Friday, February 22, 2008

"A Desire for Space - 43,200 Rides & Counting"

Growing up in the western area of the US, I didn't like the desert very much - I always preferred lots of trees in the wild on one hand, and lots of buildings and excitement in the city on the other hand. But after 12 years in Japan, I went to the US desert in 1986 and it was just so wonderfully empty! No people! No cars! No trucks! No noise! No buildings! No smoke! Just wonderful, glorious space! And stars! Lots of stars seen through transparent (as opposed to translucent) air!

With this in mind, I sometimes find myself standing in a sardine-packed train - dreaming of sitting in a car, listening to music I like on the car's stereo. That image seems like pure paradise. It wouldn't matter if the car was a traffic jam - it would just feel so nice to have that space all to myself.

There's another element to train travel in mega-city Tokyo that should be explored. Namely the Russian roulette nature of it. The overwhelmingly vast majority of people who ride the rails are decent human beings, who just want to get from point-A to Point-B without molesting other innocent souls, but there are (inevitably in any society on the planet) some unfriendly elements out there in the crowd.

Think of this way - take a two or three hour walk around your city, walking through a park, through a department store, etc. Have a good look at all the people you meet and imagine how it would feel to have them physically pressed up against you.

Ah-ha! You may well have recoiled in horror already just at the concept, without having even gone the mechanics of really imagining it. Go ahead and imagine it, because to comprehend the Russian roulette game of becoming a sardine every morning and every night to get to and from work, you must do this thing. Look at everyone and imagine how it would feel with them up against you. (Guys, I know what you're thinking, but forget it! It's not like that! Also, there's a "Women Only" car for the rush times, and aside from that, women work pretty hard to avoid the horror of RRST - Russian Roulette Sardine Time.)

Also keep in mind the time factor and laws of increasing probability as you spend year after year on the system. With different jobs and whatnot, I think it's averaged out to about two-and-a-half hours (round trip) per weekday, which would mean the following tale of woe and pain:

Five days per week
20 days per month
20x12= 240 days a year
240 days x 24 years = 5,760 days
2.5 hours per day x 5,760 = 14,400 hours
14,400 hours divided by 24-hour blocks=...
600 days in the trains

600 days - more than a year and a half of my life spent on the Tokyo trains. That's bad enough, but what makes me look into the distance with a feeling of something having gone wrong, is that 14,400 hour figure. Go back to your two-hour walk and an inevitable character or two that you would definitely not like to be in physical contact with. You can keep a watch out for unpleasant bipeds, but you can't always spot things in time to avoid them. It's a low percentage of the total - out of 14,400 hours, really bad experiences probably only amount to... say... a few hours, but those few hours out of 14,400 were pretty intensely bad, so the lingering desire not to have them repeat stays with you.

Actually, hours isn't the right unit to look at here. I've both lived and worked in a number of places in Tokyo, not to mention going here and there for one reason or another, and daily train rides have ranged from two minutes (the typical distance between stations on most of the subways), to an hour. The average train ride overall, would probably work out to twenty minutes (although if you take away the hour-long rides, that would fall to fifteen minutes).

So, for the total number of train rides so far, multiplying 14,400 by three should be somewhere on the playing field: 43,200. A relatively small number of those rides have been really bad (very many have been at least mildly unpleasant - probably more than half), but the bad ones have really been bad - some examples:

- While waiting to board a train, someone spit on my backpack from behind - which I discovered as I was taking it off as I got on the train

- I was thrown up on. Not intentionally, but I was still thrown up on! And then I had to transfer to other trains smelling like I had crawled out of the sewer, with people looking at me like "Man! I knew foreigners smelled bad, but this is too much!" (the evil brew seemed to be a mixture if cheap red wine, grilled meat, and stomach acids).

- Back in 1986 this old guy who probably was in WW-II, harassed my wife in front of me (while we were in Kyoto). It could have been worse - an Australian friend of mine nearly throttled a guy who was more persistently harassing his wife in front of him on a train - and in a more obnoxious way than the experience my wife and I had.

- On Monday of this week, as I was part of the mass of people flowing off the train, this powerful neanderthal standing beside the door opening, put his knuckles into the middle of my back, exactly on the spine, and gave a mighty shove - four days later, I still have back pain in that spot and I'm about to arrange a hospital visit to see if my spine has been damaged. The people on my side who stumbled with me away from the mighty shove on my spine are probably the only thing that prevented that beast from breaking my back.

Now you know what prompted my post about heaven on wheels. Sitting here right now typing with my back still in pain, a car interior seems like a blissful paradise of surrounding sheet metal - keeping neanderthals at bay and away from my spine. Some things you wonder if they are accidental or intentional - this could only have been intentional. After all my years riding hellishly crowded trains, I have never even remotely come close to doing to another human being what that the neanderthal did to me. It couldn't have been an accident. (If you're skeptical, keep in mind that in recent years there have been widely reported cases of passengers actually murdering other passengers - like... dead, you know? No more train rides for the dead body left on the platform.)

Many more things have happened, but of a minor nature - being elbowed in the face (not often), being elbowed in the back (all the time!), verbal insults (not often, but also not forgotten), etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. Enough things have happened over 43,200 train rides, that I now approach morning and evening rush hour trains with a feeling of dread and foreboding.

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

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