It’s always been a point of pride on my part that I have always been the best driver in my family – my father has been in his fair share of accidents, my mother drove straight into the lamp post in front of her office the first day after getting her license (as well as our garage, a bit of irony which wasn’t lost on me since she was always admonishing her children to “be careful about the garage”) and my brother… oh boy.
Now I love my brother dearly, but the poor boy has been through more cars than I have, and I’m 5 years his senior. And while my cars – after years of dedicated and uneventful service – were usually sold on in decent condition to other people, to the best of my knowledge all of my brother’s vehicles have generally met an extremely violent and spectacular demise.
Another picture of autumn recently passed…
While I’m not saying my brother is accident prone, all I know is that none of my vehicles have ever ended up crumpled in a steel ball around me* after getting broadsided in a busy intersection, nor have they ever sideswiped a fuel pump and gone on to T-bone a parked car in the middle of a gas station after being stolen from my mother’s office parking lot for an underage joy-ride without so much as a trainee license.
Anyway, while my beloved brother and his series of unfortunate automotive-related incidents might very well be the reason why insurance is so damn expensive for young males, on the other hand in more than 10 years, I have never so much as gotten a speeding ticket, let alone ever bump or crash into anything. Cautious to a fault, I would take a four door sedan over a hulking SUV or racy sports car any day of the week, a choice which may have kept my insurance reasonable, but probably negatively impacted my love life. (nothing says “sexah” like a Plymouth Sundance hatchback).
Unfortunately, as they say, all good things must come to an end, and my little decade and a half smooth driving streak came to a (slightly) crashing halt the other day. What is normally a 10 minute commute home from work has turned into an hour and a half snow swept icy grind with traffic literally bumper to bumper for kilometers. By the time I finally arrive at the entrance to my Siberian wasteland of a snow dune and muddy rut filled unplowed parking lot, I’m exhausted and all I want to do is park my car, curl up in my futon and hibernate until the next day. Not so much to ask, right?
My parking lot is a living testament to the economic principle of a “tragedy of commons” (economists always have such fanciful names for stuff. Like Smith’s “Invisible Hand” and what not). Since nobody is responsible for shoveling any part of the lot except the bit their car literally sits atop, people instead prefer to forcefully plow, spin and jam their car through the several feet of snow leading from the entrance to their parking spot. For the people with 4×4 SUVs this usually isn’t much of a problem (perhaps even a little bit exciting) but the issues arise when smaller cars try to follow in their path. The first few are usually okay, but inevitably people start getting stuck, spinning wheels digging huge ruts, churning up the snow into a sliding, slippery non-grippy muddy mess – and before you know it the entire lot has turned into the aforementioned Siberian wasteland. By the end of the second day, every car in the lot is guaranteed to get stuck at least a few times every time they try to park. Direct motion or straight lines are impossible and the ever-shifting snow and countless ruts throw your car into unexpected sideways directions every time you step on the accelerator. The icy conditions and slippery surfaces conspire to prevent effective braking and in conjunction with the haphazard shoveling techniques employed (read: people throw shit any which way), you know it’s only a matter of time before you end up smacking into someone’s car.
What better to do when depressed than eat?
For me, that “time” turned out to be at hand. I start into the lot slowly and determinedly, paying special attention to keep the gear low and the tires from spinning out. I’m creeping through the wasteland, my little Honda Civic being violently flung back and forth and side to side as it slides down the sides of dunes and gets swallowed up by carved out ruts. All I hear is the ominous creak of metal as the body frame flexes, the sickening thud of the suspension bottoming out and the disturbing scraping sound of the undercarriage getting dragged through icy chunks of snow. Gritting my teeth, I move the car forward past my parking spot, then put it in reverse, preparing to back into my space.
Given the horrendous conditions, I briefly toy with the idea of parking front forward in my spot (an almost unheard of heresy here in Japan where everyone backs into a parking spot. You can usually spot the gaijin cars in a store parking lot because they’ll be the only ones parked front-forward), but since the weather was only getting worse, I decide to just back in now so as to make it easier to get out the next day. I drop the windows, stick my head out (whereupon I promptly receive a big blustery smack of snow blown into my ear canal…!) and start reversing carefully.
munch munch munch…
I’m doing fine but my front corner is getting close to the car parked across from me, so I slowly ease on the brakes. Unfortunately at this moment the churned up snow under my wheels decides to give way, and my car continues to slide along its previous trajectory for a few inches after I brake – straight into the bumper of the other car. The snow muffles the noise, but I feel a sickening shudder as the contact echoes its way through the body frame, up the steering column and straight into my gloved palms.
“Goddammit!” I curse. “yatte shimatta…! (“I hit it…”)”
I finish parking, then get out to inspect the damage. Upon initial inspection, it doesn’t look so bad – no dents, no scratches, nothing major. In fact, the extent of it appears to be that the paint from my car came off onto their bumper. (a rather unique “function” of my $500 USD car. Paint that comes off at the slightest touch.) But since their car is a pale gold color, the bright red paint of my car unfortunately shows up rather clearly for all to see. I sigh the sigh of the morally conflicted.
Now nobody knows that I hit the car. And to be honest, the “damage” looks insignificant. While I can’t rub the paint off myself (I tried), I also suspect that any detailing shop could get it off in 5 minutes. I’m an honest person by nature – if I was back home, I would leave a note without hesitation – the person would call, we’d get together, take the car to a shop, I’d pay the 20 bucks or whatever, wham, bam, thank you ma’am. But this is Japan and given the rather fastidious nature of the average Japanese person with respect to their stuff, I have a strong feeling that they are going to find some way of turning my little paint on their bumper into an excuse for replacing the entire bumper…!
That’s not so bad, is it?
*sigh* So what to do? I debate with myself for a long time before deciding to leave a note. I scrawl one out as best as I can with my freezing hands shaking against a scrap piece of paper propped against the steering wheel and then leave it stuck under their windshield wiper. The note looks like a retarded 3 month old monkey wrote it. I say “fuck it” and go inside to wait.
The call comes the next day. An old man on the other line – he’s angry, but not out-and-out furious. He demands to come to my apartment right then and I grudgingly agree. He shows up at the door wearing huge green rubber wellies (fisherman’s boots) with plaid blue and red pants tucked into them at the knees and a nylon jacket with the logo of the local power company on the back – he looks like a bizarre amalgamation of a rogue electrician and an equestrian rider with questionable fashion sense. We do the standard exchange of information (actually he starts demanding all sorts of stuff he doesn’t need to know and I politely give him only what he needs. Old people – especially old Japanese people – are hella nosy about shit, and especially about shit relating to foreigners) and then he demands I call my insurance company.
“Great” I think to myself. I had been hoping to keep my insurance company out of it, since after all, I didn’t think the cost would amount to much and I didn’t want to take the hit to my insurance rating it would entail.
STEAMAH DUMPLING!!! Vegetarians need not apply.
“Hey, tell you what, why don’t you take the car to the repair shop, get an estimate, and then we’ll decide whether we should involve the insurance company?” I venture.
He pauses his writing for a moment, and levels me with a gaze. Finally he deigns to address me with the imperious tone of voice old Japanese men often take with young people.
“Call your insurance company”.
“Okay.” (“asshole” I silently add).
I dial up the insurance company and file the report. The lady on the other end is nice enough, but informs me we need to go to the local police box and file an accident report (事故証明 – jikoshoumei). I curse again. Great, now the police are involved!! I should never have left that f-ing note. We gather up our shit and head over towards the police box. We get in and who do I see but the police man with the fluffy pink bunny slippers who took my report three years ago when my bike got stolen?! He asks the old man for his information, then turns towards me.
“Hey, you’re Michael Panda, right? You work at [my former employer's name], don’t you?”
My jaw drops. Lovely, the police remember my name. I briefly wonder if they have memorized the face of every foreigner in the area.
“Umm, yeah, that’s me, but I transferred. Now I work at [my current job].”
“Oh, okay.” he scribbles something on a separate sheet of paper. “By the way, did you ever find your bicycle?”
“Yes” (“No thanks to you.” I silently add. Though they can remember my face three years later, they were less than useless at actually doing something about my bicycle. To this day though, I clearly remember them taking more time to ask me about my sushi preference than my bike details!)
The supposed “damage”.
At this point it becomes clearly evident that the old man and the police officer know each other. They start chatting about their winter plans while I sit in the corner groaning. Great. The two are buddies – just what I need. Then suddenly the conversation takes an ominous turn:
“Yeah, so this one time I went to Chiba and somebody drove by and scratched my door” begins the old man.
“Oh yeah?” replies bunny slipper cop, leaning forward across the desk.
“Yeah. It was only a 1cm hairline scratch but it cost 100,000yen ($1000 USD!) to repair!!”
“Wow. Yeah, car repair can be expensive, huh?”
“Yeah. I wonder how much this will cost?” mumbles the old man.
I stifle an urge to upchuck.
Uncertain of whether the old man is trying to deliberately jack up the damage estimate or if these are just the idle ramblings of the aged, I slink into my chair, trying to concentrate on the cold creep of water up my pant legs instead of the quadruple digit repair figure I keep hearing bandied about. Mercifully at this moment my insurance man rolls up. I leap out of my chair and practically throw myself upon him. After getting everything sorted at the police box, our merry band of four (bunny slipper cop, insurance guy, old man (still rambling about his trip to Chiba) and one tired and cold panda) head back to the parking lot. After a lot of stating the obvious, everyone but the insurance guy leaves.
“So level with me Deguchi. Is this gonna be expensive?” I ask him.
He regards the two small red streaks on the bumper with a careful eye.
“Well, it depends If all they have to do is just rub off the paint, it will only cost 20,000-30,000 yen ($200-$300 USD!). In which case you’d be better off just paying for it out of your pocket to avoid raising your insurance premiums next year. But if they have to replace the bumper, then it might cost more than 100,000 yen ($1000 USD!), in which case you should use the insurance, though it will raise your rate next year.”
I mull this over for a minute.
“So, do you think they will have to replace the bumper?”
“I don’t think they have to. But if he takes it to the dealer, they will want to make money, so they will probably replace the bumper.”
I sit there for a second, a little stunned by his casual acknowledgement of graft.
“But isn’t that a little… ” I root around in my mind for the Japanese term for “corrupt”. Failing to find it, I settle for “okashii” – “strange?”
He breathes a puffy breath that hangs on the icy air for a moment before dissipating.
Ho ho freaking ho. It’s a wintar wonderland. Of doom.
“Yes, I think so. But you know, that’s the way things are done here. shikataga nai (“It can’t be helped”).”
I return the sigh, and we start trudging back towards the apartment.
“So what should I do?”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll look into it and we’ll call you on Monday and let you know what to do. But hey, don’t fret. It could have been worse – at least nobody was hurt, and your car is okay.”
I wonder when in my life I started being re-assured by such platitudes? It sounds like something my mother would say when I was a child and I would roll my eyes at. But now, for some reason, hearing it from the insurance guy, it’s oddly reassuring. Does this mean I’m getting old?
“Yeah. I guess you’re right. But man, that really sucks, you know? I really hate winter in Japan.”
He turns towards me and studies my face for a moment, as we slip and slide our way through the knee-high snow dunes on the road. Finally he opens his mouth to speak, breath emanating in puffy white clouds.
“Me too Panda. Me too..”
On the floating, shapeless oceans
I did all my best to smile
til your singing eyes and fingers
drew me loving into your eyes.
And you sang “Sail to me, sail to me;
Let me enfold you.”