Station stairs

How did my life come to this?

I get up at 7am every weekday. I spend an hour getting ready to go to work. Then I spend an hour and a half travelling to my office, mostly riding a succession of overcrowded trains.

For most of that hour and a half I am ostensibly trying to study Japanese, either by studying Japanese phrases with Anki, or by watching Japanese shows on Hulu, or by reading some book that I bought from Book-Off for 100 yen (ie. the cheapest, most reused volumes, because my wife won’t allow me to buy full-priced anything). But actually almost every atom of my being is given over to thinking about how to make sure I will be first to get off the train when the doors open; and how to make sure that those doors will be right next to the exit/escalator/stairs.

Here is what happens if you are not the first off the train in Japan: first, you will be buffeted by what feels like a thousand bodies, all squeezing and pushing in a bid to get through the doors. Next you will be swept along the sea of bodies to the exit/escalator/stairs, where you will have to scrum down and heave and shove until you get through. If there are stairs or escalators involved you will then have to lumber up or down them at the same glacial, shambling pace of the crowd around you, until, eventually, finally, you can pass through the ticket barriers to freedom.

I change trains twice, so I have to do this three times on my journey.

And so, when I get my first train I am careful to get on at the same set of doors every day, at the same time every day, careful to hang back and pretend to be preoccupied by my phone so that I will be the last person on the train and the first person off them (if I get a later train the exit is on the far side and my whole day is ruined). At the next stop, where I alight to let others off, I am again careful to hang back, hoping, praying, that nobody will run down the stairs and leap on to the train at the last second as the doors close.

Then at the next station I leap off and walk briskly, disjointedly, to the escalator, skip down them, through the ticket barriers, up the stairs, over the causeway, through another set of ticket barriers, and down on to the platform so that I can be sure to get a prime position by the doors on my next train. If I am first off the train, this whole process takes about 30 seconds. If not, about five minutes.

I do my best to be the first to get on my next train, so that I can take up a standing position just inside the door; but often there is an old lady who, having queued up behind me, manages to knock me out of the way as soon as the doors open so that she can get on before me. This is annoying, but not wholly problematic, as she is aiming for a seat. After the train departs, and it fills up with more passengers at each station along the way to my destination, my biggest fear is that someone will come and stand in front of me, blocking my exit at the next station. I have to pay constant attention so that I step out from beside the door to actually in front of it at just the right moment.

But it is the next and final part of my journey that is most fraught with risk; the part of the journey where the consequences are the greatest. Because when I get off the train at my final destination, the stairs up to the ticket barriers can accommodate only about three or four people standing abreast — which means, in practice, it can accommodate only about two shambling, sclerotic, commuters before it is impossible to get past; before there is no choice but to consign yourself to the listless march that inches you forward to your unfulfilled death every day.

And this is what occupies almost the entirety of my mind’s landscape for most of every day.

How did my life come to this?

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