I happened to be at the World Trade Center on Sunday, September 9. No big deal. I don’t even know which tower I was in. Just switching from the A train from Brooklyn to the PATH train on the way to Newark to catch my flight home. I walked past the mosaic of the world on the floor there and thought, that looks cool.

But that next Tuesday morning I thought, Christ, I was just there. I spent over three hours trying to call the friend I’d been visiting. I finally got through and learned she was OK. She’d tried to go to work, but the attendant at her subway stop said, “If you don’t live in Manhattan, absolutely don’t go in.” During the course of the day I learned through E-mails and phone calls that other friends in New York were all alive and unhurt. Relieved, but grieving like everyone, I thought I’d escaped any personal connection to the tragedy.

Then Wednesday afternoon I learned that David Aoyama was on American Airlines Flight 11, the first to strike the World Trade Center. The passenger information in the papers listed him as Seima Aoyama, with no accompanying description–no age, home, occupation. But everyone knew him as David.

I had come to think of him as a friend over the years. Now I realize he was more of a mentor, an example of how to live.

David was born on the island of Hokkaido in Japan in 1953 and came to the United States in 1977. He managed restaurants in Dallas and Memphis to earn a living, but his real mission was to spread the principles of Buddhism. By the time he came to Chicago in the early 80s he was a full-time staff member of Soka Gakkai International-USA, a lay Buddhist organization. During the years he lived here he personally touched the lives of hundreds of young men and women, visiting homes in every neighborhood in the city, encouraging individuals to find enlightenment within themselves–working to create a better world, one person at a time.

He had a shock of hair that he constantly had to brush from his eyes. He loved to eat. He liked to drink some too, but he picked his times, a regular guy. Sometimes I thought he was crazy to be so busy. When did he ever sleep? When he moved to LA in 1995 we knew we’d miss him.

Last Saturday there was a memorial service here for David, who leaves behind a wife and two children. Hundreds of people–of many colors, heritages, nationalities, ages–attended on short notice.

David came here as a Japanese, and he died as an American. But he was more accurately a global citizen. You’re human, you suffer–what can I do to help? That was his way. I don’t understand why someone who worked so tirelessly for the sake of others had to go like this.