A fair amount of teasing from friends has nearly weaned me of the impulse to rush to the aid of every Japanese salary-man I see passed out on Tokyo’s late-night streets. These men, always men, of all ages, used to cause me a great deal of concern. I try to fold my concern inward now, in a way that doesn’t slow my step or disturb the flow of my thoughts as I pass by. Or I give myself over to observation: of the jacket loosely enveloping a thin middle-aged man balled up like a black seed against the bathroom wall – a little kernel destined no doubt to sprout into domestic trouble the next morning. Or of the tailored suit holding itself up against that building, the man inside it swallowing air loudly to prevent vomit from rising up from his stomach. The vomit rises despite his efforts, and soon – very soon – I think to myself, he’ll be horizontal on the street, passed out on those stairs over there where I had seen a man passed out the previous week.
There was a late-night television show where a microphone had been set up in front of a bustling subway station. A sign posted in front of the unsupervised amplifier read something like “The Drunk’s Sermon: Please Step Up.” The speeches were all variations on the monstrous condition of salary-man life and the restorative properties of alcohol: “Life is hell…drink to forget.” “Drink is the only escape from this hell.” “Drink makes life worth living.” “Kids,” intones one older man whose eyes reveal that he has a few children himself, “You may think I am repulsive but soon you will be just like me.” So unoriginal, so badly executed, so hackneyed and broken were these rants, that they couldn’t help but touch on some larger if also colorless truth about Japanese men and their relationship to alcohol.
Electrical Boxes and Indonesian Voices
The other night as I was walking home I passed an older gentleman down on his knees. He was in a suit – aren’t they all? – and had placed a stack of clear plastic folders carefully on the far side of the electrical box on which his head was unsteadily propped. For a brief moment I thought to stop, then thought better of it. The red light at the cross-walk left me waiting just long enough for an additional hundred-and-eighty degrees worth of thinking. I turned back.
Leaning over the man, I asked, “Are you alright?” It was just a formality, a scripted question to which the scripted response is supposed to be, “Sure, sure, I’m fine.” “I'm in a bad way,” he says, “please call an ambulance.” His tone carried more muddle than agony. “Are you drunk?” His answer is equivocal. “Were you drinking? Is it your heart? Are you sure you want me to call an ambulance?” I ask again, wondering to myself the value I should place on the answer. He nods.
I am on a late-night stroll and don’t have my phone with me so I yell into the passing multitude, making it as clear as I can that I am not diagnosing, just relaying that “this man needs an ambulance.” A man a separates himself from the crowd and dials the three digits for the ambulance, talks into his cell phone, listens, talks, then listens. “The ambulance is coming,” he says.
The old man is still balanced against the green steel box. He burrows his head into it, quietly petitioning, “what the hell is this thing?” He sincerely wants to know. Not having the slightest idea what the Japanese word for electrical box is, I tell him it has something to do with electricity. “Listen! Can't you hear them? There are voices in it,” he says. “Can’t you hear them?” I tell him that I can’t. When I put my ear up to the box I half-expect to hear the buzz of electricity. There is nothing at all. “They're Indonesian voices,” he says, and then pauses and pulls back a bit to take in the whole form of the box. “….. but what the hell is this thing?” he asks again, even softer. This time his words are not at all meant for me. “They're singing,” he says. “Are you sure you weren't drinking?” I ask again. “Maybe a little,” he says. “Not more than a little?” “A little,” he repeats. His is less the disorientation of a drunk than that of an old man staring at an electrical box filled with Indonesian voices. But I can't tell if he's more confused by the box or by his own state.
“Don't worry, it's ok, the ambulance will be here soon. Just relax,” I tell him. “I can see bright lights,” he says. “It's bright,” he says again. This time, too, he uses a word whose meaning in Japanese rests smack in the middle of luminous and phantasmal. It scares me this second time. I think it scares him as well. Maybe I should have listened more carefully to the box? When the ambulance arrives paramedics descend on the old man. “What's wrong?” asks one. “Is it your heart.” “No,” he says lucidly if also sadly, “I'm hallucinating.” As two medics lifted him onto a large stretcher, the third walked around to the other side of the electrical box and gathered the man's carefully stacked pile of folders.
There is a wonderful Japanese word for the gait of drunk salary-men. It’s really a captivating walk, a thoroughly Japanese walk. The first thing you need in order to properly perform it is a slim middle-aged Japanese male body. You also have to have a briefcase which goes flopping from side to side as you move down the street. Boney knees and skinny legs lifted exaggeratedly high are of course a must. This gait is not so much a sway, but rather a sharp thirty to forty-five degree change of direction with every half-step forward. If you're imagining a one-string marionette then you’re close to grasping what in Japan is called chidoriashi. This phrase, translating rather inelegantly as 'plover legs', refers to the bird that draws danger away from its young by flailing about as if it were injured with a broken wing. Seeing so many salary-men tottering down the street or sprawled out on the sidewalk, it’s hard not to wonder what these 'plover-legs' might be protecting, and whether the danger and the dance are one and the same?