeth and wispy grey hair knotted into a bun. Wiping her hands on her apron, she beamed a welcome as warm as the sun.
“Haro, haro! Yokkata, ne. Rongu time no shee. Okikunatta ne! Hello! Happy to see you. You’ve gotten big, haven’t you!” she rasped in a voice as big as her smile.
I was humbled to think that my dad had grown up with nine siblings in this environment. The family’s childhood stories were filled with love and affection. Even now, fifty years after her death, the mere mention of Baachan Matsumoto brings tears of love to my cousins’ eyes. She was a daily, weekly, monthly reminder of what it means to be good.
She spoke almost no English, but what she taught transcended words. She was so unvarnished, so natural, that she brought out people’s real selves. Walking past the liquor stores, SRO hotels, and pool halls on Center Street, everyone seemed to know her. Her compassion saw past the rough exteriors and drew out the tenderness and hurt in their red-rimmed eyes. As Baachan and I walked to the store, a stubble-faced man blocked the sidewalk in front of us. “Hey Missus! Hey! How’s it going, Missus?” I shrank behind Baachan.
“Ahh, Bru-ran-San, Mr. Brown! Longu time no shee.” She chuckled and bowed, then peered deeply into his eyes. “How you doing? Okeh?
The man shrugged, “Well, you know….” He sighed and squinted at her hopefully, “I’m trying, right?”
Baachan patted his arm. “You good man—good man. When you rememba dat, you be okeh.”
The man nodded. Then he caught sight of me peeping from behind Baachan’s purse, and began to rummage frantically through his pockets. Did he have a gun, I wondered. Is he going to rob us?
“Wait, wait, I’ve got it here somewhere.” He retrieved a butterscotch candy from a sweat-stained pocket and held it out to me. My knees locked in resistance as Baachan gently pushed me toward the man.
“You’re a little cutie, aren’t ya?” the man said, bending down and wreathing me in the sickly sweet aroma of stale muscatel. I looked at the candy. The wrapper was crushed and adorned with pocket lint. “Don’t touch! It’s covered with germs,” Mom would have said. But she was not here. I looked up at Baachan for guidance. “Tek it, tek it,” she urged. “Say ’sank you.’”
“Thank you.” I took the candy with the tips of my fingers, being careful not to touch the man’s hand. The man’s red-rimmed eyes welled. He straightened up and said to Grandma. “You know, my little girl was about that age…”
Grandma held his gaze for a long moment. “Sori, I so sori. You good man,” she said, and bowed to him.
Mom would have made me throw out the candy, but Mom wasn’t with us that day. I unwrapped the treat and stuck it in my mouth. It was so old that my teeth sank through a layer of gummy softness before hitting the clean crunch of butterscotch.
I savored the sweetness as I followed Baachan down the street.