Tuesday, December 5, 1995

The Smiley Ladies

Yesterday morning I took the local all the way to work because I was in no hurry and because I wanted to get some serious reading done. When you take the local you can get a seat, and if you make the effort, sooner or later you can get one in a corner where you have the best chance to avoid being stepped on or otherwise disturbed.

To get to work I take the train from Kyodo Station, on the Odakyu Line. The express doesn’t stop there, so I can either take the local all the way to Machida and transfer to a train going to Fujisawa or transfer at any of four express stops before getting to Machida. Three, actually, since most local trains don’t wait for an express at Seijogakuenmae but go all the way to Mukogaokayuen before being overtaken. I can also change at Noborito, the stop immediately before Mukogaokayuen and get a better chance at a seat when folks get off at Mukogaokayuen, but usually I choose to stay on the local that one last station for simplicity’s sake. It’s only a ten -minute stand from there to Machida.

Now it is possible to catch an express that will be headed for Fujisawa at one of these express stops and take it as far as Chogo, and transfer to the local for the last leg to Shonandai. It is possible to catch that express as early as Mukogaokayuen and you always get a seat by the time you get to Machida. By now, it is quite automatic. Depending on how much I want to read and avoid the tension and crowds of the expresses, my body makes the decision and my mind can focus on my reading.

I haven’t scratched the surface, of course, of the complexity of this process. I haven’t told you, for example, how you can go one more stop past Machida to Sagami -Ono and at 10:17 there is an express for Fujisawa starting there, or how it is the last four cars of a ten -car express to Odawara that become a local to Fujisawa unless it’s an express to Katase -Enoshima, in which case it’s the front six cars that you have to be on since the back four are taken off in Sagami -Ono. You’re following me, right?

My friend Luis once described Japan as the place with the world’s best microsystems for dealing with the world’s worst macrosystems, and he’s got the essence of Japanese technological culture in a nutshell. What he’s missing in the description, however, is the sheer exhilaration that comes with mastery of the train systems. I have described only some of the information I have processed for getting to work from my station. If I gave you the algorithm for taking a train from Shinjuku, including whether you are transferring at x, y, or z and need to be in the front, middle, or back of the train, you’d see that I have only tapped the outer surface of my knowledge.

This is no brain dead commuter you’re dealing with. I have been paying close attention these last twelve years here. Would you like to know where you should sit when you want to read and it’s before 8 a.m. and the sun comes in at this angle or where the staircases are at each station and whether you should be on the left or right side of the train when it’s crowded so you can get out? And where the junior high school girls get on in twelves to talk about their split ends or where the guy in the alligator shoes and the cellular telephone always sits and gives orders to his wife and office underlings at full bellow? What else can I tell you?

To handle the stress of processing so much knowledge in one little head, this country provides compensation in the form of smily ladies, maternal helpful Heloises that roam the alleys of the supermarkets and the platforms of the train stations in search of someone to help through the maze. Like a Gideon Bible in a penitentiary, they make it all easier to bear. Before I tell you my train story, let me tell you about Heloise. If you realize I had just finished dealing with Heloise, you may find it in your heart to forgive me for what I did on the train yesterday.

The story begins two mornings ago in my local supermarket. I had just stepped up to the counter and put my basket down on the floor when I realized the two women in front of me were eyeing me. Now I cut a striking figure, so being stared at doesn’t usually phase me. But there was something about these two. For starters, one of them (I’ll call her Grizelda) was wearing a wig that K-mart couldn’t have sold the night before Halloween if it was a Blue Light special. I decided later the two had had nothing to do but work on each other’s hair and Heloise had evidently just tinkered Grizelda’s to destruction. Anyway, I approached and plunked my basket on the floor.

“No, no!” says Heloise. “Not on the floor!” and pushes Grizzy out of the way so I can go first. Now these are industrial plastic grocery baskets and people do this all the time. They don’t allow the food to touch the floor and mine was heavy. I wasn’t about to stand there and hold it. “No, no,” says Heloise. “Please go first.” It could have been my crude behavior, of course, but experience tells me this story was unfolding this way for one of two reasons. It was my foreign way of being that was ringing her bells. Either that or it was my male presence in the world of the morning supermarket shopper that was making me inherently deserving of the right to push old Grizzy aside. Heloise would have stepped aside herself except that the cashier had inadvertantly started checking her out before Heloise could push me through.

I tried, I really did, to make Grizelda go first. She did, after all, get there before me. But she wouldn’t have it. And now I had the both of them driving me on like two trainer wheels on a bicycle. After you no after you no after you. I would only keep everybody behind me waiting, so I thanked her and went ahead. Still wondering why.

As the clerk ran my miso paste and onions through the bar code reader, suddenly there was Heloise putting my groceries into the bag for me. (In Japan, you bag your own groceries.) Thanks again. Swell of you. I can take over from here. No really. Thanks so much. I finally gained control in time to refuse the last plastic bag to carry the bagged groceries containing bags of bags and started bagging everything into my back pack. And there was Heloise watching in admiration at how I knew to put the tofu on top instead of under the canned tomatoes, how I balanced the load so it would not make me wear out the sole on my left shoe faster than the one on the right. And how I put the sharp objects in so that they would not dig into my back. All the while Heloise looked on in admiration. I felt real proud that I had finally done my doodoo in the potty instead of my pants and maybe I would get an ice cream cone.

Then I went and blew it. I don’t know what came over me. The devil no doubt. The leeks wouldn’t fit, so I snapped them in half. Suddenly, crudely, without warning, just snapped those suckers into two bag -size pieces. “Oh!” cried Heloise. Struck dumb. So like a man! So aggressive. So abrupt. Why didn’t I warn her! She would have shown me how I could carry them in a separate bag and they would arrive home, phallic character intact, and I would be spared the humiliation of revealing to my wife that I had passed through the streets and the lobby of my apartment building carrying crudely broken leeks in my backpack.

Heloise decided she needed to step in, so she took the onions out of the bag, put them in another bag and gave me directions to go straight home and put them in the refrigerator. I visualized slapping her hands. “My onions!” I said. “MY ONIONS!” I resisted the urge to snap them all into twenty pieces and leave them on the packing counter. She smiled, indulgently. Boku is at that stage. He wants to do things for himself.

I didn’t used to mind so much when these smilies came on like Mom, but that was over a quarter of a century ago. Most of them are now actually younger than me, and I am beginning to rebel. Evidently there is something about my (foreign?) face that revs their maternal engines. And, I am convinced, it is my MALE foreign face, since I have found that foreign women don’t get this treatment so much.

I turned with a harumpf and left the store. Heloise was bowing and saying “Domo, domo [indeed, indeed].” Now the novice here would take that for thank you because domo (indeed) does work for thank you. But I know enough to know it doesn’t mean thank you because there is no earthly reason for her to thank me. Right? So she must be saying, “You are a peach of a fellow to be shopping for your wife like that. Do come back and shop with us again some time.” That’s it. She was thanking me in sisterly communion with my wife after all. Except I don’t have a wife. I chop my own goddam onions.

OK. So here it is, the next day, and I’m on my way to work. I have taken the local to Machida, transferred to another local for Fujisawa, and the train has just stopped at Yamato. I am completely wrapped up in Ihab Hassan’s interpretation of Nietzsche when suddenly I realize someone is addressing me. Before I can focus, I panic. “Heloise!” I think. No. Not Heloise. Apparently I haven’t been totally absorbed. I can still be disturbed and I am still aware that although the train doesn’t normally wait at Yamato for the express to pass, this one train does and most people are getting off to transfer. If I transferred here, however, I would just have to get back on this same train at Chogo, so I might as well stay put. And read. Undisturbed. Do I know the secrets of the Odakyu or do I know the secrets of the ODAKYU!?

But what is this woman saying? She’s speaking English! She’s saying, “Excuse me, excuse me!” “What’s the matter?” I say. “Where are you going?” “Where am I going? To work!” “But what station?” “Shonandai.” “OK. Then you are on the right train.”

“WHAT!?” I am on the right train? The right train? But why leave me hanging here like this? Tell me! Am I on the right fucking PLANET!?

OK. It’s time to play “100 Reasons for Living in Japan.” I take a deep breath and run the mental tape through the brain looking for THE REASON. There it is. Reason number 4, right between “They don’t carry guns” and “They have excellent Italian restaurants.” Reason #4: People are very helpful sometimes. And this one comes with a footnote: remember last time you asked directions of a Muni bus driver in San Francisco or expected a post office employee in the States to make your life easier? People are sometimes very helpful. Just think. I could be on a New York subway instead and somebody could be lifting my wallet at gunpoint. But I’m not. I’m in Yamato and this lady is telling me I’m on the right train! How wonderful! I am really really glad I made this choice of trains. And of countries to live in.

For what seemed like an eternity, I considered an appropriate response. The following came to mind. In approximately this order for some reason:

1. Thank you so much. It was kind of you to be concerned.

2. Thank you. I know I’m on the right train.

3. Yes. I know.

4. Did I ask you? Did I look like I needed help? Did I even stare out the goddam window?

5. Out of my train, you meddling racist water buffalo before I turn into the Wicked Witch of the West and grant your fondest wish and turn your children into government bureaucrats.

Fortunately, when I hit the racist bit, my “ambiguity of gaijinitude” alarm kicked in. You never know (it was the angel on my right shoulder speaking) whether they are being helpful because you’re foreign or whether they do this with everybody. I have a sneaking suspicion that the chances they do it with everybody areone in a godzillion, but that’s not the point. It is a minor offense, this false generalization that foreigners are temporarily in Japan and permanently incompetent, not in the category with it always rains on washday, or Japanese refrigerators sound like jackhammers, or Albanians can’t do opera. No, this one is well intended and clearly worthy of forgiveness. An opportunity to show grace. Some cross -cultural understanding. A chance to bring our two great nations a little closer together.


“Do itashimashite,” she said. “Don’t mention it.”

December 5, 1995