Yesterday, somewhere between Kankokumura and Ishioka, the customary numb silence permeating any Japanese train was pierced when an elderly man began to berate the spiky-heeled and spiky-haired young woman next to him. I understood “ashi*!” and lots of “te” form verbs (often used for commands) and deduced that he was upset with her because, perhaps, her leg had bumped into his. The train was packed and she sat, delicately, at the end of the bench while the rest of the people on the bench were smashed into each other. She was also apparently oblivious to his anger – she stared at the ground with the serene expression of an innocent lost in a reverie.
The old man was not pleased to be ignored – he pointed angrily at her leg and his rants grew louder. After months of being stared at on trains, I felt little shame in paying attention and to my pleasure, I noticed that many of the other people on the train were glancing over as well, their blank train faces shattered.
As the old man’s ruckus crescendoed, the train attendant slid open the car door, bowed stiffly, and entered, striding purposefully to the frantic old man. A conversation began, of which I understood perhaps 10% so, dumb and in the cold, I focused on the fact that I’d never seen a train attendant talk so much. In general, I get the impression that they’re more for decoration – their crisp navy uniforms, jaunty little hats, white gloves and formal bows add a touch of class and decorum to the Japanese train experience. I have only ever heard them ask for tickets on Limited Express trains or politely request that someone (me) turn off their mobile phone when sitting in the priority seats. This conversation was far more animated and irresistible; by now we were all gaping openly at this highly irregular scene. The only person on the train not paying attention was the spiky haired girl who had caused it all in the first place.
I turned away and saw the elderly lady next to me staring as well. She caught my eye and smiled.
“Atsukamashi yo*!” I whispered conspiratorially. The lady laughed and we went back to watching. The old man had taken out a crumpled piece of paper and a nub of a pencil and was demanding that the train attendant give him his name.
*What a cheeky old man!
Just then, a new player entered into what was by now practically an N/R Train melee (I’m betting that, were I able to understand Japanese better, I would have heard all sorts of [polite, indirect] insults). Another old man on the bench, dignified in his suit and felt hat, had decided to throw in his angry 2 yen. The conversation grew louder until a young man across the car jumped up and offered the first old man his seat. The old man did not budge.
And then suddenly, somehow, it was finished, with no warning for me who could understand so little of the argument. This Eavesdropus Interruptus had left me very cold but I could only watch as the train attendant bowed and stalked out of the car. The train came to a stop and the second old man was helped out of the train by his wife, the two of them grumbling. The original grumpy old man had gone quiet, but had stood up and was now waiting for his stop by the train doors, glaring daggers at the girl, who finally appeared to stumble out of her dream and realize that she was the focus of drama. She shot the old man an injured look and returned to staring at the ground.
Ishioka station – the doors opened and the old man rushed out, followed by me and the Unwitting Spiky Heeled Hell Raiser who, as soon as she stepped off the train, whipped out her rhinestone-encrusted fuchsia cell phone and nestled the receiver into the layers of her jagged-edged hairdo.
“Gomen!” she said gaily to her friend, apologizing for, perhaps, missing her call while the train was underground. Certainly no apology for ruining an old man’s train ride with her leg.
She disappeared into a crowd. So did I.