Saturday, February 18, 2006
I've often mentioned my study of karate in this blog, and have referred to my first karate teacher with fondness and admiration.
Here is The Man.
He's Gerald Evans, but everyone calls him "Ski." Call him "sensei," even in the dojo, and he'll firmly but gently remind you that "the name's Ski."
He lives in Philadelphia, and I make occasional trips there to visit him and the city I called home for nearly a decade.
But mostly I go there to visit Ski, who remains my mentor and dear friend despite the passage of 11 years since I last trained in his dojo.
He's 67 but moves with the litheness and power of a far, far younger man. For those who keep track of such things, he's a yondan -- or fourth-degree black belt -- though he gave up testing for rank a couple of decades ago as a mostly political exercise in ego massage. Were he to test today, he would likely be a rokudan, or sixth-degree black belt. Possibly seventh degree. "So what? Who cares?" he would say.
Ski was a prize student of Teruyuki Okazaki, who was a student of Master Gichin Funakoshi, founder of the Shotokan style of karate. Ski also earned the respect of Masatoshi Nakayama-sensei, another of Master Funakoshi's pupils.
Okazaki-sensei went on to found the International Shotokan Karate Federation, headquartered in Philadelphia. Ski eventually started his own dojo -- but not before competing internationally and compiling a very successful record as a tournament fighter in world championships, including in Japan, where he battled the legendary Masahiko Tanaka, world champion in sparring at the time, and nearly defeated him.
I have some of these matches on DVD.
They are Zen in motion, nothing more, nothing less.
OK, this is starting to sound like a speech at a testimonial dinner.
The essence is that Ski was instrumental in opening my eyes to life and to human nature, and offered me a glimpse into who I am. Karate was only the vehicle through which these lessons were imparted. He could've been my tiddly-winks teacher and I would've learned just as much. He was the finger pointing at the moon.
He also got me interested in Japan, where I lived for three years through his encouragement.
I haven't lived in Philadelphia since 1995 and I study a different style of karate now and have come to be very fond of my current instructor, a most impressive and respected practitioner in his own right.
But insofar as we have "parents" in the martial arts who shape us and teach us to walk, so to speak, Ski is my father.
My visit yesterday began with hat-shopping with Ski in South Philly. This was for Ski, but I wound up buying one, too. Here's Ski in his old-school "applejack," me in my old-school "stingy brim." I'm not much of a hat person, but this one cried out to be bought.
Then, it was off to a culinary mecca on Ninth Street in South Philly called Geno's Steaks. Vegetarians, my apologies for these photos. And you might not want to read the next few sentences.
If you've never had a cheesesteak (and if you're not a vegetarian), you don't know what you're missing.
Pictured here is a "Whiz without": A 10-inch piece of heaven consisting of sliced steak slathered in Cheez Whiz, served piping hot on a fresh roll from the nearby Italian Market. The "without" refers to sliced onions.
I could go up to the order window and say "Hello, I would like a plain cheesesteak with melted Cheez Whiz, and hold the onions, please," but with a line of hungry customers that sometimes stretches for blocks, economy of words is key. My preference can be stated in two simple, beautiful words: Whiz without.
Use other vocabulary and you'll be laughed at mercilessly by any native Philadelphian within earshot. Take too long to make up your mind and you may be pushed out of the way.
Many other places around the world offer cheesesteaks, and may even have the audacity to call them Philadelphia cheesesteaks. But if you're not eating one from Geno's, or from main rival Pat's diagonally across the street, then you're ingesting an impostor.
Just as you must go to the Louvre in Paris to behold the "Mona Lisa," so you must journey to South Philly to munch that masterpiece in meat, the cheesesteak.
After gorging myself at Geno's -- Ski doesn't touch the stuff -- I sat in on his Friday evening karate class. As always, I picked up some pointers I can use in my training in Goju-style karate. I don't participate in Ski's classes. I believe in the Japanese proverb, "The hunter who hunts two rabbits goes hungry." I just watch, but I still pick up a lot of wisdom that transcends styles.
These visits to Philadelphia every few months are always a homecoming for me.