In Chicago during the winter, the TV weather guy will tell you the temperature. Then he will point at a clever graphic on his little map, and, while you are distracted by, say, a puffy cloud or a line with triangles sticking out of it, he will mumble softly, “and with the Wind Chill Factor, it will be . . .” and then almost so you cannot hear it at all, he will tell you the actual temperature. The temperature that takes into account the howling, bitter cold wind that comes charging off Lake Michigan, penetrating every crack and crevice of every shivering apartment building in the city. And perhaps a child sitting too close to the TV there in the living room, a child with exceptional hearing, will turn to his father, who has been drinking whiskey since November for the false sense of warmth it offers, and the child will say, “Did he just say 85 degrees below zero?”
And, of course, he did, which is 90 degrees lower than what he said moments earlier, when he gave the temperature for a Chicago without wind, a notion as difficult to imagine as the sound of one hand clapping.
And that’s 85 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. I don’t know what that is in Celsius because the United States does not use that system, and the Chicago public school system was unable to teach me the math necessary to effortlessly perform the relatively simple calculations required to translate Fahrenheit temperatures into Celsius ones. Suffice it to say, it is extremely cold. The first temperature, the false one that cannot actually be recorded anywhere in or near Chicago, is cold. But the second one, The Wind Chill Factor one, is the kind of extreme cold that killed dinosaurs and ancient ferns, and now kills homeless people, renters with insufficiently heated apartments, and heavy drinkers who make a wrong turn on their way home from the bar.
Like Chicago weathermen, meteorologists in Osaka also conceal the truth. In Osaka during the summer, the weather guy will tell you the temperature, and then once the news show is over, once the cameras have been turned off, the studio has been cleared, cleaned and had all its doors locked, that same weather guy will say to himself, alone now at his darkened desk, “Humidity, 100 percent.” And a tear will roll down his cheek. Or sweat, because the studio’s bank of air conditioners will also have been turned off, and a murderous blanket of sweltering, suffocating humidity will begin to seep into the building, searching for life to extinguish.
“It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity,” goes the idiotic old saw, when of course it is both. And in Osaka, one must also take into account the thick carpet of heat-reflecting cement covering every inch of the city, the steady current of hot air pouring out of the area’s 500 million or so groaning air conditioners. and the total absence across the entire metropolitan area of any tree, bush, bit of grass, or even stubborn weed that might afford the tiniest relief from the sort of summer heat that has visitors from places like The Philippines, Libya, and Calcutta say what is in their respective languages something roughly equivalent to “Sheesh!”
Which is what I said while standing in front of the apartment building where I was expected to teach a class of small children in two hours’ time.
I found this apartment building much quicker than I thought I would, thanks to the guidance of a local resident, and I stood now in the brutal midday heat with a full two hours to kill. Sweat rolled down my back and my vision began to blur. Suddenly, to my left, I heard a man screaming something about maguro. Two packages of sliced maguro for 500 yen. I turned, and when I saw the shotengai, I shed imaginary tears of joy, actual tears being unavailable due to the advanced stage of dehydration my body had just entered.
I hurried to the relative coolness of the covered market street, toward the voice of a man trying to unload at discount prices raw tuna likely gone poisonously bad in the tropical heat and humidity of Osaka. I walked past this man and the next four shops, all of which were also selling fish and fish-related products. The next cluster of shops in this shotengai concerned themselves with various incarnations of seaweed, and a woman held a small cup filled with mozuku before my eyes invitingly. Well, as invitingly as one can hold a small cup of green slime. I demurred. I demurred hard.
I passed storefronts spilling forth little baskets of fruit and vegetables, ambled past display cases filled with glistening piles of beef and pork, walked slowly by narrow shops so that I might peer down the long shelves of cans and bottles that stretched way back, and arrived finally at a place where it looked like I could buy a cold drink. I stepped onto the black plastic mat and waited until the automatic door slid open with a squeak and a shoosh.
The little shop was filled mostly with beer, sake and shochu, but there were some soft drinks as well. I walked over to a refrigerated case filled with Coca-Cola, Grape Fanta, Sprite, a variety of brown and green teas, and something called Calpis. But what caught my eye were the cans one display case over. Shimmering silver cans adorned with wedges of lemon twisting in ecstasy as they hovered in midair, as if reaching at that very moment the zenith of their ascension from a very small, specially designed fruit trampoline somewhere down below. Droplets of juice exploded from the aroused bits of fruit in final orgasmic release, quenching an unimaginable thirst in a sun-drenched land where there was no humidity and no one ever stopped smiling.
I bought three cans.
I drank one before I got to the register, another one before I made it to the front door, and I sipped at the final can as I strolled down the middle of the shotengai feeling suddenly quite cheerful. I was feeling so suddenly cheerful, in fact, so unexpectedly happy, that I began to smile at each passerby, and was only mildly puzzled when my happy smiles were met by glares, glowers, and scowls. First a disapproving glance at my lemony beverage, then the glare, the glower, the scowl.
I drained the third and final can just as I happened upon a vending machine filled with the usual stuff–Coca-Cola, Grape Fanta, Sprite, a variety of brown and green teas, and something called Calpis. My new favorite lemony drink was nowhere to be found, so I leaned against the machine and began to weep. Just then, I felt a rough, calloused hand on my arm, and a man who smelled like a campfire gently led me to another vending machine. He tapped on the glass front. Here, in addition to the lemon version of this beverage was a grapefruit offering and a strawberry interpretation.
I bought one of each, and went with my new friend to a tarp he had set up in a nearby park. We sat on inexpensive chairs that did not match, and drank the refreshing beverages I had just purchased. We talked about the weather, the experience of living in a foreign country, secret feelings of loneliness and isolation, and a former girlfriend of mine who cheated on me once with my cousin.
I should say, though, that my friend, while seeming to listen intently, didn’t really add much to the conversation, and halfway through my rendition of Carol King’s classic hit single You’ve Got a Friend, the empty can of strawberry juice dropped from his hand to the ground. I stopped singing, and could hear then his soft, contented snoring. I suddenly became aware of a strong alcohol smell, and it finally dawned on me. This man, who apparently was picnicking in the park today, had gone and got himself good and drunk before bumping into me and helping me buy my fruit-flavored drinks. A weak man, I thought to myself, drinking so much so early in the day. I gave a disapproving “tsk,” but it came out “bhh,” and I fell off my chair.
Momentarily paralyzed and lying on the ground with my faces inches from the empty strawberry drink can, I took the opportunity to look at the can more closely. I scanned it for any English words or simple Japanese hiragana or katakana characters. Then I saw it, below a dancing strawberry, アルコール 5%.
All across the city, children and mothers began leaving their homes for a much anticipated English class to be held in an apartment not far from this park where their teacher lay, under a tarp, unable to rise thanks to what he thought were refreshing fruit drinks full of essential vitamins and minerals but were in actuality chūhai, a type of “cocktail” bursting not so much with nutritional supplements but more with shochu, a Japanese spirit the alcoholic equivalent of crack cocaine.
The strawberries on the can twisted and turned, mocking me with their obscene midair dance.