by Josh Greenfield
During the fall of 2000, as the United States was entering a period of political instability brought on by the hotly contested results of the presidential election, I made a friend. I have been given to believe that friendships do not often begin quite this way. Imko and I met on the uptown Broadway Local, the 1 Train, at Seventy-Ninth Street. By the time we got off the train at 238th Street, we had accepted each other as compadres, fellow travelers, friends.
I had made a start with things Japanese before we met. Here, as in most everything else, I was following Dr. Rubin’s suggestions. He rarely came right out and told me what to do, but he had a way of making himself clear. In those formative months, I stopped into a French café in the West Village and came into session singing the praises of a cute French waitress, Dr. Rubin made it very clear I was headed in the wrong direction. He well understood how those pathways diverge in a “yellow wood.” How one thing leads to another.
From the point of a distant perspective, I think I can understand why he was so interested in my immersion in Japanese culture. It is a complex and multifaceted crystal with many sides and many angles, but I know for certain he was interested in quieting my rampaging thought process. From the very beginning, he saw the Japanese emphasis on meditation and creating a quiet mind as integral to this effort. I would have to surmise that he felt the Japanese’ alternate views on human sexuality would also work out to my benefit.
By the time of our first subway ride together, Imko stood out as someone I would like to get to know. I’d been spending time in the Japanese part of town, around East Ninth Street, and had mastered and memorized a number of phrases in Japanese. It was a clumsy way of making an introduction, and thus far I had succeeded in interacting only with women who were paid to do so: workers behind counters who were selling me food. What was different about Imko? I really don’t know. Maybe it was something in the stars, or in the hour of our birth, or in our own adopted view of the world. For whatever reason, by the end of our forty-five-minute trip it was like we were the oldest of friends. Caught up in conversation, I failed to get off at my regular stop, 231st Street and Broadway. I rode the train one stop further, and we both got off at 238th Street. We exchanged phone numbers on the elevated platform and parted ways.
Within forty-five minutes, we were talking on the phone, not because we were compulsive or scared or lonely, just because it was the right thing to do. Thus began a close association that lasted through the fall and into the winter. We did all kinds of things together. For starters, we took a hiking trip through Harriman State Park, a scenic wonder forty-five minutes north of the city. This turned into an adventure when the bus that was supposed to take us back sped by on a darkened country road. The clocks had shifted back the weekend before, bringing on the evening darkness earlier than expected, and it was a flag stop. In the dark of the evening, the bus went right by. To make matters worse, it had grown cold, colder than I had expected. I was feeling like a heel of a date when a state police car came along, and, seeing two hikers standing by the road, stopped to pick us up.
I was distressed, thinking about the stressful situation I had created for a nice Japanese girl. It was nowhere written in the Camp Ojibway guidebook that a day’s hiking trip was supposed to end with a ride in the back of a state police patrol car. I am happy to report, however, that Imko seemed to enjoy the whole thing. The conscientious state trooper brought us to a train station in the next town, which had connecting service to Penn Station, from which the 1 Train returned us safely to Warren. It had been an adventure, and no doubt brought us closer.
From there on, we saw each other regularly. Imko came to the law library to see where I worked, late on a Saturday afternoon. Afterward, we walked through Riverside Park, above Seventy-Second Street. I didn’t take it as a compliment at the time, but my hard-working Japanese friend gave me a hard time for only working part-time. I suppose this might be taken as an indication that I passed for normal. We attended a New York Giants football game with two tickets contributed by a family friend who also drove us there and back. I have to say, I found the military flyover and vehement cheering of the crowd not entirely to my taste. We took a boat cruise with Shu who was a doctoral candidate in Finance at N.Y.U. at the time. And any number of times, Imko spent the evening at my apartment. We seemed to always get the same bus driver on the Number 10 Bus when I brought her home.
There were other shared endeavors. We played squash at the Warren Y.M.H.A., and one night, Imko slept over. She passed the night on the couch with me on my bed in the bedroom. We tried to meet up for the Rockefeller Center tree lighting but failed to connect. We passed an afternoon at Rolling Hills, a public garden in my neighborhood, again with my friend Shu. All of this, however, was a preamble for our grand adventure. We took a trip to Washington D.C. and Philadelphia. I don’t think about this nearly as much as I should. It provides a clear indication that with the right person, I am entirely capable of sustaining a prolonged period of intimacy and interaction. If I did it all those many years ago – and by any standard of measurement, I am healthier now – what could really be the big deal?
We made our plans. We would travel down to the capital by bus and spend two nights in a D.C. youth hostel. From there we would travel to Philadelphia for a brief visit before returning to New York. We were both looking forward to the trip. There was an undercurrent to our preparation, a point of conversation that was never too far off the table. Imko had not made up her mind about one extremely important matter. She wasn’t sure whether or not she would return to Japan. I had picked up on the fact that there was a lot of tension between her and her mother. There was also the ever-present reality that women in Japan hold a distinctly second-class status. I wasn’t trying to solve Imko’s dilemma. It was just something we both knew she was dealing with.
On the morning of our scheduled departure, we had decided to meet up on the platform of the ever-present Broadway Local, the 1 Train headed south. It seems to me we spent an awful lot of time on that train, with me putting my arm around Imko’s shoulder when we were seated in front of the side window and there was room to squeeze it in. In honor of the occasion of our departure, I had purchased a small, red, glass box. I had seen Imko admire it in a store we had visited, and it was consistent with her desire to open an accessories shop someday. She used the word “accessories,” for small items like that box, though I had never heard the term used in exactly that way before. We took the train to Times Square and walked over to the Port Authority for the bus ride to D.C.
Imko and I both grew from the time we spent together. If we hadn’t, it wouldn’t have been much of a friendship. I have, to this day, two handwritten notes in a cardboard box in my closet testifying to Imko’s appreciation of my company. I never wrote it down, but I have to believe she too knows how much I valued her spending time with me. That said, I think it appropriate to add that Imko had, at times, a tendency to be a little persnickety. We arrived in Washington in the late afternoon and, as should come as no surprise when a severe obsessive-compulsive and a young woman not conversant in English were traveling together, we had a little trouble finding the youth hostel. I can honestly say that if Imko got frustrated with me, I was nothing but patient. This might be attributed in large measure to Dr. Rubin’s recurrent admonitions on the danger of expressing anger or irritation, and an even larger measure to my father’s example on the appropriate way to treat a young lady.
We arrived at the Washington D.C. youth hostel in time to receive our American Youth Hostel sheets and settle in for the night. We had big plans for the next day. We were going to take in the sights. A Japanese woman and a Jewish man were going to absorb a full day of American history. When I came downstairs that morning, Imko kvetched at me for being late. True to form in our evolving relationship, I patiently explained that there had been a logjam in the men’s bathroom and, in good spirits, we set out.
It was a memorable day for us, one of many we shared together. We traipsed around The Mall, Imko snapping pictures, and me carrying the knapsack filled with an ever-increasing collection of brochures. A highlight of the excursion was our visit to the Holocaust Museum, a memorial that seemed to hold resonance for both of us. For me, the connection was obvious: My entire extended family, the ones who hadn’t immigrated to America, had been wiped out. The ones who had immigrated spoke very little about the ones who had remained in Romania and Hungary, but the facts were clear. Most of the Jews, all the people who looked like me, had been exterminated.
Imko’s connection was not so clear. I attribute a good part of my connection with Japanese women (and there were quite a few others after Imko left) to the fact that there is no anti-Semitism among the Japanese. I don’t know exactly why this is. It could be because it is a Buddhist culture. We saw an exhibit in D.C. that documented the fact that, unlike most of the countries of the world, Japan welcomed the Eastern European Jews fleeing the Nazis.
But something else happened during our visit to the Holocaust Museum. We passed the entrance to a public restroom, and I said, with what passed for humor, “That is where you go to throw up.”
Imko reprimanded me for making a joke on such hallowed ground.
“How do you think the Jews survived all this?” I asked her. “It was just that kind of humor that has kept the Jews going.”
We passed through the exhibit, which really wasn’t easy to look at, and out onto the grassy mall in front. Another set of brochures had been added to the collection in my knapsack, and Imko had taken a few more photos. I chose to elaborate on one of Dr. Rubin’s favorite themes, the therapeutic power of laughing at yourself. He had brought it up on our first day together, and never tired of repeating it. Imko was an appreciative audience.
I said some other things that morning which Imko took to heart as well. I spoke about anger and how if you’re angry at other people you will be just as angry at yourself. I may have even said something about forgiveness being its opposite. It wasn’t a long discussion. We had places to go and things to see. But in the context of her ongoing struggle with her mother, I think some of it hit home. So, we kept on walking around. We saw some American art and a collection of airplanes at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. I took quiet pleasure in seeing the Wright brothers’ first airplane, which flew for less than a minute in its first trial. Dr. Rubin liked to celebrate my small victories by drawing a parallel to the first flight. I had shown it could be done. From there on out it was only a matter of refinement and improvement.
Our trip back to the city involved a stopover in Philadelphia. We didn’t stay overnight but only got off the bus for a few hours to look at the Liberty Bell and the nearby historic sites. Imko took a creative shot with herself walking in imitation of a statue on a rooftop. Coming out of Philadelphia, we made out in the back of the bus. Back in New York, there was a routine to attend to. I had my work in the law library and classes to attend to. The presidential election, which was supposed to be decided by the early morning of the first Wednesday in November, was stretching on unresolved. Imko was also attending classes at The International Center on West Twenty-Third Street, and we hung out with some of her friends from there at night.
Through all of this, a question was still unresolved. Imko had not decided whether or not she would return to Japan. The decision was made, late one evening, in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We were walking arm in arm in front of the fountains at Eightieth Street. It was dark and quiet. There was no water in the fountain. Up ahead, an older woman stood alone waiting for the Fifth Avenue Bus. All of a sudden, Imko pulled up short and grabbed my right arm, “My mother – she will grow old!” she cried.
I believe that at that moment, Imko decided she would fly back to Japan and make the best life she could.
Our days together dwindled. I visited her in her Bronx apartment one night as she was packing, and, uncertain about how I had conducted myself in a relationship in flux, I called Dr. Rubin from a pay phone on the street.
“You did well,” he reassured me, choosing his words carefully.
On the morning of her flight, I was not so well-collected. I was supposed to meet up with her for the taxi ride to Kennedy Airport, but I arrived without the one thing I was supposed to bring: a book that was to serve as a present for one of her female mentors. I left her to travel to the airport alone while I returned for the book. Believe it or not, I showed up at the airport still without that darn book. I was thoroughly flummoxed. Imko was not. She was calm and collected, her luggage checked and her carry-on piece in order. We said good-bye at the gate.
“You’re the greatest man I ever knew…” she stated.
I watched her walk down the passageway toward the gate until she was out of sight. She did not look back. Alone, I made my way to the subway for the return trip to Warren.
Imko and I did a good job of staying in touch, which is not an easy thing to do when two people are separated by a continent, an ocean, and numerous time zones. She called the day after 9/11, and I spoke with her when she was in the hospital the morning after giving birth to her daughter. When I traveled to Japan, she looked out for me in Osaka and Kobe. I cannot, however, claim that we are in touch today, not even on Facebook.
Dr. Rubin’s explanation for this turn of events was simple enough. “She has a jealous husband,” he commented when a card I had sent was returned.
Such, I imagine, is the way of the world. I can state, however, that without Imko’s companionship and friendship, none of the rest of it would have even been possible.
About the Author
Josh Greenfield is a graduate of both Phillips Andover Academy and Cornell University's College of Arts and Sciences. He holds two master’s degrees from the City University of New York, one in history and one in English literature. He also completed the better part of a doctorate in English at Fordham University
He is the author of three books; Full of Wonderment: a novel, Cutting Through the Knot: a novel, and Homeward Bound: a novella of idle speculation, all published by Lulu. His work has been featured in The Cornell Daily Sun, The Riverdale Press, Appalachia, Word Catalyst Magazine, Better than Starbucks, Chaleur Magazine, The B’K magazine and Adelaide Literary Magazine.
Further information available at JoshGreenfield.net.