As I laced up my boots preparing to leave my house, I realized that the noise that had awakened me an hour earlier than my alarm and the sound I’d been trying to ignore all morning was the patter heavy rain makes on galvanized metal, like the kind on my neighbor’s porch roof. I turned to my right, in the vestibule, and there on the wall hang 11 傘(かさ Kasa ) umbrellas.
I live in a 2-story guesthouse, better known as a Gaijin House (though I really hate that name). There are 4 other rooms besides mine and currently 3 of them are occupied: A French girl, an Italian guy and another American. That meant, assuming everyone had one umbrella, at least 8 of the umbrellas hanging before me were excess.
I didn’t lay claim to any of them. I have a Tote umbrella but it was still upstairs in my room and I wasn’t about to remove my boots and go get it. I thought about running up the stairs with my boots on…the landlord would never know and my fellow gaijin could care less. In fact, I know I’ve heard them do it on occasion. Either that or they have heavy leather-soled slippers. But, I never do, the same way I never spit when I’m near a church, a temple, shrine, mosque or any other religious building. There’s some crazy Japanese cult (not unlike those Aleph guys I’m told by my co-workers) headquartered across the street from my school and I don’t even spit near there. I’m not a religious person, at all, just a little on the superstitious side. The way I see it, there’s no sense in provoking the next man’s god with a flagrant sacrilegious act. This gaijin house is by no means holy ground but I feel I ought to respect the customs and sanctity of the house nonetheless. Why risk offense and incur the wrath of some Japanese Kami? That’s all I need is some crazy Juon haunting my already sleepless nights. And so I treat my home like holy ground. And, besides that, I hadn’t alloted for the extra time. I had a bus set to arrive 3 minutes from then and I lived roughly 3 minutes from the bus stop.
So, which umbrella shall I take? I thought.
Four of them looked decidedly feminine. One was yellow with white flowers and another was a shade of purple even Prince would think was too feminine. That left four possible owner-free umbrellas. Four of the remaining 7 umbrellas were of the clear plastic convenience store 100 to 500 yen ($1 to $5) variety and the three others were also cheap but with color. I hate to go out with the clear ones though. While the rain is no problem for the cheap umbrellas, a good cough or sneeze could turn them inside out. Also, I’ve mentioned before why I love rainy days in Japan, the anonymity that the rain offers, but that anonymity is mitigated if you use a clear umbrella for if Japanese people can see you they’ll spew their Iwakan at you for sure and force you to dig deep for yet another reason to endeavour not to hate them. So, to fully enjoy the peace of mind that the rain offers I wrote off the four clear umbrellas, as well.
I grabbed one of the three remaining ones, the cheapest looking of the three, and I was out the door, half sprinting while I opened the umbrella…only to find it was broken. Metal had rusted and broken on two of the hinges. One side of the umbrella looked fully functional, the other looked droopy and sickly, like it had had a severe stroke. I ran back to the door, tossed the palsied umbrella inside and, with no time to be choosy, grabbed one of the clear plastic ones. Then, I made like Bolt to the bus stop arriving just in time. Well, according to my watch I was just in time…but the bus was nowhere to be seen and the line was long. So, I stood in the rain with 10 or so other people and waited on the bus.
Around then the rain let up a bit, the downpour became drizzle, and calamity became inconvenience. Cellphones came out and heads peeked from beneath umbrellas at the road beyond me in the direction the bus was to come from. I held the umbrella lower in order to obscure my features. With raindrops on the plastic, my image was diffused…they did not recognize me as a foreigner and so everything remained status quo. I was just another soon-to be late commuter.
Then the rain stopped altogether.
I wanted to keep my umbrella up, but everyone else had put theirs down and I stood out in a way that drew as much attention as I do anyway. So, I put mine down, too. Upon seeing who they were on line with the other commuters began doing the Iwakan two-step. I whipped out my cellphone and focused intensely on Tetris. Finally the bus came. I kept my head down and tried not to look at anyone, not to notice anything, cursing my gift for observation. It makes life here very trying. I wish I could turn it off like a cell phone. Instead of manner mode, I’d have a setting for “There’s nothing to see here you haven’t seen a thousand times” mode. But, like a rubbernecker on a highway at the scene of a SUV versus an 18-wheeled tractor-trailer, and even though you know the dismembered bodies and brain-stained windshield is going to give you many a sleepless night, it’s hard to look away.
The bus was only a couple of minutes late. Crowded, except for the area around me, thank god. By the time the bus arrived at the train station, the clouds had parted a bit and the sun had peeked through. I stopped at the 7-11 for a can of coffee and a smoke. These I had allotted time for. They have an ashtray and an umbrella stand out front. I placed that plastic umbrella in the stand, drank coffee and smoked, as is my custom. More sun shined through. I was reading a text message I’d received from one of my private students canceling that evening’s lesson…due to the weather. Like it was a damn typhoon. A little friggin rain. I need the money so I got a little vexed. This student cancels at least once a month. I was fuming, thinking of how I could tell her that this was unacceptable when I realized that I had 2 minutes for my train.
Shit! I took off at a sprint and didn’t realize until I’d boarded the train that I’d forgotten my umbrella at the 7-11.
By the time I’d gotten to my school’s station, the rain had returned with a vengeance. I dodged the raindrops as best I could, using every overhang between the station and the nearest convenience store. In front of the AM-PM there was an ashtray and an umbrella stand. In the umbrella stand there were 6 umbrellas. I scanned the store’s interior. There were two staff people but no customers.
5 of the umbrellas were the clear plastic variety and one was blue. The blue one was rusted. The rust had spread to the cloth and had turned it a reddish-brown around all the areas that touched the umbrella’s rib assembly. It was clearly on life support, and I figured it had one last hurrah in it before the rust metastasized to the stretcher, top springs and other vital springs. It had seen one squall too many. I had a 6 block walk to my school. 6 long blocks. I put my hand on a clear plastic one. It looked sturdy enough for this weather…but, it was like the blue one was calling me, imploring me: come on, give an old-timer a shot! Don’t let me go out like this, in a stand…I want to scream at the clouds and go blow-for-blow with the rain just one more time.I promise I’ll get you where you’re going…
I looked back at the clear plastic umbrella. I could see right through him. His position was clear: utter indifference. Suit yourself, it seemed to say.
So, I grabbed the blue old-timer and headed for my school. I pressed the release button but the mechanism didn’t respond. The spring had long since succumbed to rust, so I slid the rider up manually. One of the ribs snapped as I did so. But the others held on. The rain was beating down. But, the old-timer was as good as his word…that is, until I got to the block of my school. A gust shot down the corridor of the street and sucked the life out of the old-timer right before my eyes. He flipped over and appeared to have died, painlessly, instantly, in a blaze of rust and blue. I ran the final block in the rain carrying the tattered, unhinged corpse of an umbrella in my hand. When I reached the school and as I stood in the vestibule catching my breath, I could almost hear the old man whispering, spatting out his last breath, “Thank you. Thank you young fella. You made an old…”
“Iie…” (It’s nothing) I said as I tossed him in the trash bin with my eyes on the staff umbrella rack to my right.
There are about 25 staff people in this building and…
PS: Mi casa Su casa means my home is your home in Spanish