Not Who I Thought It Was

Monday, I took the Hanku Line to a private lesson in Takatsuki (roughly between Osaka and Kyoto). In a matter of two weeks, the weather has gone from a pleasant Canadian late-August to a crummy Canadian late-October. You suddenly notice the early evenings (no Daylight Saving Time here) and the cold dampness in the air. The trains are suddenly over-heated (they’ve only just turned the coolers off!), so you are either under- or overdressed at some point in the day. Colds abound.

It takes me about 90 minutes (three train rides and a walk) to get to my destination, but with an iPod (Guardian podcast) and the latest New Yorker, time passes quickly and pleasantly (besides, I’m essentially being paid to read it). Around two-thirds of the way there, the doors open and I see a guy I mistake for an old student of mine. Same “ironic” flannel shirt, same “ironic” National Health glasses, wearing a stocking cap (what we’d call a tuque back home, but the way they are worn here makes them look like tea-cosies). Probably in his mid-thirties, which is how old the student I’d mistaken him for would be now. He sports a goatee, wears sandals on a wet day (heavy rain the night before). He carries a tiny, “ironic” plastic briefcase. Could be an artist, or a fan of some indy band, or a member of some indy band. He sits beside me, and I’m overpowered – not by a whiff of nostalgia, but by the smell of a week’s worth of stale urine.

The man is, to put it mildly, eccentric. And he’s probably homeless. He’s certainly neglected, although someone has taken the time to clothe him in such a way that only your sense of smell spoils the effect. I decide to tough it out. It’s rare to see a homeless man on a train here (most stick to a certain area or station; the rest, obviously, would rather walk and save their money for food than buy a ticket). I don’t want to be someone who runs away from someone different as if they were by definition dangerous or frightening. But God, he stinks. The high school girl to my left cleverly wraps her muffler around her nose; the businessman in front of me lifts up his newspaper to cover his face (but glares out from behind it now and then). Others just get up and move. My down vest has a high collar – I put my nose against it when I want to breathe. I keep reading, finding it hard to concentrate on the history of Donald Rumsfeld’s decline and fall. A few more stations, I think: surely he’ll get off at a big station. But no.

Eventually, I hear a muttered, nasal, “sumimasen, sumimasen (excuse me, excuse me),” and realize that he’s talking to me. I look to my right. He talks in a convoluted way, heavy on dialect and disjointed thoughts, moving his lower lip enough for me to notice the blackened stumps of his teeth. His face is curiously unlined, and his hands smooth, although strangely pinkish (it occurs to me later that they were probably beginning to swell from cold or lack of vitamins). I cannot understand a word he says to me, except for “amerikajin?” Chigaimasu,” I answer, “Kanadajin desu (No, I’m Canadian).” He then proceeds to wind up his sentence so far backwards (in Japanese, the verb comes at the end) that I don’t even know if it’s a question or a comment or the table of the elements. “Sumimasen,” I say, ungrammatically, “honto-ni nihongo-o wakaranai (Sorry, I really don’t know Japanese).” Well, I sure as hell don’t know his Japanese, but a bit of face-saving politeness goes a long way here. He seems placated by that.

In the meantime, the seat, which runs nearly a third of the length of the carriage, like a bench, has more or less cleared out around him. He sidles to the far end and begins arguing and waving his hands at an imaginary friend, then smacks himself in the head a few times. This is too much for the woman facing him and she darts off, alarmed. Finally, I hear the flicking of a flint and look over to see that he’s playing with a lighter. This is too much for me (nobody else says anything – no one ever speaks to homeless people, it seems), and I instinctively shout, “Oi! Oi! Yamenasai (Hey! Hey! Stop that!)!” and he looks up, either surprised by my tone (probably pretty blunt) or by the fact that someone actually addresses him personally. Anyway, he puts it away, and begins to arrange what look to be old receipts, stopping momentarily to spasmodically whack his head. I decide it’s time to move on. When we pull into the next station, I get off… and duck into the next carriage, not having the guts to just get up and walk to it sooner. When I finally reach my stop, he’s still there, I notice, stretched out on the seat, taking a nap. Probably slept all the way to Kyoto.

Twenty years ago, if he’d walked onto a train dressed as he was, you’d have known immediately that the man was nuts (or an art student). Such is the evolution of fashion that I had to wait for him to start playing with fire before I could be sure. Other than that (and the fact that he smelled like a cat’s box), he could’ve been anyone – in fact I thought he was someone I knew.

I hope someone in Kyoto gives him some shoes.

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