Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Moment of Normal

So I’m dripping wet, sitting on a tiny plastic bucket in between two other naked men, and all I can think is ‘Man, life is weird.’ Now, you may not think there’s a whole lot of debate in considering sitting naked on a plastic bucket dripping wet between two other dripping wet naked men weird. Yet this was one of the few moments of my day that was entirely unfettered by any form or degree of parasympathetic fight or flight impulses. In other words, this was the normal part of today.


Since 6am when my alarm roused me – it was now around 11 at night – the only other measurable stretch of time my system wasn’t redlining was during the nap I caught on the morning bus to Tokyo. Falling asleep itself was more a matter of system overload and subsequent operating failure than my usual lack of sleep.

I knew I was making this trip too soon. Sure, I had a couple of appointments with the people who hadn’t flat out refused to meet me over the phone. But I had absolutely no idea what I was going to say to their faces once I introduced myself and handed over my homemade business card. ‘Japan is a tough nut to crack’ says any gaijin who has ever tried to make any sort of business deal here outside of renting a karaoke room by the hour. ‘Japan is its own bird,’ ‘They’re very polite while they would actually rather be sticking bamboo shoots under their fingernails than be talking to you,’ and on and on. I’d heard it all a hundred times. This was going to go nowhere – I should have packed my swimsuit instead of a shirt and tie and just gone to the beach. Yet here I was on a bus on Tuesday morning, heading for the biggest city in the world as if someone was going to listen to me. What was I thinking?

The logical answer, of course, is nothing. I wasn’t thinking. I was doing. And now I had my foot in someone’s door, had a chance to sell myself and convince men in charge of the largest bookstores in Tokyo to let me use their time and space for a self-serving book-signing event. This was an opportunity – to take another step closer to my dreams; to throw myself onto a stage and hope people show up; to make a ridiculous fool of myself trying to do all this in Japanese. In another two hours I’d be getting off the bus, and I wondered if I should just take the first bus back to Fukushima. I felt the same way my first time on a ski lift.

My wife had actually made the initial phone calls for me. She didn’t know what she was doing any more than I did, but she had the advantage of being clueless in her own language and I handed her the receiver. The people from Kinokuniya threw out every possible expression for ‘no’ except the actual word no. The person from the first Maruzen gave a defensive ‘We can’t do book-signings at our store,’ in other words ‘Oh God this wasn’t in the manual and I wasn’t told I would have to have an original thought on this job or in my life for that matter so please let me get back to answering questions I’ve been given the answers to.’ The person at the other Maruzen had yet to give a definitive ‘yes we can talk to you’ or ‘no and don’t call back until you’re a famous writer so we can guarantee ourselves a non-failure event.’ He was supposed to call back around 9am. At around 9:15 my phone started blinking. This would be a message from my wife with the good news. I flipped my phone open – and saw an email with an attachment. Great. Downloading pictures. This I didn’t need. My phone was fully charged when I left the house at 7:00; on any normal day – heck in any given four-day stretch considering my social life – I’d have no worries about my phone going dead on me. But I tend to find things to worry about when I am already stressing, and I didn’t need my phone running out of juice in the middle of an extended call with the president of a nationwide chain of bookstores who just couldn’t get enough of me. But good husband I am I fetched the file from the digital ether – and found myself looking back at my two sons, a love in their eyes they didn’t even understand, and I still can’t quite comprehend. Suddenly I was the guy lifting the car off his child pinned underneath. I was all-powerful, invincible. I was Daddy.

I was heading for the biggest city in the world. And someone was going to listen to me.

Ten minutes later my wife emails me again; the guy from Maruzen said no thanks. In a roundabout way.

Sitting on a wooden chair on the 7th floor of Junkudo Ikebukuro, sweating through my necktie as I sat waiting for my meeting with Kimura-san, it was safe to say I was a wreck. Even my watch, my only watch, the one that hadn’t seen the light of day in many many months, had stopped. Maybe yesterday. Maybe last Christmas. I couldn’t know. My electronic Japanese-English dictionary was working, though I had left it on my desk back in Fukushima and now for the life of me I couldn’t think of a decent translation of ‘to promote.’ My business Japanese ability, after nine years here, is as deep as my knowledge of book-signings. My shirt and tie felt like a ski jacket. I didn’t want to move, for anything. But I reached into my bag and slid my phone out and took another look at my older boy’s beaming face (my younger son just had this expression that said ‘Why are my pants wet again?’). And I remembered why I was really there.

An hour later I was laughing and chatting with a trio of Japanese men among the foreign novel stacks, the broad strokes of my first book-signing now splashed across the canvas of my future. ‘I just have to get the okay from the boss,’ said Takahashi-san as we were shaking hands in parting.

Note to self: Future not indelible.

And my euphoria takes a nose-dive, the worst of possibilities storming my head.

Well I didn’t know it at the time but Mr. Takahashi didn’t even work at that store. Not exactly. He worked in every store. In the country. As the guy in charge of the foreign book division for the entire nationwide chain of stores. He just happened to show up in the Ikebukuro store as I was struggling to give Kimura-san a reason not to say no to me just yet (though it was obvious that was all he wanted to do, for no other reason than to save himself from me and my stubborn refusal to walk away before he was forced to give me an actual answer). I’d say all three of us were thrilled that Takahashi-san was taking over the conversation, and before I knew it we were scouting out possible places to set up a table.

Alternate universe: The guy from the second Maruzen shoots me down during our initial phone call instead of the next morning when I am already headed to Tokyo. With that prospect gone I only have two appointments, which I decide to do back to back on Wednesday and thus don’t go to Tokyo until Tuesday evening. I meet with two Junkudo bookstore managers; Mr. Takahashi is not around to save either of them from me or me from either of them. I throw every idea I have at these poor managers, neither of them ever having done a book-signing before let alone for a gaijin. My Japanese is going downhill fast as I get more and more desperate underneath my ski jacket. They both do what any other Japanese person in their position would do: punt. I end up on a bus back to Fukushima with nothing to tell my wife who was probably still de-stressing from making those initial calls for me. My sons, thankfully, wouldn’t know any better.

In reality, there I was, three hours into my time in Tokyo and a book-signing already in the works. Add to this Takahashi-san offering to meet me the next day in the Shinjuku store to meet with the manager there and, perhaps, change my future to a degree I can not even perceive yet. This I could only take as a good omen. Even if he had to check with the boss first.

Before the midday heat had a chance to melt my tie and my spirits I ducked into the underground world of Sanchome Station. These below-ground networks of passageways (there are dozens of them all over Tokyo) are nothing short of amazing, a seemingly endless maze of shops and restaurants and remarkably clean floors and, in some zones, air-conditioning. My first order of business was to find a restroom and change out of my shirt and tie, just as I used to do as a teenager as soon as Christmas Mass was over.

I strolled comfortably, lazily among the hordes of working people, dressed more or less identically and hustling in every direction for God-knows-what reward. For a wandering while I breathed easy through the faint smile on my lips, relishing my triumph in Ikebukuro. But I couldn’t ignore the voice telling me I could rest on my budding laurels. I just have to run it by the boss…

For no reason I could figure, I’d always taken the train to get around Tokyo. I guess that was how I first learned to navigate the polite, sprawling monster. But today, trying to fend off the 36-degree heat, it occurred to me that the subway would be cooler. Plus there were those underground walkways; one more block in the shade was one less block in the sun as I figured it.

For a year I lived and worked in Osaka, and took the subway trains there quite regularly. And in Umeda, the biggest station on the north side of the loop around the city center, there is a labyrinthine underground ‘shotengai,’ which doesn’t exactly translate into ‘massive and dense vortex of restaurants and shops’ but might as well. Why I didn’t expect to encounter the same in Tokyo is a testament to my acute powers of perception.

In Tokyo, even moreso than in Osaka, the subway system constitutes an intricate web of criss-crossing train lines that manage to actually intersect at very few stations. To compensate, adjacent stations are connected by these underground sub-cities boasting signs that read, to give but one example, ‘Marunouchi Line 370 meters ahead,’ with an arrow to get you going in the right direction so you don’t spend the next half-hour walking the wrong way. And believe me, it is possible to walk the wrong way for a full thirty minutes in Tokyo’s underground.

So I’ve got a subterranean half-mile to go before I reach my station, and I’m strolling along at my own non-sweat-eliciting pace, I’m feeling triumphant and giddy and completely freaked out. I’d gotten what I wanted. Now I had to figure out how to not blow it. This, I was just now realizing, would be even tougher than landing the gig in the first place. Takahashi-san could have told me to come back and see him once I was a famous writer. But he decided, for whatever reason, to give me a chance. To use his store and his time and try to make it worthwhile for everyone. I was now allowed to show up. The obvious next question was, who else will? This idea sank further in, and suddenly I felt the urge to go play on the swings.

The subway brought me to Jimbocho, the so-called ‘Bookstore Heaven’ of Tokyo, faster than I would have liked. Aboveground I would find more bookstores than I could possibly visit in a day; disregard all those with little or no selection of foreign books and I’d be down to exactly one store: Sanseido, who I hadn’t called and would drop in on unexpectedly. In the underground of Jimbocho Station I found a restroom.

It took me longer to change clothes than it took for the people at Sanseido to tell me no.

And with that I decided to call it a day.

The sun fell; the air cooled; my legs and feet grew vaguely achy. And I couldn’t put off looking for a room for the night any longer. I knew a good number of people in town. Not counting facebook I only knew how to get in touch with three of them. With the sky growing dark one of them texted me back.

‘You’re in Tokyo? Cool, I’m in O-daiba, I’ll be free around 10:30, let’s have a beer! By the way, where are you staying?’ This I took as a prelude to an offer of a little floor space. My female friend, however, was apparently just making conversation. While not taking my obvious hints. So I stopped hinting. I’ll bring the beer! This, however, does not make a single Japanese woman feel better about inviting you over, no matter how long you’ve known each other.

Certainly there were inexpensive places to stay in Tokyo. But none of the Tokyo guide books in the Yaesu Book Center listed any (feeding my suspicion that guidebooks, even if they do not begin as such, evolve into a listing of favored (read:paying) establishments, and cheap hotels aren’t going to go that route.) Inside Tokyo Station, glancing over the train line map above the ticket machines, I decided on Omiya and hopped on the ever-jam-packed Keihin-Tohoku Line for a forty-minute ride north into Saitama Prefecture, which seems to exist as a sort of controlled run-off pool of humanity since there is no more room for anyone in Tokyo and they have to spill out somewhere.

Omiya is the biggest city in Saitama; for no other reason I was betting I’d find a decent variety of accommodation to choose from. After thirty minutes walking on progressively irate legs I’d found a business hotel for 90 bucks a night (the guy at the front desk was very polite as he told me there was nothing cheaper in town anywhere, liar) and a number of neon-lit, fancifully-colored and decorated joints charging by the hour until 10 or 11pm when I could then check in for an overnight stay. I walked on, not having brought my own sheets.

At this point my lady friend emails me to tell me where I can find a cheap and decent place to stay in Tokyo.

I thought the sign was a bad joke; I walked up and down the dark side street three times and still couldn’t find the place, supposedly 20 meters around the corner from the sign (which was, inexplicably, hanging right above - no space between the door frame and the sign - the door to a red velvet karaoke bar). I studied the red arrow and the ‘you are here’ and the sketchy map of corners and half-streets. And I found myself wishing ill on everyone who had anything to do with this sign and this hotel and this town and this entire country. I emailed my friend and thanked her for the information.

I knew of the capsule hotel concept. I knew they existed (unlike the vending machines offering certain used women’s clothing items that every gaijin swears they’ve seen – or swears they know someone who has sworn they’ve seen.) And I had always been curious (about the capsule hotel concept).

After the day I had, this was as good as any night to find out what it was like to sleep in a plastic coffin with a TV.

Twenty minutes after checking in I was pushing through the door into the communal bathroom where, for those not familiar with the Japanese idea of a hot spring bath, I would sit on a tiny bucket and wash and rinse off before sinking slowly into the big hot bath to let the day soak out of my system.

I stared at the dripping wet gaijin in the mirror in front of me. He had run himself through the gamut of emotion today, jumping into something he wasn’t ready for, doggie paddling like crazy just to stay mentally afloat, looking at a picture of his children and feeling superhuman, losing it in a foreign language, then conquering Tokyo (at least for the moment) before being brought back to his tired, sweaty existence as a dot in the concrete jungle.

Be careful what you ask for.

The guy in charge of the entire foreign book department for a nationwide chain of bookstores wants to see what I can do. This is scaring the rice balls right out of me. I want off the ski lift. My boys won’t know the difference, will they?

But I would. And so would my wife. She has more faith in me than I deserve. She knows even less about this book business than I do. She’s tried, but she can’t really read my book, not to any meaningful degree. But that doesn’t seem to matter. She made my phone calls for me, believing I needed her. Which I did.

She didn’t know what she was doing, but she did it anyway, believing I could turn this into some kind of success. Which, God, I hope I can.

Yes, it is an extraordinary day when the only moment of complete normality is sitting on a plastic bucket between two naked men.