One Holy Night
One Holy Night
My toes were frozen together and my heels were numb, but the boots I was wearing looked fairly fashionable. And I couldn’t beat the price Korean bootmakers offered. Add to these an outsized overcoat cut from one piece of funereal black cloth and a pair of good old American gloves, the kind you buy at any department store in the northeast; the ones with little holes Swiss-cheesed all over them. I had no hat against the cold front from Mongolia, which was the only thing that ever came from that God-forsaken place where people lived in
yurts, never bathed, and had too many words for horse and saddle. Cold. There I was just a freezeass youngamerican in the streets of Seoul, Korea. A year ago this time I was back on campus protesting Vietnam. Then the war scared me into altruism and I wound up here on the streets of Seoul. Another young altruist for the planet, I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in South Korea in the winter of ’69.
I should mention I’ve just whooshed into a Chong-ro tearoom and made the guy in the suit and tie next to me spit into his morning coffee – which in Korea meant a raw egg, a shot of awful whiskey, and instant Nescafe. I’d sat down and ordered toast and coffee – spongy white bread and instant coffee, the same Nescafe. This I’d done in Korean, a language only Koreans are supposed to speak. That’s why the guy next to me, probably trying to get his head straightened out for the work day, spit into his morning coffee. He’d seen a foreigner, one with a big nose, no extra fold of skin over the eye, with probably too much hair on his body, with, of course, blue eyes and blond hair (mine were brown and brown, but who’s really paying attention); he’d seen such a foreigner sit down in his tearoom and order in his language.
This always gave me a rush of satisfaction. It was a new feeling to continually be the cause of amazement in public. I liked it most of the time, but to keep things reasonably in control, I chose to dress in anonymity, my basic black outfit: suit, overcoat, gloves, and my new boots, whose nails were shredding my heels and crucifying the balls of my feet. These boots looked good on the outside, but they were less than successful in terms of human engineering.
That winter all Korea was dressed in black. The streets in early morning when I crept out before curfew lifted were covered in wintry soot from coal fires. I was in the habit of staying out past curfew, which began at twelve and ended at five. I lived as a boarder: one room in an old-fashioned ‘teegut chip’ a Korean house shaped like the Korean letter ‘ ‘. My landlady and the other boarders, mostly lower ranking civil servants, knew when I came and went. I’d heard from the landlady’s middle school-aged son that his mother did not approve of my carousing through the back alleys of the drinking districts of the city: it was unfit behavior for a teacher, even one as young and as strange as myself. “Roo Sun-saeng-nim, in Korea teacher not get drunken all night. Very bad.”
“It’s alright, Chung-il. I’m just trying to practice my Korean language and learn about Korea. By the way, it’s get drunk, not get drunken.”
“Not good. Roo-sun-saeng-nim. Not good. Mother say.”
“Your mother told you that I am doing something wrong?”
“Never mind. Tomorrow come here before dinner. I’ll help you with your English.” At this Chung-il’s face brightened and I could see that he had accomplished the true purpose of his visit to my room: to get across the message from his mother that she expected a bit more free tuition in English for Chung-il, on whose academic career family fortunes depended.
But here I am at the Pine Tree Tearoom. The smell of two coal-burning stoves wafted through the darkness. Tearooms were always dimly lit. Outside, morning was bright with the clearest of winter cold, but the Pine Tree was dark as a cave. This had the advantage of disguising the age of the ‘lady’ and her staff of hostesses. ‘Lady’ in a Korean mouth sounded like a Southerner saying ‘Reggie’. A lady was no lady, more likely a retired prostitute who’d scored big enough off of a persistently amorous sugar-daddy to put a bundle away toward her retirement from the trade. With that bundle, she bought into the next level of respectability, the tearoom. Of course, that was the Horatio Alger tale of tearoom ladies. The reality was likely to be that the lady could no longer turn a consistently profitable trick or find a drinking establishment where she could earn enough mommying white collar drunks through a night of male hysteria. Or perhaps she was just worn out from trying to be wine house nice to boors and tit-squeezers. Whatever the case, older women, some well preserved, some rapidly deteriorating, were the ‘ladies’ in charge of running tearooms. They mostly fronted for moneymen. A very few of them owned their own places completely.
The handful of women that the lady bossed around were sometimes young as high schoolers, especially in those tearooms that were hip and western and played American rock’n’roll before the government decided that it corrupted Korean youth. There were older women in the more traditionally-mindet tearooms. Here those who`gvew(up speaking Japanese in the colonial period came to listen to Korean versions of Japanese ‘tanka’, the minor key songs of heartache and loss usually sung in wine houses after several rounds had gone down. Sing one of these at a wine house with a group of middle-aged college profs and you built up emotional credit. At traditional tearooms, the women usually wore Oorean dress. I chose to hang out at such places. Once the initial shock of having an American walk in, sit down, and order something to drink in Korean wore off, the tearoom lady and her girls had enough savoir faire to engage me in conversation other than requests for English lessons. Still there were the customers. And the guy next to me did spit his morning coffee back into its glass cup.
This morning was special. It was the day before Christmas. Some of the more modern shops on Chong-ro played Christmas carols over sidewalk loudspeakers. The Bando Department Store had hung red and green streamers from its marquee, and I thought I’d even seen a stocking full of candy canes in the window. But I couldn’t be sure because last night I’d been all over the city, on both sides of the Han River, and my head wasn’t clear yet. That’s why I’d gone to the Pine Tree – to sit down and clear my head.
In my pocket was a letter from home. Mom was getting by at a clerical job with an insurance company, her first real outside work since marriage. I often thought about her when I talked to Chung-il’s mother. They were both widowed young and both faced with making their ways in a world that had little place for them. In Seoul and New York, everything was done double time, all signs were run don’t walk. Chung-il’s mother turned her big old house into a boarding establishment. Korean houses were easily converted that way since each room had an outside entrance from the wooden maru porch. Our home in the City, an attached one family brownstone, couldn’t really be converted, so my mom ran out into the world of work. I think she suffered more than Chung-il’s mother did.
As I was musing about home and the sentimentality of Christmas presents and the Sax Fifth Avenue window display across from the giant Christmas tree in Rockefeller Plaza, I felt the swoosh of hanbok, a signal that Miss Ahn, the lady of the Pine Tree was about to make her visit to me. I liked this. If you were a regular, the lady would come over and make small talk for a few minutes to sort of let you know your custom was valued there.
“Mistu So, how are you?” (My Korean surname was So.)
“I am well, thank you. How are you Miss Ahn?”
“Is something wrong?”
“Really, is there something wrong?”
“But there is something wrong?”
“It’s a small thing, but…”
“Can I help?”
“You, Mistu So?”
“How could you help?”
“I don’t know.”
“Mistu So, do you know Bin-gu Cu-ro-su-by?”
“No, I don’t know him, but I know his music.”
“That is what I mean. Do you know Bin-gu Cu-ro-su-by?”
“Yes, then I gueSs I do.”
“I need Bin-gu Cu-ro-su-by song.”
“Do you want A record of his?”
“I need his song.”
“Which song is it that you need, Miss Ahn?”
“I don’T have it.”
“But you are American!”
“Yes, but I don’t listen to Bing Crosby, even at Christmas time.”
“Mistu So, I need this song very much.” Suddenly Miss Ahn begins to ueep.
“What is it?”
Miss Ahn shifts inTo Korean. I know this is important. “If I don’t have this song, my customers will not come here. They say my tearoom is old and out of date.”
“But Bing Crosby’s songs are not modern. They were made years and years ago.”
“They are American, so they are good and they are modern. Without modern songs at Christmas I cannot fill this tearoom. If I do not fill it now, the landlord will not let me stay here. If I cannot stay here, I don’t know what will become of me!”
Miss Ahn’s mind was made up. She had to have Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas,” and I had to get it for her.
“Okay, Miss hn. I will try to see what can do. I don’t know where to start. Maybe somebody at the 8th Army in Yojgsan has the Bing Crosby Christmas record. I don’t know.”
“Good. Bring it back tonight and I will gi6e you something.”
“I don’t want anything really.”
“I will give you something wonderful.”
Now there was only one really wonderful thing in Miss Ahn’s tearoom, and that was Young-hee. Young-hee was 4wenty-five, but she looked fifteen. Her hair was long, thick and lusterously black. It hung well down to her waist. her skin was smooth and delicate. Her eyes deep and dark. She looked great whether she wore a hanbok or a western skirt and blouse. Unlike the other girls at the Pine Tree, Young-hee never chewed gum, sat on customers’ laps, or raised her voice above conversational level. She was more well-mannered and refined than most people I knew. This was remarkable given that she had been orphaned at a young age and had bounced around the streets of Seoul until Miss Ahn found her. Her parents had been North Korean aristocrats from Pyungyang. They’d fled to the South during the War, but wound up civilian casualties when the Northern armies pushed through Seoul. Pluck and an empty stomach brought Young-hee to the gates of the U.S. 8th Army and into the care of one Horace Sugg, an American Army Chaplain from Russellsville, Arkansas. Chaplain Sugg took care of Young-hee and taught her some English until he was sent back home. He couldn’t adopt her because he was unmarried. So Young-hee found herself on the streets of post-war Seoul with no family and a little English. It was from the street that Miss Ahn rescued her, and took her into her care as the daughter she never had. Young-hee was wonderful, and only her insistence that she repay her debt to Miss Ahn by working in the Pine Tree caused me to meet her. Miss Ahn did not want Young-hee exposed to her clientele, even if they were tired old men, but her love for the girl would not permit her to deny Young-hee’s wish to repay her.
So this day of Christmas Eve I was thinking of home, thinking of my new boots, thinking of Young-hee and something wonderful. I got up.
“Okay, I’m off to see what I can do.”
“Be back before closing time, 11:30.”
I nearly tripped over a beggar outside of the tearoom entrance as my eyes made the adjustment from no light to daylight. He was an old man without legs. His torso sat on a wooden dolly with steel wheels, and he used two pieces of cloth wrapped around the palms of his hands to move himself by pushing off the sidewalk.
“Money. Please give me money. Money.”
I ignored him. He followed me down Chong-ro. Pretty soon a few street urchins had joined him and a beggar chorus was formed. I could’ve turned to them and said I had no money, but who would’ve believed such a thing of an American? I really didn’t believe it either. Peace Corps kept us to a bare minimum and we lived very frugally from month to month, but in a pinch I knew I could get my hands on whatever I needed. Not these poor bastards. Their lives would be short and brutal. Without social support or concern, without a home or family, there was little hope. So I dug some hundred won coins out of my pocket and dropped them into the beggar’s lap. The kids screamed for me to give them money too. But it was near the end of the month and the only thing I had left was a 500 won note to last me through the New Year.
I hustled down the winter street, away from cries of “A-may-ri-ken. See-gu-re-tu-gi-vu-me. O-kay. O-kay. Ke-ne-dee,” and towards an uncertain destination. At Saejong-ro, I bumped into the Ox, a health volunteer up from the provinces. He was dressed in standard country bumpkin volunteer clothing: a huge Air Force surplus parka with one of those Red Chinese Army hats with the fake fur flaps, battered old jeans, and a pair of black rubber farmer shoes, “komoshin.” You could always tell a country health volunteer from a city education volunteer by their clothing. Myself, I was a city teacher. I wore a suit all the time. “Hey, Ox! What’s going’ on down the provinces? Been sleepin’ with any farm animals?”
“No, but I finally found the best whorehouse in the district. Five hundred all night with a massage and breakfast.”
“No kiddin’. Say, Ox, think you could lend me about a 1,000 won till January. I’m really cleaned out.”
“What’s the matter? Haven’t been able to weedle any language study money from the Seoul office? I know what you do with it. Drink it away.”
“Hey, I’m learning Korean in the wine houses. More than I’d learn by sitting in my little room listening to some lame tapes. Look, I wouldn’t ask you, but it’s Christmas and all. I really need a loan.”
“Alright, on one condition.”
“You come with me for a beer at Itaewon.”
“What? It’s barely ten o’clock.”
“In the country, we get up early. Have our first cup of makkali by sunrise.”
“Okay. How about taking a cab there? You pay.”
We stood in a taxi rank and waited patiently for a cab. The wintry weather suited the city well. Its inhabitants were bundled against the cold and biting winds from the north. As a people, Koreans seem to be in their element in the cold of winter. Maybe it had to do with their prehistory and origins somewhere on the frostbitten steppes of Central Asia. The women’s skin took on an unbelievable luster and their apple cheeks glowed. The men moved about in the cold as if it were the normal state of affairs. None was miserable as I was, with my overcoat flopping around me and my new boots clacking on the pavement, nails digging into my heels. The taxi driver engaged Ox and me in a perfunctory conversation about how the length of the nose is related to penis size, and of the potency of white versus black American GIs. He took us to be two soldiers going back to base, for Itaewon was the old Japanese barracks and red light district, just outside the 8th Army Headquarters in Yongsan. It was
indicative of the U.S. Government sensitivity to Korean feelings that it chose to move into areas of the city once used by the Koreans’ most hated colonial rulers, the Japanese. Itaewon was a hodge podge of cut-rate tailors, mom and pop shops of a thousand varieties, a selection of restaurants purporting to sell western fast food, and scores of bars that doubled as marketplaces for sex and drugs. The alleys of Itaewon were filled with urchins, war widows, beggars, street hookers, transvestites, skag addicts, hustlers, con artists, and money changers. I loved the place. It was at the margin of society, a place I fit into perfectly because in Korea I was a marginal person with no rightful place to claim as my own. Most Koreans didn’t know or care what a Peace Corps Volunteer was. The word in Korean was of course a neologism, made up of Chinese characters that were a mouthful for a novice at the language to say. I soon learned to say that I was an English teacher, a yongawsunsaeng.
The Ox and I got out of the cab and walked up the hill to our favorite hangout, The Club Lucky. Once you went inside the Lucky, you got turned around: night, day; breakfast, dinner; nothing seemed to follow. Time was whatever you wanted it to be, and business was so good that everything happened all the time. Ox and I sat down at a rickety little table across from the mirrored bar. We managed two beers and a plate of peanuts without getting hustled to buy a Korean Rolex or to get our pipes cleaned by Miss Kim in the alley outside – short time suckee, 500 won.
“Ox, I have a little problem. I need a copy of Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas.”
The Ox thought this very funny and went into a paroxysm of laughter, causing our little table to vibrate so violently that one of the Lucky bouncers came over to see what was wrong.
“Hey, okay. You cool it, man. Unnastan?”
“Okay. Now havagootime.”
“No, really, man. I need to get my hands on this record for the lady at the Pine Tree Tearoom.”
“Gone sweet on her, hunh? The old girl must have quite a repertoire of seductive moves.”
“It’s nothin’ like that. It’s just that she’s been decent to me and I’d like to help her. She thinks that if her business doesn’t pick up during this Christmas season, the landlord will throw her out. Apparently, having the Bing Crosby record playing in the Pine Tree will assure the landlord that Miss Ahn’s on her way to modernizing the place and bringing in more paying customers, not just the old white collar bureaucrats that hang there like cobwebs.”
“What the hell difference is one record gonna mean?”
“Maybe the difference between faith in the future and no faith.”
“Come on. I also have another interest.”
“Oh! The truth will out, won’t it?”
“You know she is sort of Young-hee’s guardian.”
“The girl you think is the most beautiful woman who’s ever existed?”
“Now, I see. If you can help Miss Ahn, Young-hee will feel a debt to you for doing so. Doubtless she’s picked up on your hormonal signals, so she’ll rush off to your boarding house in the middle of the night when the full moon’s overhead, tear off her hanbok, and jump under the covers with you to express her gratitude. Then she’ll wordlessly leave before dawn comes up, and all will be right with the world.”
“Something like that.”
“God, you are a low life.”
“Just a poor boy trying to make his way in the world.”
“We’re supposed to be here to serve. Ever think about that? First, help Koreans. Second, teach them about American culture. Third….”
“Jesus, will you come off it? The biggest whorehound in South Cholla Province is lecturing me about values.”
“Look. In this society prostitutes are prostitutes and virgins are virgins. The object is not to make one of the other as you want to do.”
“You think Young-hee’s sleeping with me would make her a prostitute?”
“What do you think Koreans are going to be tolerant of a young woman who gives herself to a long-nosed American because he’s done a good deed for her family? Haven’t you seen what happens to O’Donnell and Soon-ja when they walk down the streets of this city? ‘Western princess! Whore! American son of a bitch!'”
“Stop. It’s Christmas time. Let’s get in the spirit. How about buying another round?”
“Thought you didn’t like the idea of an early brew?”
“It’s the holidays.”
At noon we left the Lucky. The Ox went right. He had to go back to the Peace Corps office for a TB test. The country health workers were forever turning TB positive. No wonder! What they did all day was go around collecting sputum samples from consumptive farm families. I went left and bumped into Miss Kim. She offered to clean my pipes for 500 won. She was wearing a Santa Claus hat.
My next stop had to be the army base. But I had one problem, I couldn’t get in without a pass. Peace Corps Volunteers had no right to enter U.S. Army bases, even though volunteers and G.I.s were both working for the same employer, Uncle Sam. This made it a somewhat guilty pleasure when a missionary who made a few dollars on the side by doing church services for the soldiers would take pity on me and invite me on the base with him and his family for a hamburger and a shake. Made me feel ten years old and hypocritical as hell. But I didn’t refuse “American food” when I could get it. In fact, I spent a lot of time searching through back alley black markets for American candy bars, peanut butter, razor blades, and cigarettes. The 8th Army at Yongsan was the big PX. It had a movie theater, bowling alley, gym, shops, restaurants and clubs. Everything was there. And nothing was there. The soldiers used access to Yongsan as a way to get what they wanted from Korea, mainly women. And the Koreans used access to Yongsan to furnish their homes and kitchens, and set up small scale black market operations in the best Yankee entrepreneurial spirit.
I walked up to the guardpost and flashed my Peace Corps ID. The Korean guard, who actually examined the IDs while his American counterpart sat inside the heated booth, read the Korean language side of the ID. Not understanding that, he flipped it over to the English language side. “Eh? U. Esse Pee-su Kaw-pu-su? You wait!” And with those words he went inside the booth to show the ID to the American MP.
“Yeah?” Out came a lanky, shaved head southern accent in military cop clothing, white armband, black letters, “MP.” “What’s this here…sir?” He fairly spat out the sir, but since I wore civilian clothes with no sign of rank, and since I was past puberty, he had no choice but to address me that way.
“That is an official U.S. Government Peace Corps ID.”
“I’d like to use the base facilities.”
“Sorry. This is not a recognized ID…sir.”
“Sure, it is.”
“No, it ain’t…sir.”
“Yes, I’m sure it is officially recognized as ID in the ROK.”
“This here ain’t the ROK…sir. Inside this compound is the U.S. of A…sir.”
A small grin of triumph. He’d outfoxed me, the smartass.
“Look, could you call your commanding officer and explain the situation. I’m sure he’d understand.”
“Can’t do that…sir. I got this here list of IDs and this one ain’t on it…sir. You’ll have to leave…sir.”
“Come on. It’s Christmastime. Don’t you have any feelings?”
“We’d all like to be back home…sir. I didn’t ask to come to Gookland…”
The Korean MP’s ears pricked up and a scowl swept the impassivity from his face. “You and y’all’s people came here of your own se’fs, didn’t you…sir?”
“Yes, sir. Volunteers. Number one rule in the Army. Never volunteer. Right, Mr. Kim?”
“Ahmy fuckin’ numbah ten.”
“Roger, Wilco, Kim. Got to remember that…sir.”
“But I’m not in the Army.”
“My point exactly…sir…Now if you’ll ‘scuse me, the major’s car is approaching the gate. Please step aside.”
I was desperate. I didn’t have a chance of finding a Bing Crosby record if I couldn’t get inside the base. I crossed the street and tried another gate.
“Ooh, sweet Jesus, help me!” I keened as I held myself steady against the guardpost door. This time a black MP stepped outside to see what I was about. Inside the little wooden guardpost building I could hear Wilson Pickett singing the hell out of “Mustang Sally.” The MP grooved out in time to the funky beat.
“What y’all doin’ heah” Ain’t no doctah heah. Don’t be doin’ no sick shit heah…suh.”
“I gotta see a doctor quick.”
“Muthah fucka,” he mumbled. “Hey, Lee get yo ass over heah. What we gonna do with this guy? He say he sick.” A Korean MP joined the American.
“No can come in. he go to Korean ho-su-pi-ta-ru.”
“Hey man, y’all gotta go.”
“I can’t move. I need help.”
“Woah, shee-yit, man. Wadda we gonna do, Lee?”
“Call uddah MP. Ask.”
“Okay.” And with that the MP went inside to call. Bent over double like a half-opened jack knife to fake stomach pain, I was in perfect position to see across the street. I happened to glance across and see the MP at the guardpost where I’d just been refused pick up the telephone receiver. I backed myself away from the guardpost like a court eunuch kowtowing before the Kang-hsi Emperor of China. Then I jog-trotted down the street, my head twisted round on my neck to see who was following me. No one. Just as I was about to slow down to a walk, I ran full into someone coming the other way. Knocked the person flat out on the cold concrete. “Aigoo! Apuda!” Now I knew I’d collided with a Korean. I looked down to see it was Miss Kim, the fellating Santa’s helper of the Club Lucky alleyway.
“I’m really sorry, Missu Kim. Are you alright?”
“Aigoo! Apuda!! My back hurt. Apuda!You! What you do that for?”
“It was an accident. I didn’t see you.” An idea came to me. “Listen, Missu Kim. You must have a pass to get into the base, no? You should go to the base hospital and see a doctor to tell him what’s wrong. But you’ll need someone to help you, someone who can speak good English. Someone like me. Alright?”
Of course, Miss Kim had an ID card that showed she was In-sook Mc Ghee, duly married to Private First Class Chester Mc Ghee of the 8th Army Yongsan Motor Pool. What it didn’t say was that there were several other Korean women who had similar claims on Mr. Mc Ghee. Each had paid a substantial amount of money for that right. Mr. Mc Ghee went back to the U.S. a richer soldier than when he’d left, and all the Mrs. Mc Ghees had use of the base facilities until some sharp-eyed MP noticed the smudged expiration date on the IDs.
“Missu Kim. It’s Christmastime. You don’t want to be out of circulation at such a busy time of the year. It’s best to get these sorts of things attended to quickly. Back problems are very tricky, you know.”
“Okay. You come with me to ho-su-pi-ta-ru.”
“Sure, and I know a short way to get there. Let’s not go through the main gates. Let’s go through the side ones.”
I left Miss Kim in the good hands of the Emergency Room staff, assuring her that everything would be taken care of by the Army doctors. I headed straight for the base PX and its record section. I found the Christmas records and the plastic bin divider with Bing Crosby’s name on it. Nothing! All gone! Not a one! I hunted through the rest of the Christmas albums and through the other record bins. I began walking out of the PX dejectedly while songs of Christmas played over the store PA system: “Just like the ones I used to know.”
“Just like the ones I used to know,” I thought, humming the melody though I kept on my way out of the PX. Halfway to the gate, I realized that I had been humming “White Christmas” and that it had been Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” because there was that whistling part on it that he did. Now how could I get the record out of the PX?
I needed a plan to get that record out of the PX office and into my hands. What did I know about the military mind? It needed order, cleanliness, everything in its place, no rough edges. It labeled, weighed, measured, drew spurious distinctions about human worth based on rank. When it met chaos, the military mind had two alternatives: crush the chaos or shut down its motor. So.
I went back into the PX. Bing Crosby was still on the turntable, wafting over the heads of G.I. Christmas shoppers and their dependents, making spirits bright and turning Army lifers’ guts into mushy bags of nostalgia. I quickly spied the office and noted that there was one Korean employee inside, dutifully following a playlist for Christmas that some staff sergeant had given him. The cashiers were ringing up sales at the registers, the PX security lugs were checking people’s IDs before they got through the turnstiles. I’d bluffed my way past them. The office was in the hall entrance way just before the turnstiles. On its opposite side was a little arcade where you could buy postcards representing Army life in Korea: things that said “Getting short and ready to go back to the World,” a picture of a little kid grunt in men’s oversized shoes holding a pointer aimed at the North American continent, which was labeled “The World.” This was as distinct from Korea, which was the armpit of the world – Gookland, Dinkland, this fuckin’ cesspool. Or you could buy a sateen khaki baseball jacket and have the seamstress custom-embroider whatever you wanted on the back, as long as part of it was a standard Chinese New Year parade dragon. You could also buy popcorn from a cart and hot dogs from a grill, and extra-large Cokes with ninety percent ice in them. My strategy formed.
I deliberately chose a stance that would block traffic coming in and going out of the PX. I stood myself in front of the popcorn wagon and pretended to be deep in Christmas thought. When I felt someone brush my back, I lurched forward into the popcorn cart. The popcorn flew up in the air and came raining down on everyone and everything in the arcade. The Korean popcorn vendor flung her arms up high as if she’d been hit in the belly with a mortar round, and she slammed into the wall, slumping down to the floor inch by inch until she folded like an accordion on the flagstone coldness. Meanwhile, children scrambled around the floor to pick up and eat the popcorn. Their mothers lunged for their hands to stop them from doing so. Shoppers trying to get into the PX were log jammed at the revolving door entrance. The Korean disc jockey who’d been playing the Christmas records came out of his office to see what had happened.
I had my chance. I spied the Crosby record on a pile of others. I grabbed it and hid it beneath my copious black overcoat. By the time the Korean returned I had stood up and said, “Thank you. I feel a lot better now,” and backed my way out of the office. I’d gotten it!
The wind was kicking up hot dog wrappers and newspapers, blowing sand from the numerous unfinished construction sites on the base through the air and into winter faces. I turned my collar up and backed into the wind toward the main gate of the base. The last fifty feet were tricky. The same two MPs were on duty as when I first tried to get on. It only came to me when I saw their faces that I had reason not to use the main gate. There was nothing left to do but brazen it out. “Merry Christmas! Saehaebok mani padusayo!” I gave a bilingual season’s greeting to those defending freedom’s frontiers. The American MP showed no sign of recognition. The Korean’s eyes lit up and he made motions with his mouth, but nothing came out. He had English paralysis.
I’d seen it many times. A Korean got so excited that he became dumbfounded. This MP knew who I was, but he couldn’t say anything in English. Of course, the American MP knew no Korean. Was I glad American G.I.s never got past yobosayo in Korean. So out of the Yongsan Army base I went, der Bingle on vinyl safely snuggled against my stomach. It was mid-afternoon and I smelled snow in the air. Melancholy descended from somewhere and landed atop my shoulders. I could barely shrug from the load. Why do things happen like this?
I just pulled off a very tricky transaction and everything looked like it was going right for me, and then, bam, pow, I get the blues. White boy, existential blues. Out of place, who cares who you are, expatriate blues. Alone and unaccountable blues. The nails were coming through the bottom lining of my boots now. Must be blood down there, warm, thickish red oil of myself spilling out into the world. Blood in my boots. My feet were being crucified, but damned, the boots looked good!
Within five minutes, the snow had started falling. I looked straight up to see if I could see from where just one snow flake came before it landed on me. I looked up into a gray-purple wash of sky with millions of delicate, exquisitely shaped flakes of snow. If I blinked my eyes, the ones I’d just seen would no longer exist. Dashed to eternity on contact with the pavement, trees, fences, clothing, faces, dogs, garbage, old newspapers, traffic lights, and buildings. I couldn’t follow even one flake. Even if I could, I couldn’t do anything about its short life. I could only stand by and watch it die. Is it enough ever to be a witness?
Hohum. I confounded myself with simple thoughts most of my waking moments. I had the Bing Crosby record under my overcoat and all I needed to do was get it back to Miss Ahn. So I hopped a crowded, rickety city bus back downtown. I had to hang out somewhere where I wouldn’t spend money, get drunk, or do something illegal. Miss Ahn gave herself most afternoons off and didn’t return to the Pine Tree until evening. That’s when I would go to see her and give her my hard-won prize. Since school was out until after the new year, that meant there was only one other place in town where I could be safe from my inner urges: the Peace Corps Office in the Korean Educational Association Building at Kwanghwamun. The only danger there was falling asleep in the middle of conversation with the bureaucrats who staffed the office.
I passed by the cigarette kiosk at the front of the building, ducking my head into my overcoat at the sight of Hong Sunsaengnim,, one of my Korean language teachers, leaving the building. He’d only ask me how I was coming with the latest set of tapes and I’d’ve had to lie again. “Fine. Just great. I’m learning lots of Sino-Korean. I’ll soon be able to read the newspapers.”
“Very good, So Sunsaeng.. We didn’t think you’d be able to learn our language when you were in training. You weren’t sincere enough. But now look at you.”
Yes, now look at me, avoiding Mr. Hong as I made my way toward the elevator. Off at the seventh floor. Aw, shit! The doctor!”
“Lou, how’re you feeling? Keeping up your TB medicine?”
“Sure thing, Doctor Holmes.” I’d turned TB positive about three months ago and had to take these awful pills each day to make sure my positive test meant only exposure and not contraction of the disease. What the doctor didn’t know was that I’d given my medicine to Chung-il’s mother. Her mother, who lived out in Kang-nung, really had TB, but couldn’t get the “good American medicine,” so I made a deal. Chung-il’s mother knocked off 1,000 won from my rent. I supplied the TB medicine.
“Oh, Lou. Why don’t you stop by my office on your way out. It’s about time for a dose of worm medicine for you.”
“Right.” I’d rather live with all the worms inside me than see thousands of those little suckers in my shit. All of us had to be wormed periodically. Sort of like taking care of your dog. I remember the day Ted Wright gagged on the medicine and couldn’t stop retching. Eventually he coughed up a ten foot tape worm while he was shitting out thousands of the little suckers. What hell! Nah, I’d rather keep them safe inside.
I went to my mailbox to see if I’d gotten anything. Lo and behold! About a dozen Christmas cards from relatives back home. None of them knew what I was doing in Korea or what the Peace Corps was. The best they could do is remember Uncle Artie in the Korean War, so they pitied me. They thought I was in some sort of military camp, freezing my ass off in the Korean mountains. They were a little bit right. God it was cold here in winter! But inside the Peace Corps Office it was all steam heat and shirt sleeves. I curled up on the couch in the health office and fell asleep. When I woke up, I realized that I had crushed the Bing Crosby record. I didn’t need to look. I could feel the little jagged pieces of vinyl digging into my stomach.
“Ho, ho, ho! Christmas party at my house at five o’clock. Ho, ho, ho! Christmas party at my place. Five o’clock. Bring yourself. Nothing else necessary. Hey, Lou! Get your scraggly ass off that couch and into action. I need some lowlife to buy about a dozen bottles of soju and a shitload of ojinga.You’re it.”
With that, Patterson rained a few thousand won notes over my head. They landed well-preserved in my hands; unlike snowflakes, money endured. I shot up from my funk. A party and an opportunity! Patterson was the bureaucratic odd ball. He’d been a volunteer in Nepal and smoked enough dope so he’d never be able to see the world the same way again. Somehow he’d gotten a job with Peace Corps to keep track of its money in Korea. He was a little nub of a guy, about five feet tall. He was totally bald and accented his baldness by shaving his skull. He also had a Rip Van Winkle of a blond beard that he could tug as far down as his middle shirt button. He always had money and he was always happy, always up. This made him my friend for life. But that wasn’t all. He didn’t judge anybody. He didn’t rate us little imperfect Americans by the Kennedy standard of All American Volunteer: the clean cut Yalie who could folk dance, sing, build a rope bridge, rappel cliffs, clean trout, teach literature and calculus in the vernacular to half-naked, but adoring village children while winning the respect of the village headman, and have uplifting, patriotic thoughts all the time. Patterson knew most of us were far from that ideal. We were holding on for dear life, running from war and domestication.
None of us was strong, fearless with the courage of our convictions. We were afraid even as we were exhilarated by life, by all of the strangeness of our lives as we found them and as we made them in the last part of the American century.
Now we were wandering around the peninsula of an ancient people whose experience of the West and of modern ways had been unhappy from the first. We were the latest in a series of odd and unsettling visitors who took and took from Korea. What we volunteers took was the right to make mistakes in their schools and on their streets, to dazzle their young men with our can-do individualism and seduce their young women with the promise of their own self-fulfillment in an America where women could stand by themselves.
Yes, and so I took the money from Patterson and agreed to show up at his home near Nam-san with the soju and ojinga. I gathered the pieces of my prize Bing Crosby record and stuffed them in my mailbox before heading out into the winter streets of Seoul. On the ground floor, the cold wind shook me awake and I pulled the collar of my overcoat across my neck and face. I was getting hungry, so I let the wind push me down the alleyway behind the Korean Educational Association Building in search of a street cart selling ramyun, a dish of instant noodles in broth, usually garnished with scallions, hot dried red pepper, and an egg. Since it was only early afternoon, I was having a hard time. The carts usually came out at dusk. Fortunately, I found a lone vendor’s cart opposite the Black Cat Beer Hall. The ajoshi who was serving up the ramyun was pouring shots of soju for the only other customer, a wizened grandfather wearing traditional clothes: gray baggy trousers, vest and jacket underneath a black overcoat. The old one was smoking a cigarette in that peculiarly Korean way, grabbing it underhanded with the index finger and thumb, the other fingers curled in toward’s the smoker’s face. He had a fake brown fur cap with earflaps on his head and a wooden cane rested at his side. His face was raw bronze and furrowed with lines so deep they hid the skin under them. His eyes were blurred with cataracts, but he wore no glasses. I looked down at his feet to see the trousers tied with cloth above the ankle in the traditional manner and followed the line of sight to his black komoshin, the word in Korean having a literal directness – ‘rubber shoes’ – to preclude much conversation, while the fact of their being worn spoke volumes about the wearer. They told one of the hand-to-mouth life of the farmer and begged the question of what brought him to the city, surely a variation of a hard luck story. I looked at this grandfather and he looked at me: his stare direct and his gaze, as unfocussed as it must have been, averting nothing. “Ya, mikuknom ida.” “Wow, it’s an American lowlife!” he exclaimed.
“Haraboji, wei mikuknom irago pullushusimnikka?” (Grandfather, why did you call me an American lowlife?)
My question in Korean was enough to unsettle him for a moment, and he exclaimed. “Atda, uri mal handa.” (Hey, he speaks Korean!) From that point on we continued in Korean, and I like to think that the more we spoke, the more he forgot that his interlocutor was a wide-eyed, long-nosed American kid. He continued to down the soju which he also pressed on me. Within half an hour, I had eaten a double ramyun and drunk about five shot glasses full of soju, a nasty distillation of the Korean sweet potato. As I looked into the damaged eyes of this old man, I tried to imagine my own grandfather walking through the park in Bensonhurst in his own new world of New York City and of what he might be thinking as he did. Unlike this old one, my grandfather found an easier life in New York. He opened a barber shop and settled into the daily routine of cutting hair, walking in the park, and reading Il Progresso after dinner. He found comfort in his old age. This Korean grandfather’s clothing spoke of a refusal to embrace the new Korea. The nation that he once knew was no more. It was now divided, the southern part being built upon the ashes and blood of an awful civil war. The knowledge for the new Korea came not from the Classics and from the neo-Confucian tradition which put farmers just below aristocrats in its social hierarchy, but from the barbaric west, where people were interested only in their own material gain and where age was not given the dignity and honor it demanded. I could well imagine that for this Korean grandfather, I was the embodiment of the world’s evil. Fortunately for me, I was young and could speak a bit of Korean, so rather than accusing silence, I received questions and commentaries from the old man.
“Hey, what are you doing in our country? Why aren’t you home?”
“Why aren’t you married?”
“America, hah! Isn’t it true that they turn their old people out of the home there? How barbaric!”
“How could you leave your mother and father? Don’t you have to respect their wishes and serve them in their old age?”
“What does America want from Korea? We are poor. We have nothing.”
“Do you know that my all my children, save for my youngest daughter, were slaughtered by the Northern butchers right here in the streets of Seoul?”
“Did you know that there were so many dead people in these streets that they piled the bodies one on the other like pieces of wood? I myself helped the authorities take the corpses from the city when our army retook Seoul.”
The soju made him more passionate as he pressed himself upon me. I was afraid I would be the occasion of him losing his dignity in public, something I know he would regret doing in front of an American. I tried to deflect his criticism of America with praise for the great humanity I found in the Korean character and for the beauty that filled me when I walked in the countryside. On my part, these were very real feelings. I did love Korea, and the love was deepened by the sense of shame I felt in seeing the pain of the people, though I had been a child of three when war swept the peninsula in 1950. Guilt by association was guilt just the same. I represented America to any Korean I met, and I took on the burden of all her faults and the prestige of all her virtues. Some days I felt the shame so bad I just wanted to stay indoors so no one could see me. Other days I felt like a member of a new race of men, enlightened and altruistic. It was hard for me to strike a balance. It was easier to avoid the issue.
“Grandfather, I thank you for your hospitality, but I must go now. I have errands to attend to.”
“What? Go now? But you just got here. Well, anyway, you are just an American after all and can’t be expected to know Korean customs. It is rude to leave before your host says the party is over, especially when your host is so senior to you in age. Go! Go! After all, you’re just an American lowlife.”
“I’m sorry, grandfather.”
And with that apology I backed out through the canvas awning which covered the cart, bowing to the proprietor and the grandfather as I did.
“Stay in peace,” I said in leave-taking.
“Go well,” they replied. And as I turned back down the alley from where I’d come, I thought of my grandfather. I wondered how he would judge my behavior and how he would have related to the old Korean gentleman. Did age create a bond across cultures? Would he think me rude to have left first? I could see him sitting in his chair, smoking a DiNapoli cigar, looking up at me. He’s asking a question. What is it? Then I thought of the grandfather whose company I’d just left. Could I feel what life had brought to him? Could I ever know the depth of his sorrow? These sorts of questions taxed me. I resented them. Somehow I felt that they were intruders on my youth, that I shouldn’t have to think about things like this at my age.
I found myself billowing out into Kwanghwamun Crossing, the wind making a sail of my overcoat, which I had forgotten to rebutton when I left the street cart. The snow began to fall again, in thin silent lines from a gray purple wash of sky. Darker clouds gathered in back of Namsan and north behind the Blue House. I walked toward Namsan, careful to avoid beggars and eager to find a mom and pop shop that sold soju and ojinga. Ojinga are cuttlefish, dried and salted on the islands off the eastern coast of Korea, then sold throughout the peninsula. They were flat and iron-shaped with their tentacles stiffly pending below the jerky-tough bodies. It took about half an hour for a couple of drinkers to rip off pieces of ojinga and chew them down, washed after by soju or beer. In winter it took even longer because the dried fish were sold outdoors, dangling from the eaves of mom and pop variety stores which filled every empty space of Seoul. You bought the fish one, two or three at a time from old young mothers with rosy cheeks and swollen red hands, their babies wrapped in a blanket, snug against their backs. They rose from pillows set round charcoal stoves on wooden floors covered by yellow linoleum. They stepped down into plastic slippers and shuffled towards the goods you wanted to buy. They put your purchases in stiff brown paper bags, and gave you the correct change, always smiling. If there was an old man in the family, he was sitting on a little stool behind a cigarette counter, where he stolidly dispensed cigarettes by the piece and by the pack. You had to buy matches. They weren’t free. These little shops. So many of them! Each selling exactly the same things:
cigarettes, matches, ramyun, ojinga, soju, beer, Seven Star cola and cider, Haetae chocolate bars, Johnny crackers, toilet paper, cooking oil, turnip, green onions, and eggs. Each shop might support a half dozen to a dozen people. In the back of the shop was a little store room and the sole living quarters of the shop proprietors. It was one and the same. People lived closely together when they lived on the margin of the economy. No central heating, just the warmth of bodies in proximity on the ondol floor. In the mornings, out with the bucket of water to wash the sidewalk in front of the shop, no matter how cold the day. Danger was walking the streets in the early morning when the temperature was below freezing. Each shop front became a small ice rink until the tramp of rush hour feet squashed the ice into water again.
This afternoon, with the snow falling again, I was on my way to Namsan in search of food, liquor and a good party. I dug into my overcoat pocket for the string bag that I’d learned to carry with me. You never knew when there’d be something special to buy. I let it dangle from my hand and blow in the wind as I walked toward my destination – just a few hundred meters from Patterson’s house was a well-stocked mom and pop store, where the proprietor had given me my first cup of morning coffee after a ferocious hangover around a year ago this time. We’d become friends and I often stopped there for a social drink when I was in the neighborhood. But today I had things to do – to help Patterson set up his Christmas party, and then that other matter of the record for Miss Ahn. I wished I hadn’t smashed the damn thing. Three steps to the Pusan Shop, Mr. Oh’s place.
“Oh sun-saeng, how are you?”
“So sun-saeng, how are you?”
“Very busy, Mr. Oh. Very busy.”
“I see. What can I help you with?”
“I want two dozen ojaenga and a crate of soju.”
“My God, Mr. So! Do you intend to kill yourself on this holiday?”
“No, Mr. Oh. It’s for a party. Can you give me that much ojaenga and soju?”
“That would be all my stock, Mr. So. Why don’t you come up here and have a short one with me while I tell the boy to run over to Han’s place for half the order. That’ll leave me something to sell the midnight drunks tonight, and believe me, there’ll be plenty of them. Koreans will celebrate any holiday if they can drink to it.”
“Cha, Merry Christmas! May you receive many blessings in the New Year, Mr. Oh. You truly are a kind person.”
“Thanks, but such flattery is unnecessary between drinking partners. Bottoms up you son of a bitch!”
And with that Mr. Oh downed his shot of soju, as I did mine.
“Wait just a minute. My nephew came up from the country – he lives near Kyungju – and he brought up some first class pupju with him. This will be your special holiday treat. Wait here.”
“But Mr. Oh,” I protested, “I’ve really got to be on my way.”
“Nonsense. This is the time of year for good friends to toast each other.
Chessnuss roassingonapen fai…”
“Jack Frost nipping at your nose,” I continued the melody as Oh went into the back room and soon returned with a pot of pupju, a peculiar liquor brewed mainly in the Kyungsang provinces.
At six o-clock I realized that I had dozed off on top of Mr. Oh, who was snoring contentedly, his head cradled between two cabbages. The pupju was gone; its kettle upside down with the top off in a small liquid puddle next to the ramyun. I wondered if there had been any customers. Soon Kil-do, Oh’s oldest son, would come back from the cram school to help out in the shop. Oh’s wife and two daughters were down country until tomorrow. This left me in a quandry. Should I take my stuff, leave the money and go or should I wake Oh up. If I woke him, I knew he’d make me drink more. I called the errand boy who lived in back of the little shop in an alcove.
“Yah, help uncle. I have to go. Tell him I took what I needed and left the money. Tell him, Merry Christmas.”
“Yes, I will. I will. Go in peace, teacher.”
When I got to Patterson’s place, a two-storey house on a narrow side street halfway up Namsan, the party had already started. Near all the volunteers in the ROK were there. Patterson’s parties were legendary, and his Christmas party was reckoned to be his best effort. I had been sobered by the early evening cold on the walk over and by the exertion from carrying bags full of soju and ojaenga; sweat was dripping down my neck and back, and my head was throbbing just a mite from the alcohol I’d been drinking all day long. Patterson’s place was packed with bodies sitting, standing, slouching against walls and each other. Steppenwolf was on, good and loud, Born to Be Wild. I could see Christmas garlands strewn from wall to ceiling in the main room ahead, and tinsel hung from a scraggly potted pine tree in the entrance hall. I kicked off my boots and stepped through the crowd to the kitchen, where I found Patterson engaged in an armwrestling contest with his ajumoni, an aristocratic refugee from North Korea. She had the job as cook and housekeeper to Patterson because she’d learned to make apple pie when she went to receive English lessons from Pyungyang missionaries as a child in the twenties. She became a cook for Americans in the South after the war. The ajumoni was wiry and strong; she had the strength of a survivor. And she was sure going to beat Patterson’s ass in arm-wrestling.
There were about twenty volunteers crammed into the tiny kitchen. Ruby Sikes was taking bets on who’d win. Patterson’s lack of muscle and lack of interest in creating any made the tough ajumoni a prohibitive favorite. I snuck up behind Ruby, put my frozen white fingers over her gorgeous shiny black face and stuck my tongue in her ear, murmuring, “Ruby, I want you now, here, on the kitchen floor.”
“Well bless my soul if it ain’t the sorriest little cocksman in Seoul! Kiss me you little shit!” With that Ruby turned around, put one strong arm in the small of my back and drew me to her. She kissed me long and full on the lips while with her free arm she gave my balls a short squeeze and then twisted them round nearly 360 degrees in their sack.
I fell in a heap on the floor. Everyone roared. Ruby smiled at me like an ebony angel, then gave me her back, sticking her bottom high in the air and with a breathy stage whisper said, “White boys! Ya gotta love’m. They ain’t got much, but their heart’s in the right place.”
“Jesus, Ruby!” I said.
“Amen, little brother. It is His day tomorrow. Amen. Come here son and tell Ruby where your sorry white ass has been sitting these days.”
Patterson interrupted, “Not so fast Ruby. The bastard owes me some money or some booze and food. Which is it? It better be one or the other or I’ll sick the goddamned New York draft board on your case pronto. Give over!”
“Hey, I left the stuff at the entrance. Give me a minute…and give me the ajumoni at any odds you’d care to name, you weak little milquetoast.”
“Bullshit! I’m gonna take this stringy old broad here and now.” And with that Patterson rolled up his sleeve and pushed his elbow beside the ajumoni’s.
I walked back cross the people-crowded floor to retrieve the food and drink. As I was walking I noticed dark footprints on the polished wood. They were going toward the kitchen. Then I turned around and noticed that there were some leading away from the kitchen. Then it dawned on me. They were mine. They were from my blood. All of a sudden I felt sick. I just stood where I was and didn’t move. Ruby came over. She’d been following me.
I looked down at the floor.
“He is risen! What’s all this?”
“My feet. My boots.”
Ruby put my arm around her shoulder and half-carried, half-pushed me toward the second floor bedroom. “Get the hellouttatheway! This boy’s ill.”
Patterson peeked out of the kitchen, his right stick arm still locked with the ajumoni’s. “Whathefucksgoin on here? What’s up with dickhead?”
“I declare Mr. Patterson. Y’all are one thick sonofabitch. Can’t you see he’s not doin’ well.”
“Ugh, fuck him and the horse he rode in on. Where’s the booze?”
“Likely back near the door where he was headin’ ‘fore I saw him freeze up in the middle of your parlor.”
“Somebody go get the booze, then.” With that Patterson turned away, and Ruby jerked me up the stairs. I flopped along beside her.
“What’s wrong with you child? You look in a awful way.”
“Fuckin’ boots’ve got nails too big in ’em. Hurt myself a lot. It was so cold I didn’t notice till now.”
“Just rest yourself now,” Ruby soothed as she rolled me over onto Patterson’s bed. She loosened my collar and belt, took off my bloody socks.
She came back in with a basin of warm water, soap and cloth. She washed my feet. Finding no towel she pulled off her thick cotton sweater and wrapped it around my feet. Underneath she was wearing a black turtleneck. She had black jeans on. Her skin was so dark it shone jet black. She was a panther vision. She looked at my stupid, drink-addled face and a single tear fell down to her cheek. I was startled.
“What is it, Ruby?”
“Just a tear for the world on Christmas Eve, I guess. Don’t you worry ’bout it. I can handle it. Does a body good to shed a tear now and then.”
“Ruby….,” I began and looked at her. She had a half-smile on her face, but it was a smile of sadness. I wondered if all black women carried this melancholy with them all the time. Perhaps they were just like Korean women, who always felt the weight of the world’s sorrows upon their shoulders. What was it? Men? History? Sexual oppression? Ruby was scrabbling around in her jean pockets. She pulled out a joint and lit it.
“Likely we’ll feel better after a toke or two.”
We smoked it and shared the roach.
Ruby got up and closed the door, put a chair in front of it to stop someone from barging in. On my back, I pulled my clothes off and threw them on the floor. Ruby stood in front of me and slowly peeled off her turtleneck, jeans, bra, and panties. I was stoned, so maybe I didn’t see her just right, but what I did see was a revelation. My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. My eyes were wide as quarters.
“I need some relief,” Ruby murmured as she bent over me. I reached up and brought her left breast to my mouth. I could have sucked her for hours, kneeding one breast, sucking the other. But she wanted more than a breastfeeder. She grabbed my cock and began to stroke me. It was over in five minutes.
“Sorry,” I said, “You haven’t even gotten started.”
“I’m patient,” she smiled. So I worked for her. I wanted her to feel good. I covered every bit of her with my tongue and rubbed her soft and hard with my hands. The second time was better for her. I was thankful to please her.
“Y’all rest a while and I’ll wake you in an hour or so. And, Lou? Don’t think nothin’ of it. We’re friends, just like before. No difference.”
“I love you, Ruby,” I wailed like a nine year old play-acting romance. It came out wrong. I did love her. She was fabulous.
“Sure’nough, you do, child. Sure’nough you do.”
When I woke up, my feet were throbbing. They looked swollen. I put on my clothes and hobbled down the stairs, remembering what day it was and what I had promised Miss Ahn a long time ago when the day had just started. Where was I going to get a Bing Crosby Christmas album? And really, who gave a fuck? If Miss Ahn didn’t get it, would it really matter? I’d be out of here in another year. Miss Ahn would survive with or without her tearoom. She’d look out for Young-hee, too. Why didn’t I just sit down near a speaker,cage a joint, and space out?
I found my coat. I couldn’t face putting on my boots, so I borrowed a pair of white rubber komoshin from Patterson’s shoe cabinet. Out the door and into the Christmas Eve night. The sky was black and snowflakes were dusting the streets. On instinct I turned around. It felt like I was being followed. I was only a few yards from the house and could see Ruby framed in the doorway. “Merry Christmas, Lou.”
“I’ll be back, Ruby. I just have a promise to keep.” And with that I turned away from her, though my heart was full of Ruby and my belly still felt her sexuality. She was the one rock of human decency I knew, and I was never decent enough to honor her with a simple goodbye. I always snuck away after seeing her. I felt as public as Emily Dickinson’s frog when I was with her. An Abyssinian queen in Korea made quite an impression on one and all. Had we been anywhere else, someone of quality and substance would’ve spirited her away from me. Ruby was the undeserved pleasure of my expatriate life. Lucky me.
I was out of ideas. How the hell was I going to get that record? I wandered toward the ‘Ville, in the general direction of Yongsan. I had no money and my feet were in bad shape. I must’ve looked the fool with the white komushin on ’cause even the Korean military guards at the government buildings I passed on my way looked, then smirked at me. I’d never seen one of these guys so much as twitch while on duty. It was 10:30, windy, cold, with the smell of fallen snow in the streets. I walked up to a turning mirror on a street corner and noticed that when I walked in snow, I looked like a guy who had no legs, gliding just over the snow. That pleased me and I smiled into the night sky. I kept looking up and waiting for something to happen, some sign. Then it came, the roar and belch of a dilapidated city bus with a blue uniformed chajang hanging out the back door, droaning the name of the stop and telling passengers to get off. These poor little girl souls! They started out around fourteen, all baby fat and naivety. By the time they’d put in a year on a bus route, they’d become regular sleeping partners of the drivers and their hands had turned to lobster claws from constant exposure to cold. I had a bunch of coins in my pocket, and I pulled out as many as I could, dumping them into the hands of the chajang. “Merry Christmas,” I smiled to her. She didn’t smile back.
I got off in front of the main gate to Yongsan. With any luck I could bluff my way in this time. I approached the American MP. “Peter Cudsucker, British Embassy, for the party.”
“What party, sir?” This time my interlocutor was a subborned New Englander, who looked like he could care less. “May I see some ID?”he yawned.
“Certainly,” I tried to lisp like an Oxbridgian of the better class. “Christmas party, you know. Yanks like to have their fun, don’t they? Back home, we’d take in a pantomime with the family, have a glass of sherry with the Mrs. after evensong, and all that.” I pretended to search my pockets. “Bloody hell! Can’t seem to find it. Can’t you just let me by, then, old chap? ‘Tis the Eve you know.”
“Aiya,” he replied with the New England all purpose noise. Who knows what he had in mind?
He looked me over a good long while, then said, “Aiya, Merry Christmas.” I moved through the gate and got a good ten yards away before he spotted the komushin on my feet, and blew his whistle. I knew he’d figured out I wasn’t who I said I was, so I had two choices, stand there and be detained or run for it and see what happened.
I took off as fast as I could, slipping and sliding in the slushy gutters of the Army base, not daring the sidewalks because they were icy. The MP was about an arm’s length from hauling me down when I fell on my own. From that point it was a short forced march back to the guard post, and within five minutes I was facing an incredibly fat and angry staff sergeant. “Let’s see some ID. Now, boy!”
I pulled out my Peace Corps ID card and handed it over. The New Englander was there along with a Korean MP, who must have been on duty at the time. “Sheeyit. Fuckin’ little pinko wants some o’ Uncle Sam’s titty on Christmas Eve. Fuckin’ A! That it, boy? Or is you a spy of some type?”
“No, sir. sir,” I put on my voice of contrition.”I just wanted to get on base, like you said, sir.”
“Well, sheeyit, boy. Y’all aint got no pass, no good ID, ‘ceptin this pinko sheeyit. What y’all got to make me lecha do what you say?”
I had no idea. Then it came to me. “You can have my shoes. These are komushin, the traditional rubber shoes that farmers wear. These are great for a souvenir.”
“Why you little suckass, think I aint seen them things one hunert times a day when I go ’round for my pussy?” He scratched his crotch. “Tell you what I’m gonna do cauz it’s Christmas Eve, even for pinkos like your sorry little self. You put them shoes up here. Awright now, Coldpecker or whatever your name is and the gook here, whatsya name Kim or Lee, boy?”
“Culpepper, sir,” the New Englander interjected.
“Yun,” the Korean MP added in a cultured voice.
“Yeah, Yu’n and he’n gonna roll some dice with me for these shoes. Whoever wins the shoes, decides what to do with this little shithead.” So it came to pass that Yun Il Nam of Chinhae delivered me from the arms of my countrymen at Christmastime. “Let him go.” And I went, out into the snowy night without shoes.
Almost immediately my savior appeared from out of a streetlight dressed in white faux mink and red stiletto heels. She had a head of curly brown hair which fell to her shoulders. She stuck out her tongue, rolled it around her lips and licked a snowflake off my chin. “Are we in ruv, yet?” she asked. “God bless, Korea!” was all I could say. How could I get any luckier? In my moment of greatest need, I meet the queen of all whores. What a wonderous life this truly is!
After she got me in a cab, she gave me a onceover. “Nice rooking guy, curry hair, but you not dress very werru. And rook, you have no shoes! Oh, not good! But stirru I rike you. You come home with me, okay? I give you shoes.”
“Whatever you say, darling.”
“Good. Tha’s cute. You carru me darring.”
“Where did you learn to speak so well?” I asked, trying to ingratiate myself with this whore princess as deeply as possible.
“Oh, from the sairors,” she replied. I guess in hindsight that should’ve provided me with one big clue because when we got to her place, someone called out to her in Korean, “Nice outfit, older brother.”
Ma Suck Bum wanted to be Mary and probably had every chance in the world to suck bum, but not mine that night. However, we struck a bargain and I made a thousand won for letting Ma fellate me. In return, besides the money, a mere token for the act, an annoyance fee; Ma took me to his cousin’s record shop in Itaewon, where, he was certain, there was a copy of Bing Crosby’s Christmas album.
Back again to Itaewon, we went around to the side of a little plate glass shop front with old yellowed posters of Elvis, Fabian, Frankie Avalon and Bobby Sherman covering the view to inside. Ma knocked on a short narrow wooden door that looked like it belonged on a country outhouse. A young girl’s sleep-covered face squinted into the night frost. “It’s me,” Ma said with a big ingratiating smile.
“Oh, Uncle, not now! We’re all asleep.”
“I just need to help this important American friend of mine. It will take just a minute. Let me in.”
The girl relented. Ma turned to me and said, in English, “Wai here, ruvva.” And so I did.
In five minutes Ma was out with the record album tucked under his arm and a coy look on his face. “Again,” he said, motioning to my private parts.
“Ma, you are a lying son of a bitch,” I said to him with a smile. The dissonance between my grin and my words unsettled him. I made as if to unzip my fly and he smiled, putting the record down by his now bent knees. We were still in the doorway, and it seemed he didn’t care whether his cousin’s family was watching or not. I bent over him and snatched the album, closed the door and ran. He didn’t follow, but bellowed out in jilted English, “I rub you, sairor,” over and over. Finally, I heard nothing but the quiet of the snow-falling night. A clock in a store window showed 11:15PM. I had 15 minutes to get to the Pine Tree.
I paid the cab driver just as the lights went out in the Pine Tree. I took the steps to the second floor two at a time and threw myself straight into a metal security gate at the top of the stairs. The album flew out from under my arm and bounced down the stair steps. I was torn between retrieving it and being afraid to leave lest Miss Ahn and Young Hee disappear before I could make myself known. There was a back stairway that only the tearoom employees used because it led out from Miss Ahn’s inner office. I thought for a minute and turned to jump down the stairway, barely touching the steps. I scooped up the album and ran toward the back stairway exit. I got there just as Miss Ahn and Young Hee reached the bottom. “Hello and Merry Christmas!” I said, trying to look full of good will and Christmas joi de vivre. “Here’s something for you, Miss Ahn. I kept my word. I did what you asked.” I handed her the album.
She inspected the cover first and then pulled out the disc inside. I held my breath, but it was intact, not even a chip on it. “Taedanhee kamsahamnida, So Sunsaeng. Aju chinchul han bun imnida. Tangshinul yungwonhee ijaparijiankesumnida.” Thank you very much, Mr. So. You are a very kind person. I shall never forget you. To hear her words in Korean made me feel good because when she spoke Korean, she spoke from her heart. I looked over at Young Hee and saw that she was smiling, my Madonna, the greatest gift I could ever want to receive. The snow was still falling, but very quietly and lightly. It glistened on her black hair and sparkled in the light from a nearby street lamp. She laughed at me and showed me her white teeth and just a part of her tongue. Then she covered her mouth as all modest Korean girls did when overcome with public laughter. I looked at her in longing. Miss Ahn saw me and quickly got my attention. In English she said, “We will take Young Hee and then you come me.” With that she turned on her heel, and we two followed her. The City Hall clock struck midnight as we moved along the streets of Chongno towards Kwanghwamun and the Blue House. There were soldiers at their posts in front of the American Embassy, the Korean CIA Headquarters, and the Blue House. But we walked by unremarked – three dark shapes of an ordinary insignificance to these sentries. It was Christmas. We Magi knew something. It was that I wanted Young Hee. Miss Ahn wanted me not to touch Young Hee, and Young Hee wanted to do what her mistress desired. I stopped walking and thought a bit.
I turned to Young Hee and wrapped her in my arms, “Merry Christmas and I love you,” I whispered into her ear. Just as Miss Ahn was about to get upset with me, I released the girl and turned to her mistress. I bowed to her, a deep bow from the waist, and then I said, “Thank you for letting me near such beauty. I know she can never be mine.” Miss Ahn stared at me. “Nor,” she may have thought, “could she ever understand a Westerner.” “Go in peace, Miss Ahn. Go in peace, Young Hee.”
“Stay in peace,” they said. Then they walked away into Christmas morning and I turned to retrace my steps to the Kwanghwamun underpass. In the distance, I made out a tall bony figure. Looked like the Ox. There was another smaller figure hugging his side. Could it be Miss Kim from the Club Lucky alley? Christmas was still Christmas after all. I was in peace.