Foreign Particle In A Tarry Liquid

Excerpt from my book, BIG LIKE: CASCADE INTO AN ODYSSEY.

Tokyo, April 1996. At 4:45 a.m., daylight already shines through the opaque windows. I slide one open. And there’s my new neighborhood behind the house: sheds pieced together from rusting corrugated iron, green corrugated plastic, and weathered wood; tiny yards cluttered with junk; and concrete buildings finished with grey, beige, or brown tiles. Windows are opaque for a reason. You don’t want to be confronted with this on a daily basis.

Then, on the way to the bathroom, at the little step to the utility niche—BANG! I see stars, brace myself against the wall, grope for what hit me. The fucking rail of the accordion door. What kind of country is this where a barefoot five-foot-eleven guy doesn’t fit through the door?

But the motions of fixing coffee with my French press and the aroma rising from it infuse me with a sense of home. I slouch on my futon, drink coffee from my porcelain mug, and read a French novel.

Mr. Song is sleeping in a tracksuit on top of his blanket. At 6:45 a.m., he stirs. At 7:00 a.m., Mr. Kim, also dressed in a tracksuit, opens the sliding door and goes to the bathroom. At 7:15 a.m., Mr. Song pan-fries chunks of meat, fumigating the apartment with grease vapors. At 7:30 a.m., Mr. Song serves meat, rice, and kimchi to Mr. Kim, who’s watching TV, and they both eat in front of the TV.

I leave at 8 a.m. The sun is already high. Mejiro-dōri is clogged with traffic. In the alleys, salarymen in suits and women in skirts and jackets ride by on unisex bicycles with wire baskets in front. They dodge random utility poles and pedestrians and file into the maze around the station. Oblivious to shops and restaurants and even to the dissonant pachinko parlor, they head to the fence along the railroad tracks to find slots for their bicycles, and there are already thousands of identical unisex bicycles lined up side by side as far as the eye can see. And then everybody converges at the station entrance.

As taught by Naoko, I queue at a ticket machine and at a turnstile and on the platform. Expresses and semi-expresses speed by. A local train stops. Inside, people are glued to the windowpanes. Doors open to a wall of dark suits with heads on top. Stoically, with a suggestion of an apologetic nod, people on the platform press themselves backward into the mass until the whole body is inside.

Oh Lord. The fast-paced chime announces the closing of the doors. It’s my turn to press myself into the mass, and others press themselves on top of me, shoving me deeper into it. Doors close. As the train accelerates, lurches left and right, and brakes, my body is vised into position by other bodies. My eyes are above the uneven river of black hair. I feel tall for the second time in my life, the first time having been this morning at the accordion door. Faces are inches apart. Some people pretend to sleep. Others hold manga in front of their noses. No one says a word. At the next stop, the impossible happens: more people get on. Pressure radiates from the doors in waves of shuffles and body adjustments.

At Ikebukuro station, the terminus, I’m washed out of the train and sluiced into tunnels and up some stairways, a bizarre tall denim particle in a dark liquid that flows with slow shuffle-steps and inscrutable patience until it comes to a halt on the stairs. No one can move forward or backward, and there’s no escape. We’re stuck and don’t know why, but no one speaks, shoves, or elbows. To them this panic-inducing situation is merely another boring event on the morning commute, and some pretend to be asleep.

Then, somehow, the pressure lightens, and soon the mass shuffles forward again, anonymous bodies without distinguishable marks, no longer male or female, merely particles of a tarry fluid. I’m worried about ending up in the wrong flow and getting irrevocably washed down a wrong corridor and up a different stairway to some other destination from which I won’t find my way back.

But I make it to the queues for the Yamanote-line ticket machines, and I queue at the turnstile, and I queue on the platform, and I get packed into the train. In Takadanobaba, I squiggle my way out of the train and get swept along to the queues at the exit turnstiles. From there, it’s five minutes on foot on congested sidewalks through which bicyclists wind their way somehow.

Fifty minutes from door to door, and I’m already a wreck. What materials are these people made of to be able to withstand this every day?

Excerpt from my book, BIG LIKE: CASCADE INTO AN ODYSSEY.

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