By David Yamaguchi The North American Post
For months, I had been harboring a secret, which proofreader Geraldine Shu coaxed me into sharing in the July 8 issue. It was that the NAP’s deep “rice bin” of “Tough Tofu” columns, a popular long-running series by the late contributor Deems Tsutakawa, was running low and is now empty (obituary, napost.com, Mar. 2021). His essay, “J.G.,” printed on that date, was his last. The bin had been dwindling faster than I had forecast when I first typed into his author box that “his column will run until autumn 2022.”
The latter rate assumed that we would dip into the “Tofu stock” once a month. However, my hand was faster in the bin out of practicality. In planning and laying out each paper, it is common to end up with an empty medium-sized rectangle to fill.
Under deadline pressure, I would say to myself, “I bet a cube of ‘Tofu’ would fit nicely in there.”
More often than not, Deems’ next column would.
In this space, I wrap up a few loose ends on Deems’ “Tough Tofu.” How was it that he began writing his column? How many did he write? And what can I say of them, after editing them regularly across the past two years?
The origin of the “Tough Tofu” column. Deems’ column began with a friendly offer that Tomio Moriguchi made to Deems: his band was welcome to practice in the old Uwajimaya warehouse (the International District building at Sixth and Weller that houses the NAP office). Tomio made the offer because Deems was family: the two were cousins. Wanting to do Tomio a similar favor in exchange, Deems offered to write a NAP column.
The number and length of “Tough Tofu.” Deems followed through on his gesture grandly. As his columns are numbered in the NAP files, “J.G.” was column 141. The early columns span January 2012 to November 2020 on Deems’ website (deemsmusic.com). More recent ones are on napost.com. My planning spreadsheet tallies his last three columns at 380, 331, and 422 words. Accordingly, he wrote about 380 words x 141, for a total of 54,000 words!
Deems’ writing. Deems’ column was an editor’s dream in that he would just whip out the content and submit it faster than we could publish it. We accordingly always had a ready supply of “Tofu article stock.” Interestingly, Deems wrote like a jazz musician — without commas — so his phrasing was not demarcated. In editing “J.G.,”
I added six commas among other light corrections. Geraldine appended two more.
Among Deems’ columns across the past two years, “The Rub” (June 10, 2022) struck me as among his finest. It captures the essence of his musical art. For throughout Deems’ columns, all of us learned vicariously what it was like to be a professional musician, especially one who made a name for himself before the advent of social media. Geraldine’s longer list of favorites are “The Bear,” “Brother Marcus,” “Lenny,” “Low Note,” and of course, “The Rub.”
In sum, Deems’ viewpoint was unique. He was a person who came from and understood our community. His band performed at the heart of it — in the Seattle Bon Odori beer garden — for years. He used expressions many of us remember from our childhoods, like “Tough Tofu!”
A few ending comments. Should we re-run some old Deems columns? My sister suggested this option to me. However, after mulling it over, I believe that we must move on. As the paper of record of the Seattle Nikkei community, I believe we must capture as many voices as we can.
I’d like to close with a few personal remembrances of evenings with Deems. Like many, I mainly knew him as a band guy. In turn, he knew my friends and myself as social dance students who would frequently attend his gigs. He liked us because we were not his normal audience of sitters!
Of many fun evenings our dance group spent with Deems’ band, I can remember two especially enjoyable ones. One was a “White Party” at the Wing
Luke Museum in 2016. At the time, the museum was experimenting with new ways to bring people through their door. Would people attend a dance party? As two of our dance-class members have long-standing relationships with the museum, they invited our class to attend to “seed the room” and get other guests to dance.
The museum invited Deems’ band to set up in its big back conference room and laid out a long table covered with delicious catered party food. Attendees included a few of Deems’ “I’m with the band” groupies such as Deems’ wife Jean, who liked to attend his gigs whenever he played a new venue.
I remember Jean telling me a funny story that night about how she first arrived at the Western campus in Bellingham as a pre-med student from Spokane, then threw back her head and laughed out loud.
“Ha ha ha ha…!” (As in what was I thinking? Who did I think I was?)
The band kept playing as everyone danced, chatted, and laughed.
The second outstanding “Deems night” that comes to mind was 2019 New Year’s Eve. That year, our class was looking for somewhere to go, but for some reason we hadn’t been able to find a band and venue that we liked. As the big night approached, everyone went online, and one person found that Deems would be playing at a place called the Wonder Bar, at 18th and Jackson in Seattle (wondersportsbar.com). A couple of us went to check it out, and sure enough, it was (and remains) a small Ethiopian restaurant near the former site of the Wonder Bread Bakery.
It turned out that members of our dance class nearly filled the restaurant. Ethiopians came to join in later, and the evening again proved great fun.
There was one more dance event, on February 22, 2020, when “The OBG’s” (Oldies But Goodies) were playing at Terry’s Kitchen. With the emerging pandemic in the news, my date and I had decided that it would be our last dance party, after which we would start living much quieter lives. As Deems and Jean also attended as guests, the band invited Deems onstage to join them in performing a song. Deems did just that — to the filled room’s rousing applause — even though it was not his band and they probably hadn’t practiced together. How do musicians do that?
Thanks for everything, Deems.
Seeking the next great columnist to fill this space. Send sample column to email@example.com.