(an earlier version of this story appeared in the Bailliwik series of art books.)
At Shinjuku South Exit, in the midst of the crowd, an elderly hunchbacked dwarf in a tweed overcoat and a black beret hurries past. I love that black beret, it says, “You may all think as you like. I have not abandoned myself. Neither do I despise myself.”
Just the same, as I push toward the train, I recall that 78% of these people have also been disqualified. And that's just on a train. On a bus it's maybe 94%. (Many people, in fact, believe they will be disqualified just for riding the bus and avoid it at all costs. In bad weather you can hear them mutter: Look at all this rain! So much for true love and good luck – here’s the bus.)
78% of this train has been disqualified, according to this afternoon's precise guess. And that is not anyone's fault. (Is this true?) That is just how it works.
Each day we are told: you have lost. You are a person who has lost. Commonly known as a _____ . In compensation, we are going to let you work for us. In compensation, please feel free to purchase something.
Once, in my early twenties, I sat at lunch with an older gay couple who announced, "In most people's eyes we've been dead for years!" They roared with laughter -- and went right on enjoying themselves. I loved those two men very much. Unfortunately they dropped me a year or two back. I am no longer sufficiently young, cute and adoring. No more venison pot pie for me. No more Marie Antoinette's favorite wine. No more prosciutto and melon balls. But that is just how it goes. . .
If this is going to be a story, there needs to be a plot. Let's take a moment now to provide one:
She stayed, though she did not know if she was right to stay. She did not know if it was right or just a waste of life. Meanwhile, she got no younger.
A common plot, which will relate to many people. That's what's best for those, such as myself, who intend to address a large and varied audience.
On the train we sit beneath advertising banners. Lines of happy people hang from the ceiling, they drink beer and flirt above our empty commuting faces, our oily thinning hair. It is as if you can actually see, above our heads, our daydreams of leisure time and friends. Our fantasies of non-exhaustion.
Looking up, I see that the Tokyo Metro subway company has a new promotion. This one shows three men in uniform with hard hats. They are standing in a cavernous black tunnel beneath a vast concrete arch. One stands between the tracks. Two stand at the side. They are all carrying powerful flashlights. The caption beneath the photo reads: Tokyo Heart.
I did not actually scream. I don't think so. At least -- nobody looked at me. But then nobody would, would they, especially if I had screamed.
Who made this sign? Excuse me -- can I get a message to this person?
I want to ask: did you intend to tell this much of the truth?
Should she stay, the woman wondered, or should she go? Was it too late to start over? Once she'd extricated herself from convenience and comfort, would she miss it? Moreover, how was she expected to feel cheerful, knowing that she would become ever so slightly more funny-looking every single day until death?
It's easy to believe that all human beings are significant, lovable and worthwhile. Easy until you haul that belief onto the train and attempt to apply it to actual people. This dead-eyed salaryman, for example, who cannot possibly have smiled at any point in the last 5 prime ministers. (This is Japan, so that's only, like, 4 years -- but still.) His lips pucker in permanent distaste. The only thing he ever touches gently is the screen on his phone.
The thing to do is to imagine him in the presence of the one thing that makes his face light up. Often this means the nieces. For those without nieces, there may be a little dog. Copper-alloy non-stick pans? You must imagine him in the presence of the one thing that makes him light up, even if it only Asahi Super Dry.
She wondered aloud: what is the one thing that makes my face light up?
One of those things no one is supposed to know: how many people fall in love on buses. Pressed together as the rattletrap swerves. This kind of information is anti-capitalist anti-progress propaganda. We squirrel it away here. (Inspector, this is only yet another story about a woman who stayed much too long.)
Black beret black beret black beret!
A story ought to provide something lacking in the reader's daily life. Most commonly, a happy ending: the woman decided not to worry anymore about whether or not she had wasted her entire life. She moved to Laos.