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My day at the races

by Thomas Dillon

The surface of the coffee in my Starbucks cup begins its gentle dance, the signal to lift my head.

No, this is not “Jurassic Park” and the vibration is not due to an approaching T-Rex. It’s Takadanobaba and the train station quivers with the force of commuters ripping up the stairway, some no doubt two at a time.

A split second more and I can hear the tromp of their shoes on station floor. In another second the front runners are already tearing past my window.

And we are off to the races — again.

One morning a week I sit at the Starbucks inside the Seibu rail station in Takadanobaba. I arrive before 7 a.m. and sip my coffee on a stool facing the window, just to get a good view of the show.

For every five minutes, whenever a new train glides in from the hinterlands, the station features a foot race. Scores of commuters hightail it up the stairs from the Seibu platform and then sprint down the station corridor for the wickets leading to the JR Yamanote line — a distance of 30 meters or more.

Men, women and, yes, even an occasional child, all galloping for their transfer, as if first aboard were to be awarded Olympic medals.

From the minute I arrive till the minute I leave, it doesn’t let up. Each train unleashes a fresh storm, with every new flash of commuter lightning the same as the one before — Tokyoites madly dashing to work and school.

I am entertained. I am befuddled. I am depressed.

Yes, it is amusing. The dazed focus in everyone’s eyes. Like a herd of wildebeests in stampede. Hair, loose clothing, bags all flying. People bent forward in racing pose, weaving and knifing ahead. With faces frozen on only one concern, and that not for family, flag nor fortune.

No, just to hit those wickets and catch the next train.

I wait for one fellow in particular — about 5 foot 6 and 220 pounds if he’s an ounce, with most of this in a beach ball-sized stomach. The stomach jelloes left and right as the man blasts forward, but his face — shaped like a shoe — doesn’t flinch. He has eyes only for the wickets.

He leads the pack, a short, fat man traveling like a bullet. If I were an NFL scout, I would sign him at once. There is not a linebacker alive who could tackle that man. And live.

Would he or any of them care if they knew they were being watched? That they were providing the light pastry for someone’s morning coffee? Would such a notion cause any of them to slow?

The befuddled part comes in between the waves of madness, as hundreds and hundreds more march steadily by, these the longer, saner tail of the crazed commuter comet. They compose 90 percent of the crowd. Yet, I sip coffee and muse on that first 10 percent. What makes them run?

At this time of day, a Yamanote train rotates in roughly every three minutes. Without their wild sprint, runners might miss one train. All that effort for a measly three minutes.

Yeah, I know. Toe bone connected to the foot bone. One miss here might mean another miss there, with the result being . . .

You end up late. Three minutes, 10 minutes — who cares? Late is late and to some people — and some bosses — that is all that matters.

I wonder why they don’t wake a bit earlier and commute at a more reasonable pace, like the shuffling hordes who follow.

Now comes the depressing part.

For there I sit, one of those shufflers, yawning up five hours before my first class only so that I might catch a train with an open seat and avoid the vise of rush hour traffic.

Thus, I ease into the cold water while others leap. How can I say my way is better? I trade time for comfort. Rather than sprint through commuter hell, I draw it out. And end up spending time at a coffee shop rather than at my home.

And which is more pathetic? To be watched as you run like an idiot? Or to be the one who sits and watches?

In weaker moments, I feel like a spectator at a blood sport, anticipating someone might slip so I can watch the lemmings all stumble into the pile.

But who am I kidding? I’m a commuter lemming myself.

Into all this walks a dog. A seeing-eye dog. I follow him as he leads his master peacefully through the crunch of the masses. The dog seems calm and composed, the most at-ease creature in the station. He seems unconcerned about where he’s going or when he gets there.

I wonder how he feels about the rat race?

Humans rambling and wrestling forward, each and every day. For what silly purpose?

Meanwhile he just smiles as he patters along.

From my window I sigh and think what I would give for a dog’s life.