Reflections on the Life of a Kindred Spirit



I met Joe in a bar in Japan called Bonanza. About the size of an American walk-in closet, it was the neighborhood watering hole for the hip rock-and-roll night-lifers in a funky part of Kanagawa prefecture, just fifty minutes south of Tokyo as the train flies.

Geographically and culturally, Yamato was closer to Yokohama than Tokyo. But the town had its own unique flavor of Japanese funk. Bonanza was a direct manifestation of that funkiness. I loved that little dive.

Bonanza’s proprietor (or “Master” as they say in Japan) was Taro. Word on the street was that in his former life, Taro was a chef at a highfalutin gourmet restaurant in Tokyo, and that at the peak of his career he chucked it all to go rogue and start his own bar, pretty radical behavior in Japan, especially back in the day.

And herein lies a mini culture lesson: most Americans would think Taro did the cool thing by branching off on his own, while his Japanese compatriots thought him a bit odd and reckless. This is a natural gap in outlooks between a young country founded by risk-loving crazy people who braved months at sea in rickety boats bound for a place they’d never been–versus a risk-averse, collective, high context ancient rice culture crowded onto a geographically isolated, volcanic archipelago.

Of course, we were blissfully ignorant of the cultural ramifications at the time, as we playfully scratched at the surface of Japanese culture. Suffice it to say that as eccentric as Taro could be, he was not so odd by American standards. But to most of Japan, Taro was an outcast. And Taro didn’t mind at all, because he’s the one who cast himself out.

The reader’s image of Taro might be that of a slightly atypical Japanese company man, and that’s probably what he looked like clean-shaven dressed in a tuxedo or chef’s outfit or whatever he wore back then.

But deep inside Taro’s tortured soul, he was a radical departure from the Japanese norm. It started with his appearance but went much deeper. The Taro we all knew and loved was tall and lanky, with an unkempt beard and scraggly hair. He wore the same outfit every day: Levi jeans with a matching blue-jean vest and baseball cap to (presumably) hide his thinning scalp, something I only glimpsed a few times the entire time I’ve known him.

To complete the visual, Taro looked like a lawless, wiry, bony, badass Japanese biker dude. But in reality, he was a harmless curmudgeon who, aside from looking twice his age with a foot in the grave, made great food and played kick-ass music.

And I am happy to report today that Taro turned out to be much more robust than we had ever imagined, as he is still alive and kicking. I’m told he looks exactly the same as he did 30 years ago.

This walk-in closet we called Bonanza was cozy–dare I say too cozy–for the uninitiated, large-bodied American, certainly anyone new to Japan. If you lived in Japan long enough you either lost your claustrophobia or went crazy, because, well, the whole damn country is cramped. Picture this: take 40% of the U.S. population then stuff ‘em into one-third of California, and you’ve got a good proximation of Japan’s population density.

What this means in the context of our story, is that when a customer walked into Bonanza, no matter where the person sat, he or she was uncomfortably close to whoever was already in the bar, including the Master. It was that small. The saving grace of Bonanza was its great music (an eclectic selection of blues, jazz, rock, country, R&B and more), the tasty specials served up by the curmudgeonly Master himself, and the pretty Japanese rock-and-roll chicks who, on occasion, graced us with their presence.

Hey Joe

Joe and Steve in Bonanza

So there I was, uncomfortably close to my future friend Joe in a tiny dive in Yamato run by a grumpy curmudgeon, with Eddy Rabbit singing “Hey Bartender” in the background. I remember the song because it eventually gave birth to Joe’s nickname, “Hey Joe.” The lyrics explain:

Hey, Bartender  pop the top on another can

Give me ten dimes  for this dollar in my hand

Turn the knob on the jukebox way up loud

I might drive out the whole damn crowd

But I’m drinking my baby off my mind

Hey, Joe  you’re lookin’ at me like I was half crazy

But ain’t you never  loved and lost a real special lady

She was a sweet lovin’ momma she treated me right

I stepped out on her one to many times

Now I’m drinking my baby off my mind

Drinkin’ and thinking about facin’ tomorrow

Sinkin’, sinkin’ in a sea of sorrow Hey, Bartender

Line ’em up down the bar

I’m gonna try  and wash away all these lovin scars

Now don’t worry ’bout me weavin’ I’ll be alright

Show me the door when you close up tonight

Cause I’m drinking my baby off my mind

No don’t you worry about me weaving I’ll be alright

Show me the door when you close up tonight

Cause I’m drinking my baby off my mind

Yes I’m drinking my baby off my mind

Thanks to Joe’s fondness for this song, Japanese folks who frequented Bonanza started calling him “Hey Joe,” as in “Hello Mr. Hey Joe!”

Well, when I walked into Bonanza that day, “Hey Joe” was sitting in a kid-sized chair at a tiny table with his buddy Steve. Both were Sophia University students and, from where I stood at the time, wily old veterans of Japan. I remember they were chuckling about something.

To their credit, they didn’t hesitate to let me in on the joke. Joe explained that the chef’s “special of the week” was Taro’s Indian curry rice, which happened to be served in a bowl with a large spoon. Problem was that most Americans who ordered the curry wanted to “show off” their chopstick skills by asking for a set. Taro didn’t speak a lick of English but wanted to enlighten his American customers about a local custom he thought they should be aware of. So he asked Joe and Steve to translate his message from Japanese to English. Grinning from ear-to-ear, Joe pointed to a big sign hanging above the counter that said:

“Even JAPANESE people don’t eat curry with chopsticks!”

A Love Affair with Japan

Over the next year, Joe and I became regulars at Bonanza. In no time we clicked and a friendship was born. And it made perfect sense: we were young, single, happy-go-lucky Americans immersed in Japan in the early boom years of the 1980s, surrounded by classy, hardworking, honest people. In conversations with Joe over the years, we concurred that this was a great time to be young and single in Japan. It was indeed the time of our lives.

So what did Joe and I have in common? Besides the Japan connection, we were both from big American cities–Joe from New York, me from Chicago. We both spent 4 years in the service, Joe in the army, me in the navy. We both graduated from Japanese universities: Joe from Sophia, me from International Christian University. Most importantly, we both had a fondness for Japanese culture, its people, and a soft spot in our hearts for the Japanese ladies.

That’s where the similarities ended. For the record, Joe was much more popular with the local ladies than I ever was. He was four years older and far better looking than me (which is kind of like being the tallest midget). Oh yeah, he was taller than me too. But most important, Joe had “the look” that, for whatever reason, drove Japanese ladies wild.

I think it was his eyes that closed the deal; Japanese women were drawn to his eyelashes, so long and lush that they almost looked fake. Joe wasn’t just handsome, he was–dare I say–handsome in a pretty way.

Joe’s draw with the ladies in Japan was an interesting phenomenon we had discussed more than once. Joe admitted to me that he had never scored big with American ladies. But then the Army deployed him to Japan, and he woke up the next day a powerful chick magnet. Probably didn’t even realize it for the first few days, maybe even weeks. And it must’ve been heady stuff for young Joe to discover his overnight appeal. Suddenly Joe was a kid, a very nice kid, in an exotic candy store. And the candy was jumping off the shelves into his arms.

Years ago I remember discussing with Joe a related cultural phenomenon that we’d both observed in Japan, whereby certain American macho types who had done well with female compatriots in America, would go to Japan and strike out miserably. Conversely, certain American guys who had limited appeal with American ladies found, for whatever reason, their groove in Japan. Joe considered himself part of that latter group.

Without a doubt, some of Joe’s popularity came with the territory of being a “gaijin” (foreigner) in Japan. In some circles, gaijin were treated like rock stars, much better than we deserved I might add. But Joe’s popularity was driven to a great degree by the standards of beauty and desirability Japanese women attribute to the “ideal mate,” often dramatically different than their female counterparts in America. During my decade in Japan, it wasn’t unusual to see nerdy, shy, baby-faced American guys with drop-dead-gorgeous Japanese ladies hanging off their arms–while the macho cowboys couldn’t buy a fake phone number.

To Joe’s utter delight–to our utter delight–we soon figured out that Japanese chicks simply dig different things than their American sisters. Joe would be the first to admit that this difference worked in his favor.

Now I’m not implying that Joe was a nerdy, baby-faced pretty boy. He actually had a kind of exotic European vibe, like a British rock star or maybe a French tennis player. His chic Euro-look, baby-doll eyes and shy demeanor were just too much for Japanese ladies to resist. Watching Japanese women swarm to Joe was a sight to behold. I always did my part as his running buddy by keeping their cute friends entertained. It was a tough job but I did my best.

From Japan to Tennessee

The fun times lasted until we met our spouses. Just kidding. But in truth, hooking up with our lifelong mates–both classy Japanese ladies of the highest caliber–was a compelling motivation to start behaving ourselves. So after we all firmly tied our knots and secured our marriage visas, we stuck a fork in our party life and turned our focus to acting like grown-ups.

A career move enticed me away from my beloved Japan in 1987. My opportunity was with a Japanese automotive parts manufacturer building a new manufacturing facility in rural Tennessee. Joe made his exit from Japan shortly after mine with more glamorous aspirations: he and his wife were bound for Las Vegas in search of opportunities in the hospitality industry. It made sense as they were both bilingual, and Vegas was crawling with Japanese high rollers awash in bubble money.

Fortunately for me, Vegas didn’t work out for Joe.  I say fortunate because it set the stage for us to hook up again. One evening near the tail end of the 80s I got a call out of the blue from Joe. At the time I was living in Hendersonville Tennessee, a suburb just north of Nashville. Joe and his wife were on the road heading in our direction, about an hour and a half away as I recall. They were in the area to check out opportunities and needed a place to stay for a few days. We were happy to oblige.

Joe and Yukiko soon took a fancy to Tennessee and the rest is history. Through an introduction arranged by my HR department, Yukiko interviewed and was hired by the Japanese company right next door to us. (This was 23 or 24 years ago, and to this day Yukiko’s still there; with her talents, skills, and abilities, she probably runs the joint by now.) Meanwhile, Joe tried different gigs before finding his niche driving trucks. My buddy Joe was born to drive.

Now banish from your head the stereotype of truck drivers as ignorant oafs. Based on what Joe told me about drivers he had met on the road over the years, lots of very smart, talented folks are driving for a living, including ex-doctors, lawyers, musicians, etc. But one has to wonder: How many truck drivers in America had a degree in business from a prestigious Japanese university and could speak Japanese?

Some folks might say that driving was a waste of Joe’s talents, but that’s like telling a bird it shouldn’t fly. Joe was doing what he loved and did it well. It was a job that gave him time to pursue his other hobbies and passions in life, one of which was writing. (More on this later.)

My time in Tennessee lasted five years before a career opportunity lured me back to the Chicago area, my hometown. I bid a fond good riddance to Tennessee and never looked back. Tennessee was a beautiful place with lots of kind-hearted folks, but I never warmed to Southern culture. As a “Yankee” from Chicago with 10 years in Japan behind me, the socially conservative mindset of many Southerners was just too large a gap for me to reach across. Gaps would be waiting for me in the Chicago area as well, but they were much more manageable.

And yet my buddy “Hey Joe,” a native New Yorker who, in my estimation was just as socially liberal as I am (albeit fiscally conservative), found his piece of paradise in Tennessee and to my utter surprise, firmly planted roots and stayed.

Friendship Drift

This is the part of the story where Joe and I drift apart. We never had a falling out. In fact, I can’t remember ever having a fight or even less than civil words with Joe. With a few exceptions, our views of the world have always been closely aligned. We always got along well. We just drifted when the currents of life shifted.

If anyone was to blame for the drift it’s me. Without question, Joe put much more effort than I did into staying connected. And as you might expect I’ve got a handy list of excuses: I was focused on building a career and raising two kids; long-distance relationships are tough to manage, and our respective circumstances had changed. And it’s all bullshit.

The older I get the more I realize just how rare good friends are–the ones who add quality to your life and make you a better person–and how much they deserve a piece of your life for your own sake. In practical terms, with technology and low phone rates even back then, the telephone would have worked fine in bridging the geographical distance. Indeed we talked a few times during the fourteen years I lived in Chicago. But it was always Joe calling me. Never once did I reciprocate.

This speaks volumes about me, none of it good. Looking back I sense now that my reticence may have hurt Joe. I was too busy–not only for him but also for my siblings, other friends from the past, even my own kids. It pains me now to think that my lack of reciprocation in corresponding might have hurt Joe. I know that Joe was good with all this. The kicker is, it was my loss.

A Cheerfully Delivered Punch to the Gut

Joe and I eventually reconnected. Ironically it happened after I put even more distance between us, by moving to my current home on the Big Island of Hawaii. The catalyst for reconnecting was facebook.

So for the last several years Joe and I stayed in touch on-line. Then I noticed he had stopped doing status updates on facebook. I was busy myself so his absence didn’t register at first. Then one day (November 9th of last year) Joe finally posted something. I made a lighthearted comment about him being a stranger. Minutes later a message was in my inbox. It was a cheerfully written email that stunned me.

“Hey Tim! Hope you are well. I just want to fill you in on my absence these past several weeks. A few months ago I noticed a lump in my neck that gradually became larger and two weeks ago I was diagnosed with neck cancer after a biopsy. I suspected it was cancer from the beginning and it was confirmed last week.

The doctor thinks it metastasized from elsewhere and tomorrow I will have a PET scan to see where it came from if indeed it actually did. I have not been ill or weak at all and have felt like my normal self since I discovered it in July so it is hard to believe that it is a cancer and not some kind of infection. It just kind of popped up like overnight!

Since I discovered it I have gone on an all natural diet and juicing 1/2 gallon/day along with other herbs and supplements and it seems to have stabilized and even shrunk a bit. It has not gotten any worse or larger, but my lymph nodes are still enlarged.

Regardless of the outcome tomorrow, I will not take any chemo, radiation or surgery as the “cure” rate is only 2% and I’ve seen my brother and friends suffer and die from it. Besides, my research over the years since my brother died has shown that there are natural cures for cancer out there with cure rates above 70%. I will prove if they work or not.

Anyway, I did not want to bother you with this, but I wanted to let you know why I have been a stranger lately. As soon as I know more I’ll let you know and may even put it as my status so the rest of my friends will know what’s going on and the route I am taking to try and beat this.

Take care and I’ll stay in touch. Joe

PS: I am not depressed or anything, in fact I am kind of fired up as now I can prove if the natural route works or not and stick it to the crime syndicate Cancer industry, Big Pharma, and the AMA. And if it doesn’t work? Well, it was a pretty decent life and I’ll have no regrets.”

Needless to say I was devastated. And from that moment forward Joe figuratively held my hand and comforted me while he dealt privately with the consequences.

From the letter above, his courage is evident, awe-inspiring, downright heroic. And his defiance and bravery in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds managed to convince me that Joe just might pull it off. But still I worried.

Cancer and “Natural-Cure” Charlatans

The ethics, politics, scams, and even promise surrounding so-called “natural cures” is beyond the scope of this piece. Suffice it to say that after a substantial amount of reading up on the subject (thanks to Joe), I can say with confidence that while research is uncovering promising new treatments for cancer, most alternative-healing sites on the internet are scams designed to separate sick, suffering people from their money. Can’t get much lower than that.

This is not to imply that Joe did the wrong thing not taking the “traditional medicine” route. As he wrote in the email above, he saw his brother suffer and die doing conventional chemo, a path he didn’t want to go down.

We’ll never know the outcome had Joe chosen conventional medicine from the start. The reality is it was Joe’s life, no one else’s. It was his decision, and the consequences were his and only his to accept. My job as his friend, as I saw it, was to support him emotionally, and find new information, research, and options for his consideration.

Something I Need to Get Off My Chest

In ensuing emails, Joe provided links to “natural healing” sites, all of which I clicked on and studied. And every single click set off my bullshit sensors.

With red flags waving and alarm bells ringing in my head, I had a dilemma: tell Joe that he was dealing with snake-oil salesmen and risk crushing his spirit; or play along and hope that either, one, he’s right about the natural cures and recovers, or two, he changes his mind before it’s too late.

I chose to play along. When the natural approach failed miserably Joe went to plan B. We didn’t know it at the time, but it was too late. Joe and I continued our correspondence privately. Then on April 27th Joe called me out of the blue. His voice was raspy, his words almost unintelligible. I was able to follow enough to understand that he had been in a coma for several days, during which time the doctor did a tracheotomy. Joe called to tell me he was doing okay, and that he wanted me to know how much he valued our friendship and thanked me for being his friend. All I could think to do was thank him back and tell him I loved him.

Then I did something that I would come to regret: I suggested that it might be easier to correspond in writing, as Joe seemed to be struggling and in pain. “No pain at all,” he growled, but somehow I couldn’t get myself to believe him. Maybe I didn’t want to believe him? Straining to decipher Joe’s words, my ears weren’t up to the task; I was way too distraught to carry on a conversation anyway. Cutting short the phone call to switch to written correspondence seemed, at that moment in time, like a logical way to communicate. It was the last time I would ever talk to Joe.

Upon reflection, it’s painfully obvious that if Joe had wanted to write me an email, he would have written me an email. No, instead he called–in spite of his struggles and the trauma to his throat and vocal cords–because he wanted to talk to me on the phone. I should have listened; I should have comforted him; I should have thanked him for honoring me with such an important phone call. It was a missed opportunity to prove my worth as a friend, a lost moment that’s gone forever.

I struggle now to put my feelings into words. It wasn’t until after we hung up that the reality hit me: Joe had just come out of a coma only to find out he had a tracheotomy, and his inclination was to call me and tell me how much he valued our friendship? I cried for the rest of the day.

“It’s Me Against the Cancer Now”

I mentioned that Joe eventually gave traditional medicine a try. He made it through 3 doses of chemo before opting out. In Joe’s own words:

Hey Tim, Just want to let you know that I am back home again. I had decided to try another chemo treatment and went off home hospice care. It was a bad decision as it almost killed me and I was in the ICU again for a week. My blood was so badly damaged by the chemo that I required a 6-pint transfusion over two days. I was so disoriented that I had no concept of time. I’d take five steps and I was out of breath. Never again. It’s me against the cancer now as I am back in home hospice care. However, I am recovering nicely and am back to my old self mentally. Today I had my first solid food in three weeks. It’s amazing how you have to teach yourself to swallow again. Twice I was on deaths doorstep and twice I made a full recovery. Again, it’s amazing what willpower can do. I just hope that, if there is a third time, that it’s not the one to take me over the river. Well, that’s the update from here and thanks for caring… Love ya, Joe

It was the last email I would get from Joe, his courage intact right up until the end. On July 5th my friend crossed over the river. I found out through a post on his facebook wall.

What Happens When People Die?

I’ve had my share of lost loved ones. Every time it happens the same question haunts me: what happened to the person I loved? Philosopher and author Robert Pirsig pondered the same question after losing his son Chris:

“Where did Chris go? He had bought an airplane ticket that morning. He had a bank account, drawers full of clothes, and shelves full of books. He was a real, live person, occupying time and space on this planet, and now suddenly where had he gone to? Did he go up the stack of the crematorium? Was he in the little box of bones they handed back? Was he strumming a harp of gold on some overhead cloud? None of these answers made any sense. It had to be asked: What was it I was so attached to? Is it just something in the imagination? When you have done time in a mental hospital, that is never a trivial question. If he wasn’t just imaginary, then where did he go? Do real things just disappear like that? If they do, then the conservation laws of physics are in trouble. But if we stay with the laws of physics, then the Chris that disappeared was unreal. Round and round and round. He used to run off like that just to make me mad. Sooner or later he would always appear, but where would he appear now? After all, really, where did he go? The loops eventually stopped at the realization that before it could be asked “Where did he go?” it must be asked “What is the ‘he’ that is gone?” There is an old cultural habit of thinking of people as primarily something material, as flesh and blood. As long as this idea held, there was no solution. The oxides of Chris’s flesh and blood, of course, go up the stack at the crematorium. But they weren’t Chris. What had to be seen was that the Chris I missed so badly was not an object but a pattern, and that although the pattern included the flesh and blood of Chris, that was not all there was to it. The pattern was larger than Chris and myself, and related us in ways that neither of us understood completely and neither of us was in complete control of. Now Chris’s body, which was a part of that larger pattern, was gone. But the larger pattern remained. A huge hole had been torn out of the center of it, and that was what caused all the heartache. The pattern was looking for something to attach to and couldn’t find anything. That’s probably why grieving people feel such attachment to cemetery headstones and any material property or representation of the deceased. The pattern is trying to hang on to its own existence by finding some new material thing to center itself upon. Some time later it became clearer that these thoughts were something very close to statements found in many ‘primitive’ cultures. If you take that part of the pattern that is not the flesh and bones of Chris and call it the ‘spirit’ of Chris or the ‘ghost’ of Chris, then you can say without further translation that the spirit or ghost of Chris is looking for a new body to enter. When we hear accounts of “primitives” talking this way, we dismiss them as superstition because we interpret ‘ghost’ or ‘spirit’ as some sort of material ectoplasm, when in fact they may not mean any such thing at all.”

Likewise, the “pattern” I knew as Joe Cyr was much larger than myself, and related us in ways that neither of us understood completely and neither of us was in complete control of.

Now Joe’s body, which was a part of that larger pattern, is gone. My heart aches for a man who was a big brother, always sincere, always supportive, always respectful. If there is a heaven, then no doubt about it that’s where Joe is right now. And if there isn’t a heaven, I take comfort in knowing that he is still in a better place than when he left us.

Footprints in My Heart

Of all the people you meet in your life how many become lifelong friends? How many leave footprints in your heart? In my case, I can count on my two hands the friends I trust unconditionally. This means that of all the folks in the world who met me in the last 54 years (perhaps tens of thousands?), their chances of becoming a trusted friend percentage-wise is kind of like winning the lottery. But having a friend like Joe was a lot better than winning the lottery; he enriched my life and made me a better person. Rest in peace my friend.

For some really fun reading on the adventures of Joe Cyr, check out these stories, in Joe’s own words: Pachipro’s Blog: Experiences of a Foreigner Living in Japan

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2012 

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