Friday, April 4, 2008

There is no gas gauge: An Epic of Tragic Betrayal by a Trusted Friend


As I hopped on my scooter Tuesday morning, I noticed the beautiful skies and the contrast of the plum blossoms blotting out the blue sky around my apartment. It was sure to be a great day. Three minutes later my tune changed. Why does this kind of thing happen to me? This was not the first time. It would not be the last but I couldn’t help but feel a sharp pain in the very core of my being. My heart was crushed in one fell swoop. My scooter died just as I was encouraged on my way by my good friend Mr. Green Light (or blue light as it is called in Japan; I still think its green no matter what color you call it). I sadly pulled the off the rode and began the push of shame back to my apartment. There is something embarrassing about pushing a vehicle that you should be driving. I endured the silent looks of awe as I passed a long line of cars waiting to accelerate, without any problem and arrive on time without any hassle. I wanted so desperately to be one of those people. In my attempts to speak Japanese I rely heavily on the facial expressions and gestures that so often accompany a conversation. The telephone is my worst enemy. I had to call school and let them know I would be late. As the phone rang on the other end, a giant butterfly hatched from the cocoon that had somehow found its way into my stomach (I usually don’t ask what I am eating). It continued to flutter around until I heard a voice on the other end. Stupid butterfly tried to come out and I had to choke it down to speak. After clearing my throat, I said (literal translation), “Vice principal”? “Yes”. “It’s Wade” (as if he couldn’t tell by the grammatical mistakes and silly accent). “Yes” “This morning my scooter is bad, so I am coming by bike” “(something I didn’t understand)” “Yep, that's it, I am coming by bike.” This is where it got hairy. I don’t know how to end conversations on the phone with people who have a higher social status or age than I. So I hope that he would wrap it up, and so it began. I squinted into his face and waited for him to make a move. We both stood with fingers twitching above our guns, tumbleweeds running amuck in the street in front of us. After what seemed like hours I panicked and reached for my pistol and shot quickly from the hip, “Ok, thanks”. “Ok, be careful.” I hung up quickly and checked my pulse. I was alive. Why do I get so nervous when I am talking on the phone? Even in English I am not a skilled phone conversationalist. Most of my phone conversations are wrapped up in three sentences (I usually allow four for females out of courtesy.)
I began the ride to school and the day past uneventfully. Maybe the poor beginning was not so bad after all. After school I hustled home to see if I could take my scooter to a mechanic. I changed clothes and slung on my backpack with my Japanese book (it was Japanese class night). I began pushing my scooter along the sidewalk avoiding the strange looks I was receiving. Stop looking at me!! I don’t stare at you when you walk your dog. Don’t stare at me when I walk my scooter. Ten minutes later I approached the gas station. I had decided since my scooter lacks a gas gauge and the light sometimes doesn’t work so well, I should fill up, give it a try and if needed, go see a mechanic. From across the street I surveyed the objective. How to infiltrate it without looking like a complete idiot? How many people walk their scooters into the gas station? Maybe 35% (maybe its lower, I don’t work at a gas station so I’m not qualified to make a valid estimate). Anyway I didn’t want those gas station attendants that I had possibly run out of gas. I decided the best way to go about it was to slide my helmet on and creep across the road and then close to the entrance I should sit on my scooter push as hard, as I could, coasting into the station and making cool engine sounds with my mouth. What a great plan!! To sell it I could even turn the key and stop making “VrrmmVrrmm” sounds simultaneously!! I grinned as I envisioned my success. Time to execute. I started crossing the street and was spotted instantly. It was all over. I was caught and in turn looked like an even bigger idiot because I was pushing my scooter with my helmet on, like I never take it off (even to sleep). I sheepishly pushed it up to the pump and asked for gas and oil. I reached for my….wallet…my wallet. Great…just great. I had left my wallet in my apartment. I chuckled and looked at the confused gas attendant. I explained what had happened and he looked incredulously at me as if to say, ”That’s impossible. No one would ever do that.” I asked if it was ok to park my scooter off to the side and run back to my apartment to grab my money. He grinned and said it was ok. I could tell he was composing a story for his blog about how he met a silly foreigner who was walking around town pushing his scooter for kicks and then running around like an idiot looking for his wallet.
I ran the ten minutes to my apartment and then the ten minutes back to the station. I arrived dripping with sweaty and out of breath. He grinned again and I had to chuckle at how ridiculous I am. It turns out that I was betrayed by one of my closest friends. My scooter had failed to warn me that it was running out of gas. What a backstabber. It seems that word had made it back to my scooter that a car was in my future and out of sheer jealously it decided to maroon me in the middle of the street.

I cut my hair yesterday from about 4 inches to about a half an inch. My teachers were very surprised to see me this morning. One even jumped back in fright when I walked in the door. Drastic changes seemed to be pretty uncommon around here. Most of my teachers told me my hair looked good. I can’t decided if it was in consolation or honesty. I envisioned the conversations later in the tea room. “Yep, its pretty short isn’t it.” Yeah, its horrible.” “We better tell him it looks good next time we see him so he doesn’t feel so bad about it.” I chose to believe that they really do like it.

How To Change the Owner Registration of a Car in Japan (a.k.a. how to turn brown hair gray)


You know that place? The one where no matter what you do you can’t win? You are in the wrong line or filling in the wrong form or you are just too confused to even think so you stand in the middle of the room, head spinning and drool running down your chin, until the security guard realizes that you are a threat to the peaceful chirping of phones and tip tap of computer keys, and decides to escort you outside for some fresh air and a knuckle sandwich. Maybe for you this place is the DMV or the police station, the post office or Taco Bell. When I first arrived in Japan it was the post office with their obscure forms and official titles but last week it was replaced by the Japanese Office of Land and Transportation. Let me tell you why…but first, hows about I go off on a tangent which will inevitably lead to another tangent and eventually you will end up wondering how I went from writing about a place that is scary (the Japanese OLT) to writing about eating parents and their children (please don’t judge me)… my usual rambling.

I have been given a car free of charge. This is quite common inside the AET program because most people in Japan drive newer cars, so old cars are harder to sell and if you want to get rid of a car you have to pay to have it crushed. So for an AET who has been in Japan for a few years and decides to return to their home country it is easiest to sell or give your car to a friend (except for the rigorous paperwork). When I was offered a free car I accepted immediately. Think of the adventures I could have!! My world consists of a circle with a radius of about 20KM (about 13 miles) and the places that are accessible by train. I can drive across the country, explore exotic places and best of all pay around $6 a gallon for gas. Wait a minute….gas costs that much? My scooter has a 5 liter tank and gas is about 150 yen per liter so I spend about 700 yen a week on gas. If I start driving a car then I will spend a great deal more on gas and probably won’t be able to support my habit (bottled drinks from convenience stores). I want to have my cake and eat it too (in this case, drink my cake in the form of delicious tea, coffee or coke.) There must be a way that I can get around spending so much money on gas. Then a brilliant idea began hatching in the deep recesses of my mind. There was one beautiful night in my life…I had just stumbled into my apartment after running for an hour with the cross country team and who should greet me but Homer Simpson himself!! I could tell he had some crazy scheme up his sleeve by the gleam in his eye and well…the bulge in his sleeve (he actually had something in his sleeve). I watched as Homer and Bart spent roughly 23 minutes siphoning cooking grease from fast food restaurants and eventually the school cafeteria (the episode ended when their operation got shut down because they stepped in on a local gangster’s recycled cooking grease and shovel business). Immediately following this episode I flipped to the Discovery channel and watched in awe as a man detailed how he had revamped his car to run on refined cooking oil from fast food restaurants…THAT HE GOT FOR FREE!!! That was it!! That night several years ago had been a fateful meeting with destiny. I had unwittingly been groomed for a future of free transportation and adventure!! So a few weeks ago I began researching this promising alternative. Of course, I watched the Simpsons episode again, gleaning some valuable insight into the proper technique on siphoning grease from cooking vats. I then read some articles on the actual process of converting a car to run on vegetable oil. That was downright discouraging. I didn’t even understand the title of the articles (my English has eroded since moving to Japan). Yet I was a man on a mission. I would not be deterred. I decided to case my neighborhood for eligible restaurants. I thought for a second, sushi restaurant? No grease. Rice and beef bowl restaurant? Same story. Ramen shop? I like to eat there too much to have it ruined by my seeing the nastiness that lurks in the kitchen of every restaurant in the world. My list was getting shorter and shorter. Then, I violently slammed into a major road block. In my limited knowledge of Japanese I had yet to study the phrase,

“Can I have the grease from your fryer, free of charge. Oh, yeah and I will probably be coming back every week for awhile going through the same process and could I maybe have a cup of tea because I am getting kind of thirsty. One more thing, is it possible for you to actually dump the grease into a bag and leave it outside for me so I don’t have to spend so much time or work too hard. Yeah, could you please just do all that for me. Thanks!!”

Just how do I say all that in Japanese? I am sure I could get my point across with my clutch technique, my 1, 2 punch if you will, of gesturing wildly, shouting the few Japanese phrases I have mastered (like “I am sorry to leave from work so early.”, “Please give me the large portion”, and the ever versatile “Where is the toilet”. Armed with these phrases you can carry on a surprising amount of conversation provided you play your cards right (the order you say these phrases is very important) and throw in few “please” and “thank you”. Despite the fact that I think I could convince a restaurant to give me their used cooking grease I would like to like to respect the culture and carry on the conversation with the correct formality level and correct grammar so I decided to wait until we study this particular situation in Japanese class. I am sure that we will study that soon maybe that is in Chapter 25: Going Shopping. But until then I needed another way…

Since I still had connections with Dan the Biscuit Man at the Hardees in Fayetteville, (I worked there flipping burgers for 2 summers in college) I explored the possibility of coaxing him into air mailing me plastic bags of leftover cooking grease from the fryers (I know what you are thinking and I settled on proposing he use the big 40 gallon Hefty, Hefty, Hefty instead of wimpy, wimpy, wimpy garbage bags). I was chewing on this half baked idea when I realized that there was a huge flaw in my plan (it has probably been clear to you the entire time): I was a cook at Hardees and I remember all the leftover bits of French fries and chicken that lounged in the grease after a hard day of making delicious fried fatty foods. They were like children in a pool on a hot summer day, except crispier. Imagine the logistics of refining all that cooking grease until it could be used as fuel. Dan might not go for this idea after all. But what if…what if we could barter something. That's it!! He could cover the cost of refining and airmailing several hundred pounds of used cooking grease every week and I could send him something once or twice a year to ease the strain of such a difficult job. What could I send him…? YES!! I was on a roll I had met and crushed several problems in the last hour of scheming and this would be no different. I would send him seaweed candy. Healthy and delicious, who doesn’t like seaweed candy? (It really isn’t too bad, but I have the suspicion that you would judge a book by its cover and would never let this brownish green confection past your lips much less dissolve into a delicious seaweedy syrup on your tongue.) Now that I had a plan of attack, it was time to act. But…I haven’t seen nor spoken with Dan in 3 years, nor did we speak much when we actually worked together (he did yell at me once for cooking the roast beef to long and another time for not shouting loud enough when I needed more biscuits to “build” delicious breakfast sandwiches. I know, I will just look him up in the phone book. Simple enough, right? Nope, he wasn’t listed under Biscuit Man (the whole time I worked there I thought that was his last name). So my plan to operate a vegetable oil vehicle has been sidelined for the moment.

Lets get back on task. I went to the Office of Land and Transportation with high hopes. I had just dominated the police station (successfully obtaining proof of a parking spot (in Japan you have to prove you have a place to park your car before you can buy one)). I asked a parking lot attendant where the notary was and he told me something along the lines of, “I don’t understand the words that are coming out of your mouth.” Not what I wanted to hear. Oh well, this wouldn’t be the first time in Japan that I had wondered around a building for hours, looking for something that might not even exist. In fact, it has become a hobby of sorts. I walked into the first building, too many people staring at me, that couldn’t be it. Next building, please. I walked in looked around, didn’t see anything that shouted notary, then left. At the next building I decided it was time to ask again. Hot dog!! I was in the right place! They understood my Japanese, take that parking attendant man!! The lady pointed me to the right place and I stood awkwardly waiting for them to acknowledge my presence. Apparently I had my invisible suit on. People even walked through me to get to the desk. Finally I recognized that a line was forming and I hopped in the back of it and nervously checked out the crowd around me. I had a bad feeling about this. I just knew that I would get to the front of the line and either not have the right form or not understand what they were telling me and odds were it would probably be both. Yep. It was my turn and I timidly stepped forward and told her why I was here. She said something and I immediately knew I had done something wrong. Apparently I needed the original ownership form instead of just a copy. Great!! I just worked up the courage to ask to leave work early and I wasn’t even going to accomplish what I had set out to do. Worse yet, I was going to have to go through the same process again in the future. This called for some major sulking. I went to a convenience store (called conveeny here in Japan for convenience sake) and found some chocolate and a coke to soothe my woes. The next day I worked up the courage to ask off early again. Two days in a row is really pushing the limits. I returned to what I now refer to as the demon lair (except for that one nice lady who smiled and was very friendly). As I walked in the room I set my jaw and was determined not to take no for an answer. I went confidently to the same desk as yesterday, presented my papers and prepared myself to meet instant success. “Please wait over there”. OK, ok, I could settle for semi instantaneous success. I sat down and they called my name. I stood up and shuffled forward. A lady asked for some money and gave me some papers in exchange. She told me to go next door to the 2nd window. Another line. I waited and then handed my papers to the man who looked at me then at the papers then back up at me suspiciously. Oh, man that is not a good look to receive. I asked him politely to not look at me that way (in my head of course). He stamped my papers with emphasis and told me to go wait at the 3rd window. Paranoia crept into my brain. Are they trying to stall and keep me here until the authorities arrive to arrest me for attempting to change the ownership of a vehicle without correctly dotting “I’s” and crossing “t’s”? Someone shouted my name. I stood and stepped forward and accepted some papers that were thrust at me. What do I do with these? Am I finished? I stood and waited patiently to be told which window to wait at. The man didn’t look up. I waited some more. In an instant I turned and left. I exhaled and looked down at the papers. I held in my hands the owner registration papers for mister ウエイド ミラー.I was now the proud owner of a car. Now that I am finished with the Office of Land and Transportation I can go back to hating the post office.

It is spring break now and the students are at home. The teachers are at work and we ordered lunch a couple of hours ago. In making my choice for lunch I noticed the kanji for parents and the kanji for children. This was the name of a dish that I could order. I asked what it was. “Parents and their children”, was the reply. I knew that already…I thought for a second and asked what was in it. “Chicken and eggs”. AHHHAAH!!! That makes sense. So I ordered it and ate, “parents and their children.”