“Jigokuhen” (or “Hell Screen” in English; Powells Books or Amazon) is a story written by Ryunosuke Akutagawa in which he describes Yoshihide, the greatest painter of the land. The Wikipedia page says it best: “… when Yoshihide is instructed to create a screen depicting the Buddhist hell, he proceeds to inflict tortures upon his apprentices, for he cannot effectively paint anything he has not seen. The story climaxes when Yoshihide asks the lord to burn a beautiful lady in a carriage so he can finish the screen. The lord concedes, but, in a macabre twist, Yoshihide must watch as his daughter Yuzuki and her monkey are the ones who burn. The story ends with the magnificently horrible screen completed, and Yoshihide s suicide.”
Considered the finest author of the Taisho period, Akutagawa was most often concerned with the inevitable destruction of self that comes from the pursuit of an artist’s life. His study was self-realizing as he killed himself via an overdose of barbital in 1927. The owner of Currents (911 Valencia St, San Francisco, CA) is Japanese, and I am sure he read Ryunosuke Akutagawa while growing up in Japan. But, do you think he ever imagined that he too would have his dreams dashed in a story with a modern day carriage?
If you go into Currents, you’ll see fine soaps, dolls for children, and ascending to the back of the shop, lovely Japanese tea sets and carefully chosen Japanese dishware. But, you probably won’t be able to see this much longer, for Currents is about to close permanently. They indicate their last day was to be February 17th, but they are trying to figure out a way to survive, despite the fact that their rent has been tripled. If you ask them why, they’ll point to the employee buses that shuttle employees from Google and Facebook down to the suburban tech parks south of the city. These buses have made it possible to live in the city and work in Mountain View or Menlo Park, and one impact has been that rents in the city have begun to rise again. Previously, lucky tech employees had to choose to live and work either in the city or in suburbia (or face long commutes by car), but now they don’t have to, and landlords have figured this out and are raising rents.
Even a tiny stone makes a ripple on a clear pond. And, there are no villains here, so I don’t meant to demonize anyone in this story. I think the landlords should be allowed to raise rents to whatever level the market will bear; attempts to restrict their rights never seem to solve the problems of high rent anyway and move the problems to shadowy grey markets where more problems occur. And, I definitely don’t mean to indicate that I disapprove of the employee buses. They keep many cars off the street, reducing pollution, and more importantly, Google and Facebook are models of companies taking responsibility for keeping their employees happy and satisfied. I believe this is a rare mentality to be found in a corporation and an opportunity for celebration, not criticism. I only wish they had public bus route stops and times so I could add them to Moving Teachings, my site for taking serendipitous mini-classes on public transportation.
Yet, there is an impact on the neighborhood. Currents was started 14 years ago, almost exactly the same date as Google was founded. Their stock price has not fared quite as well: the owner once told me they add only a tiny bit of markup to their prices unlike other shops (it could be I am confusing the word “stock” here with these two businesses). Perhaps they should have considered employee buses, but since the only two employees are the man and his wife who live a few blocks away, that never really made sense. My beloved hometown of Portland is so special, I say, because it has strong, thriving neighborhoods anchored by independent businesses, much like Currents. The last time I was in the Mission District, suffering over my own arrogance, I went for a walk (my favorite form of meditation), to clear my head. This neighborhood will disabuse you of your suffering in a heartbeat. In between all the chic coffee shops and restaurants, you’ll see homeless people and the mentally ill. You’ll quickly realize you have a lot to be thankful for, as I did that day. Buddhist environments like this are good for cities and good for people.
I wonder what would happen if all the Google and Facebook employees who took part in these bus programs looked at their strike price when they started commuting on these buses. The stock has risen consistently over the past few years for Google, and the Facebook stock price has recovered from its lows. When I started full time employment at RealNetworks in 1999, my 32,000 options became worth 1.5 M dollars within six months (and I never saw a penny of it due to the crash!) but there is amazing wealth being created in a period of time not much longer than a ride on the bus. What if a group of these tech employees got together to offer a bridge loan to Currents? The owners of Currents are searching for a last minute solution, and I’m sure the smartest people on the planet could come up with something even more ingenious. What if the stories in the news were not that of Evan Williams demolishing a historic home or Mark Zuckerberg spending $20M on an apartment just down the street from Currents? What if the story was of Facebook and Google and Twitter employees offering a solution to a small business owner who has served the neighborhood for a long time?
Akutagawa wrote from his own investigations into Buddhist thought and perhaps his stories about death were meant to be purely metaphorical. A death of identity rather than that of the purely physical, though he succumbed to the later anyway. If you ask the owner of Currents what he will doing next, perhaps this is a great opportunity for him to be reborn, for his identity as a shop keeper to be stripped away and die off, so he can reveal a more truer self to himself and his life purpose. I would hope he would look at it this way, but I don’t think he does so right now. My wish is that the next time I am walking down Valencia, in the midst of all my struggles and worries, I can look over and see his smile framed behind his large mane of grey hair instead of that of a Starbucks employee.
(If you choose to buy one of Akutagawa’s books, why not purchase from either Powells Books or Amazon. I get a referral credit and this helps me while I care full time for my newborn son. I prefer Powells.com because you are not only supporting me but also Portland. Thank you!)