30 times more fun
It's 6:30 in the morning, and I am riding the train from one edge of the megalopolis to the other. The rain has saturated the colors of the city and deepened black. Mow, the whole world looks like a Snapchat filter. As usual, all the seats in the car are filling up. The last seat to be occupied will be the one next to me. I have gotten quite used to the presence of the invisible passenger. He or she sits by my side on almost every train or bus. Trying to figure out why everyone but I can see him or her made me crazy for a few years. Now I am grateful for the space.
It takes approximately 3.5 hours door to door to commute to one campus. The department head was gracious enough to arrange for me to stay in the dormitory, midway between where I live and the farthest campus. Still, it's about 1 hour and 45 minutes from my house to the most remote site. This includes the time it takes to walk to the bus stop, wait for the bus, walk to the train station, wait for the train, factor in all of the transfers, and the walk from the station to my destination.
The train car is filling up. Every ounce of space is being occupied by the solemn faced legions of salaried workers that keep the economy afloat. My invisible travel companion is with me I think. I never know when or where she will get off. Today we are taking the long ride together.
Many people have asked me why I don't move into the city or to the opposite side of the town, closer to work. Although it seems like the logical thing to do, it isn't. There is more to life than work. The place where I live right now is perfect for me. It is so perfect that not moving makes much more sense than moving. (Someone paused in front of the seat next to me, noticed the invisible passenger, and moved on.)
I lived in the heart of city for many long years before I moved to my current spot. Although there were millions of people around, there wasn’t a feeling of community. The building I lived in, for example, had many units, but I barely knew who lived next door to me. Sometimes the inviable passenger would walk beside me in the corridor, which is probably why no one ever said hello. When I said hello, they nervously echoed my salutation then scurried along their path. I think my invisible companion must be a menacing brute who scowls and gives the middle finger to everyone who looks our way.
I don’t live in the city anymore. My current neighborhood is perfect. The beach is only a 15-to-20-minute walk away from my house. This morning when I looked out the window, I could see the rain had left the mountains misty like a fairytale. My alarm clock is the Japanese bush warbler or uguisu in Japanese. It sings its unique song outside my window just after sunlight has begun to shake the town's sleepy shoulder.
My next-door neighbor heard it was my birthday and brought over a carton of Hawthorne berry juice. It tastes like cassis berries and is supposed to be good for the body. She has always been kind to me. My invisible friend doesn't seem to mind her because she greets me with a smile every morning as if no one else is there but us. Every so often, she brings over some delicacy for various parts of Japan.
When I first moved to the neighborhood, she even drove to the police station to bring my passport after I had been detained for not carrying my ID. I was buying a ticket at the machine when I heard a voice from behind me ask to see it. The cop was in his 60s and looked frail. "Why do I have to show you my ID?" I asked. "Because I have the right to ask." He said. I wondered if everyone in the megalopolis carried their ID with them everywhere, even if it was just to the supermarket. I also wondered how many had been thrown into the back of a police car and hauled off for interrogation.
"Why am I being arrested?" I asked. "You are not being arrested." He said. "Can I go home then?" "No, you may not." The room was small. Two guards stood at attention with me inside the room, and two guards waited just outside the door. I sat there for more than an hour until my neighbor could drive my passport over to the station. I apologized to her for the inconvenience, but she laughed and said, "I am just glad I was home. Sorry, it took so long. I had to wait for my husband to bring the car back." That was several years ago. Last week, when she brought over the Hawthorne Berry drink, she was just as full of hospitality as she was on the day I had been arrested.
On the beach, I met an interesting character named Atchan. I was playing the didgeridoo and chilling by the sea. I had gotten the instrument from my friend Mizuho after her husband had passed away. I loved playing it to the sound of children laughing and waves rolling in on the surf.
As I was playing my didgeridoo I suddenly I heard in perfectly accented English, "What you got there?" I explained that it was an aborigine instrument from Australia. Atchan was fascinated by it. Then out of nowhere, he said, "Congratulations on meeting me. Now your life will be 30 times more fun." I thought it was an odd thing to say, so I just laughed and thought to myself, "Whatever, dude." It turned out to be 100 percent true. We have been great friends since.
(I have to change trains now. It's 7:40 am.)
Having a kind old woman live next door was one thing but having the de facto mayor of your town become your friend was quite another. Atchan wasn't really the mayor, but he was so personable that everyone called him the mayor. He introduced me to everyone in the neighborhood. There was the 6-foot 7ish bar owner from Columbus, Ohio, named Thomas, the Karaoke bar owner called Taka, a belly dancer named Miho, military contractors Shae and Andy, a British schoolteacher named Dan, an environmental scientist named Matt, and a host of others. All of them bonded by community and booze. My invisible companion seemed invisible to everyone else in the town too. Although I cherish my alone time, I love having friends to hang out with who live within bike riding distance. Over the years, we have had some crazy adventures.
On my side of the town, there is also a very vibrant arts community. About six months ago, folks got together and held an art and music festival at a local farm. It was amazing to see how much talent there was. An animator had made a movie out of drawings he collected from neighborhood children. Mama dancers performed beautiful routines as their kids either cheered them on or giggled with childish embarrassment. Several live bands performed throughout the day. Local farmers gave talks on the importance of loving the land. I and a few others took photos to record the day. It felt great to be a part of something. The invisible man was not there that day either. He only shows up when I venture into the megalopolis of Tokyo and beyond.
If I moved closer to work, I would be moving away from my home, friends, and community. It would be like leaving the warm comfort of my intergalactic starship for the cold empty vacuum of space.
It's 9:37 am. I arrived only to find out that I got the day wrong. This week we have to get mandatory health checks. That was the sole reason for my commute today. Because of the pandemic, all of my work has been based on the Tokyo campus, which is 1.5 hours closer to my house. Today is the second half of two rounds of checks. The first one only lasted 10 minutes. Today's check will probably take 20 mins. The woman in charge tried to get me to come back on the day I was initially scheduled. Of course, I begged and pleaded just to do the check today. She eventually said, ok, but I could see her looking over my shoulder at the invisible man waiting in line behind me. He must have flipped her two middle fingers because she did not look happy at all.
This morning Atchan texted about a fortune teller he met on Saturday. It was a funny story, as usual. Although I am so far away from my neighborhood, that text made me feel like I was still home.
The photos above are from the community. The last photo is of Mayor Atchan 😀