Today I got a tack in the tire of my bicycle, Zephyr, and I was grateful.
My parents never gave me the “grateful” talk. My father only half-jested about walking uphill to school both ways—our hills were steep enough that one way felt like two—and the only time he took off his belt was when two of us weren’t getting along and it was time to tie us together until we did. For my parent’s generation, the “grateful” talk was parody. Still, they made sure I knew it was “the right thing” to be grateful. But guilt or its cousin, shame, tended to peck holes in how I truly felt it.
I’ll admit that most (though not all) of my guiltless times of gratitude have been concentrated in the space of my time in Japan. I’ve had a chance to feel a sense of obligation that seeps deeper than just good manners, one that holds more sincerity than my childhood thank yous, which were often wrung out before I could fully understand what they were for.
But about this tack: You don’t really see tacks like that one in the States anymore. It’s the sort you’d think of when someone nastily tells you to sit on one: A flat, brass disk with ridges like a tiny coin. Its needle is shorter than the cap is wide, a nigh-inflexible spear welded dead center. These tacks were made to stick in wood more than cork, and they don’t roll; they always fall flat, which likely means their inventor either didn’t like running or was a sadist.
It must have been when I got to work, parking by the repair shed. Or perhaps it was just before that, as I rode the shoulder of the road passing the carpenter shop. This morning, no matter how hard I pumped my legs, the wheels just didn’t seem to whirl as they should. I blamed fatigue as I locked up and hurried into the building. It wasn’t until I gave the tires a good look after work that I realized my front tire had gone completely flat. By then the summer air was throbbing like an oven.
But there were things to do. I pumped up the tire at the school gate, waved goodbye to students watching askance, and pedaled towards the train station, where I knew another pump stood. If I could make my way home in spurts, punctuated by strategic tire pumps, I’d be fine.
Up first was my parking permit. A two-tier parking garage just for bicycles sits near the train and bus junction in town. The volunteer there, a nice oji’isan (grandpa), knows I’m not a regular, and will walk me through the place looking for an free spot any morning I need one. It didn’t seem worth it to get me a permit for as little as once a month when I thought I’d be staying a year. Now, in this summer heat, I’ve been taking the bus more and his alacrity has been starting to wear on me—that is, I want to go ahead and buy a sticker because he asked a few times, smiling but never insisting, and I’ve started to feel bad. It cost less per year than typical parking meters cost per hour. It’s time to head into the station clerk and pay the piper.
This piper is a kindly volunteer obasan, someone’s aunt, the kind of woman who knows most of the students who come in off the train by name since she went to school with their mothers. I’m a little nervous, because I know kiroku isn’t the right word, but roku is halfway there, but I spot one of my students sitting right by the door as I walk in. I also ask her, Is that the right window? Yes, that one, the girl tells me, and grins. I help her with her English; she helps me with my Japanese. We both are suckers for school supplies covered in stars. In or out of school we help one another. I’m much obliged.
One simple application form and a flower-printed sticker later, I walk my bike to the garage. I’m not parking today, but I need to get a good look at the other stickers to make sure I get mine right, or the oji’isan will tease me next time. The flower pictured over the number is foreign, cultivated, non-invasive: a gift now in bloom all over the county. It’s also the state flower of the last state I lived in. Not my home state, but it’s strange to think it left there before I did.
Next is grocery shopping. Only two cashiers work the mid-afternoon shift, both women, both with names that remind me of students who share their faces. One hour before four o’clock, there’s a rush to beat the rush at five, so they’re swamped, mostly by oba’asans and oji’isans (grandmas and grandpas) buying fish, pickles, sweets, and two of any vegetable on sale. I settle onto my heels and hug my shopping basket while I wait. I remind myself that spending ten more minutes than expected in the air conditioning of a grocery store is never bad on a day like this. I’ll bake a bit less on the ride home.
I haven’t done my cardio today, so I take the long way back. Halfway along I realized my mistake. My tire has sagged to the rim under the weight of my grocery bag. It jumps the curb in dragging bumps and skids on the slightest gravel. I can’t go on without ruining the rim, so at last, I dismount Zephyr, take my bulging bag of groceries on one arm, and walk my silver-blue mount down the street.
The heat wave has been excruciating. Even the wind sags with the humidity. I head towards the yellow house before I really think about it, passing the fish shop I’ve been recommended several times but, to be honest, fear for its unusual smell. I turn my bicycle up the street as I let my phone ring out in one hand, waiting for my S.O. to answer. We promised to go by our friends’ house this week, to pick up some tickets they helped us order for Tokyo. Even as I make contact and find out the tickets have been delivered in person, I hear a voice call out.
The two friends who gave me Zephyr are in their 60s, which is about obasan and ojisan (aunt and uncle) age. They’ve said we can call them kaachan and tohsan, though. It means “Mom” and “Dad.” They got permission from our parents one Christmas, when without being asked they promised to take care of us, much to my mother’s relief. Now Kaachan calls through the window as I fumble to hang up the phone. They’ve noticed I’m walking Zephyr. Already, Tohsan’s ducked out the back door, grabbing the tire pump even as his wife volunteers his expertise. Bikes are the “Dad” thing at their house. Ice tea and snacks are “Mom’s” specialty.
I recover my senses from the heat with the help of mugicha (barley tea) and good conversation in “heaven,” today’s nickname for the refreshingly air-conditioned practice room where she teaches music students after school. We chat about our upcoming trip to Tokyo. Kaachan shows me the letter her son wrote to us in English. (There are parentheses around words he wasn’t sure about.) Shinjuku’s a big place. Which local station will we head to after taking the Shinkansen? They want to be sure we’re taken care of.
Eventually, Kaachan’s next piano lesson arrives, a shy elementary school student. She’s most comfortable giving me her self-introduction, even though this is our third meeting. I tell her good job, and teach her how to say “Nice to see you again,” instead of “Nice to meet you” for second meetings. She’ll catch up eventually. Kaachan pats me on the back. Of course I teach English at all hours, especially at her behest. She and Tohsan help us with Japanese. As always, we’re very much obliged.
I bow in profuse in thanks as Tohsan calls the bicycle shop up the street—”O’jam’itashimasu.” The oji’isan who works there will be closing up soon, but they’re friends. I’ve been there a few times.
<It seems a certain young foreigner is in need of a tire patch,> Tohsan jocularly informs his older friend over the phone in Japanese. <Are you still open? Is it okay?>
This is the kind of town where everyone knows one another. It’s a joke between the three of us, so I smile as I slip back on my shoes.
Outside (O’jam’itashimashita), Tohsan doesn’t let me go until he’s shown me the rusty pin stuck in my tire. He’s foiled the culprit though, taped it in place and pumped the tire back up. Now the nasty pin must serve as a plug to its own handiwork. It should last until I’m up the street. Again, much obliged.
I head up a narrow, less-trafficked lane. A cloud of low-riding yellow bucket hats and caps meets me like a friendly flood: Elementary school students, heading home, chatting. They know my other half, and say hello as my bicycle and I wade our way through. Some notice the blue tape on my tire. They do not ask about it. Perhaps they wonder if this is one of those strange things only gaigokujin do. It would be rude to point it out though.
At the end of this flock of ducklings walks an oji’isan, carrying a bus schedule and squinting here and there under a blue hat. He is looking for the bus stop I know is in the opposite direction. I’ve been right where he was, trying to find the right route home. There are several stops along the main street, each one for a different bus.
Kindness is like yeast. When you feed it, it doesn’t get full. When you say, “Thank you,” and the ones showering you with kindness say, “Oh, no problem!” the gratitude and the kindness stay with you. It multiplies and spills over.
So I ask the oji’isan where he is going. I walk him to the stop and we chat on the way. The oji’isan compliments my Japanese. The compulsive reply is “Mada-mada umaku’naidesu…,” which means, “No, no, it’s not so good yet”, but he insists, which is also compulsive.
Our way takes us past the bicycle shop. The owner’s wife is already pushing her walker out the door. She is bent double from working a rice field when she was young. She smiles up at me like a kindly, floral-patterned turtle as she heads for their house just next door. I promise the owner I’ll come back soon. The groceries are giving me red marks on one arm, but home’s one block away, and I need to see the traveler to his stop, just as so many strangers saw me to mine all these years. It’s not a burden. It’s like borrowed momentum.
A round trip to home and then back to the bike shop, and now I dig in my pockets to pay for the new tire and inner tube. The oji’isan has already wheeled my bicycle out the door. He’s patient as I stumble over coins to get the change right—numbers are still hard—then I head home, at last with Zephyr gliding beneath me as it should. All for a tack in a tire so much has gotten done today, and I couldn’t have done it alone.
I am very much obliged.