The crowd blocks the street at a neighbourhood festival. (This happened last summer.) There’s a smiling stranger on the fringe, watching the action. Tanned and weatherbeaten. Hey, he says, catching your eye. He points across the road, up a sidestreet, where the scene is bustling. People are hoisting a portable shrine. There’s a man riding a horse, dressed as a lord with a tall hat.
Your friend, who you’ve never seen before, wants you to enjoy it. He takes some trouble to point things out. He has a youthful shadow, despite some obvious hard-living. His style is genuine. Collared shirt despite the heat, old jeans, carefully knotted sweater.
See that lantern on the long pole, he says. The characters say Tamanoi. That’s what they used to call these parts. You won’t see that name anymore.
Thank him for the information. You know the neighbourhood used to be a major brothel area. Then in the late ’50s the authorities shut the businesses down. The Tobu rail company changed the station name from Tamanoi to Higashi Mukojima.
You head off to check out your lordship on his steed. By chance, a half hour later, you run into street man again. He’s leaning against a roller shutter.
The noisy shrine bearers have passed. My brother moved here about 80 years ago, he says. We came from Aso-gun in Tochigi. I’m 74. It’s a hard life up there. No rice fields, our daimyou lord was poor. You know, there’s a saying, Hakidame de umarete, Fukidamari de sodatsu. Born in a rubbish heap/Blown by the wind/ Grow up wherever you land.
You ride his stream of conversation. He talks with a quiet insistence, a flat tone whether it’s about life or death. He doesn’t say what he did for a living. It wasn’t easy, you can guess that much. Perhaps his detachment reveals how street-hardened he is.
You know what, he says. The gods gave us humans alone the power to commit suicide. Think about it. Cows can’t do it, or birds, or fish, pigs, deer. No other living thing can choose to kill itself. It’s a great gift. Monkeys and gorillas can’t do it. When things get tough, what else can you do? Hahaha! Jump in a river, in front of a train. It might hurt some, but there you go.
Well! Ask him if he has ever thought of doing it. He says, I doubt there’s anyone alive who hasn’t. He laughs again. It’s not a cynical chuckle. It shows more a kind of acceptance.
You know, I can’t do anything now, he says. I’m old. I’ve got no courage. I can’t run, my heart starts pounding, I’d collapse if I had to run. You know what? If I could run I’d go and get me some money. I’d rob a bank! Or stab someone! Haha! But you can’t really go off and do that sort of thing, can you? Your whole family would pay. They couldn’t go to school or keep their jobs.
The same impish tone. It’s as if he could go on forever, half preaching, half reflecting. You say he’s done all right to make it this far.
I smoke and drink a bit, he says. But drinking’s not good for you. And if the doctor has to tell you to stop, that can only mean you are not listening to your important organs.
His mood seems to brighten. You know, he says, living a long time, you get to experience all sorts of sicknesses. It’s not bad to live long.