Apr/May 2006 Nonfiction

Turbulence at -100 Feet

by Hauquan Chau

Subways are open psychiatric textbooks. I live in Nagoya, Japan, a city with a population of three million, six subway lines and a million passengers a day. Here, density is not just a number, it's there right in my face every time I descend into the drafty, fluorescent-lit tunnels and onto the platform of Tsurumai Line, where the crowds gather: Tired, frigid, vacuous, and sometimes even hostile faces that loom in and out of my vision like a clamorous wave. I wade through the sea of people trying to find a bit of territory that I can claim as my own. As others clamor for the same space, I get a certain primal instinct to bare my teeth or beat my chest in an attempt to ward off competitors. When the train pulls in, the competition for seats becomes even more ferocious as men and women of all ages join in the rumble that would even leave Jesse "The Body" Ventura's mouth agape.

Faced with thousands of strangers every day, I guess those who struggle for seats as if their lives depended on it see others as shadows, delusions that have transformed flesh into nothing more than light and dark. Suspicion, greed, and selfishness run amok in a society that has been praised world-wide for its polity.

Take for example the man with the antisocial personality disorder, or The Suit whom I have often seen, swaggering in front of a patiently-waiting commuter just as the train doors open. His perfect clones can be spotted on any train line, on any car. Or others who have decided that spreading their newspaper wide open in a crowded car was their God-given right. Then there are the seemingly fragile senior citizens, paranoia-type ladies in their 70's who believe the whole world is against them and retaliate by elbowing anyone who is in their way to secure a seat for themselves and their senseless older husbands in the last stages of dementia.

Perhaps the city and the proximity to others you get from taking the subway becomes a sort of catalyst for stripping the layers of human decency and leaving the exposed malevolence within, regardless of culture, age or gender. The egoism, the triteness, the hostility: Tribute to all mental sicknesses that we humans have to contend with and all contained in a 15-minute ride to work on a train.

At times, the steam does vent. A teacher friend of mine once told me a woman suddenly started yelling at him to stop using his cell phone on the train as its electromagnetic waves that it emitted could affect her heart pacer. Unfortunately, she failed to see the ten or so passengers thumbing their messages on their phones or the countless others whose hands seem to be surgically attached to their phones. For her, she needed someone to blame and who better else than a Caucasian foreigner who stood out like a red bull's-eye in a car full of Japanese. Luckily for her, she could verbalize her frustrations, spit out the venom that was building up in her system. Others are not so lucky.

On any given train, at any given time, you can find men in neatly-pressed suits, exec-like types mumbling incomprehensibly to themselves, eyes unfocused and staring off into the void. Others have their eyes closed, their calm, placid faces suddenly quivering into convulsive ticks or contorting into menacing scowls. It was as if they were reliving a moment that they had during the day. A scolding boss? An unfaithful lover? Ungrateful children? An over-demanding customer? It was all replayed across the contorted faces comparable to any masterpiece on canvas, showing true emotion like no other, if only for a moment.

As the train finally pulls up to Takaoka Station, my stop, I have an urge to stay on and find out what will happen to The Suit or the old couple. What sort of lives do they live? What would they be like if a tornado suddenly came down and took them all to a place where they could look over to the horizon, the view unimpeded by human heads or ugly concrete buildings and actually see the curvature of the Earth? As I alight from the train and the doors close behind me, the image fades and as I turn around, I only see the blur of faces as the train speeds up and enters into the blackened space of the tunnel.


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