Nick & Tokyo’s Emergency Buttons


Five years ago, before our kids were born and we could leave the house on weekends, we attended a house party hosted by my wife’s friends. It was at a swanky condo with a nice toilet. It was like a Robocop toilet. Hit a button and you could be sprayed, hosed, blown, lubed and cuddled.

There were different buttons that determine how hard you got hosed. If you got hosed too hard, fell over, and couldn’t get up, there was an emergency button to alert the home’s inhabitants of your incapacity.

All of these buttons were in Japanese. I hit a bunch of ’em.

That emergency button is silent within the confines of the bathroom. But clearly audible throughout the rest of the apartment.

It would have been more subtle had I left the bathroom door open and yelled, “I’M PEEING!”

In the end we chuckled and drank to excess.


In America, emergency buttons are large, red, and only accessible when smashed by Donkey Kong’s mallet.

Tokyo’s emergency buttons are doorbells you can accidentally lean on while sparking a J on your girlfriend’s back porch.

We started taking our firstborn, Sei, to daycare from the age of 4 months. The only daycare available to us was located across the street from my wife’s office building.

It was my job to take Sei to daycare by subway every morning. Oh geez. I’m getting nostalgic. He’s almost three now. Back then he was just a little watermelon snug in the carrier strapped to my belly. I would hang for dear life to the overhead handles, and he would just stare up at me with those deep brown eyes and be like, ‘don’t worry Dad, you got this.”

These days he bolts into traffic just to make me scream like Gailard Sartain on a hot plate.

‘Round the age of 1 Sei outgrew the carrier and we upgraded to the stroller. I took the 8:40 train which originated at our home station. This meant it was empty.

God forbid I miss the 8:40 train. The other trains were all transporting lowly denizens from the outlying western suburbs. By the time the 8:44 train rolled into Sasazuka it was as sweaty and desperate as the Saturday night dance floor at Shagnasty’s.

So every morning I rolled Sei and his stroller onto car #9 of the 8:40 Keio line train. This was the handicap car. There was an empty space at the end of the car specifically for wheelchairs and strollers.

It was a 20-minute train ride. Not bad, unless you are 1 years old, when 20 minutes is a growth spurt and three bowel movements.

As Sei learned to walk, I let him venture out of the stroller. The other train passengers got a kick out of the adorable tot wibbly-wobbling around the subway car with his million-dollar smile and legs like Bambi on ice.

The handicap space of Keio line car #9 has an emergency button. It is orange. Illuminated. And completely uncovered.

As naked as Kevin Bacon in Wild Things. As tantalizing to a 1 year old as cheap beer to a professional writer.

One day the car was more crowded than usual. I didn’t want Sei wandering around. I did, however, unbuckle his seatbelt and allow him to play freely within the confines of the stroller.

I did not realize the stroller was parked directly under the naked orange emergency button.

Sei stood up, reached out, and smushed the button.

It flashed. It rang, loudly, like a phone. Somebody answered the phone. They spoke rapid Japanese.

I was certain the train would come to a screeching halt. I expected dagger stares from fellow train passengers. Instead, they were all cool cucumbers. Not a single one glanced in our direction. Not a single one helped, either.

I shouted at the speaker, “OK, OK! Son push button!”

The phone went silent. Crisis diverted.

Then the guy on the phone began speaking again. Rapidly. Urgently. Accusingly. “OK, OK!” I yelled.

The phone went dead. The train kept rolling. We reached our station. I got the hell out of there.


Last year our apartment building was renovated in order to bring it up-to-date with the current earthquake code. It is a three-story building. During renovations, they kicked everybody out who lived on the first and second floors. We live on the third floor. We got to stay.

Construction completed last spring. Nobody has moved back in. In fact, our next door neighbors moved out. We have the entire west wing all to ourselves. It’s nice, but eerie. Especially last month when the stairwell lights went out after the auto-timer malfunctioned. This meant that once night set in, our side of the building was shrouded in complete darkness.

One night, I drank too much sake.

We were expecting a delivery. I was worried the delivery driver wouldn’t find our apartment, as had happened before. Totally justifiable concern. Not so justifiable was my concern that drifters were living in the crawl space beneath our stairwell.

I investigated outside our apartment door. There is an LED light at the stairs landing. I pulled the light’s chain. It hadn’t worked before. It didn’t work this time either.

I yanked the chain a few more times.

As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could see the outline of a button on the wall to the left.

I pushed it.

Honks of hell erupted in the still night.

I jabbed at the button.


I dashed inside to get my wife. “What is going on?” she said. “Call the fire department,” I said.

Earlier this century we had survived a similar incident at my wife’s Iowa City apartment when a burnt frozen pizza set off the building’s fire alarm, and only the fire department had authority to turn it off.

This time, without hesitation, Lisa called the Kitazawa fire department. The noise outside was deafening. Sei, Jin (our infant son), and I cowered in the bedroom while Lisa calmly dried her hair.

I looked outside the open bedroom window. I could see one of our neighbors below. He saw me peering out. “Ohkawa?” he called (that’s my wife’s name).

I laughed nervously like Jim Carrey’s manic turn as The Riddler.

I rushed to Lisa. “You have to go outside and talk to our neighbor.”


“Just do it!!!”

She went outside and began descending the stairs in absolute darkness. She could hear somebody ascending. They both panicked and retreated home.

Another neighbor called us on the phone. She had called the ambulance. That was the purpose of the emergency button after all, to alert the neighbors to a medical emergency.

My wife had to explain the situation, and to kindly ask her to call off the ambulance.

After what seemed to be an hour of abhorrent honking and swearing and crying (me and the baby), the fire department arrived.

They wanted to know where the fire was.

No fire, just me.

It turns out there is a little flap under the button that allows you to flip open the cap, pull out the button and turn it off.

Good to know.

Though if we ever have a real emergency, I’m not sure anybody will help the neighbor who cries wolf.








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