The one who brought me into contact with Arakawa Shusaku was Ota Takako, the former mama-san of Pooh-san, that famous bar in Shinjuku’s Golden Gai district. And the one who introduced me to Pooh-san’s proprietress was none other than Okamoto Taro. Okamoto-san brought me to this small pub, with a counter for no more than four or five people and a few chairs and tables against the wall.
“She’s like you. A woman in whose big-hearted presence you can really relax,” he told me. And there she was, alone behind the counter in front of me, gallantly going about her work. Petite, with neatly coiffed hair, Ota-san wore an indigo kasuri kimono with a crisply folded collar. In contrast to her cute, compact face, her voice was sexy and husky. With a carefree air, she told us of customers coming in the front door, having their drink, and leaving out the back without paying.
Ota-san and I got along right from the start and have known each other more than fifty years. Two years younger than me, she closed the bar in her mid-seventies, and is now living a dream life in a luxury nursing home.
Once, when talking about old romances, she said, “When Arakawa Shusaku was young, he stuck to me like glue. We went everywhere together.” “You mean Arawkawa-san, the genius painter?” I asked. Ota-san said, “A genius? Really? Well, he was quite unusual.” She told me of when he came in one night, sat drinking alone until closing time and then followed her home like it was the natural thing to do. At the time, Shusaku-san had left his hometown of Nagoya to come to Tokyo and study at Musashino Art University. Twelve years older than he was, Mama-san must have been thirty-two or three, in the prime of womanhood. When he later dropped out of university, I’m not sure if it was because school was too boring or Ota-san’s charms were too powerful. “He was painting everyday then, and he left me a number of pictures,” she said. Inside a wicker trunk she took from the closet was a stack of his watercolors and sketches.
These days, Arakawa-san is living in New York with his wife, Madeline Gins, a poet, and philosopher. “Whenever he returns to Japan, they come and visit me. It reminds of the days when he followed me around like a puppy or kitten. Shusaku-san was like a kid. I hear he’s become a great artist in the meantime. Okamoto-san even said, ‘That guy’s the real deal.’” The Pooh-san proprietress sounded exactly like a mother lauding her son.
She also had high praise for Madeline. “They truly love each other. Madeline doesn’t speak Japanese, but I can understand what she’s saying through her expressions and gestures. She always tells me to come to New York.” I said, “Let’s go. To New York. I’m going there next month on business. Let’s go together!” She agreed and added that she like to get Arakawa-san to sign of few of the works in her possession. She carefully selected three works and brought them to New York.
So, we found ourselves at Arakawa-san’s home in New York....