Four homeless men

I’ve actually been sitting on this post for the past couple days while contemplating the potential moral backlash.

It then occurred to me, however, that in a previous post, I not only insulted most of Tokyo, I capped it off with a picture of Jesus Christ flipping the bird. Thus, it would seem the moral outrage boat has already well and truly sailed. And so here goes.

Your day at work has concluded.

As usual, you feel angry and unfulfilled.

gatedNormally, both of these sentiments can be addressed by slugging down a vodka-infused chuhai on your walk to the station. Today, however, a single chuhai just doesn’t do it. You stop at a convenience store along the way and slam another. It still fails to do the trick — upon reaching your destination and exiting the train, the thought of having to transfer to yet another train makes you want to disembowel yourself. So you decide to leave the station and go get yourself a couple beers.

The weather in Tokyo has been chilly recently, and on this night, a number of homeless people have taken up shelter in the station’s underground. They line themselves up against the walls, mostly alone but sometimes in small, disconsolate-looking groups. By far the majority of them are asleep or insensate — one group, however, catches your eye. In contrast to their peers, this group of four is laughing amongst themselves, sitting side-by-side and drinking cans of Kirin Tanrei. There is nothing drunken or exaggerated about their manner; instead, it says, “At least we have friends, and — for the moment — we can toast one another.”

You walk past them, going up the stairs toward the liquor shop that is your destination. You grab a few cans, place them into your basket.

Heading back into the underground station, you again see the group of four homeless men. They have since finshed their beers, and their mood is quieter, almost introspective. You walk toward them, offer them the bag in your hand.

“Here,” you say in Japanese. One of them makes a small utterance of surprise.

There are any number of arguments for you not to do what you’ve done. But in the end, flawed as your logic may be, you’ve decided you’d rather treat these men as equals than something to be pitied.

There are four beers inside.

The man to the far left bows his head stiffly. “Sumimasen!” he says, nodding again. Contextually, the word means “Thank you,” but translated literally, it means, “I’m sorry.”

You give a small nod in return, begin walking away.

“I’m sorry!” he calls out after you. “I’m sorry!”

You board your train. You put on your headphones, slip your iPod into the pocket of your new jacket. Then — in full view of the angry-looking housewife staring disinterestedly at her book … of the cellphone-stabbing salaryman swaying crazily behind you … of pretty much anyone in the train cabin who happens to glance over at your foreign self — you’re crying a flood of hot, bitter tears.

But for some reason, only out of the left eye.

7 Responses

  1. No reason to sit on it. Post it proud and post it loud.

  2. No moral backlash here – really enjoyed your piece. I know it added to the poignancy but in case you were/are genuinely upset by the continual “Sumimasen”s, my understanding is not that it literally translates to I’m sorry (as gomenasai would) but rather “excuse me/thank you for the trouble you went/are going to on my behalf” a long translation I know but necessary for the full meaning. He was thanking you profusely for putting yourself out for them.

    Of course, if you know that and were just emphasizing a different meaning for the sake of the piece well – kudos, sir, well played (and apologies for ruining it LOL)

  3. nice one, hope it kept them laughing a bit longer.

  4. No problem with that, what else would a homeless man want from a kind stranger? a photo frame? a few words of encouragement? no!

  5. Sometimes your gut tells you to do something and, often times, you’re not even sure why you’re doing it.

    At least when your gut tells you to do something, you know its a human thing to do.

  6. I thought that sumimasen came from sunde imasen (I don’t live/exist). I heard that somewhere but I don’t know if it’s true.

  7. @ well, that would be a different sumu, 住む. The sumu of sumimasen is 済む, to be concluded, with the meaning that the gratitude one feels has not concluded. Sometimes on drama or whatnot you’ll hear the phrase 「すみません」では済まない, a bit of punnery that means something like, “This won’t be resolved with a simple apology!”

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