kelly kikuchi


Sun Hats

November 19, 2022
Berkeley Hills

I’ve always enjoyed going for walks so long as to be disconcerting. I flew my first Thanksgiving in Tokyo solo, so I explored the neighborhoods extending out from around my apartment for eight hours, from Sancha to Youga and all the nooks and crannies, chutes and ladders in between.

Later, I’d get bolder and go further, from Shiodome to Todoroki on foot, mirroring some 20 years’ earlier’s exploration of London with the help of a pocket A-Z.  A couple of years before that epic London jaunt was the walk from my job at Cooper’s Coffee in  Chelsea to Ft. Hamilton Parkway station in Brooklyn.  I’d wanted to see and feel how the cities stitched themselves together, to witness firsthand how organic flows had been stopper-ed by greed, ignorance and/or affluence.  How those same channels might have been revived through tiny passageways and secret stairs by the curiosity of others like me.

In the last 12 weeks in Tokyo, a season I’d unironically named “Sayonara”, I walked every night. Loops and circles through quiet neighborhoods and down bustling shoutengai. That era is one of the most perfect of my memories, the warm safety and protection of that darkness, and how the intimacies of the city shine through in slivers and cracks.  It was a celebration of female-identifying liberty that I knew I would lose immediately upon returning to “the Land of the Free.”

Just months later, I was having an American Thanksgiving, no longer as a visiting expat, but as a resident of Nob Hill, San Francisco. From there, my walks radiated west through Pacific Heights and as far as Lands’ End.   I walked to friends’ homes in the Mission, in Cole Valley, to visit the Palace of Fine Arts.  It was a meaningful way of reacquainting myself with the U.S., of reorienting myself.

Walking was soon replaced by running, and by much longer loops.  I was almost able to explain to myself how San Francisco worked, and that surprised me. There were only two situations that didn’t feel safe.  The first was predawn darkness.  It wasn’t as sinister as its evening counterpart, but the desperation of those who have been forced to spend the entirety of the night out there was a vibe that clashed too harshly with the privilege of my morning state of mind.

The second was sudden encounters with impenetrable fog.  Don’t get it twisted, I love me some fog- i’m a sucker for its mystery and romance.  It’s a vote for living in the City. Something the city has going for it. But once, for example, on a long run somewhere near Portola, I followed the sidewalk around a curve to the right and was met with a larger-than-life blank screen. Opaque. There was a plane that severed the reality I had been running in and replaced it with an abrupt dead end. It wasn’t my mind that had panicked; it was my body.  I tried to run into that actual abyss but my body’s engine had trouble turning over in the face of it.  In the end, walking saved the day.  I couldn’t dive into the fog.  I had to slow down, be curious and explore it.

In the fall of 2019, I started over yet again. Not at the same scale as returning to the US after 17 years, but a refresh in a slightly larger apartment in a more interesting and comfortable (for a Black woman) neighborhood near Uptown Oakland.

My marathon finished, I was back to walking as my primary mode. Again to orient myself (or in this case, reorient myself) with Oakland.  Around the lake, through to Rockridge, up into Piedmont and the hills.  Marveling at the monuments people made to themselves. Imagining the egos and drives that lead to this design decision over that one.  The virtue signalling of succulent-based landscaping, electric vehicles, of solar panels perched precariously on rooftops.

In the summer of 2020, I began wearing sun hats on these walks. Not so much around the lake, but usually when going up into the hills.  If it was overcast, I’d more often than not carry a cup of coffee from a hipster coffeehouse.  I began to pay closer attention to the presence of American flags, both the traditional stars and stripes and those ruched, half-circle not-quite-a-flag-but-might-as-well-be decorations striped red, white and blue.  The ones that always seemed to whisper “confederacy” under their breath.

It wasn’t until a number of months later that it dawned on me. On that particular day, I wore my hair in long braids, a “protective style.”  They were stunning, they made me stunning and they had been stunningly expensive to install. 13 hours in the making, they were voluminous enough to make it very difficult to wear any of my sun hats.  I struggled to get the largest and most accommodating hat in my collection on. I struggled to keep it on.

That day’s course had me pass the house I believed to be my favorite, a two-story brick affair that looked out of place in California. I was crushing so hard on the house that I’d actually stalked it online.  I knew the names of the owners.  As I passed, the woman watering plants outside returned my “hello.”  I knew she was, or at least had been, a lawyer.  I tried to keep my greeting more ‘sunny’ than ‘creepy’ and kept it moving.

Walking away, I let my attention to my audiobook stray into a daydream about the home somehow becoming available. And an even less likely mind-fib: that I would actually have the money to purchase it. Finally, my fantasy had me pull into the driveway, unload groceries and greet the neighbors.  That’s where the record scratched.  Even my daydreams couldn’t tolerate such an impossible falsehood.  My waist-length braids swished back and forth as I stepped. I paused, a bit hot, and took off the hat, letting my crown breathe.  And I was exposed.

Not in the way that my skin was exposed to the sun. But because somewhere in the back of my mind, the Blackness of my presence was exposed to the eyes of the wealthy neighborhood.  The Blackness of my hairstyle was now undiluted by the hat. Subconciously, I had been trying to deflect suspicion through signaling a certain version of whiteness. Upper middle classness. Liberalness. Educated-ness.  Of sun-hattedness.

I flicked back through my tens of dozens of walks through these neighborhoods thus far.  I had always accessorized them with a sun hat, a white friend or a tote bag.  Sometimes a combo. They were my signifiers and my shields. And in that moment, I  couldn’t quite identify who the shame and embarrassment I felt was really for.

The Black Cat

May 23, 2020

Two days ago, I’d finished my last meeting of the week from my sofa an was to embark upon the long weekend with my last bottle of sparkling wine.

I cleared the picket line of masked potential grocery shoppers and into the evening sun soaking the parking lot. Weaving at a social distance between parked cars and carts, I had just crossed the territorial divide: a single stripe of magnetic red paint describing the edge of the CVS/Grocery Outlet parking frontier.

Sauntering down the middle, between rows of parked cars (and garnering not a little attention) was a black cat. Not hiding beneath the vehicles, darting from shady underbelly to shady underbelly, but straight down the middle of the “road”, uncaring.

He was mangy, to be sure, and his utter disregard for motorists was striking.

As I approached, that slow-motion horror sunk in, one laced with recognition and panic. He was known.

There had been posts on neighborhood social media about an injured cat and whom to call or text when spotted. People were looking for him, wanting to take care of him. And had been for a couple of months.

After the SNS posts, I had begun noticing handwritten signs here and there, with same information, posted around the neighborhood. Cat contact tracing—these people had been trying to describe his routine so they’d best be able to catch him and get him care.

He sauntered back out of the center of the street and up onto a curb and paused. It was then, with his back to me, that I could see his full regalia, peacocking the extent of his destruction.

I’d never seen such devastating injuries to any human or any animal in my entire life. I didn’t know how he could possibly be walking. He was partially flayed, with parts of felt flapped back. There were boils on what should not, could not possibly be skin. Massive, gaping wounds.

I took his photo and sent it to the prescribed contact. No immediate response, so I moved on. He continued on his path.

Thirty minutes later came the response, but by then my psyche had let go. He had been steady and on a mission of some sort. Who was I to stop him? Besides, there was wine to be drunk, lights to be knocked out again.


It’s officially the weekend.

Weekends are longer now as workweek reductions are used as an excuse to be paid less. It’s a four-day work week, except that lots of messages and “recommendations” and suggestions, requests, ideas are being smattered about online during the official, unpaid, third day off. I tune it out anyway.

Lockdown despair finds extra solace in neither work nor “play” but the frivolity and/or meaninglessness of the work I am doing in the face of this disaster makes “play” seem a more honest way of devoting time.

I set off in search of ice cream and pipe cleaners. Novelty distractions. My building manager had shown me an interesting shortcut to the destination just a week prior, and I decided today is the day to try it out on my own.

I hook a right around the mildly abandoned yet somehow still inhabited church parking lot. It’s maybe the warmest it’s been this year so far. At the far edge of the lot is a staircase and shade that I’m already a bit thirsty for.

And there he was. The black cat. At the edge of the shade. Not sauntering, not moving. Lying flat on his side. He’s not doing well at all. His eye is positioned all wrong. He’s breathing. There are flies inside his skin flap. I panic again. Texting the same number as the day before. This time, the call comes immediately.

No names, no pleasantries. As I describe the situation, I begin to cry and jump up and down like a kindergartner. Another neighborhood feral looks on.

The woman on the other end of the line tells me to keep shooing the flies from him, she will send help.

I grab a twig to fling around him, warding them off. There’s water in bowls for other cats and I pour some onto the ground in case he needs it. Another call, this time from the rescuer. Ten minutes, she says.

Looking at him, I can see that 10 minutes will be a very long time. I’m still weepy and I talk to him, but I am too amped up to deal with 10 long minutes in an empty parking lot with a dying cat.

I call a friend, basically hysterical. She’s the mother of a young child. She is able to calm me. I excuse myself and thank her profusely, noticing when the call ends that we had spoken for seven minutes and 33 seconds.

“Only a minute or two more,” I tell him. He raises his head and gasps. Somehow, he moves in such a way as to close the open flap of skin. The flies can’t get in any longer. He coughs with his whole body.

I know it’s the end, I’ve known since I spotted him. Did I know yesterday when I watched him walk through the lot?

The first car arrives. I’m still teary. The woman has a net but quickly understands that this cat will not be moving. She’s tough, stoic, she doesn’t think he’s going to make it. Another car arrives. This woman reminds me of the crying police officer in Twin Peaks. She is emotional as she moves and I back away.

“I’m going now,” I say.

I just don’t want to see him die. I can’t witness the moment.

I descend the staircase onto the backstreet. An older black gentleman greets me from his stoop behind his mask. Disoriented, I reach the intersection and see the long line of nearly consumers waiting six feet apart, and turn back.

I take the long way home.