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Excerpt from

"Broken Dishes and a Dog's Grave"

Brad has been sleeping on his friend Andy's floor in Tokyo, saving money for his own apartment. Brad asks Taro, a Japanese co-worker in the newsroom, to come along as adviser and translator. 

Now that I had a little money together, Andy was ready for me to leave. I was ready to leave. We were getting on each other’s nerves and it was best to get out before there was a blowup. I suggested one day at work that he help me find an apartment, but he just laughed.


“There’s nothing I can do for you. There aren’t any vacancies where I live.”


“What about an agent?”


“Oh, that’s a fine idea. Why didn’t I think of it? Listen. If you go by yourself you’ll get a lot of “ah, it is difficult,” which means get lost. If you took me with you they wouldn’t show us anything. Two foreigners? Possibly gay? The neighbors would think the agent was ruining the neighborhood. What you need is a Japanese to go along with you. But not a girl. The last thing the neighbors want to think about is some foreign pig defiling a flower of the nation right next door.”


“It can’t be that big a deal.”


“Can’t it? In my old apartment I was bringing home a fair number of girls. This was before I discovered love hotels. The old people would all glare at me like I was the devil. Then they started fucking with my garbage.”


“Who cares? It’s garbage.”


“There are rules about garbage. They kept putting recyclables in my kitchen trash. I got fined twice. I had to start using a dumpster near the train station.”


“Imagine what they’d do if you were a black guy in Mississippi, screwing white chicks.”


“Well, this isn’t Mississippi. Thank God. You should get Taro to go with you.”


Taro sat at a lone desk pushed up against a column in the middle of the newsroom. He translated stories from Japanese into actual decent English, having grown up mostly in the States, although he was born in Tokyo. Andy had been right when he speculated that Taro was narcoleptic. There he would sit, typing away, when suddenly he became a robot with dying batteries. His hands would stop, his head would droop, rise, droop again, then remain slumped. He had been warned about sleeping on the job, but once they realized it was not his fault, they were cutting him some slack.

After work Taro and I took the train to Setagaya, in western Tokyo. “This place I’m taking you, the owner went to elementary school with my grandfather. Even if they don’t want to help us, they’ll show us some apartments on that alone.”


“That’s good, I guess. Why don’t you sit down?”


“I read a book on Bruce Lee a long time ago. He said when you’re out in public like this to always be ready for anything. If I sit down, I’m vulnerable.”


Or you might fall asleep, I thought. “Should I have worn better clothes?”


“No, you’re fine. I always wear this.” Taro was wearing a gray suit coat, no tie, with brown slacks and generic black leather shoes. He ran his hand down along the front of the jacket, for about the fifth time since we got on the train. The edge of his jacket was frayed from the nervous friction. 


We transferred to a small, old train at Sangenjaya. There was only one car, and we gave our fare right to the white-gloved driver, who tossed it into a leather bag next to the controls.

“In the 1950s the Yakuza would take a tribute from this train every day. The driver would have to throw the fare money out the window in a bag.”


“Cool. Does that say Setagaya Line?”

“Yeah, Tokyu Setagaya Line. It’s the only train left in Tokyo that stops for car traffic instead of the other way around. It’s called the chin chin densha.”


“The penis train?”

Taro’s un-Japanese staccato laugh turned every head toward us. “No, not that kind of chin-chin. It’s for the bell the driver rings when we start moving. Like ding dong.”

The aroma of creosote rose from the train’s wooden floor. This was cool, even if it added time to the commute. We went a few stops and got off at Shoin Jinja. The apartment agency was right at the station.

Like Taro’s grandfather, the agency’s aged owner had died, but his middle-aged daughter honored the grade-school connection. However, I knew by her forehead furrows that she wasn’t describing to Taro all the fantastic apartments she had for me.


“She says there aren’t many to choose from because, uh, there aren’t a lot of landlords who will rent to foreigners.”


“Ask her if she has anything close to the train station.”


She took out a looseleaf binder and showed us two or three no-shower efficiencies that I rejected out of hand.  She maintained a professional smile. Showing me the crappy ones so I’ll want to spend more.

“She says if you want something bigger you’re going to have to spend more money.”


“Uh huh. Fine. Let’s see what she has in the next level up.”


Apartment woman stopped short. “Ah!” she said, “suddenly remembering” something in the manner of salespeople worldwide. She turned to another section of the looseleaf, pointed at a picture and explained it to Taro.


“She says these people rent to foreigners because foreigners don’t care that the toilet is in the same room as the bathtub."


“That’s true. Sometimes I piss in the shower. I haven’t taken a shit in the bathtub since I was two, but I can’t make any promises.”


Apartment woman looked to Taro for the translation. Whatever he said was not the truth, because she smiled warmly at me and took us down the street to look at the apartment.


There were two rooms – a dining/kitchen area which had linoleum, and a living room with a tatami mat floor, separated from the kitchen by a sliding partition. There were small sliding windows near the floor, for ventilation at night. Taro gave me the running translation.

“Over here is the stove. Gas, two burners. You always have to turn off the main valve when you leave, because of earthquakes. No air conditioning, no heat. You can buy a portable gas heater for the winter. There is hot water in the kitchen and the bathroom. For hot water in the bathroom sink, you have to use the hand-shower attachment from the bath. There’s a public bath right down the street.”


That hot water thing looked to be a pain in the ass, but I didn’t care. It was close to the station and the grocery store. There was a 7-11, and in Japan 7-11s sell whiskey. I was beaten down and I wanted a place of my own. We went back to the agency where I signed the papers and handed over the cash.

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