I didn’t know Peter Brown all that well. I’m not saying that I did. But in the mid-90s, anime was still not mainstream yet, the fan base was smaller, and everybody knew everybody, at least a little, or by reputation. And Peter Brown certainly did have a reputation.
In those days, the staff of the computer lab at Laney College – on the border of Oakland’s seedy downtown and its distinctly non-touristy Chinatown – was effectively the same as the makeup of its college anime club, Beefbowl Anime. It was run by a crazy bald second-generation Korean who mostly created fansubs by coercing his elderly father, who had been forcibly taught Japanese as a schoolboy during the Japanese occupation of Korea – to translate the likes of Tenchi Muyo and Macross Plus into English. The lab itself was a motley collection of computers that were ancient even then – some Mac SE/30s, a couple of squat IIci and IIvx machines, and a few PCs that still had 5 1/4” floppy drives. I’d go up there sometimes, hang out, wheel and deal for tapes – in those days, fansubs came on VHS tapes put together with Video Toasters, and you had to have connections to lay your hands on them (thus one reason why everybody got to know everybody – so you’d have people to trade with). As with so many things, it’s easier now, but with less human connection or sense of community. But I digress.
Peter Brown was kind of a member of Beefbowl and kind of not – it isn’t like most anime clubs back then had much real formal organization unless they were big operations like Cal Animage up at UC Berkeley. Everyone just kind of showed up when they could. Peter Brown showed up a lot. The first time I saw him was in the Laney computer lab before a Beefbowl showing (of a couple episodes each of Maison Ikkoku and DNA^2, I think). My first thought was “What a weird-looking girl!”. There was certainly a distinct androgyny to him: a plump, round, rather feminine face that was unmistakably half-white and half-Asian, long hair hanging down in a ponytail, a fanny pack (these were, and perhaps still are, thought of as a feminine or at least effeminate article of clothing); and besides this (much to my disapproval), girls do commonly wear jeans these days, so the rest of his clothes were no help.
Later, during the showing (the cool kids watched anime at home and came to club showings to hang out in the hallway, talk, and make connections), I asked who the girl in the blue jacket was. There was a round of laughter at my expense. Some ribald teasing ensued, which I professed bafflement at. One of the members of the club, a Chinatown native named Raymond, stopped to explain.
“That…” he said, crinkling his nose up as if he were smelling something bad, the way Chinese often do when they talk about something they dislike, “…is Peter Brown”.
I continued to be baffled. Who was he?
Peter Brown had a reputation, you see, as a cosplayer. But with one distinct quirk – he always dressed as female characters. They have a name for that now; they call it “crossplay” (a portmanteau of “crossdressing” and “cosplay”). But Tumblr didn’t exist back then, so our name for it was “fucking weird”.
“How could you think that looked like a woman?”, somebody asked me accusingly.
Thinking fast, and wanting not to spend the rest of the evening as the butt of jokes, I shot back “Well it sure as shit doesn’t look like a man!”
And everyone conceded that I had a point there. The ribald teasing subsided.
Fast forward a year…
* * *
The next time I remember seeing Peter Brown was at Anime Expo ’96, which was the Best. Con. Ever. It was the last anime con before anime started really going mainstream, and thus the last con before poseurs and casual fans started showing up. It was the last time that any anime con was really just a gathering of knowledgable, hardcore devotees. Being in my early 20s, I saw nothing wrong with going down there with no badge or hotel room ready. I’d figure something out about the badge, and besides, the best part of the con was the room parties anyway. As for a hotel room, I figured that it was just a three-day con; staying up 72 hours wouldn’t be that big a deal, and I could sleep when I got home (you think those kinds of things at that age). So I bummed a ride down to LA (with the crazy bald Korean driving – an odyssey in terror is ever there was one) and walked in the door of the hotel with a grand total of $40 in my pocket for the weekend.
The badge issue got solved. Somebody from (I think) the Cal Animage branch at Chabot College hadn’t been able to make it, but the guys from the club had picked up his badge anyway, and since they were connections, I talked my way into it.
The hotel room issue was not resolved so neatly. The first night, I stayed at the Cal Animage Berkeley room party until it shut down at 7AM or so. They showed all kinds of animated shorts on (what in those days passed for) a big TV set – I remember seeing some Seishun Shitemasu fundubs, Bring Me The Head of Charlie Brown, and an obscure little thing called Spirit of Christmas. I grabbed a couple of hours’ sleep under a table, and woke up to find that someone had drawn Madoka Ayukawa on my forearm with a Sharpie.
That night was the masquerade, and it was magnificent. You couldn’t get a crowd to chant “Seig Zeion” with that enthusiasm today.
I don’t know whether this still occurs, but on Saturday night, Anime Expo used to feature an unofficial Pool Party at the hotel pool. Every anime in history has its inevitable fanservice beach episode, and girls would come to the Pool Party in costume as some character from a beach episode. There were fewer girls in fandom then, but they tended to be prettier and thicker-skinned when it came to getting rid of conslugs (as we called guys who came to cons to hit on girls back then – before somebody invented the concept of “stare rape”). I forget why I didn’t go, but I didn’t. Somewhere during the evening, however, I ran into a couple of the Beefbowl guys, who were laughing their asses off at something. I asked what happened.
“Peter Brown damn near started a riot at the Pool Party!”
Again, bafflement on my part.
It turned out that Peter Brown had shown up to the Pool Party dressed as female Ranma, in a red wig and one-piece swimsuit. It hadn’t gone well. A lot of people saw him and headed for the exits. Nothing quite ruins a Pool Party, the general consensus said, like a pudgy half-Asian male sporting a visible three-piece set under a tight red leotard.
I burst out laughing too. I said I was going to the pool to see it all for myself, but the guys told me that the party had broken up and he was gone.
“This isn’t fucking funny!”, Raymond insisted.
But it was.
Fast forward a year…
* * *
Anime Expo ’97 was different. Anime had started to go mainstream in earnest. The casual fans had started showing up. There were more people there, but fewer people you knew. There were more girls – a lot more. For the first time, you heard of lots of people who planned on meeting face-to-face with others who they’d become friends with on the internet – mostly on IRC or ICQ. That was part of my plan, too – I was going to meet Winnie for the first time. Not with any idea of romance – I had been able to even over the internet that she had some psychological issues that I didn’t want to deal with, and anyway she had a jealous harem of male admirers – but I was curious to meet her all the same. She and her harem were doing a group cosplay as the characters from Fushigi Yuugi, with Winnie herself as Miaka. There wasn’t a Yui – hives can only have one queen, after all.
I ran into Peter Brown in the registration line. He said he had something special planned for the masquerade this year. The general consensus was that this was not good news. The general consensus was that Peter Brown’s costumes were indeed beautifully-crafted and meticulously-made, and that they would be a wonder to behold if only he wasn’t wearing them personally. Perhaps he could create the costumes, and he could find a girl to wear them instead? A few people had suggested this to him, and a couple of girls had even volunteered, but Peter Brown was not interested.
That year, also for the first time, the number of attendees had grown such that not everybody who wanted to see the masquerade could fit into the ballroom where it was being held. Thus, big (again, for the time) TVs were placed in smaller ballrooms, and the masquerade was simulcast into them so that everybody could watch. Winnie and her harem had grabbed some front-row seats. I lay on the floor at their feet, right in front of the TV.
About halfway through the masquerade, Peter Brown took the stage, wearing a bright red business suit with a green shirt and a yellow tie. I was not a great Sailor Moon fan, but I had seen enough Sailor Moon: Sailor Stars to suddenly understand what the special thing that Peter Brown had in mind was. He started his skit, struck a pose… and waited. Something had gone wrong; someone had missed a cue for something. There was a long, awkward delay. Peter Brown, trying to keep things going, said in a diva-ish voice (barely audibly over the TV in the remote ballroom) “I cannot work like this!”. The wait, with him still holding his pose, seemed to go on forever, until finally the tape was played and the feed cut to Sailor Star Fighter’s transformation sequence from the anime.
“Oh God no!” someone shouted.
The feed cut back to Peter Brown. The suit was supposed to have been a velcro-secured, tearaway affair, covering the Sailor Starlight costume of black leather thigh-high boots, hot pants, and a bikini top, to be revealed when he tore it off. But it had malfunctioned, and as the feed cut back, he was still desperately trying to pull it off of his plump, rotund body. The crowd – both in the main ballroom and in the remote hall where I was, broke into jeers. I turned to one of Winnie’s hive, who was dressed as Chichiri, complete with the sort of round, conical hat associated with Chinese and Vietnamese peasants…
“Gimmee your hat!” I pleaded
“Why? What for?”
“Just gimmee your hat!”
He did. I speed-crawled up to the TV, and in one motion, clapped the hat onto the screen right over the image of Peter Brown’s mostly-uncovered body as it pranced around on stage – safely obscuring it, completely.
And the crowd cheered!
Fast forward a few hours…
* * *
Later that evening I was at a room party (I think it was run by someone who later was manga editor for Dark Horse – it’s a bit hard to remember). I arrived late, had a drink or two, and settled in. I wandered around, said hello to the host, and to Raymond, and to someone I knew from IRC and had already met once in person the year before.
I ended up half-drunk, and eventually ambled over to the room’s bed.
And there was Peter Brown. He was sitting on the bed in the room, half-drunk himself, normally dressed, and alone.
My head was spinning. I needed to sit down for a while. So I sat on the bed, and Peter Brown recognized me, and we started talking.
I forget the exact words of the conversation, and I wouldn’t try to repeat them here even if I did. But, as it got late, and the crowd thinned out, and we drank a bit more, the conversation turned personal, and I heard Peter Brown’s story in full.
Peter Brown’s father had met his mother while in Japan in the military. They married, moved to the U.S., had him, and divorced when he was very young. His mother had gone back to Japan and neither he nor his father had ever heard from her again, though they had heard thirdhand that she had remarried, and that Peter Brown had Japanese half-siblings who he had never met. His father had remarried as well, and he had ended up with new stepsiblings, and eventually half-siblings, from his new stepmother. She hadn’t liked him very much though, and neither had her children. His being the child of his father’s first wife was most of it, and the obvious racial difference between him and the rest of his new family hadn’t helped. There was a lot of emotional abuse, and sometimes the abuse from the other kids in the family crossed into the physical. Always the outcast, at 18 he was unsubtly requested to leave, and did. He worked where he could, and took classes at Laney where he could. That was his lot. And then there was the cosplay.
He didn’t directly say that his life was an unhappy one, and always had been. He didn’t have to. It was obvious from talking to him that the conventions and the cosplay were the only things that brought him any real joy or sense of accomplishment. The whole crowd had booed him that day, and I’d stuck Chichiri’s hat over him on the remote ballroom TV, and yet that moment on stage at the Anime Expo masquerade was still all that he had lived the previous year of his life for.
Of course he would never just make a costume and let somebody else wear it.
I felt for him, but said little. Perhaps just letting him talk was what was best, or perhaps I just couldn’t think of anything to say about it all.
The party wound down in the wee hours. Eventually everyone left, including us. The next day was the last of the convention, and I didn’t see Peter Brown again before we all went home.
Fast forward five years…
* * *
If you’re ever in Oakland Chinatown and you’re in the mood for some Dim Sum, Restaurant Peony is a good choice. It’s on the top floor of the Pacific Plaza, a block off of Broadway, and a few blocks from Laney College. On a clear, cool early afternoon in the fall of 2002, I was there for lunch with Raymond, his brother, and another of his friends.
A lot had changed in the previous few years. I had gone to Japan to teach English for a year, and then come back to the States. I’d fallen in love, been engaged, and had gotten my heart broken. I was working at a job that involved a lot of time on the road. Raymond had started to have some health issues, and didn’t get out all that much. But my being back in town for a while merited a lunch out.
We were both getting close to thirty. We both still liked anime, but it wasn’t – couldn’t be – an obsession or a lifestyle anymore.
Dim Sum is a leisurely experience, especially on a weekend. You sit, and talk, and eat a bit, and sit some more, and drink some tea, and let a couple of hours pass. If you’re with Asians, you can expect gadgets at the table; nobody thinks of it as rude. Between the many courses, Raymond’s brother sat smashing buttons on a GameBoy Advance. The rest of us talked. Someone (probably me, though I can’t be sure) brought up Peter Brown and asked what he was up to.
Raymond crinkled his nose. “He’s out at sea.”
Surely this was a joke?
No. It wasn’t. Raymond explained that you can make a lot of money fast by signing up as crew on a cargo ship; so much so that if you lived cheap, you only had to work half the year. Peter Brown did this, and with the other half, worked on his costumes and went to wear them at conventions.
“Besides, the ships go back and forth to Japan a lot, and while he’s there he can go anime shopping.”
I suppose he could. Or perhaps he could spend the time looking for someone…
The conversation moved to other things. We talked, and sat, and ate, and drank some tea, and Raymond’s brother plinked away at his GameBoy.
Fast forward ten years…
* * *
Raymond’s house is a beautiful one, or would be were it not a total mess – cluttered to every last inch with toys, models, figures, DVDs, and an ever-more forlorn looking collection of VHS tapes – all artifacts of an increasingly distant youth. And not just in his room, but everywhere. His mom lets him. I’d complain if it was my house, but it isn’t. And besides, he and I are of the same generation, and the toys of his youth were all familiar and comforting things to me, too.
And I myself have little right to complain of anyone else not wanting to grow up.
Still, a lot had changed in those ten years, too. I had ended up back in grad school and was putting the finishing touches on my thesis. Raymond’s health problems had gotten worse, and he’d gotten very close indeed to death before a new set of kidneys became available. The transplant had been a success however, and he’d only had to stay in the hospital a week afterward. Raymond still didn’t have a driver’s license at just short of forty, so I occasionally drove him down to Pill Hill in Oakland for his periodic post-transplant checkups. They were all fine.
It was a Saturday afternoon. Raymond had gotten back into building and launching model rockets, which were a part of his childhood, and mine as well. He’d gotten me back into it, too. And so we sat at his dining room table – gorgeous lacquered wood under the double tablecloths that sat under the gaming laptops and scattered piles of parts from rockets and Gundam models. I glued fins on an Estes Big Bertha. Raymond’s glue was drying, so he distractedly played some game on his computer, while an 80s mix played from the smartphone he’d laid on the table.
Somehow, the anime Queen’s Blade, noted for its unrealistically huge-busted female characters, came up.
“Let’s see Peter Brown cosplay that!” I joked.
Raymond looked away from his game for a second. “No chance of that. He’s dead.”
“Wait – that’s terrible! What happened?!”
“Killed himself. Got ahold of a pistol somewhere and shot himself in the head.”
Awful… yes. Though I guess not all that unexpected.
“Yeah, well…” Raymond added, staring down at the table “…at least he checked out on his own terms.”
There was, not an intentional moment of silence, still silence for a moment nonetheless. Then something loud happened in the game on Raymond’s laptop, and he went back to it.
My rocket sat before me, needing fins. But I let it wait for just a bit, and I thought about Peter Brown.
No… not unexpected. Had the boos finally gotten to him? Was damn near twenty years worth of being a running joke in the only places he’d ever found any real happiness enough? Maybe it was the fact that we were all getting older. If people booed what he did when he was twenty-three, what would they say when he was forty years old? And what was there for him on the other side of forty, anyway? Certainly not a wife, children, family, accomplishment, respectability. He’d have none of the sweet things about growing older, and he couldn’t keep up what he had been doing much longer.
And so it seems he checked out.
Had there been a somberness in Raymond’s voice when he had told me? Respect for the dead, perhaps. Or maybe some reflection on the fact that he’d come close to “checking out” himself recently, and not on his own terms? He hadn’t crinkled his nose this time. But then again, if he really did dislike the guy so much, why did he always know what he was up to when I asked?
Or it could have been a realization that he and I had more to count as ours at forty than Peter Brown did, but not all that much.
Raymond’s mom came home. We made dinner. We ate. I glued my fins. He finished his game. The sun went down. I went home. Life went on.
* * *
So why am I telling this story? On a political blog, no less?
I suppose a liberal would say that Peter Brown hadn’t been tolerated enough. That he faced structural racism. That he was some manner of sexually baroque that should have been celebrated. That if we had all been more supportive, he wouldn’t have seen that gun as the only logical conclusion of his existence on this Earth.
I also suppose that traditionalists would say that Peter Brown had been robbed of something important by modernity. That he needed direction in his life; something more than the enjoyment of foreign cartoons as the thing that gave him meaning. Or that he had been tolerated too much – allowed to be a man-child too long in a society that is too permissive when it comes to such things.
Perhaps being on the wrong side of forty has made me reflective. Perhaps I’ve started to become an old man who tells pointless stories. Perhaps it’s just summer, and life is slow, and it’s the right time to spin a yarn about the old days.
Maybe it’s all of that. Or something else entirely.
They say that nobody really ever dies so long as people remember them. For this reason, Peter Brown’s name is the only one that I haven’t changed or concealed in this story.
I didn’t know Peter Brown all that well. Maybe nobody did.
But I do remember him.