Sunday, April 19, 2009

The girl and the construction worker

I'm in love with a geriatric construction worker. Although, describing him as a "worker" might be a bit of a stretch.

His job entails little more than standing in front of a half-finished building, waving a red baton to let drivers and pedestrians know it's safe to pass. It's a completely redundant and unnecessary job. The construction project is taking place on a quiet side road where few cars go.

I've never seen him actually stop traffic. Why would he? All of the work is taking place on a plot of land set back from the mostly deserted street. There's no traffic and nothing to divert it around.

But still. He seems to take his non-job very seriously. He stands in front of the construction site directing the non-existent traffic day after day. He wears a navy blue uniform and a white hardhat. He even wears those ubiquitous white gloves that cover the hands of every taxi driver, train attendant and police officer in Japan.

If I had to guess his age, I'd say he's probably pushing 70. Seventy years old and 100 pounds soaking wet.

I pass him every morning on my way to school. He waits until he catches my eye and then he bows deeply at the waist and wishes me a good morning with a hearty "Ohayo gozaimasu!"

I bow and say “Ohayo gozaimasu” in return. And then we smile at each other. I think he has a grandfatherly crush on me because I've never seen him saying good morning to anyone else walking past the construction site. He simply waves them by with a flick of his baton and a little bow from the neck. He saves the deep bows, the chorus of good mornings and the smiles for me. Maybe this is the Japanese equivalent of catcalls and wolf-whistles.

I have no idea what it is they're building exactly (an office building? an apartment? a house?). It's all hidden under layers of scaffolding and blue tarps. Whatever it is, it's taking forever. Our morning ritual has been going on for more than four months now.

I look forward to seeing him on my way to school. It's the only male attention I get in Kyoto. Not that I'm the kind of girl who bases her self-worth on her attractiveness to men. But when no one looks at you when you walk down the street, you start to feel invisible. Like you don't really exist. Or you exist in a paradox: a strange halfway place where you're highly visible as a foreigner but invisible as a woman.

The only eyes that follow me down the street belong to a 70-year-old construction worker. Who wears thick glasses. And who is probably bored out of his mind. But who somehow manages to make me feel special.

(Has it really come to this? Am I so hard up for male attention that all it takes is a bow and some eye contact from an elderly construction worker to make my heart flutter? Have I become so starved for affection that I'm grateful for any scrap thrown my way?)

Anyway, after months and months of this morning routine, my construction worker friend had a little surprise in store for me on Friday. As usual, he waited until he made eye contact with me before we began our daily exchange. But this time, instead of speaking in Japanese, he said "Good morning!" in English.

It was the first time he had ever greeted me in English. It was such a sweet gesture. I wanted to hug him. It was like he had been practicing it in front of the mirror for weeks before screwing up the courage to finally test it out on me. I couldn't stop thinking about it. And when I thought about it, it made me smile.

One day soon, I'll walk past the construction site and all of the scaffolding and tarps will have been torn down to reveal a shiny new building. The construction crew will have moved on to another project. There will be no old man waiting to shower me with deep bows, a chorus of good mornings and smiles. I'm going to miss him when he's gone.

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