Saturday, March 25, 2006

Tokyo Not Tokyo

I'm constantly fascinated by how one can swing between loving and hating the city within the same 24 hour period, if not over the course of one lonely hour. Of course, with a couple pounds of formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, and methanol sitting in ones liver, it's pretty easy to hate just about anything. Kittens even. Cute, cuddly lil' kittens.

A stroll down Manhattan Ave. during the late afternoon, something about the quality of that last hour of sunlight catches the neighborhood in a way that reveals a facet I haven't seen before, brownstones, churches, row houses, and warehouses backlit and glowing. Shards of the city skyline hide at the end of cross streets, peek above those building with a lesser stature, and stare me down from the end of Manhattan Ave., an asymptotic taunt: keep walking kid, try me, you'll only get as far as the river unless you got your Jesus shoes. I pass by MDC, where a couple bucks will get me a donut or two and a bottomless cup of sass from Magda; the 24-hour fruit stand and deli, where I know I can get fresh ginger, a couple lemons, and a jar of honey at 3am; Matchless, where Arty will take such good care of me on a Wednesday night, playing or no, that the headache lasts well into Thursday evening; Europa, a taste of Warsaw nightlife with a host of the most genetically improbable waitresses and bartentresses. I hear four languages in one block. It's moments like these where the love affair flows unihibited.

Take the train during rush hour, see how long the love lasts. I used to do it all the time, during the Libeskind day job epoch. Ok, maybe I'd conveniently miss the absolute peak of the morning rush, and would usually stay late enough to miss the evening peak, too, but rush hour is rush hour. Daily exposure develops an immunity after a while, a resistant cyst. Nowadays, I rarely have occasion to be riding the trains at those times, and if so, usually not in the direction of commuter flow, so when I do, I really have to sit back, think happy thoughts, and try not to roll my eyes too much.

Ever since December, when I spent 10 days in Tokyo, I can't help but pine for the smooth, efficient and quiet nihon-poi train protocol. They really have it figured out. New York? Not so much. For those of you who haven't been there, or haven't heard me or my sister rave about it, a summary: Packing as many people into a car as possible is a given; each passenger knows perfectly their own role in the choreography. Upon the arrival of a train, those waiting cohere into an amoeboid blob, which, after letting all exit who wish to exit, spills into the car, consuming everything in its path. It's a trip, riding the amoeba, and that's really what it is. If there's still space to push in further, you better not stop, 'cause the sum force of twenty-some businessmen pushing politely on each other behind you will snap any resistance like a matchstick. And if our amoeba gets stuck -- shouldn't 've eaten that last gaijin -- the white-gloved platform attendants swoop down to provide a hefty shove before the doors close... because, apparantly, they adhere to a *schedule*. (Did you hear that, MTA?)

Now that you're on the train, you probably have your head wedged into someone's armpit and your hand in a crotch, maybe your own, but you can't turn your head to investigate further. * And the greatest thing, it's all ok! No one cares, it's just How People Work Together In High Concentrations. No one's screaming across the car to each other, listening to Young Jeezy MP3s on speakerphone, clipping their nails, or cracking gum like it's going out of style. And when you have to get off, just push your way to the door. They'll move! Doors only open for so long.

Could this ever happen in NY? Ha. Here, people get inside the door, set up camp, then shoot you an annoyed glare when you try to push through to the spacious portion of the car between doors. Two people sit where you could have four. Sometimes it takes a full minute or two to close the doors, because the mob just can't figure out how to move to the middle of the car. Frustration triples if you're carrying something awkward, maybe a tenor sax case, for instance. When your stop comes up, good luck getting off if you're not right by the door. iPod Jane may need a bit of a push if the "'scuse me" doesn't cut through the first three times.

As nice as it would be to bring that aspect of Tokyo to our fair city, I fear that the same ruthless individuality and infinite variety that make this place so damn cool also, in some twisted-around way, ensure that it remains forever in the realm of the imagination. Or maybe it's just because New York isn't populated entirely by Japanese people.

Coming soon, my very own revival of "Good Idea, Bad Idea."

Episode 1: City Architecture. Hehe...

* My sister has a lovely story about a man who couldn't turn the page of his book because his other arm was rendered inoperative... so she turned the page for him, venturing into territory non-existent in the Japanese social reality. I'm sure she would happily elucidate.


Anonymous Chris said...

stop blogging and get your ass up to the acapulco restaurant, yo!

12:10 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

This article is a good account of a ride on the Tokyo train system. Also, the story you're referring to can be found here. Ah, Tokyo.

5:39 PM  
Blogger David said...

That is quite the comprehensive article, indeed. I would say that he's a bit off about the sleeping. I see all sorts of people sleeping on just about every line here in the city, safety be damned. Come 4am, there's always at least one.

4:12 PM  

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