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September and The Town of Cats

art by Maya Hewitt, a recently discovered favorite 

A haunting excerpt from a short story by the Japanese author Haruki Murakami, about a man who journeys into a mysterious town of cats:

In the story, a young man is travelling alone with no particular destination in mind. He rides the train and gets off at any stop that arouses his interest. He takes a room, sees the sights, and stays for as long as he likes. When he has had enough, he boards another train. He spends every vacation this way.

One day, he sees a lovely river from the train window. Gentle green hills line the meandering stream, and below them lies a pretty little town with an old stone bridge. The train stops at the town’s station, and the young man steps down with his bag. No one else gets off, and, as soon as he alights, the train departs. 

 The young man crosses the bridge and walks into the town…. The place seems totally uninhabited… In any case, the next train will not come until the following morning, so he has no choice but to spend the night here. He wanders around the town to kill time.

I was listening to this podcast the other day; a three-hour conversation between the artist David Choe and David Chang of Momofuku, just talking shit. They began to talk about art; about bringing forth the stuff that you want to bring forth into the world, your magnus opus – while you’re young, and not waiting; not caring if you’re ready. And if you don’t know what you want to bring forth into the world – well, do it all until you do figure something out.

David Chang goes: “That’s the way guys do shit. They don’t know anything [about what they want]- and what you do is, you do it in reverse. You do everything, and then you figure out what you don’t like to do. I found out that I didn’t want to be in front of a broiler. By process of elimination, I can know what I would like to do – because I’ve already done everything I don’t want to do.”

This entire summer felt like a haze; a feverish dream – and not necessarily a good one. I began to work in nightlife with the same curiosity that led me to work on an apple farm in Sweden: the sense that perhaps once I tried everything I would truly know what I wanted to do. I’m young, and I have time to do a lot of things – so why not try everything? It’s just like putting on a temporary costume; it’s not permanent – it’s just like getting off a train, just for a quick look aorund – you know? And then you can get back on, and keep moving forward.

But this long, hot summer working and drinking and partying in Taipei has been perhaps more of a nightmare than a dream: one where I get off a train to walk around in a town, but no one is there – like in Murakami’s town of cats. I tried out this lifestyle to see if it would sit right on me – I just didn’t expect that I wouldn’t be able to extract it from my personality. I didn’t know that it would change me [taint me?] in so many ways I never expected – and most of all: I didn’t know that it would be so hard to get back on the train.

In fact, this is a town of cats. When the sun starts to go down, many cats come trooping across the bridge—cats of all different kinds and colors. Because cats can see in the dark, they need almost no lights, but that particular night the glow of the full moon floods the town, enabling the young man to see every detail from his perch in the bell tower. When dawn approaches, the cats finish their work, close up the shops, and swarm back across the bridge.

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There are two types of cats you encounter night-life – they are in essence the same, want the same things – but they use two totally different approaches. The first is more comforting, because they’re familiar: they swagger around, buy you a drink, get you to their table, say the usual inanities, try to get you to go home with them once you’re sufficiently both trashed – blah blah. And the next is the type that tries to get into your head – frantically trying to hook you by snagging on a vulnerability – which is probably the most irritating and presumptuous thing of all. “Are you happy, doing what you’re doing right now in Taipei? Come on. I know you [although, I don’t]. You’re not happy here. You’re not happy doing this.”  This happened two weekends ago.

When darkness approaches, he hides in the bell tower again and observes the cats’ activities until dawn. Trains stop at the station before noon and in the late afternoon. No passengers alight, and no one boards, either. Still, the trains stop at the station for exactly one minute, then pull out again. He could take one of these trains and leave the creepy cat town behind. But he doesn’t. Being young, he has a lively curiosity and is ready for adventure. He wants to see more of this strange spectacle. If possible, he wants to find out when and how this place became a town of cats.

 I think it used to be fun – matter of fact, it still is – through a glaze of alcohol, of course. It was so fucking fun – bottles of champagne, neon lights, acting like a fool; like a princess or a monster, having guys bow and scrape to you either way; dancing to music you like and acting however you wanted because nothing really mattered – because – here’s this crazy part: everything would reset in the morning. What a strange, strange spectacle!

So Stephanie, are you happy? Of course I’m not fucking happy.  I’m going to bed at 6 am most nights, because insomnia has taken hold – when you work at 1am and get off work at 5am two days a week, it tends to leave an impression. I haven’t made any progress in my freelance career, and instead I just lay in bed and even though I hate that I do this, find myself looking forward to the weekends, when I can just forget my lack of creativity, inspiration and motivation – and just plunge back mindlessly into a social landscape that used to stand for something; an evolution in my thinking; a type of freedom. I don’t know if it was always so tired and stagnant – but I see it now, when I’m standing in heels and letting in a bunch of mediocre assholes, and blocking others – exulting in the tiny, insignificant amount of power I wield over them. So – why not stop?

And yet I honestly ask myself: if I stop that – then what do I do? I think I used to know the answer, before. But my brain is too muddled recently to figure out if I ever really did know it or not. What do I love? I know that I love Taipei – I walk around in the alleys and I just still adore this place. But what do I do with that? Write a blog? Start a business? Write a book? Take my degree and work in an office? What do I do? I was on a train somewhere, but I go off to take a look around – and now the train has left without me.

I’m writing all this at a cafe near National Taiwan University. It’s a cafe that I come to often – it opens late; it has an outdoor patio, and serves good quiche. The woman who owns the cafe I’m at was sitting outside, smoking a cigarette. She complains endlessly to the older man sitting across from her, fingers tapping nervously on scarred wood. I never feel like meeting anyone anymore, she says. I imagine their relationship: once-lovers in school, perhaps. Maybe he had a crush on her; thought she was great – hell, she thought that she was great. She was going to do something amazing – opened a cafe, thought it was going to become this hub of artists and vibrant creatives and now all she has this smoky spot, wood rotting in places – and that time is gone. The cynicism is as catching in my beloved Taipei, as anywhere.

Once the afternoon train disappears down the track, the place grows quieter than ever. The sun begins to sink. It is time for the cats to come. The young man knows that he is irretrievably lost. This is no town of cats, he finally realizes. It is the place where he is meant to be lost. It is another world, which has been prepared especially for him. And never again, for all eternity, will the train stop at this station to take him back to the world he came from.

I’m going out tonight – and how comforted I was – to make those plans with my friends. Knowing that I’ll be in the same places, see the same people – that I always do. Knowing I’ll drink, as I always do – and dance, as I always do – and then in the morning perhaps I’ll look to see if everything has reset, but it won’t have. I’ll still be alone, in the strange town of cats, where the train won’t ever stop to take me away.

(Town of Cats, Haruki Murakami, The New Yorker, September 2011)

3 Comments

  1. Absolutely f*cking great post. This resonates deeply with me. The analogy about the train – perfect. We’re young and free, the world is our oyster. Or is it? Oyster, or prison? Or maybe we’re more like hermit crabs, we can try on different shells for a while and when we outgrow them, find another one.

    Something needs to change though, for you to change. Whether that be a conscious decision on your behalf, or whether it’s an extraneous event in your life – there needs to be a trigger, something for you to fight for. I hope it comes soon!

    P.S. Taiwan is best.

    • Stephanie Hsu says

      Hey Chris –

      Some great posts on your blog as well. Yeah – sometimes I feel suffocated with the amount of options and freedom I have. Almost wish I didn’t have it – but if I were to be constrained; well – I’d be miserable to. Hopefully the trigger is the upcoming move I’m making – crossing my fingers.

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