5 years ago
"They dwelled, as I said, under the Shijo-dori Bridge on the Kamogawa River in Kyoto, in a blue-tarped box house. Big Mountain was short and Little Mountain was tall. In their front yard, so to speak, they kept chairs around a little table. A teapot was boiling over a fire in a blackened bucket in the river.
How long have you lived outside? I asked them.
A year, said the man in the germ mask. That was Little Mountain. ---I lost my job. I was a salaryman. The company restructured.
Now that you have been here so long, will it be difficult to become a salaryman again?
Of course I want to, but because of age restrictions they don't accept me. There are many people living like this.
Even younger people can't get jobs, said the other man, so it's utterly hopeless.
This is the first time I have been homeless, Little Mountain remarked.
What did you do when it happened?
The first day there was no plan, but at least we had to secure something to eat. We got cardboards and sheets. That first place was here.
He's from Kyoto, said his friend. I'm from Hokkaido. We met each other just by meeting each other.
He had also been a salaryman. I used to work for a major pharmaceutical company, he said proudly, and then I quit! I had been in the company for thirteen years. Now I've been here for three years.
Why are you poor?
Big Mountain leaned back and said: I don't regard us as poor. We are not poor. If we have a place to live, we go there; if we have a job to do, we do it.
He said these words in that same tone of proud insistence, and the other man laughed, in embarrassment, I thought.
How do you get your food now?
We collect empty cans and we sell them for recycling. In one day, we make three thousand yen [Around US $28.00]. Then we go to the convenience store. The best food for the price is ramen, rice, vegetables.
When people walk by, are they nice to you?
How do you stay warm?
Well, I used to have a girlfriend, said Big Mountain with a sad smile. I miss girls.
What is your dream for the future?
Corporation president! cried Big Mountain.
Little Mountain said: I'd like to work.
What would be the best way to help people like you?
Little Mountain smiled sadly at me, his head cocked one way, his dark polyester cap canted another, and he said: Make a society that is easier to live in.
They shared an aquarium with thirty goldfish in it, just for fun, they said. It sat out on a pedestal in the middle of the water. Birds used to get their pets, so they put a lid on it.
Once I had drunk the tea they poured me they gazed at me almost hopefully, I thought, or perhaps their expressions were sad or simply patient; another word might be submissive; they might not have wanted anything to do with me, but business required them to be welcoming just as it does for bar hostesses---and yet many of the homeless men I met in Tokyo were gruff with me; perhaps the two mountains truly didn't mind me; looking into their eyes, I began to experience a nasty kind of sorrow which was in equal parts useless to them and to me, so I felt shy before them, as I had not in, say, Madagascar, when, encountering a baby's wool cap peeking like an onion-top from its swaddling-rags, which were nested in the rags of its beggar-mother who waited against a paint-scabbed wall by night, her eyes half-closed, I had but to pass through the iron grating (whose purpose was to safeguard my richness) a few banknotes to send the mother straight to joy; or again, when I met that small beggar-boy on the empty dirt street in Kinshasa --- his ragged shirt was too big for him and kept falling off him as he looked into my lens for money --- I believed and still believe that I was doing him a substantial good, the normality of the Congo being so unbearably poor that one could quite cheaply enrich almost anybody there, from the women of all ages who would desperately call to me from across the street, Make love with me, white man! to the hungry people who squabbled over rotten fruits in the marketplace, to the half-starved, stinking policemen who shook me down; but Big Mountain and Little Mountain, while I might succeed in gratifying them with, say, fifty dollars (which is what I gave them), remembered a normality closer to mine, aspired at least in theory to return to it, and lived like cysts within the immensely refined wealth of Kyoto itself; so, granted that altruism equals self-gratification, it was really in my interest to give up on them.
A year later they were still there.
I'll tell you how I returned to them: Walking out across Choraku-ji Temple's wide white tatami mats, I descended the ancient stone-walled channels of summer; I walked down wide steps, past ornate lamps and across a park's boardwalk, couples on benches and packs of tourists in floppy white hats who were weighed down by their video cameras; I passed through another wide temple complex of vermilion arches and lamps with many immaculate courtyards, concession stands, tapering gable roofs whose images were half-hidden in darkness like Little Mountain's already dark gloves beneath the bridge on that dreary day the year before; steles tucked away behind vermilion fences---and I remember that a rich young couple strode the flagstones, he with his arm around her, she waving an official leaflet as they passed into the sun-rays down at the end of the next set of stairs beyond which began Kyoto's expensive shopping district: windows of ice cream sundaes, calligraphy sets, kimonos, lamps; and after numberless grand items and reflections, after throngs of uniformed high school students, old couples and businessmen in subtle suits, pretty salesgirls in doorways, waiting to bow, after all the glowing shelves within the beverage vending machines, stationary shops and hotels, bookstores, purses, pay telephones, cigarette machines, contented evening crowds, at last I reached the river and, gazing at the summer view, I crossed the bridge, then very near the elegant eel restaurant where I would spend a hundred dollars for dinner for two, I descended the final set of stairs to the quay. And here, with the lovely summer evening shining on the river underneath the bridge, hulked uncouth blue-tarped objects like packing sheds all in a row; bicycles awaited their owners; cagelike crates contained additional belongings; folded chairs sat mostly vacant; and beyond them all, another rich young couple sat with his arm around her waist, admiring the reflection of the evening sun on the water.
Yes, they were still there, but their goldfish had been washed away, along with their bicycles and house, in the big typhoon. They had a new house now, blue-tarped just as the old had been.
Why are you poor? I questioned Little Mountain, for I had not asked him that last year.
Because I have no job, he said.
That was when I first noticed his toothlessness.
Oksana wept about the lost church money; that was when she came to life by acknowledging her death; as for Little Mountain, he and I never saw the life in each other. Perhaps he was tired or hungry just then; my own perception, that I was keeping him from something more important than answering my questions, namely, surviving, might have been a mere projection of a guilty impulse to escape his life, but to me he seemed to have been infected by numbness, not to the same extent as Wan in Bangkok, but more so than he had been a year ago; well, the truth is that I knew and know nothing about this man.
He now wore a pastel jacket; he oversaw a cage of cats. All around him, ladies with nice purses photographed each other.
That first time, when I had given them money, Big Mountain, wrinkling his forehead, had sought to refuse, but I implored him until he finally agreed to take it. He was proud, which is the same as being ashamed.
The second time I was weary and Little Mountain was busy, so we left him alone beneath the bridge because he was someone we hardly knew and he had forgotten us; we were rich and he was poor . . ."
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