Open for Business- a true episode
By Avi Landau
They were open for business. And despite the fact that I was neither hungry nor thirsty, and even had a large unopened plastic bottle of tea in my jacket pocket, I did have some time to kill- so I decided to go on in.
That morning I had an early work appointment at the Tsukuba University Medical School. And because after getting up I had noticed that it was a fine spring day, I decided to walk all the way there instead of taking a bus. It was the first time for me to do so from my new place of residence, and not knowing exactly how long it would take, just to be on the safe side, I set out early so that I would have an hour to get there. Still, worried about being late , I walked at a very brisk pace, and it ended up taking me MUCH less time than the sixty minutes I had allotted myself. With all that excersize and the warm day, I arrived, huffing, puffing and sweaty, and I also felt a bit disheveled and in disarray. I noticed that my shirt tails had come out of my trousers and clumsily tucked them in.
Looking around, I noticed that besides a couple of security guards, there was not a soul on the ground floor of the building that early in the morning- and I wondered what I could do as I waited for my appointment. That`s when I noticed it. The BAITEN (売店), the little shop, very similar to a convenience store in terms of the merchandize it carries (but not open 24 hours) was opening its shutters. Inside I could see the middle aged women who worked there moving busily about getting ready for the day`s work.
When I stepped in, the first customer of the morning, the ladies greeted me. When they did so, I noticed that when they turned to look at me, the friendly faces and beaming eyes of Japanese hospitality they wore quickly turned into a feeling of tension which noticeably swept over them- and this sense of discomfort soon seemed to permeate the room. As I walked about the store, looking at the rice balls and sandwiches on the shelves, I could practically FEEL the heavy silence and the discomfort of these women.
Then I remembered the bottle of tea sticking out of my pocket! Could that be it? Could they possibly be thinking that I was a shop-lifter? Perhaps they had had some trouble before with a foreigner who looked like me? Or could it be that I looked like someone they had seen on a Wanted Poster?
One of the women made a nervous pass by me, giving me an uncomfortable look as she went. Becoming slightly paranoid, I realized that it must have been the bottle of tea I had jutting out of my pocket that had gotten them all uneasy, and I began to feel very self-conscious- I even subconsciously started to cover the pocket with my arm- until I realized that that would be even more suspicious!
The only thing I could think of in terms of dealing with the situation was to buy something and then GET OUT OF THERE. As I have already mentioned I was not hungry at all ( I had had a big breakfast!) and as for being thirsty- I already HAD some tea ! So what I did was just randomly grab a rice ball off the shelf and head to the cash register. Though nobody was looking at me in the eye, I felt that all the ladies had a strong awareness of my movements. The heavy silence still hung in the air.
The woman at the register seemed especially ill at ease, like she was thinking- WHY DOES IT HAVE TO BE ME THAT HAS TO DEAL WITH HIM. She didn`t look me in the eye when she took my money. I had the feeling she was looking somehow at the bottle of tea, though not directly.
Well, anyway I was about to get out of there. But after I had gotten my change and started to move away from the register to leave the store, the woman came out from behind the counter and started to follow me out- was she REALLY going to challenge me about the tea?! A series of potential arguments, excuses, and protestations raced through my brain.
The woman caught up to me at the shop entrance- which had no closed door (the shutter had been lifted) and was wide open. She walked up close alongside me and I could sense that she wanted to say something. I felt my face redden. She actually nugded up and leaned into me as we walked- she even reached arm around my back. I slowed down to a snails pace, but did not stop. I braced myself. There was a moment of dramatic hesitation.
Then, in a hushed, concerned, affectionate…. almost motherly tone, she said: Dear customer……….. your zipper …………! *
* Okyakusan………… Chaku !