America is the Bomb



West Street and Chambers Street, ny. Ny 10013

Neighborhood: Letter From Abroad, World Trade Center

“America. Boom. America. Boom. Boeki Centaa. Boom.”

During my time in Japan, I had grown quite used to not understanding what the hell people were trying to tell me. But this was a new one. Usually you can decipher the broken English of the Japanese by taking an abstract view of the words and changing a few L’s and R’s along the way.

“Yes, America is the bomb,” I said. But that didn’t seem to hit the mark and the Japanese man only grew more frantic and distressed.

I had wandered into the “American Clothing” shop after a long day of work. Usually being around American T-shirts and FUBU jackets is a strange relief in a country that sells fried octopus balls on the street. But instead of the small comfort of Chinese-made American apparel, there was now an old Japanese man blabbering at me.

Finally he grabbed me by the arm and dragged me to the back of his tiny shop. The furnished closet in the back of the boutique had a chair, an ashtray and a TV. Now I understood.

I was speechless, and so was he. Well, at least as far as his English was concerned.

“Fuck,” I said. He nodded. I wasn’t sure he had understood, so I said it again. He said something in Japanese. Perhaps it was a poetic consolation and affirmation of my grief. Or perhaps it was the Japanese equivalent of “Fuck.”

I walked out of the store, then started jogging, then started running. For the next few blocks I tried to figure out where he had gotten the doctored tape I just saw. Then I stopped before another store window and knew it was real. Huddled around a small ramen shop table, a group of Japanese businessmen was transfixed by the same impossible images I had seen just five minutes before.

In another ten minutes I was home, where my Irish roommate sat stone-faced, contemplating the TV. After a long drag from his cigarette he looked up and in his deadpan Galway brogue informed me: “The World Trade Center fell down.”

His voice had the casual acceptance of someone who comes from a place where things explode with regularity.

Japanese news shows are, unsurprisingly, in Japanese. This means I understood bascially nothing but what my fevered imagination was already supplying. I figured out that another plane had crashed somehwere, though I wouldn’t find out where until the following day.

I ran back down to the street, found a pay phone and began calling everyone and anyone I knew in New York. It yielded nothing but a horrifyingly macabre busy signal. The next morning I reached Mr. Kavner, the father of my childhood best friend. Though I’m now old enough to call him Stu, to me he will always be Mr. Kavner.

He sounded surprised to hear me. “Long time no speak. So how’s Japan?”

“How’s Japan! How’s Japan! The twin towers are gone. How’s Japan!”

“Calm yourself, Kevin. It’s a tragedy,” he said. “But it’s New York. We’ll get through it.”

It was three days before I knew my parents were safe and three weeks before almost everyone I knew was accounted for. Like the rest of the tri-state area, I wasn’t separated by six degrees. I eventually learned the whole story. Or at least as much of it as I ever will understand.

When I returned to work the following day, my English language students (mainly Japanese business men) had come bearing photos. They all knew I was from New York and brought me their pictures and their memories. I must have seen the same photo twenty times: A group of Japanese men in suits crowding by a window in the World Trade Center. Then, in broken English, they told me about their business trip to New York. It was the same story every time, but it was always unique.

At the end of a strange day of teaching/counseling, one of my students, a Japanese housewife, started to cry. She said that her whole life, she had only one dream: to go to New York. She was going to go this spring.

“Calm yourself, Mariko,” I told her. “It’s a tragedy. But it’s New York. We’ll get through it.”

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