A Woman Explains New York City to a Group of Visiting Japanese
While the media world was swooning over American swimmer Ryan’s Lochte’s simpering “mea culpa” about concocting an Olympic-sized lie about being robbed by bad guys with guns in Rio, I was getting an earful from another ugly American on the shuttle bus from Newark Airport to mid-town Manhattan. The poet TS Eliot wrote about measuring his life in coffee spoons. I was with the poet/banker, sitting on the edge of my seat, wishing that the woman from Florida by way of Brooklyn would stop offending the six Japanese sitting in the rear seat, prisoners of their own discretion. They huddled there to make room for other passengers.
The woman, 60-ish and with a commanding presence, apparently learned years ago that the way to talk to someone from a foreign country was to talk loud and often. There must have been a subtext to her learning because she had mentally calculated the extra decibel level required when speaking to a row of Japanese strung out behind her like a gift outright.
We would learn later from her husband that they had traveled the world. He wondered out loud how many hands it would take to measure an Indian elephant’s ample ass and whether the monkeys that freely roamed around New Delhi had had their up-to-date rabies shots.
His wife brought this global perspective to her new rear-seat friends by asking them where they were from. I have been to Japan many times and could feel behind me the panic among the tourists on being confronted in public. They huddled and shortly a young man of twenty responded. The rest of the bus was sure of his age because his inquisitor demanded it.
The young man said they were from Japan on holiday. The woman of the loud voice asked them if they practiced Tai Chi, the Chinese martial art, before it seemed to dawn on her that the art might be Chinese in origin. Nonetheless, she added that the visitors could see people in Central Park every morning going through the exercise motions that were apparently tied to no religion, culture or race. Her arms moved from her waist in practiced pantomime.
Now it was time to sing the praises of Time Square, the crossroads of the world. The woman went on about the lights, the tall buildings and the endless New Year’s celebrations. There is nothing like it in the world. I thought of Tokyo. Soon she found her niche as Broadway critic and tour guide. They must see “Wicked.” To make certain they understood her, the woman spelled it out and insisted they write it down. Notebooks appeared and the Japanese scribbled as ordered. I was fairly certain by now they spoke more than a little English.
And don’t forget “The Lion King,” she said. But her new best friends shouldn’t worry. There are no real lions in the theater; just a large man with a headdress and gruff voice who had to take time off for a hernia operation. They must see “Hamilton” but would need to get to the box office in Times Square very early if they wanted tickets that cost less than $1,000. They should know that the star of the show had left to do something like “Glee” with Disney and some people say the musical is no longer worth the money. The woman said she never understood why anyone would write a musical about “Chicago” where no one ever visited. The city raised hogs once but it was nothing compared to New York City’s Meat-Packing District. Her friends must go there. No hogs allowed, she said, laughing at her apparent joke. Her husband nudged her in excellent complicity.
A young girl in front of me, perhaps weary of being left out of the conversation, turned and addressed the woman in the center of the back seat, speaking slowly and with rounded lips, apparently learning from her teacher across the aisle. The young woman’s advice was to go to the Carnegie Deli north of Times Square and south of Central Park. She described with her hands the thickness of a pastrami sandwich that seemed to grow larger as she described the improbable icon. She acted as if she was providing a public service. Her mentor joined the chorus and asked without turning around whether they liked Jewish food or they had any Jewish friends. China returned to the conversation like an old friend. Do you like the Chinese?, she asked, slow enough to suggest she had at least one history lesson.
Before I left the bus in a mad dash, I turned to the middle-aged Japanese woman behind me and said, “I’m sorry.” I added: “I love Tokyo.”
“It’s OK,” she responded, before turning to her city guide, ears wide open and notebook at the ready.