There’s a song I have played to death over the years. Still do. One by John Martyn, about “a man in the station/he’s takin’ the next train home”. Actually, Martyn has a couple of versions of it: the original, with his distinctive acoustic six-string, played like it’s a percussive instrument, backed by a slow-burn jazz combo that makes its points with a Gretsch guitar with most of the treble removed, a Fender Rhodes sounding haunting and subdued to start—beginning like the one in John Klemmer’s “Touch”—but then becoming pulsing and insistent—ending like Billy Preston’s work at the close of “Let It Be”. All this held together by a heavy vise of bass and drums. The other version is much more up-beat, Martyn’s voice sounding much less like before, when it seemed to have captured a dude struggling up the back slope of a cocaine ride run its course.
Still, both commendable efforts, worthy of your time.
This time ‘round, though . . . this time when I actually am in the station, I actually encounter a man in the station . . . and this time, it is all quite different.
It is six in the morning and the ticket taker asks if I can help him out. Me having spoken all of three Japanese words in greeting and he, deciding right then and there: “good enough” – because that is three more than the guy he wants me to talk to. I don’t know any of this yet, but I am about to, because the ticket-taker is about to explain it. What he first says, though, doesn’t make much sense—it must be early in the morning for him too because he asks “do you speak English” in English, and then proceeds to launch into a long explanation in Japanese. But I get it, after a bit. What he really wants is someone bi-lingual enough to explain in English what he is just now explaining, (and, himself, can only explain) in Japanese. He wants me to go over and convey all of this to the glum-looking blond-haired kids sitting on their heavy tortoise-shell suitcases near the platform.
By the time I get to them, a short guy marches out of the nearby convenience stand with a proprietary air, interceding in my conversation with, what I now gather, are his kids. The guy has an attitude, not to mention a very apparent beer buzz. He reeks of ale, teeters as he talks, slurs his words, and still has 2 more talls in the plastic bag clenched in his left fist.
Hey dude, what are you thinking about?: it’s only 6 a.m.!!
The beer, though, makes him feel empowered and he proceeds to lecture me before I even have a chance to explain to him why we’re talking. The guy is so motivated, it would be impressive – save for the fact that he is incoherent.
His kids look away, embarrassed.
What I can gather from him, though, is that he lives and works in Sendai and his kids were visiting from Finland. Both are in their early to mid teens, blond, a bit pimply, and a little flabby. They look, in fact, very much like the dad. Except that their excuse is youth. Their future lies before them. Unfortunately that future is looking a lot like the diminutive mouth teetering in front of me. Before I can gather any of this, my initial impulse was to say: “hey, I am heading off to Oslo this fine morn, so we will practically be neighbors.”
But I don’t. Reason besting impulse. I have learned (the hard way) that lines like that can seal one’s fate faster than a tsunami gather force in the Pacific. One admission like that and I might be shepherding these kids all the way to their boarding gates. I have my own tasks to complete. I have already missed my train by no more than 7 seconds – its doors were literally closing as I crested the final escalator step at 6:04:02. The platform master, holding his red flag and whistle, just now waving “goodbye” to the conductor, looks my way and offers a “whatcha gonna do” kind of smile, then an imperceptible shrug. He comes over to say next will be in 33 minutes. It take about twice as long, but that’s what makes rising at 5 a.m. for the one that just left worth all the trouble.
The guy engaging in sarcasm with patrons at 6:05 a.m.
The bottom line is that now I am going to have to improvise – which means being nimble of mind and light on my feet for the next 3 hours in order to make that jet to Scandanavia, so I really can’t have any Finnish adolescent baggage. No matter how pitiful their plight might appear at this moment.
Meanwhile, back at the station, Dad’s thing – above all else – is that he wants to be understood. He has nearly no interest in my Good Samaritan errand, or the information that constitutes the fruit of this mission. He could care less, it seems, for the important data I am relaying – the reality I am trying to convey on behalf of the concerned professionals of the rail authority. That information is that the 4 minute differential between arrival and departure listed on their two train tickets will not be sufficient for them to get from the shinkansen track – at the uppermost region of Tokyo station – to the Narita Express tracks – at the bottommost levels (the bowels, in fact), of the station. I might be able to make it if I sprinted (but more likely not) . . . but without doubt, these morose, lethargic, pudgy kids with the extra-large suitcases and the Dad weighted down by the enormous chip on his shoulder, would not be able to negotiate the 4 sets of escalators, spaced out over 800 meters, sprinkled liberally with hundreds upon thousands of veteran Japanese commuters, all moving with alacrity and purpose.
And just as I’m trying to explain all that , the father rears back, shifts his weight with amazing agility, and delivers a verbal haymaker at the most readily available target (in this case, that would be me), grabbing at my shoulder (hey, dude, I don’t know you well enough for this!”) and screams:
”What I want you explain me is about . . . they insist I buy two tickets.”
Okay. But wait . . . here’s want I have to tell you.
”No. Explain me! I want go Sendai - Narita. Why don’t give one ticket Sendai - Narita???!!”
What the fuck is wrong with you? Dude, how are you going to get these kids on the next train with only 4 minutes in between?
”Listen. I responsible for kids. MY kids. I take down from Sendai – to airport. Why not just one ticket from Sendai to airport?
Life’s big puzzles.
“Sir, maybe because it is two different train companies . . .”
”But what kind . . . country IS this? You tell me! Why they make get two . . . tickets . . . I go airport!”
“Sir! Listen! I am not Japanese. I DO NOT KNOW.” At this point all I want to do is grab his puny shoulders and shake. Shaking might work in this particular case, since the guy is totally in his own dreamworld. The difference between people who’ve entered their own private fantasy land and martinis is that former have to be shaken to be stirred.
“The point is, sir – “
“Point is - I want explanation!”
“Sir! I’m late!” Me, being so cool and collected (not to mention courteous and helpful). “I have a train to catch, but I’m trying to tell you: you will NOT be able to get these children on the Narita Express at 9 a.m. You simply will not have enough time to get to the next train.”
I point to the kids – his doleful-looking kids – as I say all this. They are watching this all unfold with a sense of discomfort, even mounting dread.
I guess he sees that look and recognizes it for what it is – perhaps they fear that their Dad might be able to pull this one off; get them successfully out of this nightmare of a confusing country—because he suddenly comes out of his stupor. All at once in a move so swift and expert that a ballerina would have been impressed. Turning back to me he says: “well, sure, I understand that.” Now suddenly sober. “We should . . . you know . . . take care that. You know. I should. Who should I see for that?”
That is where I left my man in the station. Handing him off to the train pros, who had been listening to this exchange in utter stupification. Maybe not processing the content, but getting the jagged process. Well, now he was theirs to process. To their utter discontent. Poor souls.
And unlike John Martyn’s creation, this newfound Finn friend of mine would not be taking the next train home. Not even the one after the next. Because that one would be the one taking he and his brood off to Narita. Whether he ever made it back to Sendai would depend on whether he could survive the fog of ale.
And be willing to buy more than one ticket at a time.
// Notes from the Road
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