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February 8, 2010

The Fork in the Road



A Reasonable Facsimile
Part 1: Life’s All Right

Back in the Eighties, when I was a young English teacher here in Japan, there was a lesson in an beginners-level textbook that I often used which treated the usage of the verb “have.” The book is long since out of print and I have lost my copy, so what follows is a rough reconstruction from memory.

There were three illustrations across the top of the page: a well-fed society matron lounging on a balcony of her sumptuous estate; a haggard, bearded beggar seeking shelter from the rain in an alley; and a young man leaning against a compact car outside a modest suburban apartment building. The audio for the lesson afforded us a glimpse into the internal monologue of each of these three characters. “I have a house in London and another in Los Angeles,” bragged the chubby matron. “I have a Rolls Royce and a Mercedes. I have a husband and three beautiful children. I have everything! Life’s great!”

Then the homeless man countered with the negative side of the grammatical equation: “I don’t have a house or even a room. I don’t have any money. I don’t have a job or a family. I don’t have anything! Life’s terrible!”

Finally, the young man, who turned out to be an English teacher of all things, provided review and balance: “I don’t have a house, but I have an apartment. I don’t have much money, but I have a car. I have a wife, but we don’t have any children. Life’s all right!”

I must have taught that lesson thirty times over the years, and each time felt a growing, gnawing contempt for that English teacher. Here was a young man, I thought, who had already compromised his life away. Surely he had once nurtured dreams that far exceeded an English teaching position, a compact car, an apartment, and a life that was merely “all right.” He had wanted to be a famous writer, I supposed—since that’s what I aspired to be at the time, as did every single English teacher that I knew well enough to compare dreams with. Or perhaps he had some entrepreneurial ambitions. Surely something roiled deep beneath these still waters that meekly burbled, “Life’s all right.”

The homeless man did not seem at first an obvious role model, but along about the twelfth or thirteenth listen, one began to consider his lot. Might he not have been someone who stuck with his dreams? Might he, too, once have aspired to be a famous writer, shunning the distraction of a “day job” to support himself while he pursued his craft? And when he failed, when all his queries and appeals to agents and editors went unanswered or bounced back to him, he had nothing to fall back on, and he was reduced to being a spokesman for the negative form of the verb "to have."

But at least he had tried. Dammit. At least he had done that.

Part 2: Then Again, Maybe Not

In the late Nineties, a few weeks before Christmas, now ensconced in a position at NU in southern Yokohama, I found myself on the platform of the local train station at dusk one evening. From the corner of my eye, I spotted a haggard, bearded chap sidling toward me in a manner that implied no small degree of inebriation. I soon spied in his hand a jar of One-Cup Ozeki, a particularly vile and cheap form of sakè sold in jars at station kiosks and favored by day laborers, and noticed that he wore the sort of padded boots which are standard issue for those working construction sites on a day-by-day basis, the kind with a forked toe-cap to allow a separate place for the big toe.

Such characters seem to have an instinctive moth-to-flame-like attraction to foreigners, so I was about to take standard evasive measures as he approached me when suddenly he said, “Excuse me, but where are you from?” in excellent and plummy English. This was something new. One’s encounters with the inebriated Japanese homeless tend toward noisy one-word inquiries: AMERICA?? WHY? DRINK?? and so on. A complete and grammatically accurate question along the lines of “Excuse me, but where are you from?” is enough to shock a person into answering.

From America, I said.

And what was I doing in Japan?

Teaching, I said.

At this point the train arrived, and I found myself fascinated enough that I did not attempt to extract myself from my interlocutor as we together boarded the train. He was going to Tokyo, the terminus, while I was going only as far as Yokohama central station, a mere ten-minute jaunt; so I figured things couldn’t get too awkward.

And where did I teach, he wanted to know as we settled into adjacent seats. The dying rays of the burnt-orange December sun warmed the backs of our heads. At closer range, the bouquet of his One-Cup Ozeki grew ever more salient.

At NU, I said.

“Oh, really?” he burbled. “I graduated from NU!”

I had no response to that, at least none that I verbalized; I was fairly sure that my new friend was yanking my chain, as it were. But at that moment, to my amazement and chagrin, he burst into the NU school song.

The chagrin I felt stemmed from the fact that the mere presence on the train of a homeless man/gaijin combo chatting in English already had our fellow passengers edgy enough without one of us suddenly bursting into a feisty, martial song. But the chagrin soon was trumped by amazement. The NU school song, after all, is by no means well known even within the confines of NU. I’d been teaching there the better part of a decade at this time and had come to know the song when I heard it, but couldn’t have made it past the opening couplet on my own. I stood corrected: I was in the presence of a bona fide NU alumnus.

At this point, I took over the role of inquisitor. How old was my new friend, anyway?

Fifty-seven. No, no—fifty-eight.

And what was his major at NU?

English. (He studied in Professor So-and-so’s seminar. And how was Professor So-and-so doing now, he wanted to know, with either great naivety or a commendable confidence in Japanese longevity.)

What had he been doing since he graduated?

He produced a business card from an ancient, tattered billfold. It was the sort with Japanese on one side and English on the other, and each side bore his name and the title “Novelist.” Only those two lines. No address. No phone. Even Philip Marlowe’s business card was more informative. He appeared to have more of the cards, but I suspected that I was the first person to receive one in a very long time—since the Eighties, I was guessing.

The Eighties. Here was that textbook character from the Eighties sprung to life and turned Japanese. For this man had never aspired to any career but writer. He had taken odd jobs after graduating but refused to commit to anything that would distract him from his craft. No, he had never gotten a novel published. (His generation was fated to miss the era of the Print-On-Demand companies that will publish virtually anyone, even the likes of me.) But hey, that’s life. He had no regrets. He was headed up to Tokyo hoping that a friend would put him up for the night. Failing that, there was this shelter run by this one church that he could always count on.

He certainly seemed more upbeat than the guy in the textbook had. Then again, the textbook guy wasn’t jacked up on One-Cup Ozeki. Still, I got the impression that he was just as regret-free in the cold light of morning as he was sitting in a warm train car at dusk.

Part 3: Conclusion

Up until that day I had always been a soft touch for college students seeking exactly the sort of advice about their future that they wanted to hear. For example, say you’re a male senior trying to resist parental pressure to take a secure but demanding fulltime job so that you can pursue your dream of becoming Japan’s first international reggae star, and you need some semblance of a responsible adult to cite as a supporter of your position. I would be your go-to guy. “I think that’s a swell idea,” I heard myself saying on more than one occasion, to the delight of the student and to the horror of his parents.

This, of course, was not only irresponsible, but the height of hypocrisy. For I had not taken the risky route in pursuit of my dreams. I did take the safe but time-consuming day job, and put my craft on the back burner for decades. Whether or not I would be a legitimately published writer today (as opposed to a POD writer) had I gone the other way, or instead ended up swilling cheap liquor on train platforms, well, that’s what I’d like to know, frankly.

Without knowing that, there’s simply no conclusion to this tale.