Thursday, June 9

Death of a Stranger

100% True story

I had just finished teaching rudimentary English to a set of mostly ungrateful college kids. Most were only about twenty years old. If I sat there and thought about it I might have felt bad that here were these almost adults that hadn’t even been alive in the 80s. But that wasn’t on my mind. The only thing I was thinking about was my next private lesson on the other side of town. I had about two and a half hours though, so I wasn’t in a rush. I stopped to have a cigarette because I was slow to get out of class and knew I would miss the next train. I wasn’t thinking about what how that extra time I took, there on the side street next to the tiny local station. No, what I was thinking about was how good that scent of ramen in the air smelled.

I would have plenty of time to think about that wasted moment later, time to think about it now in fact.

As I climbed the steps to the platform the train arrived. It was late. I took a few steps two at a time in a half-hearted attempt to catch it but gave up mid way through. After all, why did I need to exert myself? I had plenty of time. There’s always another train. I reached the top and walked over to the train schedule on the large plastic board to the left of the stairs. I checked to make sure there would be a train in a reasonable amount of time. I had checked my phone before but that particular application had become a touch unreliable since the massive earthquake in March. Things had returned to semi-normality by this point but there were still several train lines that had altered timetables. The board said there’d be another along in ten minutes so I walked to the other end of platform where there was a bench to sit on.

I was messing around on my phone, taking a rest on said bench, when I noticed the first cop come up the stairs. He was followed in short order by two more police officers and a handful of station staff wearing reflective emergency vests. The same kind that construction workers where when they’re busy tearing up the street outside of my home at night. At the time, that didn’t click but just now as I’m hitting these keys it comes to me that those vests are far from standard issue for station staff.

When I first saw the cops my first thought was a joking “I hope they’re not looking for me!” Kind of stupid I know but living here as a foreigner, someone who stands out every second of a normal day, these ideas come up. The officials were gathering at the far end of the platform, opposite of me. More police and train staff were coming up the stairs. I could tell this wasn’t normal. I’ve heard people describe it as a “sinking” or “creeping” feeling. It wasn’t like that for me. No, once there had been lazy thoughts about what to do for lunch or how I was going to entertain my sweet yet ditzy student that believes in the healing power of Hawaiian volcanoes for an hour…those were gone now. All that remained was trying to piece together what was so intrinsically wrong with this hot afternoon on a train platform.

Then I saw the shoes.

They lay there, on the tracks, one hung upside down slightly on the left-hand rail the other, face up somewhere close to the middle. Even from a distance I could tell they were scuffed and dirty. My feet moved of their own accord, drawing me further down the platform. I stopped for a moment near the steps and listened to one of the police talking to one of the station staff. I couldn’t catch much of the conversation but it didn’t sound panicked. It sounded routine. So I drifted closer to the growing knot of people in serious uniforms. They were standing around something bulky wrapped in a blue tarp. I’d seen that kind of tarp plenty of times before. Homeless people with space to not be bothered in use it to make semi-permanent homes. It’s also the same kind of tarp that I see at every crime scene shown on the news. Blocking the view of the cameras. But there were no cameras here. And I came to realize that there never would be. Because this was something that happened everyday.

Someone had died here, on this platform that brought me to and from a piece of the ragged tapestry that makes up my living wage.

The shoes looked like they fit a typical male style so I’ll refer to this person as “he” from now on, though I admit I didn’t get close enough to see anything definitive. But I was certain someone was dead. There was no other option given the situation.

I’ve seen a dead body before. At a funeral. But that is a ritual. You’re given time to come to grips with the death. To recognize it and prepare for it. To speak to people young and old about it. To, at some level at least, understand it.

This was an ambush.

I admit that when trains stop seemingly at random, I’ve made jokes about “jumpers” and have gotten frustrated at the delay foisted upon my life in that moment. This time, however, made it very real. Human mortality thrust right in my face.

How can I describe what that feels like? “Empty” is the only word that comes to mind right now. I tried to put something about it on facebook. I tried to talk about it to my ditzy student. Neither were helpful.

It could have been an accident, for sure, but statistics will suggest something different. Suicide is one of the leading causes of death in Japan. That just makes it harder to understand. Suicide is an inherently selfish act. I can’t believe that this person had absolutely no one in his life that will be sad at his passing. There was a typical salary man style work bag left behind on the platform. So, even if he was fired today, broke, without friends or family, there must have been a boss that will likely feel awful for downsizing a guy that took his own life. Will that man ever be able to shake the thought that he caused this death?

I don’t know. All I saw was a blue tarp and a pair of lonely shoes on a train track.

The next train arrived on time. Ten minutes and a lifetime after I checked the schedule. It left two minutes late because an elderly woman in the car nearest the crowd of police and station attendants had to be helped off. She had fainted at whatever she saw there. I walked closer in the train than I had dared on the platform. But I couldn’t bring myself to get near enough to make one hundred percent certain. To see that bit of gruesome gore that we see everyday on TV and in movies. To make it more real.

I didn’t have to though. It was as real to me then as anything ever has been or ever will be.