16. Latin (part 1)

   (We return to Eddie Trombone’s manuscript, Teach Yourself Japanese. As you may recall, our protagonist author Mr. Trombone was suspended for two weeks from his teaching position at Joyfull English for extreme cultural insensitivity and making a child cry. He spent the first week at a friend’s home watching Japanese TV and drinking toxic tap water mixed with slightly less toxic shochu until several of his internal organs began to spout blood, which he interpreted, incredibly, as a blessing in disguise, some sort of sign from above commanding him to leave his friend’s apartment and spend the remaining week of his suspension doing something more meaningful, more worthwhile, to work toward the grander goal of realizing his full potential. In short, to be all that he could possibly be, which, for this particular individual, shouldn’t require an entire week.  –Consular Ofc. Dirkins)

It did not seem to me that teaching three-minute English lessons in a one-by-two-meter cubicle for ten hours a day was the great calling that had driven to me scale Owen’s multi-folded futon and claw my way out of his apartment and into the bits of sunshine that had themselves managed to struggle through layers of haze and smog to fall exhausted onto the gray Osaka pavement.

It had to be something else.

So I thanked Mr. Kan for his job offer, lowered myself down the nearly vertical steps that led from Weakly English’s second-story office, and stood once again on the street which had just been cleared of the bags of garbage that neighbors in plastic slippers, sweatpants, and slept-in t-shirts had brought down from their apartments all morning and placed in careful piles to be picked apart by crows and cats until the garbage trucks came at 8:30 to toss, now half-empty, into trucks, making a pretty fluttering noise where the wind caught the ragged, loose plastic.

I watched a crow pick at a soba noodle and considered my options.

“Just as we feed the body, we must also feed our minds.” Mr. Rubenstein’s words came back to me from my third-year high school English class. His eyes moved slowly from student to student, resting longer on those that had not fallen asleep or walked over to the window to smoke.

“Just as we feed the body, we must also feed our minds.”

His eyes locked on mine, and he seemed to look right into my heart.

“No, Eddie, you cannot put pizza into your mind.”


“Honestly, why do you even come to class?”

Typical Mr. Rubenstein, always probing and questioning, like Socrates himself. And all on a salary drawn from cigarette taxes and parking tickets. I mulled Mr. Rubenstein’s query. I mulled it hard.

“I come . . . because of the law. I come because of the truancy laws.”

I looked up but it was too late. The class had been over for half an hour, and Mr. Szabó, who had emigrated from Hungary shortly after the Soviet Union’s suppression of the 1956 popular uprising there and who spent his days since then standing in clouds of chalk dust wishing he were back teaching literature at Eötvös Loránd University, was cleaning the classroom. “I can teach you something if you like,” he offered.

I ignored the mad ramblings of this janitor, and thought some more about what Mr. Rubenstein had said. Not the thing about me coming to class. The other thing.

“Just as we feed the body, we must also feed our minds.”

I drew a blank as smooth and clean as Mr. Szabó’s freshly wiped blackboard.

But then, standing on the street in Osaka so many years later, watching a crow eat what it probably thought was a worm, it dawned on me. Well, perhaps “dawned” is a bit too strong, but it did something on me.

I was not feeding my mind. I had been too focused on making money, on feeding my body, and I had all but forgotten why I had come to Japan in the first place. I mean, besides the cheap cigarettes, national health insurance, total absence of people to whom I owed money, and opportunity to extricate myself from a relationship with a woman just two months before her boyfriend was to be released from a large, foreboding prison in nearby Joliet, Illinois.

Besides all that.

I came to “feed my mind,” to plunge into another culture and experience it on every level. To see how another people had responded to the challenges and wonders of life on earth. To eat, breath, and speak everyday, to go to sleep every night and wake up every morning, with my brothers and sisters from whom I was separated 50,000 years ago when we went our separate ways out of Africa. I had come to Japan to “feed my mind,” to free my soul, to slip the surly bonds of earth and touch perhaps the face of God.

But there was also that thing with the guy in Joliet.

Joliet Men's Correctional Center (archive by Kikuchi)

“Honestly, why do you even come to class?”

The words came to me again, this time in another voice, a middle-aged woman’s voice, that same probing question that seemed to be on the lips of every teacher that knew me, this time Mrs. Goetz, who taught Latin up until the year she had me in her class, when she had a nervous breakdown that a counselor later called me into his office to tell me was absolutely not my fault, which was funny because I hadn’t even considered the possibility until the counselor brought it up. I just thought sometimes teachers stood on chairs, barked like dogs, and threw chalk at students.

I heard Mrs. Goetz did begin teaching again, returning to my high school several years later to teach Spanish, which was a language she did not speak but was considered by the principal to be less stressful than Latin. She was put in charge of the Advanced Placement class, which was mostly made up of Mexican kids who helped Mrs. Goetz eventually learn the language.

And that’s when it came to me, and I smiled as the crow finally managed to get the soba noodle down its narrow crow throat.

If Mrs. Goetz could learn a language in her 40s, after having suffered a complete nervous breakdown, then a young, fairly mentally stable person like myself could also master a foreign language, even one as foreign as Japanese. And they don’t come much foreigner. So unlike English. So . . .

The pavement-colored clouds inexplicably began to part.

So like . . .

The fuzzy outline of the sun became visible, frightening a small child for whom this was a new and terrifying sight.

So like . . . Latin!

And a beam of sunlight found the perfect angle, the only angle through the floating industrial pollutants and clouds of sand blowing from the steadily spreading deserts of western China, an angle that appeared like a rare comet once every 100 years or so that allowed a single beam of sunlight to strike the surface of Osaka. And that single beam came down now, bathing me in its warm and tender light. Well, nearly so. I had to move a bit, but with one foot in the street, one on the curb and leaning back against a mailbox, I could catch a good part of that beam on my forehead.

Japanese . . . is . . . Latin!

And just then I could hear a voice, small and weak at first but growing in strength. I lay back absolutely still against the mailbox, straining to hear the words being repeated over and over.

“Honestly, why do you even come to class?”

Mrs. Goetz!

And that improbable shaft of light vanished with an actual audible “snap!”

   (Next post, Mrs. Doyle tells me, we will learn just why this young man believes Japanese is Latin, which for me just begs the question: why are we even looking for this guy? –Consular Ofc. Dirkins)

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1 Response to 16. Latin (part 1)

  1. humanagers says:

    A beam of sunlight (lux solis, to those of us in the know) in Osaka? Even given the C annos occurrence of such a physical impossibility, why is it your so-called trombonist hero was in the right place at the right time? This smacks of Coniuratio imperii. Especially considering the exact placement of the mail box – a symbol of imperium malignis if ever there was one.

    solis apparuisse, my Arabian butt.


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