Tuesday, April 26, 2005

tonari na no ni... (but we're neighbors...)

They told me before I got here that you had to buy several packages of soba noodles whenever you moved into a new area, and present them as gifts to your neighbors. Whoever thought this one up had a pretty weak sense of humor, the logic being the word soba can mean both “buckwheat” (as in noodles) and “immediate vicinity” (as in the weirdos who live in your building). Like the infamous used schoolgirl underwear vending machines, I think this was cooked up by a gang of sauced Australians in a gaijin bar back in 1987, because as far as I can tell, no one has given a bag of buckwheat noodles to a total stranger since the late 19th century. Asking Japanese friends of mine about this they’ll scrunch their forehead and go “yeah, I think I’ve heard about that too. Huh.”

Coming back from several months in the north country studying just how to properly make those soba noodles, I briefly considered reviving the custom, and then realized that all my immediate neighbors are Nepalese. That is, the ones that I’ve met.

I know my neighbors mostly through sounds that creep through the walls: the warble of a salaryman tunelessly wrecking some karaoke ballad from the club on the second floor, a crank turning on the ancient metal units that heat our baths, the endlessly upbeat soundtracks to Bollywood movies.

The few times I have met someone on the stairs they avert their eyes and adjust their thirty-dollar baseball cap or just stare forward with such intensity that offering a meager konnichiwa would be like asking if their Mom is free tonight. My educated guess is that they are mostly kids fleeing from some backwater town that lives precariously off of lumber and a few small workshops assembling lathe parts and doing quality assurance for Nissan. They came to college in Tokyo to study anthropology or international relations, woke up after four years a graduate, and now get their clubbing and grocery money selling designer shirts or Starbucks coffee. Life is cigarettes between shifts and your friend’s art opening this Friday. I think they only stay in Saitama long enough to catch a night’s sleep or stir up a bowl of instant ramen. But we all have to suffer through the building demolition next door, maybe it would be nice to stop and chat about the pricks with the jackhammers and steam shovels that have been rocking our building awake each morning.

The other night I took the front stairs for a change, a spiral staircase that curls up the front of the building from the Indian restaurant to the shady “Club Maria” to the hair salon to my floor. Rounding up to the second floor I almost swallowed my tongue. There was a tall, pale woman with a slender and smooth face whose careful makeup could not hide the years of late nights burned into her eyes. Her long black hair had probably been waved like this since the mid eighties. She wore a tight shimmery black dress that she must have ordered from the shady bar hostess catalogue; I have never seen a store that sells anything like that. She was leaning over the balcony expectantly, looking for someone. All she got was a scruffy white man grunging home from work. She said “good evening” in a voice half startled but really too weary to care very much. She had probably fled the same town as the young fashion victims on my floor, but the Tokyo of her youth had no place for wild young women but to light the cigarettes, pour the whiskeys and stroke the fragile egos of men with money. I returned the greeting and kept winding up the stairs, leaving the apparition to greet her customers.

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