They're not my family, they're not my friends. They're . . . my "famuters" — those familiar commuters who ride the train with me each and every day.
I don't know their names. I only know their faces. Some have ridden with me on the north Tokyo rails for years. Others jump in for a season or two and then are gone — drawn away perhaps by a job change.
Mostly we sit or stand in the same places every single morning, as if our positions were reserved. When a stranger usurps somebody's spot, the whole ride seems wrong and each of us begins our day slightly out of sync.
We never speak. We don't even exchange looks, our eyes bouncing off each other as if we were but human wallpaper purchased for the Seibu railway.
But I know them. And I wager they know me. These, my famuters . . .
The Ventriloquist is a worn down office lady who often stands before me. She dresses in flat colors that probably match her workplace, some nondescript office in the dour maze of Tokyo. The Ventriloquist grips the commuter strap and talks . . . to herself, yet without moving her lips. The words squeak out with the high "Mommy! Mommy!" tone of a child. New riders twist their heads to see who might be speaking. Or where the child might be concealed. The Ventriloquist, meanwhile, stares straight ahead, her eyes not unlike those of a wooden dummy's.
"Well, I'm happy if you're happy. . . Of course I'm happy. Don't I look happy? I'm as happy as a bug. Why would you even say that? . . . It was just an expression. . . Yeah? Well, screw your expressions. Say something sensible or shut up."
Next comes the Swinger, a petite office girl who often sits to my left. In her case, I have never seen her face. She sleeps with her head down and her hair cascading forward. She is sleeping when I get on the train and sleeping when I get off. Who knows? Maybe she lives in that seat.
She is the Swinger because she . . . swings! She swings to the right, she swings to the left, snuggling into my shoulder for a tender moment until — with a lurch of the train — she swings back to the right. All the while her head rocks like a dashboard doll. It's amazing she doesn't have whiplash.
On my other side is scrunched the Gamemeister. He is a knob-kneed office worker somewhere between the ages of 22 and 42. It's hard to tell. He spends his train time with a Game Boy drawn close to his boyish grin, his teeth fanned out like playing cards. His pupils and thumbs move constantly. I wager he's not married. And never will be.
In the corner by the door stands the Nutty Professor — a slender man with wind-blown gray hair and fishbowl eyewear. Every day the Nutty Professor wears the same clothes: a thin blue blazer and a necktie-free white shirt. Winter, summer — weather and temperature don't matter. Some formula in his noggin absorbs all his thoughts, leaving him no time to waste on wardrobe. Eccentric = Mass of Commuters Squared.
For several years, the Ventriloquist was joined on my left by Mr. Sag, a high school boy. Mr. Sag was fond of exposing his underwear by belting his trousers around his thighs rather than his waist. If I would have grabbed his knee and tugged once, his pants would have shot to his ankles.
But I would have never done that to Mr. Sag, who seemed like a pleasant enough fellow. Yet I was pleased to have him disappear, because he also funneled music into his head at full blast, never realizing his headphones barely muffled the sound — always some recording of gorillas pounding on drums. This made it impossible to hear the Ventriloquist.
And where did he go? Unless he has brain damage, I suspect Mr. Sag is now exposing his boxers on some college campus.
Behind the Ventriloquist is the Snorer. Fat enough to take up two seats and with an open mouth wide enough to hangar a monarch butterfly, the Snorer does what snorers do — he snores. His is a gentle log sawing, however, with only an occasional SNNNORK! brought on perhaps by a dream of train car filled with nuts of a different variety.
Then there is the Babe. A starlet type who stands by the other door, with her bosom turned to fend off eyeballing, a failed effort due to the reflection of the glass . . . in which she shows an expression of abject unhappiness, her almond eyes almost dripping with tears, as if she were auditioning for a part in a tragedy. Most of the men feel the tragedy is that she will not turn around.
Last is . . . the Furrener — me. I sit — when I get lucky — and balance a thick English book on my lap. Sometimes I read it, sometimes I daydream and sometimes I listen to the Ventriloquist argue with herself about how happy she is. It passes the time.
Only once have I ever run into any of these people off the train. I saw the Nutty Professor at a Seiyu supermarket. He was wearing a casual shirt and chuckling with an elderly woman mincing at his side. I found the vision unsettling.
Why . . . the man has a real life! And a family! He dresses, acts and looks normal! He even speaks!
For a nano-second his eyes met mine. Perhaps he thought similar thoughts."Why . . . the Foreigner is not a mannequin at all! He exists even outside the train! Incredible!"
Then we glided past each other without so much as a nod.
On the next morning train everything was back to routine. The Snorer snored, the Swinger swang and the Gamemeister set records for points scored. Across the way, the Nutty Professor didn't even glance at me, his gaze fixed outdoors, or maybe on the reflection of the Babe.
"I'm so happy I could puke," said the Ventriloquist. "Oh will you just stop! What are you anyway? Some kind of nut?"
And our train rolled on.
Editor's note: Sincere thanks to the author for his kind permission to republish the above article, which first appeared in his regular Japan Times column "When East Marries West".