February 12, 2018 § 5 Comments
I had moved to my aunt’s apartment in Hoya City on the Seibu-Ikebukuro Line, and it was a long way to my office in Kanda. This was in the summer of 1987. From her apartment I had to walk about five minutes to the station and then endure a 30-minute ride to Ikebukuro Station.
I say “endure” but it was so much more than that. The trains were only marginally cooled and the outside weather was deep-fried hot and humid. As the platform packed tighter and tighter with the swell of riders, the tension rose in synch with the temperature. Thankfully I was tall and once we were crushed onto the train I had breathing space and and could see above the crowd.
But even so it was murderously hard; with each stop the car got more and more jammed until by the time we were flushed out onto the platform in Ikebukuro many of us were simply gasping for air, our hearts pounding and heads swimming from the claustrophobia. Of course there were always people who simply broke down en route, sobbing, shivering uncontrollably, even howling.
And then I had a few minutes to hustle over to the next platform and take the train to Kanda Station, another thirty minutes of hell, ejected, always, soaked in sweat and swearing that there was no way I could do it again. Until of course I had to do it again.
I’d get to my office at Kanda Gaigo Gakuin and sit down, rumpled and head pounding and miserable. The desk across from mine was occupied by Middle-Aged Angry Dude. MAAD had fled the draft in ’71 and come to Japan, a place he seemed to hate. Even though Carter had pardoned the draft dodgers he had dug his trench and, at age 38, intended to lie in it forever. “Mind if I smoke?” he said my first day of work, blowing fumes across my desk.
“Yes,” I said.
“Tough shit,” he laughed. I didn’t say anything but he stared at me. “You’ll hate it here,” he said confidently. “Unless you start smoking a lot, and drinking a lot more.” He paused. “Actually, you’ll still hate it, but it will dull the reality of how much they hate you.”
“Fuck off,” I said.
“See? You’re already rattled. I bet it’s the commute. Don’t worry. It will grind you down into a pulp. It should be fun to watch. You know how many young pups I’ve seen sit in that desk?”
I looked up at him. “None from Texas, apparently.”
He laughed, uncertainly. “What makes you say that?”
“Because you’ve still got all your fucking teeth.”
That shut him up for a bit, but Angry Dude wasn’t far off about the commute. It got to the point where I would go to bed shivering in fear of the commute, and there must have been hundreds of thousands of prisoners just like me. I’d lie there in my futon and imagine being on the platform, being squeezed, being sweated against, watching people melt down, counting the minutes until I would get to dash out, catch my breath, and repeat.
And this was only the first week …
On Sunday night, the beginning of my second week, I decided to go to bed at 8:00, get up at 3:00, and do an early morning ride that would hopefully put me in a better frame of mind for the train commute. I hopped out of my futon, silently pulled on my riding gear, and slid out the front door. Tokyo was motionless and silent and black.
I’d consulted my map before going to bed and headed up Ome-Kaido for about an hour, then continued up into the hills. I saw an occasional car. The air was clean and the only sounds were my tires on the pavement and the clicking of my rear derailleur as I’d upshift to meet the continually ascending road. After a while I turned around, got lost a bit, and found my way back to Hoya by 7:00. The city was in full morning rage mode, of course.
I hopped in the shower and got ready to go do battle with the train when I had a funny thought. “Why not just ride to work? It couldn’t take much longer than the train.”
I reviewed my Tokyo City Map again, then jumped back on my Tommasini. I hopped onto Inokashira Kaido and followed the streets, all senses on max alert as I navigated the close but respectful millimeters of Tokyo rush hour traffic. Freed from the train cage, no longer having to gaze out of the little steamed-over rectangular periscope windows, I was able to take in the city, legs churning, blood pumping, wind cooling my head as it coursed through my liberated, unhelmeted hair. After a while I was smack in the middle of Kanda, where I worked. I locked my bike, skipped up the stairs and into the air conditioned building, and then slid in front of my desk, ten minutes to spare.
Angry Dude’s eyes were bloodshot and he stank of cigarette smoke. “What are you in such a good mood for?” he growled.
I leaned back in my chair and looked him over slowly, cataloging his thinning hair, baggy eyes, puffy jowls, and sagging breasts. “Nothin’,” I said.
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