Saturday, April 26, 2008


The owner of the local used bookstore, the one just past the 7-11, the one on the way to Fujisawa Station. He sits surrouded by books, old and yellowed, stacked and sturdy, and yet every time I wander in or walk on by, he is watching television. From the street, the distance from the door to the counter seems very long, framed on both sides by books lining the walls. And there he is, waiting at the end. Hair dotted with gray. Mustache stretching across his lips. (If he were an ordinary salaryman, he would not have that mustache. Salarymen in Japan do not allow facial hair to smudge their face. It his one and only source of rebellion in the world. This is what I think, a senseless thought.) The arc of this funnel leads to him and him alone. He waits at the end for customers. He watches t.v. All those books, and he never seems to be reading any of them. Is he like a cook who never samples the goods? Has he spent his entire life reading, and has now decided to sit back, kick back, and let his brain zonk out on wacky variety shows? The books are all old and eloquent, weighty tomes on serious subjects: art and culture, politics and economics. But he will have none of it. He sits, silently, watching his television, while the customers browse and the books stay stacked.

The people who clean my classrooms. They are old, older than old. In Japan you retire at sixy, but since the life-expectancy here is higher than anywhere else on earth, that means you could very well have a good thirty years of nothing-to-do before you pass on to whatever awaits on the other side. The cleaners look to be in their mid-sixties, possibly early seventies. Do they want to be there? They are invariably polite, intent upon their work, waiting in the hallway when the schoolbell rings, eager to wipe the boards clean. Sometimes I have another class featuring the same lesson on the same room, so I politely tell them: "Sonna mama de ii desu." It's fine as it is. They smile and hurry somewhere else. Often when I walk into the bathroom between classes they are there already, male or female, furiously scrubbing the urinals. They seem happy. But in their eyes is a certain weariness. They are already old, and yet they are here, cleaning classrooms, wiping down toilets. Is this how they imagine their golden years? I want to ask them about World War II. They would have been children then. What did they see? Who were the first foreigners they met? I had an older student years ago who said the first English word he learned was 'chocolate' because the American soliders at the end of the war would throw Hershey bars to the starving Japanese children. Did these cleaners have similar stories? Of course they do. I want to hear them. But they have rooms to clean, and bills to pay. They hurry off to the next room, on the next floor, before I can do more than mutter a few feeble words of thanks.

The man I saw today in Shinjuku. The homeless man. Clearly homeless. All his goods stuffed into a bag. Shoes ragged. Shirt ripped. But his beard was neatly trimmed, almost artistic. His cheeks were clean shaven. How could this be? He obviously had recently done the deed. Perhaps that morning. Did he shave every morning? Was the shape of his beard a statement, a sign that said I may be poor, and I may have no home, but I have a beard, and it is mine, and I will show you what I can make of it, and thus make of myself. Was he mentally unstable? At one point in time he was a boy in a bed, waking to his morning light and his mother's rice. What happened in between that day and this day?

And these people, the lonely ones -- are they thinking the same thoughts about me? The foreigner hurrying to the train, his suit wrinkled and ill-fitting, his mind clearly somewhere else. What do they see when they look at me? What do any of us see when we look at each other? The illusion of judgement binds us together while tearing us apart. I don't know them at all, any of them, and I can't trust what I see, but I will keep looking.


cherry said...

Scott - this is a great blog. I came to it by a rather roundabout route and wondered if I could ask you a question about an older post (? not sure of the correct terminology?) on it. Some time in 2004 you quoted a particular translation of the Iliad - the one which runs "my friend, if by deserting from the war before us, you and I would be destined to live forever," etc. This is quoted in Robin Lane Fox's biog of Alexander the Great and I've always wondered whether it was his own translation, or one I could buy in a bookshop. Did you find it in the RLF book, or is it an Iliad translation? And if so, which one? Sorry about this odd question.

noi said...

Scotto-san... I have the same types of thoughts about the people I encounter, even fleetingly, day to day. If I mention them to my husband or to someone else I'm with at the time, they usually look at me like I'm crazy. Good to know I'm not alone in this. :)

Scott said...

Cherry: Thanks for the comments. Much appreciated. As for the quote from The Illiad, I MUST have gotten it from Robin Lane Fox's bio of Alexander the Great, because, um, I've never read the Illiad. (As he hangs his head in literary shame.) Not an odd question at all, by the way...

Noi: People always look at you like you're crazy, regardless of what you say or do. It's your destiny.