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PANDEMIC PARK

Last Wednesday, a gloriously sunny lunchtime, I got off at Motomachi – Yokohama’s fabled chichi little shopping street of jeweller’s, bakers, coffee houses and clothing boutiques, before proceeding to my new school that takes two hours to get to in the north of Yokohama; packed trains, the underground subway – I wanted to break up the journey. I also wanted to see what outdoor dining options there might be for our Golden Week day out in Yokohama, which, inexplicably, given I know the place like the back of my hand, I was as excited about as a kid at Christmastime.

Down the backstreets, we could have avoided the crowds, I think; crossing over to Marine Tower and Yamashita park, which was as technicolorfully beautiful as an MGM film with so many roses it almost felt to me unreal; so many people, though; albeit generally masked; I took off mine to have a take out coffee in the sun on a bench in the central rosarium which garnered some looks from passersby, but I just needed a moment.

Through the park, damp with life, sunwarmed, along the bayside to Kannai, the Silk Centre with its antique shops and bizarro emporium of old Americana, cheap records and vintage perfumes; down past the old government buildings and wide boulevards of the more austere area of Kannai (plenty of outside tables down Nihon-Odori I thought to myself), down past the baseball stadium, and across the thoroughfare into Isezakicho, with its old man park, and all our haunts – I was dying for today, thinking we would be outside the whole time so there would be few risks. It would have been fun.

D has nixed our plans this morning, though, sensibly declaring that he simply doesn’t want to be on crowded trains during this busy time of the year and that during the night he had a very bad feeling about it, feeling uneasy (we would have still had to get there and back, and probably it would indeed have been too packed with people on the Keihin Tohoku line for comfort), although I do wish he had said so before I had already had a bath and was bright eyed and dressed, ready to go in my successfully doctored vintage Hermès Cologne/Eau D’Orange Verte which I have remixed with several citrus oils, hakka mint and patchouli, creating my very own Eau D’Orange Verte Forte.

He is right though, of course. We shouldn’t really have even been considering going up there in the first place. The government has decreed that people should stay inside at this time with the increasing caseloads across the country (Osaka seems to be in quasi-disaster mode), although this is not borne out in pictures of people having happy days out in Kamakura and Tokyo: Yokohama, as one of the most beloved Golden Week destinations, would have been exactly the same. Although the young are increasingly being affected, as they are elsewhere, this isn’t stopping them from wanting to stroll in the sun with ice cream; buy snacks and souvenirs, and despite the deplorable scenes in India and South America, and elsewhere across the globe, where people are dropping like flies, it still seems far away.

One difference between my attitude and D’s stems, I think, from the fact that since last June I have constantly been travelling on crowded trains and buses to get to the schools I work in, whereas he can either walk from here into Kamakura or just travel one train stop from Kitakamakura. His year has been remarkably less claustrophobic and dangerous than mine, although the complete lack of social distancing in his working environment (aside big stores, this simply doesn’t happen here in Japan; there isn’t the space, or the will) and being in a windowless staff room with sixty teachers – they leave the entrance and exit doors open a little – doesn’t exactly inspire corona confidence in his working conditions. I worry about him. With less than 2% of this country vaccinated (the incompetent government’s slow response could make you gnaw your own fists off with frustration), you feel continuously vulnerable. Still, at least the classrooms do have openable windows, as do the corridors, some air vents. My situation has been a complete potboiler. Pure claustrophobia (I inherit this from my mother, who has panic attacks just wearing face masks even for a few moments.) Last Thursday, having arrived at the school that led to the vertigo attack (still ongoing), finding out that we now have a new staff room on the floor below, I realized, with clarity, spatially, the full extent of what I had been suppressing. I don’t think I have really conveyed the full physical reality to you properly thus far. When I say ‘school’, I think you picture these big American high schools with their spacious corridors and lockers, like in the movies, but these are juku, or night schools; Thursday’s establishment in its entirety is smaller than an average British house’s downstairs, but with about at least a hundred students – possibly 150 – crammed into it with no windows. And as I have said before, my classroom was a windowless box within this space, with just some fan extractors and air con and an electric fan to disperse air particles but probably enough to make an epidemiologist scream. Now that the school has expanded – I will have a new classroom when I go back next week – and there are fewer students brushing up against you, bumping into you, literally in your face (and how many of them are asymptomatic?) because ‘it can’t be helped’, I think the sheer compression of my mind will be alleviated a little, but I do see now that these were appalling circumstances, and that my brain, and spirit (and balance) understandably, said no, and then crashed. At the same time, like everyone else across the world, we have ‘just been getting on with it’, all the teachers sweating and stressing behind their masks for ninety minutes at a time and barking out their lessons, because the more frightening alternative is unemployment.

The world over, it has been a contrast of, or combination of, extreme suffocation and/ or isolation. People in New Delhi gasping for air and dying outside overcrowded hospitals. People trapped without work or money in their apartments in Sao Paolo, each country trying to get the right balance between sustaining the economy and containing the virus; the more callous or neo-fascistic leaders such as Trump, Abe, Johnson, Putin, Modi and Bolsonaro purposefully downplaying the dangers at the beginning of the pandemic to the people for the sake of ‘the economy’ and leading to the situation we now find ourselves in, when had countries followed the example of more responsible leaders in New Zealand and Taiwan and imposed thorough lockdowns from the start, so much of this death and devastation could have been avoided. But no – ‘business’ had to come first (even though in the long run, surely the human and financial cost of this virus rampaging through entire societies is so much higher?). What a mess. And now the Olympics?

I think I was obliviously happy to be going into Yokohama on the crowded train today because I am simply ‘used to it’. The other day, twenty minutes to Yokohama from Ofuna and then changing trains and then 35 minutes on another line with people all sat next to each other with no space between, I almost stood up to move to a more spacious, aerated place but then realized that I was too tired to. There is a sense of resignation. It is almost like a death wish, I think, you become almost blasé. ‘Fuck it, let’s just go out and have some fun.’ But then again, this type of attitude is precisely why we are where we are in the first place.

Our day out in Yokohama can wait.

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