In a smoke-filled suitcase with a snake, I tried to deal with catastrophe
How I found myself in Drunkard's Alley, covered in firewater, thanks to an odd investor who says this sort of thing is good for me
“For the good of a man’s soul,” Somerset Maugham once wrote, “he should every day do two things he doesn’t want to do. This is a creed I assiduously follow: every morning I get out of bed, and every evening I get back into it.”
Two things a day is a little extreme, but there might be something to that. Nassim Taleb – the investor and essayist and the guy who wrote Black Swan – is a big fan of anti-fragiling, or making yourself less susceptible to variations in circumstance and environment. If we do the same things all the time, reckons Nassim, even if they’re things that are good for us, like washing our hands or eating grapefruit, we become systemically intolerant of sudden change. When we find a nice comfy path, one that suits us and makes us content, we tend to stick to it, eliminating the extremes on either side, but life is filled with randomness and catastrophe, and how accustomed we are to dealing with unpredictable events will determine how well we survive them and flourish afterwards.
Nassim Taleb does odd anti-fragiling things like randomly sprinting down the road as though being chased by a sabre-toothed tiger, or spontaneously deciding to stay awake for 36 hours, or taking to his bed for a month, and while nothing would induce me to run anywhere, not even a sabre-toothed tiger, this is all to explain how I found myself wedged into a smoke-filled suitcase in Tokyo this week, covered in firewater that tasted of snake.
In a sunken backstreet block of Shibuya, hidden by a narrow set of stone stairs off the main commercial drag, there’s a little part of Old Tokyo called Nonbei Yokocho, or Drunkard’s Alley, made up of a grid of low-rise bars and izakaya that have been there since the middle of the 20th century, resisting the rise of neon and glass all around them. All bars in Tokyo are small but these are smaller than small. These are so small you could put them in your pocket and carry them around with you in case you get thirsty. They are so small you could take them on an international flight and security wouldn’t confiscate them. Some of them are so small that they don’t allow foreigners in, because foreigners are big and take up space and don’t drink as much as Japanese people, and also maybe because foreigners smell funny.
Perhaps the smallest of all the bars is a place called (in English) Tight. You edge sideways up a terribly narrow flight of stairs and at the top is a bar with space for perhaps five adults to sit side by side, if they all suck in their stomachs. Now, you should understand that I do not like small places, not even when I’m alone, and most assuredly not when there are others involved. I’m not a man of the people; I function most happily when surrounded by a layer of empty space that I can call my own. You should also know that the Japanese have a peculiar attitude toward smoking. You are not allowed to smoke in the streets or outside, but these prohibitions do not apply to restaurants or bars. Indoors everyone lights up, even pets and babies. Being inside Tight when people arrived would be like wedging yourself inside a chimney above a fire made with damp wood.
But it was early enough and there was no one there so I risked a drink. The barman was a splendid chap who had taught himself a little English in case he had English-speaking customers. When he heard I’m South African he produced a small barrel of Japanese whiskey that he has been infusing with rooibos. What can you do in the face of that?
Bartenders in Japan are like best friends and therapists, he told me, even more than in other parts of the world. Men and women are stressed from work and families and have no one to talk to so they come to complain and sometimes cry a little, and then they go to the next bar to do it again. Just then another patron arrived, and I knew this was the critical moment. When a new person arrives the person at the bar has to slide down. As more people arrive you are shuffled down until you’re pressed against the window and can go no further. You’re the cellphone charger at the very bottom of a tightly packed suitcase. Once you’re in, you’re in, and will only come out at the end of the journey. I knew I should pay for my drink and say my thank-yous and slip out into the street, sensible and smart.
But then I remembered Nassim Taleb, and I slid over to make space for the newcomer. How bad could it be, I thought? The place has a capacity of five people, eight tops.
Six hours later there were 28 people in the bar, 500 of whom were smoking cigarettes. The only time anyone wasn’t smoking a cigarette was when there literally wasn’t enough cigarette space in front of their face. I was folded into a corner with a guy from Delhi who runs the second-biggest cosmetics company in India, and a woman who works for something called SoftBank, doing something, and another guy who’s in love with a girl from one of the J-Pop groups, and a woman whose husband drives a taxi, and a young guy who also works for a bank but once lived awhile in Barcelona and who had the most beautiful skin I’ve ever seen, and another guy who, I can’t remember what he did for a living, but he was lighting his cigarette from other people’s cigarettes because there were so many people he couldn’t get his hands down to his pockets to fetch his lighter.
I had long conversations with at least three people who didn’t speak any English at all, one of whom I think may have confessed to being a serial killer. Some time after midnight someone produced a jar of some murky strong liquid with a snake inside. “Viper! Viper!” yelled the barman happily.
I tried to close my eyes because I’m so afraid of snakes I can’t even watch the scene with Kaa in the animated Jungle Book, but if you close your eyes you can’t see where the snake is so I opened them and there it was in front of me and I remembered Nassim Taleb and I lifted the jar and took a sip which tasted of snake and warfare and violence but the crowd jostled and all the strong liquor splashed out all over me and the crowd laughed as one and shouted “Kampai!”
I made it home that night, somehow, at some time or other, and threw my clothes out of the window of my apartment and lay down, wondering if the bed spins in the opposite direction in the Far East. Life sure is random and uncertain: if Nassim Taleb had been there, I can’t be sure whether I would have thanked him for the best night at the best bar in the world, or whether I would have chased him as though I was a sabre-toothed tiger.