My Accident

“Mr. Morrow,” said an English teacher. “Did you hit a student with your bike this morning?”

I understood what he was talking about but not why. Yes, that morning at 8:20, I had rounded a corner and was surprised to see another bike, its driver wearing a high school uniform and a scarf around his face, coming directly towards me. We brushed each other, I turned around and asked “are you okay?” only to see him disappear around the corner. I silently cursed the rudeness of high school kids, and pedaled on. That was several hours ago.

“That student went to the hospital,” the teacher continued. “He had a bruise, and his pocket was torn.” He gave me a piece of paper. “Would you be willing to write a statement explaining what happened?”

The last time I had been made to write a statement explaining my actions was in elementary school, when I was caught using spell check on a spelling test. I knew Japan did not assign fault for accidents, but I felt like socially, I had just been accused of something outrageous–like I had knocked the kid off his bike and then ran away. But that’s not what I did.

Or was it? Had I really seen that student go on to school as if nothing had happened?  If I hadn’t, I would have stopped my bike. Right?

The only reason the high school had identified me is because I’m the only foreigner in town. If I had been anyone else, I thought self-righteously, that kid wouldn’t have known what hit him, and that would teach him to flee from the scene of an accident. My memory was uncertain, but I still felt wrongfully accused by the whole process. I was made to take a photocopy of the statement down to the board of education, where one of my coworkers, Okita-san, translated it into Japanese. I expressed my disbelief to her.

“I don’t think you’ll have to pay for the torn pocket,” she reassured me. “Insurance will cover it.”

I wouldn’t pay him a dime, I cursed silently. I watched as my supervisor made several phone calls to insurance companies and both schools, and I immediately judged this as a huge, bureaucratic, Japanese overreaction to a tiny incident between two bikes. “Would you mind coming back here after your day care class to apologize to the student and his family in person?” she asked.

Now, it’s my job in this town to present a good image of America to the locals. I have nothing to gain from bickering with what I know to be a standard part of a Japanese response to an accident. But I didn’t like this arrangement one bit. So, I tweeted about it.

I went and taught some kids, and returned to the office to wait. Eventually, my supervisor got off the phone again. “It seems the boy’s father doesn’t get off work until late,” she said. “We’ll have to do this some other day.”

“I’m free tonight, so please by all means contact me,” I said.

“That won’t be necessary.”

On Friday my supervisor once again called me up and asked me to come with her to meet the student. Also, it was necessary to bring a condolence gift, but she would buy it for me. Now I was steaming mad. A 17-year-old can’t get over a little bruise?

Nonetheless, I tried to push the anger out of my head and think of what to say to the kid. I came up with a few carefully chosen lines of Japanese. “Are you okay? Did you stop your bike after we hit each other? I’m very sorry. Let’s both be careful from now on.”

After a few hours of classes and some more angry tweets I went back to the office and my supervisor picked me up. We drove past the middle school, through several tunnels, and up a hill to the edge of town. There were nothing but houses here, old wooden ones meant to sustain many generations of a distinguished household, and new ones with windows and patterned fiberglass sides for young nuclear families. And then there was one big, crumbling concrete mass with the number A-04 emblazoned on it with blue tiles.

We pulled into A-04. There was a small parking lot overgrown with weeds.

“Mr. Morrow, do you know what ‘public housing’ means?” my supervisor asked me.

“No,” I lied for some obscure reason.

“The town built these houses about 40 years ago. Most of them are abandoned now.” I peered through a window and saw what an abandoned apartment looks like.

The door of apartment 4005 was at ground level and had clearly never been replaced in 40 years. We rang the doorbell and a little girl answered it. The inside of the house was full of trash and cracked walls. I had a distinct feeling that this little drama of the bike accident had not been all about me, as I had been assuming all along.

“Mom’s not here,” she said. “But please come in.”

“No, we’ll wait outside,” said my supervisor.

The two of us paced around the weedy yard. Across the street was another, newer housing project. Some of my students were coming home from school there, and they waved at me with both arms and yelled my name. I smiled and waved back. Next to the housing projects were some extremely modern, expensive-looking houses.

“They don’t have this kind of situation in America,” I said.

“No public housing?”

“No, they have public housing, but… nobody lives next door to one.” It wasn’t true at all, but I wasn’t sure whether it was polite to say what I wanted to say. I had seen this situation once before in Japan, when I was begging for alms in Fukui Prefecture. But I have never seen rich living alongside poor in America.

The boy’s mother came jogging down the street, carrying a bag.

“So sorry t’ keep ya waiting,” she said with a huge smile, and started chatting with my supervisor about various things. Apparently she had driven off to pick up her son, but he had already set off for home by himself. Which meant that despite all the things I had prepared to say to him to express my sympathy, we were not going to see him this afternoon. I don’t know what to say to the mother of someone who you bumped into on your bike. So I stayed quiet.

“Please, come in,” she said.

“I’m sure you are very busy,” said my supervisor.

“It’s nothing, miss, do come on in.” She opened the door and I now had a much better look at the condition of 40-year-old public housing. It seemed that the mother had no time to take out the recycling or repaint the walls, and that she had left a toddler in the care of that little girl while she went to pick up her son for me. The father, of course, was rarely home.

“We’ll stay here in the doorway,” said my supervisor, blocking my entrance, and handed over the condolence gift with her apologies. I wondered about the boy, whom I had only seen for a split second, his face concealed by a scarf. Why had he gone to the hospital? Was it really any of my business? I still didn’t know what to say to his mom.

The mother was incredibly friendly and expressed concern about the blind corner and for my health, but seemed slightly worried about whether insurance would cover the costs of the hospital and of repairing her son’s school uniform. My supervisor assured her that she had just spent three days making all the right calls and that I had written a statement about the accident which would be very useful to her insurance company.

“Now, I believe Mr. Morrow has a few words to say on his behalf.”

The two of them turned to me. I groped for words, stuttered, and finally blurted out one of the greatest speeches I’ve ever made in Japanese:

“I’m sorry for… hitting… very sorry.”

My supervisor apologized for me and took me home.

Posted: November 9th, 2012 | JET 5 Comments »

5 Comments on “My Accident”

  1. 1 fart69 said at 8:56 am on November 9th, 2012:

    Kristin got nailed by some high school girl (girl’s fault), to the point that it fucked up her front wheel (needed to be re-trued by a shop) and left a huge bruise for a few weeks. Didn’t know she coulda squeezed her for blood money.

  2. 2 Lewis Nakao said at 9:11 am on November 9th, 2012:

    I totally can see this happening in Japan. They make such a big deal about such small things and it’s mainly because they are worried about their reputations being tarnished. btw, have you heard of the Japanese term, “monster parent.” I think schools are afraid of those too.

  3. 3 Avery said at 9:17 am on November 9th, 2012:

    It’s possible there was some reputation that hung in the balance of this case– a teacher at that high school (which I’ve never been to), the principal, a nurse, or something– but I made the mistake of thinking it was mine.

  4. 4 Henrik Samson said at 7:12 am on November 10th, 2012:

    Fuck the accident, tell me more about public housing.

  5. 5 The Crow said at 5:42 pm on November 27th, 2012:

    That’s a fine piece of writing, Avery, quite apart from the intriguing content.

    Do you know how well you write?

    It’s quite uncommon 🙂