Strangers on the train

It was on the way back home one evening a crush of people pushed their way into the train, but one particular salaryman felt the need to not pay any attention and stare into his aqua-blue DS Lite. He was so focused he literally wasn’t looking where he was going. He ambled my way, hunched over and concentrating, and came to a halt when I decided I had had enough of his pushing and pushed back. There he stood, half-drunkenly floating about, trying to stay upright, as the train stopped and started. He was probably in his mid to late fifties, dark hair almost gray, wearing a thin brown jacket that hung loosely off his skinny frame. From the corner of my eye I take a peek and see he is playing Tetris DS.

We’ve all heard of those mad Japanese Tetris skills, so I decide to pay closer attention, at which point two things strike me.
First, this is no man, this is a woman, an aged granny glued to her Tetris DS. It was difficult to spot while she was hunched over but the sudden flash of an earring and a little bit more scrutiny revealed she was indeed of the double X variety. I find this somewhat heart-warming; a game otaku and an old lady, I need to make her gaming experience as comfortable as possible, to promote the scene, I suppose. I make a little more space so she can float about a bit easier. But then the second thing strikes me: she sucks at Tetris!
She is not dropping, she is not going for Tetri, simply clearing one line at the time. This is no Tetris player – this is an abomination! I reoccupy the space I had been standing in and damn her eyes. I don’t want to appear inflexible or intolerant, but people that play Tetris for the number of lines cleared rather than the score should be shot. Or at the very least not given special treatment in crowded trains.

After Tetrisgate I spot more and more DS Lites on the train. Aqua-blue seems to be the colour of choice for women, though the best sighting was that of a salaryman, probably my age, wearing a salmon-coloured tie and playing Final Fantasy on his bright pink DS Lite. I can’t always spot what people are playing, but I do make the effort to sneak a peek when I can.

~ ~ ~

It was a particularly busy morning when I was stuck in my favourite spot, next to the door leaning against the side of the seats, as a huge crowd of commuters made their way on. Directly in front of my was an archetypal jiji, old geezer. Short in stature, greasy hair, huge pink earlobes and muttering to himself. “Ugh, so busy” or “Isn’t it busy?” People muttering to themselves is not an uncommon sight in Japan but judging by the wafts of acrid odour coming my way I guessed this jiji was labouring under the influence of some early morning alcohol abuse. But hey, we’re all stuck in this together so I just look the other way and try to breathe through my mouth.

By the time we reach the destination where 90% of the people get off, preferably all at once and with lot of pushing, there is a kafuffle near the doors. Too many people, myself and the jiji included, are trying to worm their way through the doors simultaneously. The results are predictable: a strain, a collective push and a sudden explosion of people. The old geezer has somehow been worked into a backwards position and as the crowd ejaculates out of the train he I sent back, atop the wave, and flies spectacularly to the ground. He lies sprawled on the floor like a tortoise used as a skipping stone.
I can’t help feeling partially responsible, as my elbow was definitely in contact with him at the time of the explosion, so I quickly bend down and ask him if he’s okay. “Okay, okay” he says smiling, or grimacing. He turns around and tries to get up. I grab him by the arm and help him to his feet. He smiles in gratitude and embarrassment, and I see behind me a station attendant rushing over to help him.

I’m not surprised you so often see scenes of station attendants hovering over fallen people on station platforms. I have even seen people lie on the ground screaming in mental anguish as two attendants sat on his chest to constrain them. Commuting is war, and in retrospect I am not at all surprised the old geezer felt the need for a few early morning snifters before his trip to work. There is only one way to travel: stiff as an owl.

~ ~ ~

I need to find out the brand and manufacturer of what I call the “jiji smell”. You may have noticed it when traveling on trains here; the acrid smell, a slight hint of compost, a stale odour. There is, I recon, an aftershave that most old geezers use because this is quite a common funk. It must be the Japanese equivalent of Old Spice or Imperial Leather. I must find out who makes this and kill them. Sometimes trains can smell bad enough. Just spot the guy with the rough hair, “bossa bossa” as they say here, the unkempt, straight-out-of-bed look. You can smell the dirt in their unwashed clothes, the B.O. This is bad enough as it is but each to their own. Now imagine that smell mixed with eau de jiji. It’s horrific. Sometimes it has been so bad I could do little else but squeeze my nose tight.

Which reminds me of the old lady I have shared the train with on a handful of occasions. About 5 stops before mine she gets on, stands near the door and gets off two stops down. She is ancient and bent double with age. You may have seen the old biddies who look like they’re constantly scanning the ground for lost change. I don’t know what arduous task they have been doing their whole life but it resulted in their backs making a 90 degree turn from just under the shoulder blade. It looks very painful indeed. This old lady walks like that. She has ragged clothes and a scarf around her head. She drags a wheeled metal basket with plastic bags in. I have no idea if she is homeless but it’s quite clear that she is not being helped; she obviously can’t look after herself anymore.

The smell she carries is possibly the foulest I have ever encountered. I kid you not. When she gets on you see people wrinkling their noses, looking around shocked and surprised. They see the source and feel bad for her, but nevertheless they all take a few steps back. They try to be inconspicuous, but in the end it’s quite clear what is happening as a circle of empty space evolves around her. I’ve seen people in nearby seats get up and walk to the next door, as if preparing to disembark, but never actually doing so. The smell is somewhat akin to the wet fur of a long dead Alsatian buried deep in a bog near a sulfur mine. . Sprayed with eau de jiji. It seriously makes your eyes water. You want to breathe through your mouth but your brain won’t allow it, not knowing what you’re breathing in.

And when she gets off the smell stays. It may by psychological but I swear it followed me home. I didn’t get rid of it until I had stripped, washed my clothes and had a shower. At the very least the train carriage reeks until my stop, three more down. You can see it in the pale faces of my fellow passengers. Their tolerance for train smells is much higher than mine, but even this is too much. And we’re all conflicted, torn between empathy for this old woman who is obviously in dire need of some help, and our collective desire to not stink to high Heaven.


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