Cabbage Rolls and Sketch Books
I can make someone’s life a little bit happier
It’s always morning when I come to this place.
It’s a food court connected to a subway entrance with a lot of riders on their way to work. People bustle to and fro all day long, from early in the morning. For some reason it reminds me of the morning markets back home. Although there aren’t any old men in tall galoshes walking around here.
I have an odd habit of sitting in the same seat every time I come here. If I set foot in here and my “reserved seat” is taken, I get very nervous. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve simply left. But it’s not because I’m selfish. I would say, in a word, I’m timid.
The other day, I got quite the shock.
The instant I entered the restaurant, Shirokawa Toshiko from the bakery (I learned her name from her name tag) said to me with a smile, “Your usual seat’s free.” How embarassing, I’ve been spotted, how embarassing. It’s exactly the sort of thing that gets a timid person like me flustered. But, I have to admit, it made me feel good, too. Like I was a regular, you know.
There’s a reason it’s always morning when I come here.
I’m an illustrator. Not a very popular one. Since I’m always struggling, I have to give everything I’ve got on every job I get.
Being an illustrator is hard, manual labor. It’s not rare to find me working endlessly in the one-room design company next to this food court. And so, I got into the habit of dragging my over-boiled body to my reserved seat at this particular place.
In that condition, the first thing is to drink some strongish coffee. My stomach’s always empty after an all-nighter, but I can’t take anything that’s hard to digest.
What I usually eat here is the cabbage rolls.
Those hit the spot.
They’re a bit big. Soft and tender. I’m not really in favor of the modern habit of throwing around the words “it healed me,” but I feel like those cabbage rolls are the one time it’s okay to use it.
No doubt the staff considers me a “problem customer.” Even so, every morning, I show up with swollen eyes, fidget my way through a cabbage roll, and then instead of going home right away, I stay forever. And as a bonus, I’m usually sullen about it. Yes, I’m that type.
People don’t usually spend a long time here during the morning rush hours, so even when the subway is busy you get a good mix of people, and I end up staying without really meaning to. Although it’s not without reason.
This lovely plaza is the ideal place for people watching.
Maybe it’s a professional hazard, or perhaps it’s just my nature, but I love studying people. I mean, you know the scene, a kid who hides behind their mom when they meet anyone, so shy they can’t even say hello, but even as they’re hiding they stare at people from their mother’s shadow. That’s me. When I spot someone interesting, I quietly produce my B5-sized sketch book and run my pencil over it.
A real variety of people gather in this particular place before they scatter again.
Since I come in the morning, almost everyone is in a mood like, “Okay, another day starts right now!”
For example, there’s an old man I see frequently who comes in early and orders a glass of beer every time.
He drinks it all in one gulp, and lets out a noise like a sumo wrestler – Yossshaaa! – and then he gets firmly to his feet and tightens his necktie.
It must be his pre-work ritual. He sat still long enough once for me to put him in my sketch book. When I looked at it later, it was like a picture of an orangutan sneezing.
There are these high school girls, too. I was surrounded by mountains and rivers in my high school days, so I never even thought about having a meal at a place like this before school.
These two girls always sit in the seat next to me and finish their drinks. They stand up, and one of them picks up her friend’s bag.
“Lord that’s heavy. What do you have in there?”
“That is heavy.”
Man, that was cool. I dedicated a page to them, too. I carefully drew a bag filled with dreams.
If I’m to be honest, my observations aren’t usually about the customers, as perfect as this plaza is for that. The ones I find myself continually staring at, actually, are the staff.
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve liked watching people work. I always used to follow the local carpenter around when he went out to do house repairs.
People who are working… How should I put it? It’s that sense of rhythm, the feeling of lively motion, that’s what I enjoy watching.
Even the people in this food court are worth seeing.
Toshiko Shirokawa, from the bakery.
She knows how to handle a loaf of bread. Her loaves are always baked just right and golden brown. Agile, somehow. Perfectly crunchy. Never dull. Aromatic. There’s not one wasted movement. As long as I’ve been watching her, I’ve never seen her put a bad loaf on the shelf. I still don’t know quite what her process is, even though I study her carefully.
I’ve secretly drawn Ms Shirokawa in my sketchbook, too. I titled it “The Bread Fairy.”
Mari Ōe, from the Bistro Cooking Corner.
She’s a swimmer. She swims around the food court, too, flowing and energetic. She’s brisk, but she doesn’t feel unapproachable. She’s elegant. And she has good timing. Like when it’s time to clear my empty plate and cup. Just when I’m finished and I’m thinking it’d be nice to draw something, she glides up to the table with a grin and says, “Can I clear these away for you?”
Normally when somebody says that, I get suspicious.
Mm, is this how they tell you to just go away already?
But Ms Ōe never harbors such thoughts about her customers. It feels more like she’s sincerely telling me, “Go ahead, take your time,” and because she follows up just on time, you feel more comfortable. But the thing I admire most about Ms Shirokawa and Ms Ōe both is their conversation skills. They have a knack for talking with customers. It’s an important skill.
But it’s just lip service, right? They just start a conversation about whatever they think the other person might find appropriate?
It’s what I thought at first, too, but then I really watched them.
And the more I watched, the more I understood that it’s no trivial thing. They can get in the head of person after person so well, and they communicate in such in an easy style. When I think about it, it’s probably because I’ve always been so bad at things like that, that I chose to draw pictures for a living.
Ms Shirokawa’s saying something.
“How was it in Hakata?”
A couple of days ago, that gentleman in the suit happened to mention he’d be going on a business trip to Hakata, and it’s only because she can remember such details that she can ask about it today. Being asked makes him happy. It’s not just a cold business exchange, Ms Shirokawa’s question shows that she values him.
Working hard by taking an active interest in those around her is a way of showing she respects the job, too. It’s a lot of nuance casually packed into such a short question. That’s what makes the gentleman in the suit so pleased.
In Ms Ōe’s case, she’s a good listener.
I had friends like that in high school. People who would listen intently to another person’s story. And when they did speak, they were straightforward.
“Mm-hm, then what happened?”
But there was no twinkle of mockery in their eyes. They listened quietly. It felt like a ripple slowly spreading across the surface of a pond.
At any rate, when I watch Ms Shirokawa and Ms Ōe, who are both so good at social interaction, I get an amazing feeling, like I had when I watched that carpenter using his wood planer, like when I would stare at the shavings curling off the main block. It feel like, now there’s a craftsman. These people work in a restaurant, their entire job is serving customers. They are definitely craftspeople.
What irritates me is that I could have every desire to talk with the staff, to interact with that good feeling they give off, but I’m just not very good at it. I know full well that I’m not just visiting this food court in my off hours to avoid the rush. I’m unwinding here so that I don’t take all those rough feelings from an all-nighter home with me.
And even though I’m fully aware of all this, Ms Ōe, for example, will say to me, “You’re always working, that must be tough,” and all I can do is shake my head breezily, like I’m annoyed, and even Ms Ōe can’t think of anything else to say. It really sets my teeth on edge.
It was on a certain morning.
I was quietly eating my cabbage roll as usual, when I felt a gaze on me. From the other side of the shop window.
It was an older couple. The wife especially was staring at me.
What the heck, what’s going on?
I felt like I wanted to protest, but I just lowered my head and kept eating.
The older couple came into the shop.
They sat down at the table right behind me. They couldn’t have been too much older than my parents back home.
What the heck, how creepy.
“Um, excuse me.” The wife called Ms Ōe over as she was walking past.
“You serve cabbage rolls here, don’t you?” she asked in a tiny voice.
I give up, seriously, what the heck.
I still had a big chunk of my own cabbage roll left, so I opened my mouth wide, and threw the whole thing in.
“Yes, we do. Shall I get some for you?” Ms Ōe’s always-gentle reception.
“No, we can get them ourselves. Honey?”
Husband nodded and stood up.
“This is the first time we’ve ever been hew,” the wife said.
“Oh yes? We’re very pleased to meet you. We hope you enjoy your stay,” Ms Ōe answered quietly.
“We just happened to be passing by today. We thought, this must be the place. Somehow it felt like we were being pulled in by some strong force.”
“Is that so. Thank you very much.”
What were you doing, staring at people like that?
Listening to the exchange between the wife and Ms Ōe made all the nerves in my back tense.
The husband came back carrying two cabbage rolls.
After that, there was a short silence. It was only a small interval, but because I was so uneasy, I snuck a peek at the old couple by pretending to look out the window. The two of them were quietly gazing at their cabbage rolls. Neither one of them even picked up their fork, they only stared at the rolls. Ms Ōe was still standing there unobtrusively.
“Oh, indeed,” the wife muttered. “These do seem tender, don’t they. These do seem gentle, don’t they.”
“Yes. They’re quite tender,” Ms Ōe said quietly.
“About a year and a half ago, not very long after this shop opened, I think, it seems my daughter used to come here quite often.”
“Is that so. Thank you very much.”
“I’m sorry, I know this is a bit of a strange conversation.”
Oo, I don’t know what’s going on, but this seems like it’s going to get interesting.
My greater-than-average curiosity made me sit up a bit straighter.
But Ms Ōe is that kind of person though, I thought. A person with whom you unconsciously want to have “a strange conversation.”
“It seems our daughter used to frequently cry in this shop.”
“Is that so…?”
“That’s what we’ve been told. We thought it was strange, too. She was never one to cry in front of people, nevermind crying in a place like this, where big crowds of people are having their meals.”
“But, you know, now that we’ve come here today, we feel like maybe we can understand why. This place makes you feel like you can let your guard down, somehow.”
“Thank you very much.”
“Our daughter, you know…” It was slight, but the wife’s tone changed. “She lost her husband to an unfortunate accident just after they were married. It got to the point where she was so sad she wouldn’t even eat, but she still came to this restaurant and cried.”
“Did she…” Ms Ōe replied, with no exaggerated surprise.
“Apparently, someone here recommended the cabbage rolls to her. I don’t know why it was the cabbage rolls in particular, but at any rate, it seems that’s what the person said. They’ll give you your strength back, give them a try.”
“The rolls were so tender, so warm, our daughter said, they surprised her. They must have left quite an impression. I don’t know how many times we heard that story.”
I had some thought bumping around in a corner of my mind, but I couldn’t quite make out what it was. But nevermind that–
Ah, so that was it.
My worry lifted. What they’d been staring at through the window before hadn’t been me, but the cabbage roll at my table.
“I haven’t been here very long yet,” Ms Ōe said, “so I’m afraid I’m not sure I’ve ever met your daughter. Does she still stop in at all?”
“No, unfortunately,” the wife answered, in a half-smiling tone.
Just at that moment, I thought, Ah-ha.
It felt like I’d caught the thing bumping around my mind by the tail.
I quickly pulled my usual sketchbook from my bag. I flipped through the pages, Ah, where is it, ah, where is it?
Could it be…?
I thought it was. I was almost certain.
Behind me, the wife’s story took an unexpected turn. “I apologize, but I’ve told you the story thus far, would you let me finish it? It’s almost over.”
Ms Ōe would have nodded softly at that.
“The month before last, our daughter passed away. She had a blood disorder.”
“Yes… So I’m afraid she won’t be able to come back in for any more cabbage rolls.”
“Is… Is that so.” I knew Ms Ōe must have been bowing her head slightly.
“Yes. And that’s the end of the story. I’m glad we came. Honestly, thank you.”
“Oh no, thank you, very much.” Ms Ōe picked up the emptied plates and glasses and left.
I was right!
My heart was pounding. Their daughter had put in appearances in my sketch book. And more than that, she’d graced rather a number of pages.
I remembered her clearly. I’d thought, What? No way, that person, is she crying?
It was the way she was crying that was impressive, that made me move my pencil in a trance.
There are all kinds of ways of crying. Weeping, sobbing, anguished cries, constant tears, ugly crying… But not one of those words seemed to hit the mark.
It felt like the tears were coursing down her cheeks like rippling spring water. She didn’t even try to wipe them away.
She was a beautiful person, so it didn’t feel necessary.
Ah where is it… Ah where is it…
When I turned the pages of my sketch book, she was everywhere.
There, with a cabbage roll on the table.
Wondering when she’d first appeared, I turned the pages back. Many of the early pages contained a beautiful woman drawn in all black, western style clothes.
Oh yeah, the contrast between her white skin and those western clothes had been very beautiful, and I had put down just that contrast and then stopped drawing. Oh, I thought.
Could it be, were they mourning clothes?
I didn’t know, but maybe they were.
I closed my sketch book with a thump.
“I knew your daughter. This is her, right?”
I wanted to rush up to their table right at that very moment and open my sketch book to show them. I wanted to show them so much I couldn’t stand it.
But it was no good.
As I sat there without an ounce of bravery to my name, the older couple got quietly to their feet and headed for the exit. It was like that feeling when you notice that someone’s left something behind, but you lose sight of them without ever being able to tell them.
At the exit, the older couple said goodbye to Ms Ōe.
Oh, that’s nice.
I thought, watching the scene.
The people who’d told told such a personal story, and the person who’d listened to it. This went beyond the normal customer-employee relationship. The scene was full of something quite plump and round.
This was the perfect opportunity, but my sketchbook was already full, not one page was left to draw on.
There’s no choice, this’ll have to do.
I flipped over the coaster on the table.
Ms Ōe’s smiling face peeking over the husband’s short form, the morning light streaming in. I rushed to capture the scene.
A few days later.
After an all nighter, of course. I took my usual reserved seat.
Ms Ōe came over, grinning. “Thanks very much. This, it’s me, isn’t it?”
She was holding something out. My voice squeaked, “Ah!” I knew my face was turning bright red.
It was the coaster.
That day, I’d quickly sketched Ms Ōe on that coaster. Then, I happened to get a call from the design company, and while I was answering it, I forgot all about the coaster and ended up going home without it. Ah, how embarrassing.
“Would it be alright if I kept it?” Ms Ōe said.
“Of- Of course. My apologies.” I pulled in my shoulders like a child caught pulling a prank.
Ms Shirokawa from the bakery came right towards us. “What’s that? Hey, that’s nice. Cute, Mari.” She peered at the coaster drawing.
My shoulders contracted even more.
“That looks good, you should draw me, too, please!” Ms Shirokawa said.
It didn’t seem like just flattery. She rushed off, and when she came back, she was carrying a pretty notebook. She offered me a white page.
“It doesn’t have to be today, but absolutely one day!” Ms Shirokawa said. She was such a brilliant person, I had a hunch it was going to be a great picture.
Wait. I thought. I can’t just be this open about it, can I?
I also thought, finishing all-nighters was going to get a lot more fun from now on.
I decided to borrow a bit of Ms Ōe’s bravery. That sketch book.
Actually, after I’d gotten home that day, I’d gotten to work on a certain opus. An opus where I started to pull out all the pages on which I’d drawn that older couple’s daughter.
Once I got to doing it, there turned out to be an awful lot of them. I bound them simply, trying to make it like an individual folio edition.
“The other day,” I said to Ms Ōe, “there was an older couple who told a story about their daughter, wasn’t there?” She immediately understood. It seemed they’d been into the shop once or twice since then.
“The next time you see them, would you give this to them?” I showed them my specially made individual edition.
“Wow, that’s amazing,” Ms Ōe and Ms Shirokawa said at the same time.
“Thank you very much,” Ms Ōe said. “I’ll get it to them without fail.”
After that, I couldn’t come to the food court for a while.
I had a work request from another place, not that usual one-room design studio, and so I was always tied up. It was a tough job, and I ended up pushing myself hard.
By the time I finally finished it and got around to thinking, Oh yeah, I should go to that food court for lunch, it had been a month since the matter with the coaster.
“Ah-ha, a rare non-morning visit today,” Ms Shirokawa said right away.
“Yeah, I’ve been working away from home,” I answered. I was a little lost as to what to eat, but of course I ended up with a cabbage roll.
Ms Ōe slid over. “Thank you so much for the other day,” she said, grinning. “I was able to give them that sketch book right away.”
“Oh really! Thanks.”
“The couple was really happy.”
“Oh that’s great!”
“As they were turning the pages, these big drops of tears were spilling down the husband’s face.”
I didn’t say anything.
“They fell onto the pages and soaked into them, it was really beautiful.”
“I see.” I was so happy.
It was invigorating to think that it had been a joint operation with the restaurant staff. I had a keen hunch that I’d be able to draw something really nice, one day in the not-too-distant future.