The Shoes

by | July 17, 2014, 5:00am 0

“We will be watching you. You should not go pee on your own.”

In the weeks leading up to playing with Revolver/Team USA at 2012 Worlds in Japan, I did a lot of visualizing. I imagined down to the wire games in pool play (see: Australia), surprise upsets (see: Japan vs. Sweden), nail-biting runs by tenacious opponents (see: Canada), and, of course, sharing the immense joy of a World Championship with my teammates. What I did not visualize, however, was the life-changing three hours that I would experience following the finals and that began with the sentence above. This is the story of that experience.

I was told the above by one of two very cordial Japanese men who found me within minutes after our finals game. Holding a clipboard with my name, address, and picture on it, I find out that I have been randomly selected to be drug tested. A bit of backstory: well before the tournament, all teams were informed that drug testing would occur at some point during the week, with one or more members of each team randomly selected to verify the absence of any and all performance-enhancing drugs in their system. In practice, only members of the semi-finals teams were selected. I was among the lucky few.

Leaving my team behind to take pictures and trade jerseys, I spent the next hour filling out forms, chatting amicably with the highly professional drug testing staff, and, of course, peeing into a little cup with some VERY close supervision. I found out later that my hour-long adventure was on the short side of things; a player on another semi-finals team had to be there for five hours – first he was too concentrated, then too dilute, then too out of pee. Since I was fortunate to be in the Goldilocks zone of hydration, I was sent on my way without much hassle. Once I got back to the fields, I realized that, in an impressive display of unity, my team has already packed up, left for the hotel, and begun to party. Strong work. And though I still had my backpack, money, and clothes, my street shoes were nowhere to be found.

Thus began my quest. The field site is huge, and we warmed up in a couple of different places that day, so I started the search at the finals field. Nothing. Next, I returned to our second warmup site and started poking around the sidelines of some very confused Japanese soccer players. Deploying my full arsenal of elaborate foreigner hand gestures, I managed to convey what I was looking for. A brief, game-interrupting flurry of activity literally stopped the game as both players and spectators helped me search the field. Again, though, we found nothing. Feeling awful for interrupting their game, I hand-wave my way through a set of gestures intended to apologize for interrupting their game, which causes them to apologize for not finding my shoes, which causes me to apologize for making them think they need to apologize for not finding my shoes, which causes them to apologize for me thinking that is something I ought to apologize for. We narrowly escape the infinite loop of apologies when one of the spectators pulls me aside.

His name is Yamauchi, and his English is pretty good. He manages to tell me that there’s a lost and found area, and where it is. I thank him and start walking, but not alone; without hesitation, Yamauchi joins me. If you’ve ever traveled in Japan, you know that this is pretty normal. Digression: if you’re ever lost in a Japanese subway station, just stare at the map looking confused for a few minutes. You will be helped.

It’s a 15 minute walk to the lost and found, so Yamauchi and I have some time to chat. He’s a family man, lives in Osaka, and plays pick-up soccer at the complex occasionally. We get to the lost and found and come up empty, but they tell us there’s ANOTHER lost and found on the other side of the field complex. Thinking that enough is enough, I say, “Hey, great, thank you for the help, I can just go there on my own, you go back to your game.”  Yamauchi smiles, nods, and continues walking with me. This actually goes on for at least half an hour – we walk around to various lost and founds (there are apparently four on site), Yamauchi walks with me and we engage in fantastic broken conversation. Our best joke is that we agree that I traded a gold medal for my shoes. Worth it.

But eventually I’m overcome with guilt over him hanging out with me for nearly an hour and it’s become clear that my shoes will not be found, so I make the necessary hand motions and English phrases to indicate thank you very much but I’m just going to go home. He stops smiling and gets really distressed.

“No shoes on train!”
“Hm, okay, I guess I’ll just wear my cleats?”
“Spike-u! No spike-u on train!”
“Well, I don’t have many options so I think I’ll just just give it a shot.”

There’s a pause, and Yamauchi gives me a look that I completely fail to parse. I start to thank him one final time for his help, and then he looks down, looks at me, and takes off his shoes.

“Take my shoes.”
“Take my shoes.”
“No no no no, I can’t take your shoes, that’s crazy.”
“Take my shoes.”

The above is the beginning of a 10 minute argument about whether or not I should take his shoes. At first, it’s unthinkable: I attempt to walk away twice while smiling and thanking him (without the shoes) and he grabs me both times. I also try to offer him money, a jersey, whatever, and he won’t take it. Think a few rounds of this – me saying I can’t take the shoes, offering something, him smiling and refusing, me looking down at his shoes, him pushing his shoes closer to me, me looking back up at him in disbelief, me saying I can’t take the shoes again, and so on. In the end, I can no longer refuse. With tears in my eyes, I leave. With his shoes. Barefoot, he waves goodbye and goes back to his field, but not until after he apologizes for his shoes not smelling good.

Let me say at this point that most of the Japanese I met wore impeccably nice clothing, whether they were going to work, hiking Mt. Fuji, or playing in a local pick-up soccer game. Yamauchi was a rare exception: his clothes were older and well-worn, and he had biked to the complex while most others drove. It seems likely to me that he was poorer than most.

It was the most generous act from a complete stranger that I’ve ever experienced. And not the only one of its kind: multiple members of our team, lost and confused in Japan, were helped by kind strangers to get out of jams and where we were going. In telling this story to a Japanese friend later on, I was told that offering to repay Yamauchi for the shoes was an immense faux pas; these gifts to guests are meant to be given for free.

So here’s to you, Yamauchi, and your shoes. I’m wearing them right now. They smell great – they smell like kindness.

Editor’s note: this piece first appeared on the Revolver blog.

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