What you'll find on Storybook Days

The Home page displays all my musings on life in Japan and a few other things (baseball and children's books are distinct possibilities). For highlights only: "A Day in the Life (edited)." "Tabemono (Food)" is exactly that. "Big in Japan" is my completely biased and oversimplified list of what is popular in Japan, and "Kimono Count" is a day-by-day record of the people I see in traditional dress. "Editor's Delight" catalogs the unintentionally amusing and apparently quite complicated world of Japanese-English translation. "Uncle Tucker" tracks our sightings of a certain cat following us around Japan.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

You Can Always Depend on the Kindness of Strangers

Or...Airing out the Clean Laundry

(Cue the music, maestro)

Want to understand the social mores of most countries, towns, or buildings?  It's actually quite easy: spend a little time in a laundromat or your apartment's basement laundry room.

Back in college, I hoarded quarters and spent far too much time hanging out in the laundry room of my dorm, which just happened to be a castle.  (Yes, a real castle, if a castle built in the early 20th century by an eccentric vet and then incorporated into a university as a (flea infested) dorm passes as "real.") Why so much time in the laundry room?  Simple:  if I hung out long enough, all the cutest guys would come in to do their laundry.  This is a fact that can be confirmed by my friend, Pedro, who many years after we graduated from college asked:  "Why were you always in the laundry room?"  After I explained it, he said, "I just thought you really liked doing laundry."  Typical guy.  And yeah, he was one of the cute ones, as was/is my husband, Frank, who was also a castle dweller.   My roommate, Hedi, was also in on the ploy.  She was down there as much as I was.  Note that it never got us a date, though.  Bold enough to hang out, but not bold enough to make conversation with a cute guy.

Fast forward 20 or so years, and here we are in Tokyo.  We've got a washer/dryer in our apartment, but it's one of those small stacks that washes one sock at a time.  Not nearly big enough for a family of four.  So, I go down to the basement to use the industrial laundry machines.  These days I no longer hang out.  I've got two kids who just might burn the apartment down or kill each other if I am gone too long, so I'm all business. And I don't hoard quarters, either.  I hoard yen.  The washer is free, but 100 yen (about $1.25) gets your 20 min. of dryer time, and I need LOTS of dryer time.   So, there I was one recent afternoon, and it was time to move stuff from the one washer to the one dryer, when the inevitable happened:

Someone had left laundry in the dryer.  And it was done.  And the stuff was cold, so it had been there for awhile.  And I needed that dryer.  IMA (NOW).

In New York, it is perfectly acceptable (required?) to take out the dry laundry and put it on the counter (or floor, if you are feeling particularly irritated).  But what about in Japan?  Quite possibly the most polite place on earth?  It's complicated.  Here's the thought process:

1.  Would the owner of the clothes be offended?
2. (Even worse) Would the owner of the clothes be embarrassed and feel terrible that he/she left the laundry after it was done?
3.  If I remove the laundry, am I breaking one of the (innumerable) unspoken rules of Japanese society?
4.  If I break a rule of society, is okay if I am a gaijin (foreigner?) or does that make it worse?
4.  What is it is underwear?
5.  What if I am down here for hours trying to decide what to do?

I decided to take a look at the stuff.  All dress shirts.  Phew.  Didn't have to worry about the underwear thing.  So I decided to throw all caution into the wind and take out the shirts.  But, in a moment of complete guilt I decided I would sort of fold the shirts in a not-too-nice-but-hey-I'm-not-throwing-them-on-the-floor kind of way.  I never worked a The Gap, so I don't have much in the way of folding skills (we often live out of the laundry basket in my house), but I gave it a shot.  Wouldn't you know it, half way through, a very embarrassed looking middle-aged Japanese business man came in to get his shirts.  Here's the run down:

Me (bowing):  "Sumimasen." (I'm sorry I touched your stuff, but dude, I need the dryer.)
He (bowing):  "Gominasai."  (No, don't worry, I'm sorry, and completely embarrassed.)
Me (bowing): "Sumimasen." (No, really, I'm sorry.  Don't worry about it.)
He (bowing):  "Domo arigato gozaimasu."  (Thank you so so so very much.  You really shouldn't have.)
Me (bowing): "Ie, ie."  (No, really, don't worry about it.  I barely folded the stuff.  Besides, it's all wrinkled.)

He scrambled to get the remaining shirts out of the dryer and then hurried out.  I took over the dryer, and that was that.  Or so I thought.

A few days later, the doorbell rang.  I looked through the peephole to see Mr. Laundry Dude, holding a bag in his hand.  The New Yorker in me said, "Don't open the door.  You don't speak much Japanese, he has a bag with God-knows-what in it, and this just seems all wrong."  The Texan in me said, "Hey, it's Mr. Laundry Dude, let's see what he wants. You don't speak much Japanese, but who cares?"  The Texan won.

I opened the door.  I was met with a barrage of what I could tell was very polite Japanese and a somewhat confusing exchange that had something to do with his laundry.  He was again profusely thanking me for (very crappily) folding half of his laundry.  And, to top it off, he had brought me a bag full of omiyage, which he absolutely positively insisted I take (and much of it was Hello Kitty--how could I resist?):

Two bags of Hello Kitty cookies, two "towers" of cake, and a box of Hello Kitty cookies
It was all just a little too surreal, so the next day, I headed downstairs to ask Kato-san, the world's greatest landlord, what the hell had happened.  She laughed an explained that Mr. Laundry Dude works for a company that has an office in our building.  The company deals in omiyage.  The shirts being dried were work shirts.  He and his colleagues were so thankful that I folded the laundry "very nicely" (their words, not mine), that he had come to her to find out where I live so he could thank me in person with omiyage.  And that, my friends, is why, the musical of "A Streetcar Named Desire" on "The Simpsons" is right:
You can always depend on the kindness of strangers
To pluck up your spirits and shield you from dangers.
Now here's a tip from Blanche you won't regret.
A stranger's just a friend you haven't met!
You haven't met!
So thanks, Mr. Laundry Dude, for restoring my faith in humanity.  Some good deeds do go unpunished after all.  But I can't help but wonder...what if I had folded all the laundry really nicely?