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Suszynski: We must break the loop

I once witnessed, without meaning to, the unspooling of a young man into homelessness. I was in Spain, on the Camino, tucked into a hamlet on the side of a sweeping farm.

That night, as we were making dinner in the communal kitchen, my cousin and I noticed someone sipping a beer, no food in sight, staring into the floor.

My cousin spooned pasta onto three plates and beckoned him outside. As we sat on grass still warm from the sun, we began that tentative dip into conversation.



This traveler, we’ll call him Sam, was from Limerick. His words were laden in an Irish accent, so thick at times that I couldn’t understand him. His basic story was that he was tired of working in a factory since he had been doing it since he was a child, so his friend bought him a surprise flight to Spain. At the time, stuffing our faces with pasta, this was just another story of the myriad people we met every day on the Camino.

After that night, we saw Sam in various towns. Two nights later, I saw him in a bar along the beach, slouched against the wall. We sometimes caught up with him, and other times, he seemed a different person. The final snapshot I have of Sam is in a big city, trying desperately to tell his story to a homeless man. I almost didn’t recognize him.



I bring this up because I just finished “Tokyo Ueno Station” by Yu Miri. The book depicts the life of a manual laborer named Kazu, who arrived in Tokyo in 1964 to help with the Olympics. He becomes homeless in Ueno Park after a series of unfathomable losses.

The book sets up a striking contrast between Kazu’s life and the life of the imperial family, which is mirrored by the central Yamanote Line, one of the busiest subway lines in Tokyo. In an interview with Electric Lit, the author explains, “The Yamanote Line is a loop line that runs around the center of the capital, Tokyo; it’s a double circle, actually. The circle that runs clockwise is on the outside and is called the ‘Outer Loop,’ while the line that runs counterclockwise on the inside is the ‘Inner Loop.’ At the center of this double circle, right in the middle of the donut hole, is the palace where the Emperor lives; it is surrounded by moats, a construction that makes it impossible to approach it or look inside.”

She goes on to explain that a major theme of her work is “the multiple spheres that arise from the Imperial system, and from the Emperor himself who is designated in the first article of the Japanese constitution.”

In the mountains as opposed to a city, homelessness is less visible. One can almost forget about it here. The mountain community’s brush with homelessness is often in the constant unease of finding housing. On the other hand, perhaps this constant threat makes mountain communities even more cognizant of the issue.

Toward the end of the book, Kazu says, “To be homeless is to be ignored when people walk past, while still being in full view of everyone.”

On Feb. 14 in New York, a homeless man was arrested for stabbing four people and killing two on the subway. He’s young, only 21, and has a history of psychiatric battles. All victims were also homeless, using the subway for shelter in the cold, from the pandemic. In response to the stabbings, 500 officers were sent to the subway and the transit officials requested 1,000 more.

“Before we had families. We had houses. Nobody starts off life in a hovel made of cardboard and tarps, and nobody becomes homeless because they want to be. One thing happens, and then another,” Kazu says.

When I was reading articles about the incident in New York, one story really struck me. The father of a victim is pictured in the article holding the one photo he has of his youngest daughter. Two days before she was killed, she stopped by his home and her father asked her to stay. But after he turned his back for a moment, she was gone.

After two traumatizing deaths, Kazu stays with his granddaughter. After a time, he leaves her a note, self-conscious of imposing on her young life, and “At Kashima Station, I got on the Joban line and I got off at Ueno, the last stop.” It would make the “first night (he) spent sleeping rough.”

As I witnessed Sam fall into homelessness, I felt as if I were on a subway. When I looked out the window, I saw him in various scenes, unwinding. I became aware that we were on two different loops, and if one us didn’t veer off, we would be stuck separated from one another.

I fear that when we, as a society, try to solve an issue by sticking police officers on it by the thousands, we lose that capacity to listen. Social workers, people who honor the bends that a life may take, might be better suited for the situation. Miri’s book is a gut punch, it offers little in the way of hope. The only hope, therefore, resides outside of the book — in our capacity to recognize the loop of homelessness, or mental illness, and help break it.


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