In STORYTELLING by Lowell CookLeave a Comment

The train station must have been built recently. It was too clean, too sparkling with fake marble, and too empty to have been around for long in this country overpopulated with smokers, spitters, and sunflower seeds. Regardless, I was happy to enter the new mega-station after having wandered in mazes of smog and haze for the past hour. All the more so upon seeing bilingual signs glowing a pristine white against various shades of metallic grey. Bilingual signs always give me a certain feeling – a particular feeling one often gets in airports – that feeling of not being bound to any single locale but of belong to something larger. Something bigger than just “here.” Something, dare I say, “international.”

My travel companion was local. He lacked a high level of proficiency in National Language (mind you, he was highly skilled in Minority Language, which served as our common means of communication). Hence, he did not feel the same sort of relief as me. In fact, he likely felt quite the opposite. What I mean to say is that, now, not only did he have to maneuver through National Language but also through International Language. Surely these two languages, both equally bent on global domination, are more than enough for a man who measures only 5’3”. Anyways, we still have a few hours before the train was due to depart. With these thoughts swirling in mind, I headed to the WC sign with a strange bounce in my step and bag of toiletries in my hand.

Absolute silence, or at least something that resembled it, was waiting in the train station restroom. Accompanying it was an aged janitor lady, perhaps in her early 70’s. The restroom’s facilities were clearly intended to measure up to some high-level superior’s twenty-year plan to rejuvenate the city. And hence, I found myself among endless lines of crystal urinals and polished sinks, utterly alone. Or at least something close to it, if you remove the senior citizen janitor’s presence. I unwrapped a small, bleach-white sliver of soap, compliments of last night’s lodging.

The automatic faucet sent out burst of warm water in five second intervals. Lathering some suds out of the ivory sliver, I entered into rhythms of splash and scrub, scrub and splash. Each stroke perfectly times at five second each. Ahh… She must have been raised here in this city. Judging from her sunken cheeks and diminished demeanor, she probably commuted to & from on the city buses – at least a half-hour minimum each way. It must be a pretty good position though, relatively speaking, and somehow I couldn’t feel much pity for her. Her physical appearance was far too well suited to the oversized one-piece laborer’s gown she wore.

At least that’s how she appeared staring emptily back at my reflection in the mirror. An aqua blue stream of toothpaste with fluoride sparkles came streaming out a bit too quickly from my family sized tube. I made do with my mess of brush & paste and mechanically swirled ovals back & forth. First the top left row followed by the top right. Then the bottom rows and finally a bit all around…

As I brushed my teeth, the janitor approached one of the sterile sinks three faucets down. There sat a little box made of cheap cardboard that housed an even layer of ash. In her left hand, she held a long plastic slip bearing the emblem Juhua chemical co., ltd. From the slip she removed three slender sticks of a pale cherry red “smokeless” incense. (I guess the smoke can be manufactured out, just like seedless fruits. I hear smokeless is in fashion now anyways).

Spitting out a foamy mass of sky blue, I watched it rest in the center of the sink before washing it all away. I thought about a shave. Then thought better of it. It seemed a stark contrast. Incense had been steadily pouring out its smoke, cleansing people’s lives uninterruptedly up until the present day. Now it has found itself, mass-produced, packaged, and deprived of its silky smoke in the bathrooms of the 21st century. Maybe it would actually be good to shave now, though… She attempted to stand all three sticks upright together in the disposable container. But her pair of industrial rubber gloves prevented it.

Deathly afraid of ingesting the tap water, I “dry-mouthed” it. Spitting repeatedly, several amalgamations of neon green phlegm managed to convene a small meeting in the stainless white bowl. Finally she removed her gloves and the three sticks stood more or less upright now. One a little too far to the left though. The other two a little too close together. But at least they would stay for the time being. I dug through my toiletries looking for the next step and found a travel-sized packet of floss, mint flavored…

She took out a lighter began to ignite the incense. “Ai yo!” she murmured when the flame crept up the side of her thumb. Perhaps first lighting the sticks before arranging them would have been preferable I silently thought to myself. I was unsure of the protocol though. A slender thread of floss wove its way through my gums. First the top left. Then the top right and eventually the bottom rows. With the first lit, she was able to light the others successfully. They burnt with small teardrop shaped flames that, at the wave of her hand, were suddenly extinguished. Extinguished, fragrance of roses and chemicals swirled about in through this endless corridor, the 21st centuries’ restroom.

I placed my toothbrush and paste back in my faded orange travel kit and slowly zipped it shut. “Nah, I’ll shave when we get there tonight,” or some such thought echoed in my head. I left the now even smaller sliver of ivory white there where it was on the sink. With a sense of completion, I made my way towards the exit of the bathroom feeling refreshed and satisfied. The elderly janitor lady was still there though, gazing at something lost in the incense smokeless incense. Maybe there was something she could I see that I couldn’t. Either way, she didn’t glance at me and I didn’t glance at her. Our rituals were complete.

When I got back to my travel companion, we still had another hour and a half to wait for the train. I thought about him and about his minority ethnic group precariously balanced above the dark abyss of modernity’s uninhibited expanse. His Minority Language was already dangerously close to being lost in the darkness. But even more than that, I thought about the elderly janitor and our respective rituals performed, reflected, and refracted through those spotless mirrors. Between each motion and each movement, there was an attempt at meaning.

Whether that meaning would ever fully manifest itself in our life it was hard to say. Nevertheless, even the a mere attempt at meaning can be extremely meaningful. My train of thought continued on, one carriage after the next. Was the janitor not just like her smokeless incense – a small part of the Nation’s bygone era about to fade away, taking its fragrant memories with it? And what about me? Some International man whose daily activities exclusively concerned upkeeping the “hygiene” of arbitrary rules and regulations – all as empty as the new train station’s restrooms.

We all find ourselves here, lost somewhere down the corridors of the 21st centuries’ restroom; acting out of predetermined habitual patterns, trapped in society’s web of formalism and obligation. The symbolism behind our daily rituals may encompass the very meaning of life. Or it may be just as empty as the symbols themselves. Whatever the case may be, these empty rituals are what keep us moving, calling us to board the next train to somewhere.

About the Author
Lowell Cook

Lowell Cook


Lowell Cook is a big fan of Padmasambhava. He writes, translate, and occasionally disappears to Amdo.

Featured image by Torpong Tankamhaeng, Bangkok. Old lady by Nay Lin Aung, Myanmar. Brushing teeth by Cody Long. Train station by Feliciano Guimarães.

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