My former apartment in Daikokucho was ancient (cold-water kitchen, temperamental crank-up water heater for the bathtub) and had only two little washing machines for the entire building. Everyone seemed to have the same day off, so there was always a queue of laundry hampers parked along the washers. It was often quicker to load one’s laundry into a garbage bag and head down to the laundromat (“coin laundry”). There was one on a crooked side street near the subway station, next to a diner which served spaghetti with the finest sauce ever to come out of a can from the local supermarket (for only five times more). The coin laundry was a long, narrow room, with hard, cool, concrete floors (painted with a grey gloss). A few back issues of manga and TV star-gossip magazines sat about. Six washers, five dryers, a few kitchen chairs. I would load up a few machines and wander out during the wash cycle, always making sure to be around during the drying (ever since a friend went to check on his laundry at a place in Dobutsuen-mae, only to find an old One Cup Ojisan trying on his pants).
Every now and then, a door at the far end would open and an elderly woman would toddle out and, with great dignity, rearrange the magazines or pick up some detergent packets off the floor and go back inside (with a small solemn nod of acknowledgment to her customers). I noticed that the concrete floor continued right through to her room, which I always took to be her broom closet/inner sanctum.
One hot afternoon, c. 2001, I sat sweltering and reading a magazine, when a dodgy-looking character in a delivery uniform swaggered in. He looked, with his glasses and thin mustache, not unlike the old comedian Tony Tani. He headed towards the back, cast an unimpressed glance at me, and knocked on the rear door.
The old lady opened it. It was in fact a flat, and she lived back there. An old man’s hacking cough was heard periodically, out of sight. They could have been permitted to stay there in exchange for her custodial duties but, for all I know, they might have owned the building.
The delivery man handed her, brusquely, some bento flyers, asked her if she wanted anything. No, she replied, not anymore. Many take-out food shops still deliver in Japan, and the elderly and shut-in are naturally major customers. She was, it seemed, one of his.
He was obviously taken aback by her reply. Asked her why. I didn’t exactly catch her reply (and couldn’t very well ask her to repeat it), but it ended with something like, “…and since you didn’t come and they did, I guess we regrettably won’t do business with you anymore.”
The reaction was swift. For the first and only time in my life, I saw a man literally grovel. He dropped to his knees, put his palms on the ground, lowered his eyes, and bowed continuously. “Sumimasen. Sumimasen (“I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”),” he muttered. He was obviously about to lose a very good customer indeed, and his boss would not, to say the least, have been pleased.
I got up and walked towards the entrance, embarrassed. Stood outside for a few minutes until the dryer went off. When I went back in, he was just getting up off his knees. The old lady (who was barely taller than him even when he was groveling) must have finally felt satisfied that the delivery man was sufficiently repentant (the apology is far more important in Asia than the excuse: in fact, one of the most abject apologies in Japanese is moushiwake gozaimasen, – literally, “there is no excuse,” – which of course the delivery man also used, two or three times). He was promising her that in future, without fail, they would deliver her box lunches as fast as possible.
She showed him a rival company’s flyer, with, “Now some of their lunches look quite tasty …” to which he replied, without even looking, “Takai!” – (too) expensive! He assured her that his company’s food was still second to none, and he might possibly have been offering her something on the house – anything to get her back into the fold.
I had folded my clothes and jammed them back into the bag by the time he finally left. As I made my way out too, the old woman came out again, picked up a sports newspaper, threw away an abandoned packet of bleach, and, with great dignity, went back inside. Make no mistake, she was still in charge.