Reflexive Responsiveness

The other day, I was taking the train, on my way to see a friend. At one of the stations, a man looking about 35 got on the train with his girlfriend. He was wearing grey sweatpants with a matching hooded sweatjacket, which was zipped down to reveal a red shirt. He had walked on the train with a bit of a saunter, and he looked at his girlfriend as she typed on her phone with a certain contemplative admiration. He gave me the impression of being a scaffolder.

The train arrived at Shinagawa, and we all got off. Stairs led up from the platform to the mezzanine level. The man, close to the door, started up the stairs before me. Climbing the stairs with us were a group of high-school girls in uniform, all with the same blue-and-white vinyl bags. One of them dropped something, and as it hit the stairs and bounced, the man tapped one of the girls on the shoulder. The object bounced down the stairs, reaching the bottom just as I was about to start to climb, and I picked it up – it was two woolen gloves rolled into one another. The girl looked to the man who had tapped her on the shoulder, who nodded toward me, as we were all climbing up the stairs. I held up the gloves to show her, and she shook her head “no”. I looked toward the man with a raised eyebrow. He looked ahead, and tapped another girl on the shoulder. When she looked, he nodded toward me. She had a look of recognition, and stopped as I climbed up the stairs to where she was. I nodded toward the man, and he nodded back, never stopping as he climbed the stairs. As I passed her, I passed the girl the gloves, and she said “Arigato” in thanks.

Reaching the top of the stairs, I turned an saw the man as he was heading toward the ticket gates. He was alone – the one who I thought was was his girlfriend was not his girlfriend – I had only thought that she was because of the way he’d observed her.

I thought about the wordless way we had been able to return the high-schooler her gloves, and how similar it was to the way scaffolders work on a construction site – aware of one’s surroundings, seeing the developing environment and wordlessly moving to do what is helpful.

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