The neighborhood wakes – It is not yet six o’clock in the morning as I step out of our building and begin my near-daily walk to the health club. The sun has not yet risen as I walk down our street, and the sky behind me is a clear, deep blue, while the sky ahead of me glows with a hazy orange. At the corner I turn left onto the main road. In the distance, the blocky, gray silhouettes of apartment buildings jut out of the hill like shards of metal jammed into the ground.
I pause at the crosswalk and wait for the light to change. It is that time of morning in my neighborhood, when those coming and going cross paths, and one is never quite sure if the day is ending or beginning. Young people stagger out of bars and karaoke parlors, squinting against the growing light, and it is obvious that a couple of girls are on their way home just by the way they are dressed: miniskirts and high heels, along with layers of makeup caked on their faces. In the dim and smoky light of a bar or club they may have been attractive, but in the unforgiving light of dawn they look garish and awkward as they clop along in their high heels, trying not to step in the holes here and there in the sidewalk.
The light changes, and I cross the street and continue on to the north. Most of the shops and restaurants are still closed, but a tiny place called SandPresso that sells sandwiches and coffee is open. I pass by this place everyday, but today I notice for the first time that the small print on the round, green sign hanging in front of the take-out window says “New York style.” I smile to myself—I know New York style, and the thin, sparsely-filled half sandwiches in triangular plastic cases in the window are not New York style.
Not far down from SandPresso a man in a plaid jacket is curled up in a fetal position in the middle of the sidewalk. The expression on his face is one of peace and bliss, and had I not known any better I would have thought he was lying on a feather bed and not a cold, hard sidewalk. People stare at him as they walk by, not bothering to hide their disgust or amusement. My reaction tends toward the latter as I imagine him finally coming to and suddenly realizing that he is an impediment to pedestrian traffic. There will be that moment of embarrassment, and then he will swallow what is left of his dignity and pride, pick himself up off the ground, and head to the subway, most likely not remembering what was so important last night that he couldn’t make it home. Then again, maybe it’s not so amusing after all.
I turn down the side street toward the health club, passing by the love hotels that sit right off the main street. They’re not called love hotels, of course—that’s more of a Japanese term—but that’s what they are. With names like “The Palace of Dreams,” they are set back slightly from the street, and rows of plastic pennants or fake foliage hang down to obscure the patrons from view. There are no patrons to be seen, though—either they are still recovering from last night’s endeavors, or they have already made their furtive exit.
Scattered on the ground are numerous colorful cards—miniature advertisements, business card-sized pictures of girls in provocative poses. Some of them are fully dressed, some of them less so. I think of the children who will walk along this road later in the day (lined though it may be with love hotels, it leads to a market and a residential area), and I think of what my wife said once as we walked along this road on the way to the market.
“I wonder what their parents would think if they saw them like this,” she said, shaking her head.
I try not to think about the fact that I may someday have a daughter, but my mouth still goes dry as I pass by these girls, discarded in the street and trampled under foot like trash. They’re just pictures, I tell myself as I reach the health club and go inside.
Two hours later I step outside again. The sun his risen in the sky behind me, and my shadow stretches out in front of me. Most of the girls have been swept away or picked up by trash collectors. Stepping out onto the main street, I feel like a salmon swimming upstream, as wave after wave of people in suits and fine clothing head down toward the subway station. There is no sign of the man in the plaid jacket, and it would appear that it is finally morning and a new day has begun.