“A blade could be hardened, tempered, and refined by being broken down repeatedly in order to be built back up stronger each time; how much more so, a man.”
New York City may have the most impressive skyline in the world. The East River boasts seven and a half miles of concrete and glass that truly does scrape the sky, and they are some of the most recognizable buildings on earth. What no one tells you if you’ve never been here is: you can’t actually see the skyline while you’re in Manhattan; the best views of the city are from the boroughs. That may have been the thing I loved most about my waterfront Brooklyn apartment: the spectacular panorama that greeted me each morning. This particular morning, I couldn’t decide which sight I liked better: the majesty of lower Manhattan, replete with the Staten Island ferry below and the Twin Towers above, or the sight of Kallie’s head bobbing up and down underneath my sheets.
Today was going to be a good day.
I’d barely opened my eyes but I could tell it was one of those halcyon New York City days; the kind that make you curse your cozy cubicle and seriously consider playing hooky. Cloudless azure skies framed the horizon, and the brisk morning air made the freshly budded trees on my brownstone lined street shiver in delight. Kallie emerged from her tent and kissed me, giving me a mouthful of morning and us. My cat Doo, who had been feigning sleep at my feet, flashed a frown of feline frustration. “Get a room,” she hissed with her eyes. I shot her back a look reminding her this was my room; she got up, stretched, and went back to sleep.
For the first time in what seemed like forever, my life was totally NOT sucking. The week before I had been given right of first refusal for a national commercial. The supplemental income I was getting from my night job made sure that all my bills were being paid, on time. A cute girl that I liked was in my shower, getting ready for work, while Doo, having reclaimed her rightful position in the crook of my arm, snoozed lazily with me in the morning sun. Life, was good.
Hearing the door close behind Kallie as she let herself out was my cue to overcome the urge to waste my morning in bed. I decided I was going to waste the morning in Cobble Hill Park instead, with the book I’d just gotten from Amazon, a biography on Miyamoto Mushashi, arguably the greatest samurai who’d ever lived, and one of my personal totems. In addition to his legendary swordsmanship, he had an amazing way of figuring out how to turn any situation to his advantage. A true warrior poet, when he finally retired his sword, he penned The Five Rings, his penultimate thesis on art, war, and life.
Mongol invasions of thirteenth century Japan spurred a boon in metallurgical technology. While the Japanese possessed the ability to create steel from about the eight century onward, they lacked quality iron ore, and found tempered steel tended to be brittle, and thus prone to shattering in battle. Having limited resources, they were forced to refine their sword making techniques.
Iron sand was heated in a special furnace, called a tatara, to twenty five hundred degrees fahrenheit. This would separate the steel into different carbon densities. Low density carbon, called shigane or “soft” steel, provided greater rigidity, and was used for the core. High density carbon, called kawagane or “hard” steel, could be polished and sharpened to a hair’s width without cracking, providing the edge. This combination of hard and soft steel was then folded, hammered into shape, cooled and reheated. The folding process would be repeated up to twenty times, thoroughly diffusing the carbon, homogenizing the metal, and creating millions of individual layers of hardened steel.
By the late fifteen century, Japanese blacksmiths had refined their sword making techniques to a science. The resultant blade was incredibly strong, ultra lightweight and razor sharp. They believed they had solved the Riddle of Steel, and were able to create a katana worthy of Mushashi himself. Miyamoto may have disagreed.
My cell phone vibrated; it was my night job, calling in the middle of the day. Roger, my boss, wanted to see me; I felt my spider-sense tingle. I threw my book into my backpack and made my way into The City.
Roger wasn’t my original boss at the advertising agency. Yvette, the woman who hired me and who I loved working for, got “layered,” and they brought in Roger, a smug, blue-blooded Connecticut Yankee, in some sort of hybrid dual management experiment. It didn’t take long for the conflict to start; he was an Ivy league know-it-all born into privilege, and I was a cavalier self-taught kid from the streets, who was naive enough to believe that being great at my job was reason enough to tolerate my insolence and authority issues.
Obviously I was mistaken.
One month prior, Roger had called a staff meeting; he was excited about some new software he had acquired and eager to share his knowledge with the team. The dozen of us assembled in a conference room, and as Roger enthusiastically effused about his discovery, I snoozed in a way that would have made Doo proud. Offended, Roger asked the co-worker sitting just to my right to wake me, while commenting that “maybe I could learn something that would help better my life.”
My co-worker rosed me from slumber. “Roger,” he said as I stretched and yawned, “you do know that Jackie helped write this software, don’t you?” Annoyed at being trumped, he sniped “That’s what’s wrong with America. It’s too bad his initiative isn’t equal to his intelligence.”
I would have let the comment pass were it not for the way he sneered “intelligence.” While he didn’t say it out loud, the comment reeked of racial overtones, as if the thought that I helped to create something he was obviously impressed with, simply wasn’t feasible. “Your biggest fear,” I quipped, now fully awake, “isn’t what’s wrong with America. Your biggest fear is having to use the urinal next to me in the mens room. If it ever happens,” I gibed, “do yourself a favor: don’t look over.”
I got out of the F train at West Fourth and started walking down Carmine street into Tribeca. My cell phone buzzed; I had a voicemail from my agent. I told myself I’d check it after my meeting; I was waiting for confirmation of shoot dates for the commercial I was on hold for, and that news could surely offset anything Roger had to say to me. I called Kallie quickly and left a brief “just thinking about you” message.
When I arrived at the office, everyone was already gathered in a conference room. There was cake, and everyone was smiling, no one bigger than Roger. I thought it was a birthday celebration. It was my goodbye party. I was being fired, that day.
The cause of termination was officially listed as “future inability to perform job function.” While no complaint was registered in regards to the work I had performed, Roger had deemed my skill-set “not in line with the direction of the department.” Impossibly pleased with himself, Roger shook my hand and wished me success in my endeavors. I was shocked, but not surprised.
I took a break from “celebrating” and stepped into the lobby to check my voicemail, congratulating myself for having saved my message from my agent for a more opportune time. “They loved your audition,” I heard my agent say. “They’re going with someone else.”
My heart sank. I was hoping to deflect having been fired with better news; the residuals from a single national commercial could easily have doubled the income I would have earned at my night job in a year. I was actually looking forward to returning to my goodbye party with a bigger smirk on my face than my now former boss.
This was not to be.
It was just after six in the evening now. By now Kallie would have been off from work; I called her looking for a bit of reassurance. She didn’t answer. I left a brief voicemail asking her to call when she had a chance.
That night I took a taxi home from Tribeca, as I had cleared out my desk, and carrying a box of my belongings on the subway after midnight just seemed unwieldy. Kallie still hadn’t returned my calls; I wondered if she was okay. It had never taken her more than a few minutes to return a call before. I rang her phone number again; it went straight to voicemail. Confused, I hung up.
Today was not a good day.
Given they way my day began, no one could have convinced me that would be the last time I would ever see Kallie. No goodbye, no response, no explanation. I slumped into the backseat of my taxi and felt a lump in my throat and my backpack. It was Mushashi, reminding me of the Riddle of Steel. I imagined myself as a katana, being heated almost to my melting point, then folded, hammered, and cooled; over and over again in an technique designed to make me stronger, sharper, more lithe.
And then I recalled Miyamoto’s final battle, with Sasaki Kojiro. Sasaki wielded a nodachi, a fearsome, two-handed oversized sword requiring far more strength and dexterity to employ. A single blow could literally rend a man asunder; it was the feudal Japanese equivalent of bringing a gun to a sword-fight.
Mushashi didn’t even bring a sword. He bludgeoned Sasaki to death with an oar from the boat he arrived in, and then rowed away.
I watched the skyline sparkle in the night sky. The answer to the Riddle of Steel didn’t lay in the smelting process, I thought as I crossed the Brooklyn Bridge. The answer was in the warrior, not the weapon. A blade could be hardened, tempered, and refined by being broken down repeatedly in order to be built back up stronger each time; how much more so, a man. A true warrior poet could figure out how to use any turn of events to his advantage. I had no idea how to see anything good in the events of the day. The Riddle of Steel had been solved centuries ago. The Riddle of Dating in New York remained a mystery.
Originally posted at www.jackfrombkln.com.
Photo by zigazou76/Flickr.