The Thermostats Of Strangers

It is summer in Tokyo.  

I have done a cooking class in New Orleans in a kitchen that was beyond stifling. I have been stuck in Hong Kong in August on oxygen-less days while air conditioners dripped their condensation onto my shoulder from overhead. I have done the 23 hour Vegas tour on a whim and have been blasted by a dry heat that could bake chocolate chip cookies on your car roof.  I understand heat. I fear it.

It is life's joy to find a phrase from a book or movie and say it outloud to no one in particular and see if anyone goes for the bait. I do this with my one friend from Texas. In summer I bastardize Blanch Dubois's line of "I have always depended upon the kindness of strangers" to my stock performance of "I have always depended upon the thermostats of strangers." You get the idea. Icebergs, air conditioning and cryogenics are all parts of my holy trinity.

It is hard to be nice in summer.

I remember bumper stickers back home when I was younger which read "courtesy is contagious." I think back to that phrase wistfully during my commute - Tokyo is not a city that is known for obliging strangers. When you ask for help, people wave their hands in front of their face, bow and scurry off. It means 'please don't bother me.' Fantastic. And we are still getting these reactions even with Google Maps and the metro system in English alleviating most of the burden locals would have to otherwise face to redirect wayward non-locals.

When I first came to Tokyo, the government-owned Toei lines only had Japanese script. 'No English' was a big deterrent to the illiterate, thus you never saw "strange folk" on the tubes. We all took Eidan with English signs and back in 1985 only one-third of the trains had a/c. Your choices were to crowd in dissipated air conditioning or ride a near empty, sweating tube. Either way, you could do it with no help from anyone.

A year or two ago, there was a youngish Japanese woman walking down into the subway in Meguro station wearing sandals and not paying attention to anything but her cell phone. She would have walked into the broken glass of a shattered bottle if I hadn't pulled her to the side. She looked at me, shrugged her arm away and snapped something quite nasty in my direction. I pointed down to the glass. She said something to the effect that I should leave her alone. I went along my way. 

I walked into the carriage and heard the announcement it would be a through train with a layover for the express. Oh joy! I would get a seat for the rest of my ride. Everyone got off the train except 20 of us. The broken glass lady was sitting over on my left and I spotted a vacant bench on my right so I shifted over. Now I was comfy and the train would fill up with milk run passengers. I saw her look at me, look at her foot, look at me and bounce her leg. I ignored the woman. 

It got me to thinking. My friends and I have often spoken about seeing tourists, offering help, and then realising they don't want a friendly hand extended at all. They're the Google-makes-you-invincible crowd. It was a different story in the 1990s when we had maps and crap travel books. Our English ones were truly awful but the Japanese always have beautifully detailed paperback guides for every city they went to. Armed with these, they need no help overseas, which is why you never get accosted by lost Japanese tourists in your hometown! 

Oh, but in Tokyo, the foreign tourist pre-Google was very lost. And yet, if you offered, often they would just clam up and glare at you wordlessly. Fine, I don't need to waste my good will. Good riddance. And so I have stopped giving assistance. Most of my friends are the same. If you come and ask us, we will certainly help out but we have learned our lessons about initiating. 

Well, almost. Once I was picketing in front of Headquarters and I needed to put my bag in a coin locker. I slipped on my red NUGW union arm band. I was wearing the standard kit of white shirt and black trousers (it makes the armband stand out) - behold you have the picture of respectability. Tokyo cops can get a bit pissy with you during picketing, so it pays to dress better on union days.  

I heard two women discussing how to get to a station and neither knew how to go about it. I walked up and made sure they would see the Japanese on my arm band. One woman fixated on my armband and the other looked me dead in the eye.  

"Do you want to go there the fastest way, the cheapest way or with the easiest transfer?" 

The two little, old Japanese ladies reminded me of my ex-boss's mom and aunt when they came to visit her from California. They had the same posture and the same mannerisms. They even peered at the complicated mess of the subway map in an identical way. For a brief moment I ruminated on how wonderful it would be if everyone in the world was like this. If each of them could remind you of someone nice.

We walked over to the subway board and located the points of where we were vs. where they wanted to go. It was obvious these two didn't go out very often into Tokyo. They figured out their course of action, bowed politely and went through the turnstiles with their tickets. Two other people getting on the train also bowed to me, mistaking me for a foreign station trainee perhaps (it was kind of funny). The doors slid shut and the two I helped waved at me through the window and I waved back.

After I turned around, the station clerk came up to me and asked if everything was okay. I said yes, and he pointedly stared at my arm band. 

"I was helping two of YOUR customers." My sarcasm wasn't lost on him; he flinched. The other younger workers look at me like a plague because I am middle aged and union, and the older ones are shaking their heads that the fate of the unions now rests in the hands of foreigners (because the Japanese have grown bored with it and have put their faith in Pokemon and other distractions instead).

Unpleasantries aside, I went upstairs, did my stint of pamphleting, bannering, posing for photos and dealing with questions from passersby. My fellow unionists and counterparts from other organizations finished our 90 minutes of lunchtime protests and we disbursed. I went back to the station and got my bag from the coin locker.  

The building was hot and airless. On cue, it was announced that the trains were running late as well. My core temperate had already risen from being outside and the ambient station heat was having a fine time of making me miserable. I dug into my bag for a handkerchief and my fan. As I closed my eyes I felt someone tug on my shirt sleeve. I opened them again. It was a woman of 70. She was pointing and coaxing me over to where I suppose she had been standing. It was the one vent which was dumping out cold air onto the platform. "Stand here, you will be much cooler."

I have stood out in a crowd as a white man in Asia. There are many ways in which you are made to feel like an outsider. You do not look local, they believe you do not sound local and they are certain you do not do local either. It is easy to be avoided because you are just that - not the same.

Perhaps my sorry state tugged on this woman's strings of motherhood and allowed her to look upon me as just another uncomfortable human. There was a call to nurture and I allowed her to play mum for just the briefest of instances - so fast, if you weren't looking, you'd miss it.

Is this what humanity is? Showing a simple kindness? Is it better than some grand, over-reaching performance? It was a simple exchange - a transfer of knowledge and a venturing forth to communicate with a stranger. For me it was a small glimmer of love from a diamond in the rough.

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