Tuesday, 8 July 2008

A Wild Goose Chase

My flat in Yokohama had a washing machine that did not work.

On my day off, I packed up some of my heavier clothes and went off in search of a Laundromat. I was tired of washing my clothes by hand. Someone had told me there used to be a laundromat not far from the next station, and I was determined to find it.

Half an hour later, I was ready to burst into tears: I’d been on a wild goose chase looking for that elusive laundromat for over thirty minutes, and I was damned if I could find it. My feet hurt, and my trousers weren’t warm enough because all my winter ones were in the pack, desperately in need of a wash. I was cold and tired and hungry, too, and yet here I was going in circles, looking for a wretched laundromat. Everyone I met knew just enough to give me hope, but not enough to give me precise instructions. I felt like I was doomed to wander the streets for all eternity, humping twenty pounds of dirty laundry, searching for the laundromat from Brigadoon.

It would have been better if someone had categorically said that there was no laundromat in the area. The problem was, several people I stopped assured me that the laundromat was not merely a figment of my imagination. Oh yes, there was definitely a laundromat in the neighborhood, they were certain they’d seen it, although they themselves had never used it. When I asked them exactly where it was, though, they would furrow their brows and begin to hem and haw.

"Next to the supermarket, the new one," said a middle-aged woman with shopping bags hanging from the bars of her pink moped. She had a page-boy haircut with a striking blue rinse and a toy poodle better groomed than I was stared up at me from the moped’s basket. The woman had stopped to talk to a couple, an elderly pair who looked as though they were out for a walk.

“No,” the elderly woman put in, “that’s a dry cleaner’s.”

Her male companion disagreed. “The dry cleaning place is next to the pharmacy.”

“That’s the old one,” the woman with the pageboy said. “And it’s not a dry cleaner’s anymore. It’s a pet shop now.”

“Ah. I’d heard they were going to sell. Wasn’t that Yonezawa’s place?”

I felt like jumping up and down and screaming. “Umm, the laundromat . . .?”

They all stared at me for a moment as though they’d forgotten why I was there, in their midst. The woman with the page-boy smiled indulgently. “Have you asked at the police box?”

“Where’s the police box?” I asked, trying to keep my voice steady. This was my day off! If the laundromat really didn’t exist, I'd find some warm, quiet place and have a cup of coffee. I’d need a break if I was going to spend the rest of the day hand-washing clothes.

“Back that way,” the woman said, pointing in the direction I’d just been in. But my pack was heavy and I was loath to retrace my steps.

Just as I was telling myself that wearing dirty jeans for the next week wouldn’t be the end of the world, a young woman approached me. She looked about my age, but more tired and careworn, and she seemed distracted.

“Do you need help?” she asked shyly.

“Yes! I’ve been trying to find the laundromat.”

She wrinkled her brow. “I don’t know where it is, but I’ve got a map of the neighborhood at home.”

I was tempted to say I would ask at the police box – they were bound to know there, after all – but I decided to go with her, reasoning that her apartment was probably closer. I was relieved to know she had a map of the neighborhood: almost all Japanese neighborhoods have a map that not only shows you the name and location of every business, but the names of each resident. The trick is finding a neighborhood map when you need it. In some neighborhoods, they are handily posted where a poor lost soul can find them; in others, they are craftily concealed and only the locals can point then out. Japanese streets are generally not named; cities and towns are divided into areas, sub-areas, and blocks. Houses and apartments in each sub-area are not geographically numbered, as new units are constantly being built between old lots, and finding your way around in a strange neighborhood can be hellish. You have to pity Japanese postmen; after only a few months in Japan, I certainly did.

Unfortunately, the woman’s house was at least half a kilometre away, through a warren of dark, meandering little side streets. She walked fast, as though she were in a hurry to get home. Already tired and weighed down by my heavy pack, I had to struggle to keep up with her.

“Here we are,” she said at last, in front of a small, shabby house in a housing tract. “Come on in!”

Stepping through the door, I could smell the freshly-mown grass smell of new tatami coupled with sour milk and unwashed clothes. Looking around, you got the feeling that whoever lived there was very busy. I heard a baby crying, and when I looked in the direction of the noise I saw a child barely old enough to walk come toddling towards us, arms outstretched. The woman stooped down and picked him up.

“This is Gen, my little boy! Gen say hello to the nice lady!”

I stared at Gen. A stream of yellow-green snot ran from his nose straight down to his chin. He stared back at me uncertainly from his mother’s arms and hiccoughed, still whimpering. I looked to see who had been caring for him in his mother’s absence, but there seemed to be no one else around.

The woman seemed in no hurry to go and look for the neighborhood map. She gave Gen a kiss and joggled him a bit to get him to stop crying.

I couldn’t help it, I just had to ask. I pointed to Gen and said “Hitori de?” There was probably a better way of asking if her baby had been left alone in the house, but I didn’t know how else to say it.

She nodded, misinterpreting my “all alone?” to mean ‘Are you by yourself.’ She juggled Gen in her arms again and said to me, “His father is in America,” as though that explained everything.

“Oh,” I said as though I understood – even though I didn’t.

“He is American,” she added.

“Oh!” I looked at Gen, and suddenly realized he was Eurasian. I didn’t know what to say. She was stuck here with the baby, poor kid, but her husband was back in America. I wondered how long he’d been gone and when he was coming back. “What state is your husband from, if you don’t mind my asking?”

She shook her head. “I don’t know.” She bit her lips. “And he is not my husband.”

Uh oh.

I held Gen while his mother went to look for the neighborhood map, but he wasn’t having any of it. “Mama!” he wailed fitfully, his arms stretched out towards her.

I tried jiggling him about the way his mother had done. “Gen, Gen! Look out the window there!” I positioned him so that he could see the birds in one of the trees outside, but he strained away from me. “Mama!”

“Um…I think he wants you!”

“Oh, he always wants me,” his mother called from the next room. “You always want me, don’t you Gen?” She had the map now, I was relieved to see, and was beginning to open it.

“Would you like me to look at the map instead?” I hazarded, juggling Gen on my hip and trying to make myself heard above his screams. Poor little Gen had a streaming cold, it seemed. God knew what he’d been doing all by himself in the house before we arrived, but it hadn’t been wiping his own nose.

“No, no, I’ll look – but if you could just hold him for me while I do . . .” She opened the map and started looking for the Laundromat.

Part of me was relieved. Maps are a challenge for me even when they’re written in English, and I found Japanese maps even more confusing. But hanging onto Gen was getting tricky: he didn’t like being parked with a stranger. He’d been waiting for his mother to come home, but her attention was elsewhere. Agitated, he squirmed and fidgeted and strained away from me and I wondered why I was supposed to hold him when he'd obviously been ranging freely about the house before his mother got back.

Gen now began to struggle fiercely, and I had to put him down. He toddled off to his mother, arms outstretched. “Mama, mama, mama!”

I’m not sure how long it took Gen’s mother to scan the map and find that there was no laundromat indicated anywhere on it. Five minutes? Ten? It felt like a lot longer. I began to feel panicky. I was never going to get my clothes washed! “Maybe I should just go and ask at the police box . . .?” I said, eyeing the door longingly.

At first she insisted that it would be there on the map – it had to be. She’d find it – it was just a matter of looking. Finally, though, she gave up. Gen was hanging on to her leg and wailing for all he was worth, crying to be picked up, to be noticed, to be loved.

“I don’t understand it,” she murmured, “I’m positive there used to be one next to the pharmacy in the old mall.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell her that the former dry cleaner’s was now a pet shop. “That’s okay,” I said, desperate to leave. “They’ll know where it is at the police box. I probably should have asked there to begin with.”

“Yes,” she said a little sadly, “they’re bound to know at the police box.”

She picked up Gen and jiggled him on one hip. “You wouldn’t want a cup of coffee, would you?”

I could see past her into her tiny kitchen, the sink piled high with unwashed dishes. I was dying for a cup of coffee, but I wanted to be anywhere else but there. “No, but thanks.”

Stepping back into my shoes in the entrance-way and shouldering my backpack, I turned to wave goodbye to her and Gen. It suddenly struck me that I didn’t even know her name.

“Come back and visit us any time!” she called out, shaking Gen’s little wrist lightly so that his hand flopped back and forth. “We’re always here! Aren’t we Gen-gen? We never go anywhere!”

I smiled and waved. I had no intention of visiting again. But to this day I wish I had.



Charles Gramlich said...

Sad. I'm sorry for your struggle to find a laundromat, and sorry for the poor woman with the baby. I don't know what else to say.

Eryl Shields said...

I can't imagine going to a place that doesn't have street names, or numbers, and the like. How does it work, how do you know where someone lives? Did you ever find a laundromat?

Kappa no He said...

Aha, I just came back from the Coin Laundry not more than thirty minutes ago!

Oh man, I could totally see the situation. I was shocked, too, at how often mothers leave little ones alone in the house by themselves. I'm sure you made her day just by stopping by and playing with wee Gen.

Christy said...

What a heartbreaking story. I guess even in the best of societies there are always a few forgotten souls.

Tabitha said...

India doesn't have street names either. And the streets aren't straight, so it's easy to get lost if you don't know where you're going. When we send letters to family there, we write the address on the envelope, then also write down a landmark it's near. It's amazing the mail ever reaches them, but it does.

I would feel the same way you felt, Mary. I'd have been torn between never wanting to be in that room again, and wanting to go back to visit this obviously lonely family.

Mary Witzl said...

Charles -- I'd been feeling sorry for my silly self, but I went home and quite happily handwashed everything, even my jeans. It struck me that I had it pretty easy just caring for myself.

Eryl -- Finding addresses in Japan is a major headache. People have to draw you a map to their house. The good thing about this is that you don't get visits from people who don't know you -- except the odd evangelist. And no, I never did find the laundromat.

Kappa -- When our kids were small, I would sometimes leave them with my husband while I went on errands. Occasionally I ran into people I knew and we'd start chatting. Whoever it was would invariably ask if I wasn't nervous about leaving my kids alone so long.

As you've probably heard, there have been a few Japanese parents resident in the U.S. who have been arrested for child abuse for leaving their small children in cars or, on occasion, home alone. They don't understand that this isn't a done thing in the U.S. We went by the 'When in Rome' philosophy while we lived in Japan, but we could never copy this particular Japanese custom.

Christy -- This woman was certainly forgotten. I got the feeling that she knew few people and had little in the way of support. Most likely her parents would have cut her off, and it is hard to imagine that the other mothers would befriend her, given the circumstances. Things are better now, fortunately.

Tabitha -- We have friends in Bangalore and whenever I've sent them mail, I've had the weirdest feeling that it cannot possibly reach them, given the odd address. And yet it does!

I felt depressed by the loneliness of this girl's life -- she was so young, and her situation was quite desperate. Now, looking back, I could easily have given her a hand, but I was too selfish back then.

Kim Ayres said...

It's a heart wrenching tale, Mary. This morning while lying in bed I found myself reflecting on actions and attitudes I had back in my early 20s that make me wince now. However, I guess it's a sign we've grown up and learned

A Paperback Writer said...

"The Phantom Laundromat" a Japanese urban legend.
It ranks right up there with the great American urban legends: The Choking Doberman, There Are Alligators In Our Sewers, and, my personal favorite, The Hare Drier (about the lady taking care of her neighbors' rabbits).
This was a good one.
You could also turn it into a proverb: Look for a laundromat BEFORE you need one.
Thanks for the funny story -- you sound like Erma Bombeck again with her travel horror tales.
Good one.

All Rileyed Up said...

Poor thing. I wish you had too. Kind of puts things into persepctive I guess. You needed a laundromat. She needed friends. Given the choice, I'd rather be in need of a laundromat.

Alice said...

Nothing makes me feel like the spoiled brat that I am when I hear stories of people who truly do have it hard. I piss and moan when my kids get cranky, but I truly have nothing to complain about. I feel for that woman and the millions out there just like her.

Carolie said...

Oh Mary, your stories so often make me weep! What a poignant, sad story, so full of all the things you do NOT say aloud. And that last sentence? Why didn't you just take my heart in your hands and wring it out with a twist? Lovely writing.

As for the young woman, I'm not sure all your readers understand how ostracized (still!) young women can be who have mixed-race babies (or who simply "fraternize" with Americans,especially the resented American military presence).

For example, we've had huge protests here when even minor violence is perpetrated upon Japanese women by American Sailors...it's a Very Big Deal. Yet when a young woman was stabbed multiple times and almost (but not quite) killed by an American Sailor here where I live, there wasn't a peep from the community. I was surprised, and asked my friend Miyuki why there wasn't the same hue and cry as when a middle-aged woman was mugged for her handbag?

Miyuki shrugged, and explained "she was dating an American, and the people feel she had no respect for herself, and deserved what happened...that it never would have happened if she hadn't been such a slut."

Carolie said...

Oh, and I agree that the addressing system here has been difficult for me! I live at 20-10 Tenjin yon-chome, which basically means "house #10 in block #20 of the 4th secton of the Tenjin neighborhood." The lack of street names frustrates me, but I am very appreciative of the many, clear, BILINGUAL highway signs.

When one realizes that the Japanese do not visit one another at home the way some other cultures do, it makes a little more sense -- well that and the fact that the "streets" are not exactly planned like Philadelphia's streets! They are often simply alleys, and they come and go as houses are built and torn down. Back home, we went to each other's homes for dinner parties, movie-watching and game nights. Here, we invariably meet at a restaurant, nightclub or karaoke bar. I've known Miyuki for almost three years, and she's been to my home many, many times. She's my best friend in Japan, yet I have NEVER been inside her home, nor have I been inside any other home except those of my American and European friends.

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- I do this all the time too -- I look back on the way I was and marvel at my own ignorance and selfishness. I tell my kids to do what they can now to get it right or they will have plenty of occasions to regret NOT doing this later in their lives.

APW -- When I look back, I think I must have spent whole days walking around Asia looking for laundromats -- honestly. Eventually, I moved to a different place in Yokohama where there was a laundromat only a few blocks a way, but for six months, I washed everything by hand. Sheets were the biggest headache, but jeans were a close second. But never have my fingernails been so clean as they were back then.

Riley -- Me too! I was so grateful NOT to be in the same situation, and I wanted to enjoy my foot loose and fancy free lifestyle. If I had it to do over again, I'd have gone back there and offered to babysit at least once. When my kids were little Gen's age, I thought of this woman a lot and felt like crying every time. Parenting is a hellish thing to do on your own.

Alice -- I often worry that my posts are too moralistic -- too "Don't whine; it could be worse!" in tone. And yet, this has pretty much become my life philosophy. Life not only could be worse than I have it, but it IS worse for so many people, and I wish I'd been more conscious of it back when I was younger. I suppose I ought to be grateful that I've finally cottoned on.

Carolie -- You are kind to praise my writing.

It is true that the Japanese can be very hard on young women who fraternize with foreigners. And until recently Japanese rape victims tended not to report their rapes to the police. When a rape has been committed by a foreigner, the victim's background is scrutinized all too carefully. The unfairness of this is really provoking. I hate the idea that a woman who is promiscuous is called a slut, whereas a promiscuous man is applauded for his popularity with the ladies.

About eight years ago, Lucy Blackman, a young British woman who had been working as a hostess, was murdered in Tokyo. At least two people I talked to seemed to feel that her choice of job had made her murder almost a given. No one actually used the words "She had it coming," but it was a close thing. More than one young Filipina hostess has been murdered too, and when people discuss these sad events, this tired old "Well, what did she expect?" nonsense is trotted out. This attitude really must change.

When you have children, you finally get to go to Japanese people's houses! When our eldest was three, the mother of one of her friends dropped by once. She took one look at the state of things and sighed in relief. "Now that I've seen this, I'll be able to invite you around to our house!"

debra said...

There's a sweetness to your story, Mary. It really has nothing to do with the laundromat, it's about relationships and connecting with others, it seems. What a lovely way of telling the story.
Tomorrow we are off to the Adirondack Mountains in New York. I hope we will find a laundromat to wash our clothing.

Danette Haworth said...

What a story. The sense of entrapment and regret/guilt came through so strongly. (I would have felt the same way.) Great details, well written.

Carole said...

Funny this story. This was me back when I was 22. I had two babies, no husband, was very back woodsy and longed for adult company. I worked a minimum wage job but did get a babysitter and never left the kids alone. However I do remember green snot running down Ethon's face. He had some sinus infection or something but I had no money for a doctor and no knowlege of welfare. I couldn't keep up with the wiping I guess. Sometimes I wonder how we made it.

I would never have invited you in to read the map though because I can't read a map for love nor money.

A Paperback Writer said...

I've done a great deal of laundry by hand while traveling or living abroad, so I sympathize. Jeans, yes. Several times. ugh. Sheets, no. Nor towels. I'd always break down and go to the laundromat for those.
Every dance tour or trip I've gone on since 1996, I've taken with me a 50 ft. clothesline and clothespins.

Oh, and here's your trivia for the day:
The first recorded written usage of the phrase "wild goose chase" is in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.

The Anti-Wife said...

This story makes my heart ache.

laura said...

I too would have wanted to escape... would have felt that I should go back... would not have gone back...would probably always wonder if I could have made a difference... but I'm not that strong, or good, of a person and it doesn't make me feel any better recognizing that in myself. That poor woman and baby, my heart goes out to them and others like them.

ChrisEldin said...

This makes me sad too. She seems to need a friend so desparately. But a cup of coffee wouldn't have done it.

Kara said...

that's a heartbreaking story. did you ever find a laundromat?

Mary Witzl said...

Debra -- I hope you found a laundromat in the Adirondacks, too, and thank you for your kind words.

Decades have passed since this happened. I often wonder how Gen and his mother fared and what they are doing now.

Danette -- Thank you. I find it encouraging that others might have had the same reaction, but I will always feel that I missed a good opportunity to help someone out.

Carole -- Now that I know you went through this too, I feel even worse for not doing anything to help Gen's mother. Poor Carole, but the fact that you got through that only reinforces my respect for you.

As for running noses, before I had kids I just knew my own children would never have this problem. I knew I'd get to their noses first. Hahahahaha -- it cracks me up just remembering!

APW -- I have a portable washing line too, and my own miniature bottle of laundry soap. Laundering while on holiday is a real challenge, and I agree: towels and sheets are a major pain. Who feels like wringing them out?

Anti-wife -- Me too. I have since wondered just how many people out there are going through something similar.

Laura -- In situations like this, so often our better angels wrestle with our lesser ones and the lesser ones generally win. I think if I'd known that I could have made a difference, I would have gone back. It was my fear that I wouldn't -- and that I would just end up wasting time -- time I wanted to spend reading, studying, and having fun -- that kept me from doing anything to help. It doesn't make me feel better about myself either.

Chris -- You're right, a cup of coffee would not have been enough -- she needed so much more. I still feel heartsick remembering.

Kara -- No, I never did. To this day, I am adept at washing stuff by hand, (but I'm lazy, so I use a washing machine instead).

Angela said...

Wow, what a powerful story. How terrible to be in that situation, especially in Japan. You probably brightened her day though, just by being with her and sharing a few moments of her life. Sometimes, that's all we want or need--to be known. For someone to see us and briefly know our life.

C.R. Evers said...

Wow! That was very touching and well put! ((((hugs)))


Mary Witzl said...

Angela -- At the time, I told myself that by stopping by this woman's apartment, I'd probably made her day a little easier. But now I wonder if I didn't just make her feel a little sadder.

Christy -- Thank you. Hugs are always appreciated, as well as compliments.

Carrie said...

Sob! sad, sad story. My Japanese teacher told me that being an unwed mother in Japan seals your fate as an outcast. He was trying to tell me how lucky I was to live here (I'm a single mother, too, but luckily have a job and childcare--and I'm still lonely!)

problemchildbride said...

What a moving story, Mary. She must have been awfully lonely to take you to her home and make you linger like that. I wonder what became of her. I hope she got lucky in life later. And her little boy.

Do you mean a police-box like the Tardis on Dr Who? Well, not, you know, the actual Tardis, but you know what I mean.

Mary Witzl said...

Carrie -- I have a LOT of respect for my single parent friends. Parenting can be tough for two parents as well: the more people there are, the more potential for personality clashes. But going it alone cannot be easy, and more power to you for managing it. And yes, at least you're not doing it in Japan!

Sam -- Yes, she was undoubtedly lonely and all I could think about was getting away as fast as possible -- and getting my laundry done. Sigh.

Police boxes are really just small police offices, usually located in department stores, malls, and at stations. They are mostly for handling small situations.

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