Two Boys on the Train

Two boys bumped me as I was reading on the train last week. They were about nine or ten, with no school or shopping bag, in sports clothes, on the way home, I guessed, from soccer practice at their school sports ground a few stations away. Their giggling and push-pulling each other was punctuated by glances at one of the advertisements, or maybe the video screen, that cover the eye space of Tokyo trains.

I was tired and not in a people-watching mood, but I watched them anyway, without turning to see the ad, musing on how different their path home was from mine as a boy. My route home from school ran along a creek, which we called “the creek,” and then meandered along lazy sidewalks, over a small footbridge, and past sycamore trees and wide lawns.

I started to watch as they whispered to each other, looking up and back. Tokyo trains are swathed in advertisements printed on paper about the size of a big computer screen. Beer, books, hotlines, tax info, shampoo, snacks and everything that can be sold is slapped on paper and slipped on racks encircling the visual space of every train. If you glance around, there is no escape.


On my way home, we loved to take the sycamore tree seed balls, smash them open, and jam them down the shirt of an unsuspecting classmate. They itched like hell. Or at least we thought they did. And then we wrestled, fought or played the same “grab-ass” these two Tokyo boys were playing on the train. Snowball fights across the iced-over creek were the highlight of winters.

At one point, when we were about eleven or twelve, we started having battles with the girls. They always won, since they were bigger than us at that point. Somehow they managed to get home, fill up water balloons, snatch bananas to smear in our hair, and run back to where the roads diverged before we got there. We sometimes had to go around the long way to avoid them.

That could all happen because we walked home in a glorious child-only world, far from the eyes of adults. Cars drove by, but no one we knew. We were free for the twenty dawdling minutes, or even the hour if we got into things, that it took us to walk home. We had space, time, snow, sycamore balls and other kids.

The two Tokyo boys, though, seemed to me trapped on the train home. They kept scuffling and drawing glances from all the adults tired from work and in no mood for their fooling around if it meant being bumped into. Finally, I turned to look at the ad the boys kept glancing up at and whispering about. It was for Playboy magazine.

The ad was like all of them: full-breasted women in bikinis, a side bar of other women’s cleavages, their faces smiling or pouting or faking innocence. All around them was text in splashy fonts trumpeting the writing. It was not much in this day and age of Internet porn.

The boys, though, could not get their eyes off the ad, looking and whispering, whispering and looking. I strained to hear what they said, but they spoke too softly. But I knew what they were saying. I said the same things myself.

The first time I saw Playboy was on my path home, too. A friend from school had stolen one of his father’s copies and hidden it in a storm drainpipe that fed into the creek. I was too afraid to go all the way through the pipe to the other end where you could be reborn onto a street gutter a block away. But the classmate who stole the Playboy went all the way through often on dares and bets to pick up pocket change.

He went into the drainpipe and retrieved the magazine that afternoon and brought it out to share without charging us. We huddled on the rocks on the bank of the creek and looked at the images of women the Playboy editors concocted for us. It was a rare and momentous event that I remember nearly forty some years later.

Were these boys’ reactions the same as mine flipping those pages in awe with the other guys by the creek? Did these two Tokyo boys feel the same stirrings while sneaking glances up at an advertisement they were still too short to even reach? Surrounded by tired commuters watching them knowingly, disgusted or indifferent, was that boyhood glance, as naïve, curious and embarrassing, as desired, startling and rare, for those boys as it had been for me?

Though we were separated by decades, cultures, languages and surroundings, it startled me to re-confront the boyish interest in sex and women’s bodies. So far away from where I had seen that first nude was the exact same magazine, spinning out the exact same headlines, same attitudes, and same poses. Even the word “nude” is used in Japanese (pronounced “new-dough”).

My sycamores and creek could not be more different from a train car and platforms, the 1960s from the 2010s, a calm suburb from a thriving city, wide spaces from cramped trains. Culture, language, education, upbringing was nothing alike.

Yet, in the middle of both, was the same falsely-tantalizing but still awe-inspiring representation of the female body. It had fallen on top of them, as with me, before we were even conscious of it, and the need to look rose up, no doubt, from inside us with the same yearnings and confusions.

When they ran out the door at their station, I was left wondering why our cultures, so thorough at mediating and shaping our experiences, couldn’t have given us the first view of something so magnificent in any better way.

May 21, 2016

long trains

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