Friday, May 6, 2016

Zen and the Art of Commuting

You know you have been in Japan too long when you have a train nemesis.[1]

Like any other commuter, I typically take the same train each morning. Riding from the same station and for some reason choosing to board at the same spot on the platform[2] is a woman who is obviously also on her way to work. Now, like many Japanese commuters with habits we have a pretty good idea of the people on the train – it also helps that I live very close to the end of the line ( #inakaparadise ) so it’s the usual suspects day after day, as much slaves to routine as we are. We know where the empty seats are likely to be, and we know which of our fellow sardines[3] will be getting off in the near future. We board accordingly, in the hope that things will line up so that we don’t have to stand for too long.

Me, I get on the train at my home station and I don’t change, so while I rarely have to stand at all and usually only stand for a few stations if I do I’m really not too worried. It’s a long way to go, and I’m not going anywhere, so the odds of someone around me getting off along the way are pretty good. But my nemesis…

I know nothing about her except that she gets on at my station and she is damn well getting a seat.
Seriously, she is the style of commuter I have previously only seen as living parodies of a harried salaryman, the kind who skitters onto the train like a cockroach fleeing from the light, nudging and pushing everyone and everything out of the way to get to that one empty seat. Seriously: I have actually seen a 60ish man jump the line, push past a disabled fellow commuter to get on first, and then sprint to the other end of the car so that he could snag the last seat before anyone else even got on the train.

This is a serious business for some people, as you can see.

But the problem in my nemesis’ eyes, apparently, is that I’m not playing the game right. As mentioned, I’m not worried about getting a seat, especially since most days I get one right away or within one or two stations. So if there’s no seat available immediately, I just head to the center of the car where it won’t get so crowded as by the doors, glance about to see if there’s anyone in particular I recognise as getting off soon, and if so I place myself to get that seat when they do. This is not rocket science, and if it doesn’t go perfectly it’s not the end of the world. It seems this causes an issue for my nemesis in that I am a large person[4], which means that once I’m moving and when I’m stopped I form a barrier to her salary-person scuttle.

She has been riding this train for perhaps a month, and it appears that my failure to to either compete or properly cede the field in this time has been grating on her nerves. This week in particular, she has been quite pointed about nudging me out of the way, giving me poisonous stares, once even stepping on my foot on what seems to have been the one day she was wearing heels.[5]

I don’t know why this is so important to her. I don’t know what her work is like, I don’t know about other dimensions of her life.  But I do feel sympathy for her.

What a depressing grind she must be enduring if she needs these minor aggressions against a total stranger to make her day bearable.

Is it her only sense of power? Am I a stand-in for a co-worker or family member she can’t bring herself to confront? Or is she merely so selfish that the very idea that someone might not only regularly get what she wants so desperately but doesn’t apparently care about it the way she does makes her seethe?

She’ll be there again tomorrow morning.  She’ll bump me with her bag and give me a daggered look as though I weren’t the one just standing there. The train will come, and I will be able to feel her tension rising, like an animal winding itself up to leap.

It’s a petty thing, but it seems so important to her. I find myself wondering if she could let it go, even if she realised that I’m not trying to cheat her out of anything, that which one of us gets a seat is really a matter of chance, and her struggle really makes no difference today, is impotent over the days and weeks and months.

She can’t, of course.

So today I will give her my seat, and maybe her day will feel a bit brighter. Maybe that will be the piece she finally needs to just let it go.

[1] And I have been in Japan so very, very long Roy.

[2] Like me, she probably chooses the spot that is most convenient when she gets off – most people know the doors closest to the stairs they’ll need when they change trains.

[3] Ew! Greasy!

[4] Actually average, but largish in comparison I suppose.

[5] Yes, I’m sure it was deliberate.


Seema Tabassum said...

So sad that she's like that,but many are I guess,because they tend to bottle up everything and need release somewhere,I agree with your analysis,poor thing...also notice that it gets to people more when we are unperturbed by them,their ways or behaviour towards us,maybe she needs a reaction from you to feel like she exists or matters or has an effect on someone,anyone...sad right...but you giving her your seat might be a good start...i really enjoyed reading this,i could imagine all that and my memories of Japan came gushing..loved reading :) have a great week ahead :)

Kevyn Winkless said...

Thanks Seema - glad you enjoyed it.