The Song Of the Sweet Potato Man

The Song Of the Sweet Potato Man

It took me a while to hone in on it, but the sounds of Tokyo are vastly different from those of New York. It is a subtle thing, not something that you immediately notice.  Instead, it gradually dawned on me that one aspect to the shift in tone from one city to the next had a lot to do with the change in auditory stimuli.

New York is a cacophony of car horns.  If you don’t move when a traffic light changes, within .5 seconds every car behind you will explode in a riot of aggression.  In our smart phone age, a red light means that desperate folks need to check how many “likes” their photo of an argula salad with lamb-belly confit got. This information is so fascinating that delayed acceleration at the green has become the norm.  The increase in car horns have followed suit.  New Yorkers treat the car horn as the obvious extension of their voice, they use it indiscriminately for any minor violation of the road rules.  One beep isn’t even considered aggressive.  It is kind of like an “excuse me”. The real fun starts with a long, extended horn blast  combined with screaming “Move Your Fucking Car You Dumb Fuck,” while the free hand pounds the roof.  Now, that’s NY!  It is harder to recognize something because of its absence; thus, it took me some time to realize that the odd sound I was hearing in Japan was actually the lack of car horns — that layer of furious, NYC background noise.  No one honks their horns in Tokyo.  When you do hear one, it is jarring — like jump-out-your-seat jarring. Something really egregious has to happen to cause someone in Tokyo to honk.  Which I apparently did.  On my bike.  The sound was so unfamiliar that it almost caused my son and I to crash in surprise.

That is not to say that Tokyo road-ways are silent. The use of amplified megaphones is omnipresent both for safety and advertising.  Ambulances, police cars and fire engines combine a siren with an excessively polite spoken word monologue : “We are sorry for the inconvenience, but get please make room so that we can save a life.” (Very different from New York where a police cruiser once used to their megaphone to scream at my wife and I,  “Pull The Fuck Over.” We did, and then watched as they raced through a light and right into a McDonald’s drive-thru, where, I noted, it was 10:28am – two minutes before the Egg McMuffin cut-off time…Fucking Cops.)  During election season, candidates make amplified speeches while in motion.  Right-Wing parties are particularly loud and aggressive blasting a riot of speech and music through the city’s tiny lanes. Tokyo Gas vans pump out a pre-recorded jingle.  A whole variety of advertising is automobile-borne from small semis, equipped with LCD screens, hyping the newest J-Pop sensation to the plaintive, old-fashioned Japanese song piped out from the trucks that sell baked sweet potatoes.

My associations with public address systems are that of Totalitarianism and old Communist regimes. Sad Laotian peasants being woken at 6am to dig ditches for the glory of the collective. That doesn’t exist in Tokyo, but every day at 5:30 pm a little melody from a song about crows returning to their nests is played to tell children it is time to go.  It plays through speakers in every neighborhood with volume and clarity. It was a little eerie the first time I heard it.  In fact it is still a bit eerie even after hearing it a hundred plus times.  I can’t used to it. Neither can I get used to the cheery recorded voice in my water heater that tells me my bath is ready.

The sound of pachinko is unique to Japan.  The only thing that is similar is the sound of slot machines in Vegas. Pachinko parlors are everywhere.  Their sound spills out onto the streets like a ton of ball bearings being dropped on a metal slide. Which is what pachinko is all about. Oh. And add to that metallic dirge, a whole range of blaring sound effects from sirens to lasers plus J-pop at full volume. Of course, the Japanese-language ads, jingles, songs and melodies that are amplified from a variety of stores and billboards sounded unfamiliar to me.  They have receded into the background now. Thankfully, while you do have a lot of folks talking on their phones while walking and biking, they tend to be discreet.  So far, people don’t shout into their speaker phones for unknowable reasons as they do in New York.  It is a sound, like the 6am beeping of garbage trucks, that I have not missed.

There is the asshole bird though.  I don’t what species it is but this feathered cocksucker likes to sit in the tree outside my window as the sun rises and let loose a call like a rusty spring being stretched out and sprung back. I have never heard such a loud and irritating bird call in all my life.  I wish there was a crow I could pay to do away this problem.  That bad bird is followed by a man, at least I imagine he is a man, who lives in the house behind me.  At least 3 times a day starting between 6-6:30am,  he completes an absolution that requires him to make a fully engaged vomiting sound for about two minutes.  He then follows this with a long series of fog-horn blasts  which I imagine come, somehow, from his nose.  My wife thought the sounds were super loud crows cawing for the first couple days we were here.  My daughter plays with the kids who live next to him.  I brought up his incredible noise-making to their mom who looked at me like I was crazy.  “No,” she said.  “I have never noticed that sound.”  She was lying.  Japanese people are very private and I think I broke some sort of unspoken agreement to never acknowledge that you can hear your neighbors.

Like the sound of honking horns, the things I miss about New York life I recognize through their absence:  Friends. Family. Language. Everything Bagels. It is not that cliché that “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” It is rather that absence forces you to carve, from the void, the sharp outlines of that which no longer surrounds you. What you lose in physical closeness you gain in clarity and insight.  So, as the haunting song of the sweet potato vendor filters through the windows reminding me of how far I am from home, I will sculpt those outlines and cherish all that I love both here and there.

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