For the better part of twenty-three years I found myself running a bird store in San Francisco. It was a small storefront, the space inside narrow and deep —maybe sixteen feet wide by seventy deep, about 1200 square feet in all.
Imagine, simply, this place with cages and flight cages running along the walls, some pegboards, of course, and a few shelves for books. It is not exactly beautiful, not a “birdie boutique.” The walls are stark white. There are some paintings and second-rate bird prints tacked up here and there in frames that the parrots have already chewed on. It’s a livestock store, a close space, and there are odors of musky grain and the occasional scent of mouse and, over that, the Clorox that I swabbed each day upon the floor.
Its noisy here, too. The finches, the cacatuas, the papagayos, aratingas —two, maybe three hundred birds at any given time. Life making noise; life making stink. Life! And add into that life the people who came, not the dime-a-dozen lookiloos, but those who came not to judge but to see.
I had a business partner, in the sloppiest sense of the word, which led to my eventual undoing, but that’s only a footnote. Perhaps without that unfortunate time, I would never have recognized these encounters for what they were. Many wonderful and surprising things happened there, and some of these events are what I am about to tell.
In January of 1979 I was standing in front of the bird shop having my morning coffee when a man, a passer-by, nobody I had ever seen before nor have laid eyes on since, stops about two feet in front of me and says, “I have a message for you from Sri Ramakrishna.” As if the caffeine were not enough, his remark added to the jolt.
I looked at the man. He was well dressed, pressed pants, good shoes. There were no kinks or tics that I could see, so I nodded permission to speak.
What he spoke was troubling because, in fact, it concerned matters current to questions I had been puzzling over. His words carried content and direction that seemed quite plausible. When he finished, I nodded again and we shook hands. He left without my having said a word.
I finished my coffee as I ruminated on what he had said. But what had seemed poignant a moment before was evaporating quickly; by the time I tossed my styrofoam cup into the trash bin, I didn’t remember a word of it. Of course, it had to be bullshit. Sri Ramakrishna, indeed! And still…
The only acquaintance I had who might make some sense of this odd event was Dave Horowitz, a Brooklyn-born Jew who had become known as “Shanti” in the sixties. He’d become some kind of theosophist or yogi.
I telephoned Shanti and he suggested that I speak to his guru, Jaji-Jaji. Next day I pick up Shanti and we drive over to meet Jaji-Jaji at The Lotus Temple of Instant Bliss in San Rafael.
The guru was as improbable as I found Shanti to be. As best I could tell, he had found his niche in selling aluminum siding for the soul. After the introductions, the Namastes, and after posing my question, I had no choice but to let Jaji-Jaji run on.
And he did run on. Samsaras were interspersed with karmas and divine chakras ad nauseum. When I finally sensed that he was running out of material, I spoke again…
“Precisely!” He responded. “That’s what I was saying all along! You are that free! Sing, my child, fly!”
Driving back over the bridge to San Francisco, Shanti said, “Did you notice how he had us wrapped around his little finger? That dude is so intrinsically cool that even you were frozen by his presence! It is called Lila, a divine game. You’ll see what I mean some day.”
Changing lanes to get around a stalled Subaru, I thought to myself, “Oh Jesus, please don’t let that happen!”
* * *
Mr. Takahashi was a painter of birds, specifically herons. Although we had no herons, he would sometimes come with his little notepad and sketch the birds on their perches; mostly, he sketched feet. His English was poor but effective. “Feet very difficult to get just so,” he would say.
Sometimes he would bring a tray of Japanese pastries, which he shared with me. “Birds belong to both earth and to sky” he once remarked, “Not just any creature.”
It turned out that Mr. Takahashi also had a taste for Budweiser. One day he invited me to his gallery, a small place—maybe five hundred square feet—home to a collection of ceramic figurines and plates, Samurai helmets and swords, and paintings of herons. We sat on the floor drinking 16-ounce Buds from a six-pack that he had stashed behind a framed Paul Jacoulet. “Interesting man, Jacoulet,” Mr. Takahashi said. “He painted himself in ‘honorable white,’ like a geisha. But he knew everything—piano, mathematics, color. His father was a diplomat. I knew them during the war.”
In the months to come, I visited my friend’s gallery as often as I could. Dutifully, I brought six-packs of 16-ounce Buds. Mr. Takahashi, it also turned out, was a credentialed Kendo Master whose star pupil was an actor named Toshiro Mifune. I asked a lot of questions and the old man was patient. He walked me through Satsuma vases, Noritaki plates and Kutani cats. In a very short time I could spot knock-offs and fakes at twenty paces —although it was nothing I had ever craved to know.
And then one afternoon, on a crowded shelf in a corner of the gallery, I noticed an especially ugly cup. It was misshapen and the glaze was globby and irregular. “Takahashi-san, what is this grotesque ‘thing’?” I asked him.
“Ah, you have finally seen it!”
“The cup. The cup is Takahashi’s soul.”
His reply produced one of the most annoying feelings that ever penetrated me. I’m not sure why. It caught me off-guard. I thought it was a cheap shot, a throw-away line, but it lodged there anyway.
I opened another beer. Takahashi was drunk and I was pacing him to the wire. It was November, and rains were pounding on the roof. The curtains were flying into the room. Raindrops blew in and landed on the faces of the maidens in the Jacoulet where they streamed down like tears.
“Maybe, Iechi, (I spoke his first name), you will teach me kendo someday; maybe I could be the next Toshiro Mifune!”
He laughed, “No, Ron-san, you are Mister America: a real Mister America, a shit kicker; that’s who you are. Don’t try to spoil it. Yes, I can teach many things, but for now, you are Takahashi’s beer-drinking pupil.”
* * *
It was a lovely day in the late spring of 1981. The birds had been cleaned and fed; very little was going on in the shop. I’d stepped out and was standing on the sidewalk enjoying the sunshine, greeting the occasional passerby, when several automobiles, all black, came to a stop in front of the shop, completely blocking traffic. There were a couple of Ford Broncos, a Cad Limo and a couple of sedans. I didn’t know if this was a visit from Don Corleone or some Hollywood celeb.
Two very determined looking men got out of one of the Broncos and made a beeline for my door. I followed them inside and asked what was going on. Before they could answer, two other men had entered the shop and headed for the backroom. The first guys presented me with credentials. I gathered they were from the State Department.
“Its all right, everything’s fine back here,” one of the team who had gone into the back room reported. One of the men next to me excused himself to go outside where he made a sign to the other cars. “You’re about to have company,” the other man said.
The men in the sedans stayed in their cars; a policeman appeared and was directing traffic. But from the limousine two well-dressed, youngish white guys emerged followed by three Tibetan Lamas, all wearing traditional garb. They headed for the shop where I greeted them and bade them welcome. Two of the lamas were quite old. The younger one I guessed to be fifty-something. He was the one who attracted my attention.
The only contact I’d ever had with Tibetans was in New Mexico in the late sixties when I had the pleasure of sharing no small amount of Scotch whisky with a man called Trungpa as we sat in a mountain clearing in his blue Mercedes Benz. I rather liked his style. I did not understand much about Tibetan Buddhism, but I knew my way around a single malt. Earlier in the day, Trungpa’s darshan had produced the predictable muddle of questions from the deadly serious, but ill-equipped, New-Agers in attendance, and he seemed somehow relieved by my company.
I did not ask him about the secrets of the universe or how to advance myself spiritually. He did tell me, though, how much he liked his car and why he did not give a mantra to a certain pleading young man in the audience: “Imagine. If I gave him a mantra, he would treat it the way I treat this automobile. I heard that Krishnamurti once told a young man—I don’t know, I wasn’t there—‘if you want a mantra why not just chant ‘coca-cola, coca-cola, coca-cola!”’
In any case, the younger Lama seemed ever so thrilled to be in bird store. A bird store is a noisy place. I seldom had fewer than two, and often three hundred birds there —everything from tiny finches to grand macaws and cockatoos. The lama was beaming as he walked from cage to cage. He would stand; he would whistle; sometimes he waved his finger in the air.
This was all happening very fast and it’s hard to tell it in sequence, but not sixty seconds had passed during this visit when one of the young, well-dressed Americans started talking to me. “You know, you should be very grateful that His Holiness has chosen to bring his blessings to your shop.”
(For the life of me, I don’t know why disciples always seem to talk this way, especially scrubbed, young, suited Americans. But I said something soapy like, “Indeed, I am so honored! This is a great privilege!”—while my real thought was “why don’t you bless my ass with your kiss!”)
I had no idea who my unusual guests were or what the fuss was all about, but I did want to spend some time with them. Taking a cigarette from my shirt pocket and putting it between my lips I asked the young man if he had a light, and as I fished around in my pants pocket before he could answer, I said, “Oh, never mind, I think I have one.” As I lit the cigarette, the darling chela
’s jaw clenched, the stars in his eyes replaced by the sting of smoke. “Excuse me,” I said, “please enjoy your look.” And I walked to the back room of the shop, where I went to the sink and immediately extinguished the cigarette.
The lamas were standing before a large flight cage of finches; they were listening to the birds; sometimes they made kissing noises and small whistles, waved a finger as if they were conducting an orchestra, or dropped head to shoulder left or right. I must admit that their radiant smiles were contagious. Even I began to smile. And I began to talk. I have no recollection what I said and, surely, I had no idea of how they understood me, or it they did. But at an appropriate moment, I made my hand into a fist and gently moved it toward these unknown, smiling Buddhas. It was the oldest man who responded first; he made a fist and we tapped a couple of times, knuckle to knuckle, then the other lamas did the same; it was like a toast between old friends, a greeting maybe, or an agreement, finally, of a simple, shared joy.
We were able to piece together a bit of conversation. The younger lama seemed to say that a particular bird, a common Australian zebra finch had told interesting stories. One of the older lamas indicated that an especially beautiful green singing finch, long held in high esteem in China, “sings like heaven, the songs of hell.” The third said, “Yes, he is charming, but he speaks nonsense.” They never stopped smiling. They spoke in assessments, not judgments.
Now what this meant, I don’t have a clue. My birds only sang to me like Byrons, Keats or Shelleys—at best. And my relationship to them was that of the keeper—one who would sell them. Oh, they were beautiful; some were valuable, some were not, according to the market place, but I never heard one of their stories. Later, I tried to listen, tried to hear, but I never did.
I had forgotten about business altogether and when we returned to the front of the store, there were several people milling about besides the state department, bodyguards and disciples. But I didn’t feel any urgency to sell anything, to attend to anyone but my guests.
For effect, I lit another cigarette. The Lamas were not fazed, did not seem to take any offense. We said goodbye. I bowed, presuming this would be a gesture they understood. They did, and returned a nod. In a simple procession, they left the shop and returned to the waiting automobiles. As they drove off, I raised a closed fist in a sort of biker’s salute. From the limo a smiling face raised his arm, his hand in the same gesture.
Next morning, reading the Chronicle, I came upon a picture of my visitor. He was Ranglung Rigpe Dorje
, the 16th Karmapa of Tibet. From the published itinerary, I was able to determine that his entourage had come straight from the airport to the bird store before attending to any other business. A year later he was dead.