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School in the Lobby

Mar 1, 2008
Eiji Yoshikawa

In those sleepless nights in New York, I had one more friend that I spoke to often, whose name was Richie. He was a security guard, and had a night shift at the YMCA. His station was in the lobby, right at the entrance, at a round wooden counter with a chair hidden underneath. It looked like an information counter in an airport, except that the brown colored wood looked old and classical.

Richie had the strength of character to not easily believe what the media was saying on the news and in the papers. His eyes looked smart and deep, as he always seemed to be thinking. When he looked at people around him, he would feel who they were, more than just looking at them externally.

At midnight, when there weren’t very many people to observe, the six foot two inch tall Richie with the short African hair and the five foot five inch short yellow kid with the crew cut hair would talk about what was fun, interesting and strange in the world community. As he sat in his chair behind the counter, looking as if he were a judge, except for his security uniform, his height was just about the same as mine, while I was standing, leaning on the counter with my two elbows supporting my head.

More than him asking me about things in Japan, I was asking him about all the things in the city that I saw every day. I asked Richie questions like, “Why is Wall Street called Wall Street?” “How come Broadway is the only avenue that’s not running straight in Manhattan?” “Why did the Yankees trade Reggie Jackson?” “Why do you say ‘So long’ when you say good bye?”

He could answer most of those questions. When he answered my questions, he answered seriously, with details, historical background and some related examples. You could tell that he had an education, and was honest and truthful.

I remember one day when I told Richie that his colleague Eddie said something about something which was a little surprise. I really forgot what it was, as it was around twenty-five years ago. But I do remember Richie’s reaction as I told him what Eddie had said. Richie was listening to what I had heard, thinking and looking at the floor, a few yards into the distance. He said “Askie, don’t worry about what he said.”

I said, “Why?”

Richie said, “Because he is not trustworthy.”

I asked him about this big word. “Trust what?”

Richie said, “Trustworthy. It means that you cannot trust what he is saying.”

Eddie, his colleague who made noise each time he moved, since he carried a big bunch of keys on his hip, never looked in your eyes when he talked. His eyes were floating somewhere, far behind you, and he never listened to your responses. When Richie made this comment about Eddie, it was a little surprising, but it was actually quite convincing.

Richie gave me the new nickname of “Askie”. I felt absolutely fine about it, since it was so true. It actually made me feel that I should ask him more questions.

Shortly after I arrived at the West Side YMCA, Eddie called me “Street”. Frankie and Vinnie, my new buddies, liked the nickname, too. Since I didn’t get what “Street” meant, I asked Eddie, “What do you mean by ‘Street’? Is it like a street lamp, or what?”

Eddie said, “No, you look ‘street’ the way you walk. I’d know that you were a boxer or something. Normally, Japanese walk as a group, or in a tour, wearing nice clothes. You are so different. You are so ‘street’. You know what I mean?” This was new vocabulary for me, and I thanked Eddie for teaching me that expression.

On one of those midsummer days, a new arrival from Japan came to the YMCA. She was a dancer. A few times, I had a chat with her and her friend who was also a Japanese dancer. Her friend was in love with a chef who was from the Middle East and was working in midtown in a small restaurant. She was having a difficult time, since their cultures didn’t match, even though she was very much in love with him. I was in charge of not only encouraging her, but also sometimes even delivering a letter to the chef, since their relationship was forbidden by someone, or by their cultural situation.

Anyway, this dancer - not the one in love - and I had a chat in the lobby each time we bumped into each other, talking about her dancer friend, and which shop had less expensive food, and so on. I always felt that she was a bit “lost” - not knowing, or not sure about, what she really wanted to do.

One day, she looked serious and said that she was going home to Japan at the end of the summer. But I knew she was actually asking me if it was okay. I said, “No, stay a month or so longer.  Then, you will know better what you really want to do. You don’t have to rush to go home. The plane takes off every day from JFK Airport.”

She decided not to take the flight she was going to take.

On September 1, 1983, a Korean airplane was shot down by a Russian fighter jet.

The dancer, who was about ten years older than me, found me in the lobby. She looked pale and said to me, “Eiji, you saved my life. That was the plane I was going to take.”

She didn’t look “lost” that day, or ever again, since that time. She concentrated on studying more, about dancing.

A few days later, Richie had his shift that night. He and I spoke about nothing but the shooting down of the commercial plane. Richie said, “The airplane went off the route? With all the high-tech radar? While communicating every minute with the control tower? With the most experienced TWO pilots on? Askie, it just doesn’t sound right. It just doesn’t sound right!”

He continued shaking his head from left to right, and right to left, as he kept pacing like a jaguar in a cage, adding, “I’m black. I know enough about how they lie.”

Askie Eiji asked, “What does ‘sound right’ mean?”

Richie said, “It means that it can’t be true. Something is VERY wrong. It just doesn’t sound right.”

Richie kept saying this same line all night long, as he went to every corner of the building to check the locks on the doors. I followed him like a curious puppy. Richie’s high voice was much higher than usual that night.  Looking back, it really was a bizarre incident.

Richie didn’t mean to, but he certainly taught me to raise questions about what is being told to us by the media.

Since that time, when I hear strange news, I can hear in my head the high voice of Richie with the line, “It doesn’t sound right, Askie.”

Eiji Yoshikawa is a retired Pro Boxer who majored inFrench literature and did his thesis on Jean Cocteau and Cinematography. He founded the "Peacemakers", Japan's first neighborhood watch, and spends much of his time visiting schools and communities teaching children about non-violence. In 2004, Japan Inc. Magazine called him the "Compassionate Pugilist". We are proud to offer "Letters from the Compassionate Pugilist" as our first guestcolumnist. Contact Eiji at or via email.

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