A Voice Crying in the Desert

A Voice Crying in the Desert

The number of elderly people in Japan living alone is expected to grow even higher in the coming years. The statistics in the media never really made an impact on me until I fell into the category of one of those ‘old people’ living in a single household.

Man Alone in His Room

My daughters and their families are stretched across the world in two geographic locations: Hong Kong and New Jersey. VIBER, Messenger, Skype and other messaging apps allow us to communicate instantly with one another. By tapping a few keys on my iPhone, I can send birthday greetings, convey congratulations for individual accomplishments, and respond to requests for help.

But what happens if I need immediate medical assistance? If I suffer life-threatening injuries? If a natural disaster strikes and I’m trapped in my apartment? These questions and more cross my mind regularly as they do no doubt in the minds of others living alone with only the television set for company. With no family nearby, I am like Blanche Dubois in Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire. I have to rely on the kindnesses of strangers. Well, not exactly strangers.

Before I turned 70, I feared I would end up like those people without jobs, families, and a secure place to rest their heads at night. Sleeping wherever they could find a patch of ground to throw down their possessions. Eating food discarded by restaurants. Gathering aluminum cans to turn into cash at recycling centers. Or, out of desperation committing a crime. Ah, yes, a crime. A guarantee of ensuring three square meals a day and obtaining free medical treatment with the government footing the bill. Yes, I could commit a crime. The police would arrest me and the courts would sentence me to prison. But I would end up like the prisoner, my friend, who spent time in a Japanese jail, wrote about in his diary.

Homeless and Forgotten

One of my cellmates was an old man in his 60s. He spoke absolutely no English, but it didn’t make a difference because he didn’t have a tooth in his head. It was hard to understand what he was saying even in Japanese. When he spoke, it sounded like he was talking around a mouthful of food.
He had lived in a cardboard box outside of a JR Station. He was picked up for stealing an obento (prepared) lunch worth ¥280 and had been locked up since mid-January. Late in the year before, he was arrested for the same crime — stealing an obento lunch worth ¥280. He had received a suspended sentence for that crime. With the latest arrest, he would have to do the suspended sentence plus whatever else the court gave him. So for the crime of stealing nearly ¥600 worth of food, the authorities were going to spend 100s of thousands of yen to put this old fellow away. For the old guy, it was a bargain. Three square meals a day, room and board and a chance to make friends. Jail for him was better than sleeping inside a cardboard box.

Hawks over Mountains

Three square meals a day, a chance to meet friends, and free medical care to boot. What more could a person ask for? A hard choice for an old man living alone to turn down. But I really didn’t find the living arrangements to my satisfaction. I grew up with the mountains around me and hawks circling overhead in the skies in the breezes rustling through tree branches. No, I was not in the least desperate. I found other, more satisfying alternatives.

Park Clean Up

One sunny morning in August when I was enjoying a mid-morning banana and apple snack, the front doorbell rang. I opened the door and greeted the head of the neighborhood association. She was holding a clipboard in her hand. Clipped to the board was an application form. In her early sixties, she owned and managed the neighborhood convenience store where I make my daily purchase of beer for my happy hour. After the exchange of perfunctory greetings, she launched into the reasons a person living alone to should join the association.

For nearly all of my years of living in Japan, I shunned joining a neighborhood association. I disliked joining any club where there were rule and obligations. But at my stage in life, I saw the value of becoming a member. “You will be looked after in case you have an emergency,” she pointed out. And sure enough a few days after I completed the application, two neighborhood women knocked on my door and introduced themselves and delivered fruit and bottled green tea. It was a part of a neighborhood drill to contact people living alone in the event a natural disaster occurred.

I am now a paid up member of the neighborhood and take part in some of the activities. My favorite is the clean up activity every Friday morning. With iron tongs, I pick up cigarette butts, discarded plastic cups, shopping bags and food. More importantly, I learned of other people living alone even in the apartment building I live. The woman in Apartment 505. “Say hello once in a while.” I feel a little more secure knowing that other people know I exist.

Old Friend from the Earliest Days

With family and relatives living in different parts of the world, old friends take on greater importance. They add color and variety to the monochrome quality of my daily life. When I meet up with them, our conversational topics bounce around like ping pong balls with dents. Old jokes. Half forgotten memories embellished with each telling. Airing out of family problems. Grumpy mumbling about taxes, political leaders, and the younger generations. Of course, doleful remembrances of friends who passed on. For those of us who remain above ground, we provide each other with words of encouragement and joy. And a visit to an ailing friend confined to bed is warmly appreciated.

A positive attitude and the will to spend the time left to me in creative endeavors has pushed me to enjoy the company of ‘strangers’ and to boost the spirits of others, like the woman living in Apartment 505. My advice to those living alone. Get up and open the drapes. Let the sun shine in. Get out and hear the music playing.

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