The Grind

Week 3 (of 104).

The curtains I picked are adept at blocking out natural light in the Land of the Rising Sun. But the alarm goes off, and I wake up about two hours earlier than I would prefer. I shower, dress, grab my bento, and head out the door. There’s a black minivan around the corner. I check my reflection in its hard shell; sometimes I have to untuck and adjust accordingly. Five minutes to the train station. Schoolgirls in full regalia head past in the opposite direction. Some chat happily; others look so miserable I can’t help but chuckle. It’s just life, girls.

The train is packed, though not as much as you might imagine. Four stops, seven minutes to the line’s end: painless. I scurry down the escalator onto the street, turning into one of the busiest pedestrian intersections in the world: Shibuya Crossing. It’s tranquil now: 50-100 people at the same time instead of the supposed 1,000-2,500 at its peak. I make a point of smiling, as not to blend into the depressed masses. I maneuver my way to the opposite corner, the modest number of commuters still enough to prevent a straight line across.

Under the tracks, to the other side, beyond the just-about-open Sbarro, and across another intersection, where tissue-pack advertisements are handed out. There’s a small hill to climb. About halfway up, two parking lot attendants occasionally stop pedestrians to guide a car in or out. Otherwise, it’s smooth sailing until I round the corner left at the top. An intersection. I cross and hold my breath as I stride through what I have dubbed “Cancer Corner”: a sad smoking area under a staircase always packed with a cross-section of Tokyoites.

It’s the home stretch in Aoyama. There’s a giant billboard across the street, an attractive Japanese model hawking makeup or a bikini or a corporation or something. A unique, smooth-looking building with sporadically placed triangular windows, resembling a Flintstones-style skyscraper. To my left, fellow commuters disappear into nondescript buildings, one after the next. There’s a plaza as we approach the Aoyama Theatre (the “re” suggests it’s for live productions). An ugly statue of some sort. Then, my building. I reach for my badge and enter.

I greet the security guard with a nod, sometimes an “ohayou gozaimasu” when I feel brave. I glance to my right to tell the receptionist good morning. With my key card, I open the door into the stairwell. Seven flights of stairs. Eight really, since there’s a bullshit extra one between 4 and 5, I guess because there’s an auditorium with high ceilings or something. I’m not sure I’ll keep doing this after they move my department up to 10 or 11 in a few months. I reach 7. The lights in the hallway won’t be on. I fumble with my keys, and let myself into the office. 9:30 am.

My officemate usually comes in five minutes later. We greet each other. We repeat the process at the end of the day, with different words. This is generally the extent of our interaction. I stare at my computer and he at his. I have a nice view, so every so often, I glance outside wistfully. I peer over at my officemate’s screen every couple of hours as well. I adjust the lights as necessary. I keep an eye on the air conditioner. And I read or write or browse or listen to podcasts or do nothing until lunch.

I take my lunch at 1 pm to splice the day in half. I microwave my bento on the floor beneath: we don’t have a fridge or a microwave on ours. Grabbing my book, a drink, and my badge, I bound down the stairs and out of the building, a block or two away to a quiet area next to a bicycle parking lot. I enjoy the fresh air. I eat, read a little, diddle with my phone. Then it is back up the stairs. I wash my bento, and return to the office and the computer. And I stay there until 5:30 pm.

I wait a minute or two so it doesn’t look like I’m watching the clock, even though I am. I trudge down the stairs, still disoriented from the computer screen. I bid farewell to the receptionist and step out into the early evening. I retrace my steps from the morning, though a lot more commuters flank me now as I move again past Cancer Corner, down the hill, across the street, under the tracks, into Shibuya Crossing, up the escalator, and onto the first train. Four stops on the local, just one on the express. Five minute walk home.

A couple times a week after work, I’ll stop by the market, do the laundry, run some errands. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I will wake up earlier to hit the basement gym at work. Otherwise, this is my routine. I am an academic plopped into the real world, a researcher confined to regular working hours and legitimate morning-to-night structure for the first time since high school. I can give you pluses or minuses, I can tell you it’s fucking weird, but it doesn’t matter: I have to adjust. This is my life now. This is my life for the next two years.

Welcome to the suck.

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