by Kate Menzies
our river snakes
a rope left carelessly on the dirt
limp and natural
grass sticks out of its granulated loafs
like the first chin hairs on a new man
grey blond and crisp
except for the blue matted
baskets we’ve made by sitting there
there is no religion like ours
which needs nothing but to watch
the earth’s swill go from pink to aluminum
under the wrinkly sun
Kate Menzies is from California, currently getting her MFA from Mills College, holding workshops for women on poetry as a meditation, and walking as a way of expressing gratitude. She welcomes your comments at kroze.menzies[at]gmail.com.
photo by lostmyheadache.
by Frank Scozzari
“This is Radio Free Kosovo – Your voice of democracy throughout the Balkans. We come to all of thee, from our soul to your soul, for the soul of Kosovo.”
Lieutenant Krisman stared at the small transistor radio sputtering out the fast, high-pitched voice. It sat on a rock in the bright winter sun just beyond the shade of the pine trees. He took one last drag from the cigarette that hung limply from his mouth, shook his head, and flicked the butt at the radio. Turning his eyes back up-canyon, some two hundred yards, he focused on a place between two peaks where a small, white building stood near the top of the ridge. There was a radio tower stretching high above the building into the deep blue Kosovo sky. It was a small, prefabricated steel building, and from this distance it looked like a toy Erector Set.
The two men with him, Bernard, a young Frenchman, and Alec from England, were huddled in the sun trying to stay warm. They had climbed for two hours in the cold before reaching this spot high on the ridge. Despite the crispness of the air, all of them had sweat on their foreheads. Krisman pulled a thermos from his pack, warm with coffee, pressed the edge of it against his cheek, and then drank from it. The radio started crackling again:
“And now a song dedicated to Milosovic, and to all the fine things he’s done for this wonderful land. I’m sure Mick had you mind when he wrote it. Ladies and gentleman, the Rolling Stones, “Sympathy for the Devil.”
Lieutenant Krisman looked over at his two men, Bernard and Alec, and they both glanced back from beneath their powder-blue UN helmets.
“Try raising that idiot again,” Krisman said.
Both Bernard and Alec looked at one another.
“Your turn,” said Alec.
“No, your turn,” Bernard came back.
Mumbling obscenities in French, Bernard took hold of the Rascal handheld unit and began to speak into the radio, in French.
“English, damn it,” Krisman said.
Bernard glared up at Lieutenant Krisman, then began speaking in very poor English with a very heavy French accent; “Hey you, crazy American man. You come in.”
“What?” Lieutenant Krisman snapped the Rascal from Bernard’s hand and began to speak into it: “Radio Kosovo. This is Lieutenant Krisman of the United Nations Peace Keeping Force. Please reply.”
There was no answer at first so Krisman repeated the message.
“He’s ignoring us,” Alec said.
Krisman looked up at the building, glistening white in the sunlight, then at the transistor radio sitting on the rock, waiting for a reply. “You are in imminent danger. I repeat, you are in imminent danger. Please come in.”
The music on the transistor radio suddenly ended and the high-pitched voice came on again:
“Now let’s talk about impotence, and all those poor assholes out there with blue helmets. Impotence, as defined in the Webster’s Dictionary, is powerlessness, sterility, or the inability to engage in sexual intercourse, or the inability to achieve or sustain an erection. Lacking physical strength. Often used in reference to males, it says.
Well, I don’t know about you guys, but as for me, I plan on riding the borrego til’ I die.
And from what they tell me, that may be soon. But that’s a whole other story that we’ll get back to later in the program.
“Now, as for all you baby-blues out there… How do those guns feel, limp in your hands? Like flaccid skin worms? What good is a weapon of peace if never used? On the other hand, think of all the rapists that you’ve saved by not using it.”
Alec took his helmet off and wiped the frost off the top of it. He was still
breathing heavily, steam from his warm breath shot into the air. “He’s mocking us, isn’t he?”
“Do we really have to listen to this shit?” Alec asked.
“Do we really have to save this ass?” Bernard asked.
Krisman snapped up the transistor radio and turned the volume knob until it ‘clicked’ off.
He put the Rascal back into Bernard’s pack. “It’s not him we’re saving,” he said.
“It’s the communication equipment?” Bernard asked.
“Bullshit. It’s him,” Alec said. “No civilian casualties, especially American civilians.”
“Let’s go ladies,” Krisman said.
Bernard and Alec reluctantly slide under their pack straps and began to follow Krisman,
laboring slowly up the ridge.
They climbed steadily for half an hour, up among rock-strewn terrain and through occasional patches of snow. The wind blew hard at times, especially when they came out from between the trees, but when they were in the sun, they could feel its warmth as well. As they gained in elevation, the ridge narrowed and became barren. The bulk of the forest was below them now.
Lieutenant Krisman paused just outside the shade of a small pine tree, huffing. He looked down at his two companions. They were some thirty yards below him. He took the transistor radio from his pack, turned it on, grabbed hold of an overhead tree limb, and hung from it loosely as he listened to the music and waited. Finally, Bernard and Alec, struggling, reached his position and they each found a tree to lean against. Just then the music ended, and the voice came on again:
“Now, on the subject of my imminent health… it is said to be in peril. In fact, it is said my life is in peril. That being the case, let’s make this subject on the visual characteristics of skeletons. Notice how they all look alike? Yeah. Skeletons all look alike. No flesh, no expression. All of that which makes us unique among the living – that’s all gone. I had this conversation once with a skeleton, and it was a trivial one-sided affair. How are you doing today Mr. Skeleton? No response. What beautiful dark eyes you have, Mr. Skeleton. No response. Oh, excuse me, is it Ms. Skeleton? It made me realize it doesn’t matter much, to a skeleton that is, what happens now or tomorrow. Not a hell of a lot. Soon, we’ll all be skeletons, the Grateful Dead, like the men of Grenicia, all squeezed into one grave. The point being, all skeletons look alike, and what matters most here is what we do with the living, as we are living. Put your skeletons to good use boys, while they still have flesh and bone of them. Yes, I am speaking to you baby-blues.”
“I can’t believe we’re risking our lives for this fool,” Alec mumbled.
Lieutenant Krisman looked at his watch. “If we don’t get up there soon, he’ll be right. We’ll all be skeletons.”
“Uh?” Bernard uttered.
Krisman looked back at Bernard, then Alec, looking at the two men as though he was looking through them, at their skeletons. Bernard looked down at himself, at his chubby legs. And Alec did the same, glancing down, over his own long, lanky frame. The two men then quickly began to move, with renewed vigor, following Krisman up the ridge.
In twenty minutes they arrived at the ridge-top. They followed a footpath a short distance north to the base of the small widow-less building. The building was made up of only four concert slabs and one heavy, metal door. They walked around the building to make sure all was clear and then positioned themselves in front of the door. Lieutenant Krisman knocked on it.
“It is Lieutenant Krisman from the U.N. Peacekeeping Force,” he announced, puffs of steam bursting from his lips as he spoke.
There was no answer.
He pounded again. “Hello, this is Lieutenant Krisman of the U.N.”
There was still no answer. He placed his ear against the door and he could hear music inside. He looked back at the other two men. They heard it too. Then there was a noise from the roof-top. Looking up they saw a long, reddish-haired, bearded man peering down at them.
“What do you want?” the man asked sharply. It was the same high-pitched voice they heard on the radio.
“I am Lieutenant Krisman from the U.N. Protection Force. We have evacuation orders for this station and are here to escort you down. Are you Peter Mann?”
“Maybe,” the red-bearded man replied. “Maybe not.”
“We have good information that this Station is an immediate target of Serb forces,” Lieutenant Krisman continued.
Krisman looked at his watch. “Could be anytime now.” He looked back at his two companions who stood nervously behind him, rifles facing barrel down. They were both still breathing heavily from the climb.
“Yes, I am Peter Mann,” the bearded man said. “Hold on a minute.”
Mann disappeared behind the roofline and in twenty seconds the heavy, metal door jarred open. Peter Mann stood there with an automatic pistol low at his side.
“Greetings,” he said.
He motioned for the three men to enter, which they did. Inside they found a makeshift radio room; a chaotic mess of jumbled radio boxes and wires everywhere, duck-tapped to one another, duck-tapped to the walls and duck-tapped to the ceiling pipes. A small bench against the far wall was loaded with electronic equipment and had a swivel chair up against it. On the console was a vintage, desk-top microphone. There were empty, two-liter, plastic Dr Pepper bottles scattered on the floor and Krisman’s eyes followed a line of them into the half-shadowed corner, were stood a young woman. Her full, wavy light brown hair was illuminated by light coming down through a ceiling hatch, through which an iron ladder led to the roof.
“This is Monika,” Mann said.
Lieutenant Krisman nodded a gentle ‘hello’ while he continued surveying the room. “We are short on time,” he said. “Please gather your things. You have five minutes.”
“It won’t be necessary,” Mann said.
Krisman looked up at Mann.
“We’re not leaving,” Mann said.
“Let me clarify, this station is targeted for destruction and we are here to escort you down. It’s not a matter of choice.”
“Sorry,” Mann replied, “We can’t leave.”
“You have five minutes,” Krisman said, scanning the room for a knapsack. “Take what you need. I can give you five minutes only.” His two soldiers stood behind him just inside the doorway, with rifles down.
“Sorry, I’m not going to do that,” Mann said.
“You have to do that.”
“I’m telling you we won’t leave.”
Krisman stopped what he was doing and looked at Mann. “Staying is not an option.”
“The U.N. doesn’t want dead civilians, dead Americans, that includes you.”
“Dead civilians?” Mann’s high-pitched voice went faster. “It’s a little late for that, don’t you think?”
“Come on, get your stuff.”
“Please leave now,” Mann replied.
“This is a military operation. We wouldn’t be up here if it wasn’t something serious.”
“There’s a war on, ya know,” Alec added from his position behind Krisman. He took a step forward and raised the barrel of his rifle.
Mann looked back at Monika, nervously. He had dealt with U.N. soldiers before and did not particularly like them, nor trust them. In his mind, they were nothing more than blind bombardiers following orders without conscience or knowledge of their impact. It was surely the case now, Mann thought. They who could not execute their own cause were going to decide his fate? It was not the Serbs who targeted him, he thought, it was the U.N. who wanted to quiet his political tongue, because they despised the truth and the way in which he delivered it. He had no faith in the U.N., nor these men who represented it. They were too political to do any good, and he’d be damned if he’d allow their politics to decide his fate now.
“Sorry,” he said. “We cannot leave. And you must go!”
Without warning, Mann snapped the pistol up from his side and leveled it at Krisman’s chest. Just as quickly, Bernard and Alec’s rifle barrels jerked up from their sides and locked in on Mann’s chest.
“It’s okay boys,” Krisman said calmly, waving his hand back at them. He walked slowly over to the radio console, eyeing Mann cautiously. Mann’s gun barrel followed him. “There are eighty-millimeter Howitzers out there,” Krisman said, “just beyond the river. Sometime soon, maybe in an hour, maybe in five minutes, this place is going to be obliterated. You leave now or we all die soon.”
“How do I know that’s true?”
“Trust me, it’s true.”
“Why would the Serbs want me dead?”
“Maybe they don’t like what you have to say?” Alec said with a grin.
Krisman picked up the old desktop microphone from the bench and studied it.
“I have fought a war with that microphone,” Mann said, “more so then all your guns.”
Krisman turned the microphone over, examining it as if to say, this is a gun?
“Maybe?” he replied, as if to answer himself.
“Listen,” Alec said. “We walked all the way up here to save your ass.”
“I don’t want to be saved,” Mann came back, his high-pitched voice fluttering now.
“This is bullshit,” Bernard said in his heavy French accent.
“We are under orders to bring you down,” Krisman said flatly.
Mann did not answer.
“So what are we going to do about this?” Krisman asked. “Are we all going to just stand around looking at each other?”
Mann stiffened his arm. Krisman smirked.
“Take him,” Krisman said.
As Bernard and Alec advanced, Mann, whose gun was still pointed straight at Krisman’s chest, raised it to Krisman’s head.
Bernard and Alec hesitated.
“Go!” Krisman ordered impatiently. “He won’t shoot.”
As they moved in, Mann, who was shaking now, turned the gun inward to his own chest.
“Hold it!” Krisman shouted.
Bernard and Alec froze.
Mann quickly shifted the gun up to his head, adjusting the barrel squarely against his temple in dramatic fashion. “Take your baby blue helmets off my mountain or I’ll shoot myself and you’ll have a lot of explaining to do!”
“I don’t think he’ll shoot,” said Alec. “Not that I give a rat’s ass.”
“Yeah, let him do it,” Bernard said. “Let him blow his brains out!”
As Krisman mulled the situation, the irony dawned in his head. Here they were, two Americans in a faraway country, high on a ridge, soon to be obliterated in a shower of shells, ready to kill one another! The man they had come to save was threatening to take his own life. You cannot save a man who doesn’t want to be saved anymore than you can you save a country that does not want to find salvation.
“Stay then,” Krisman said abruptly. He turned back to Alec and Bernard and said, “Put your guns down.”
Alec and Bernard exchanged doubtful glances.
“It’s okay,” Krisman assured.
Reluctantly, the two soldiers lowered their barrels.
Mann did not believe. He remained with gun raised.
Krisman looked over at Monika. The young woman had remained painfully quiet in the corner through all of this. The way the light was coming down on her and reflecting off her golden hair she looked like a Botticelli on a wall in the Louvre. “Let us take the woman,” he said.
Mann paused, but seeing the gun barrels lowered, hearing the sincerity in Krisman’s voice, and weighing the fact that there were no other options, he dropped his gun to his side and nodded his head. He made a subdued, solemn-like walk over to Monika and gently brushed the hair back from her face. He whispered something softly in her ear, speaking in a Slavic language unfamiliar to Krisman. A moment past and she began to cry and Mann took her in his arms and held her, and she held him, locking herself to him. It took a couple of minutes, and nearly a fight, before Bernard and Alec could pry her away. She had finally given up, exhausted and beaten, and with Mann’s urging, she gathered a few items and was escorted outside by Bernard and Alec.
Krisman remained alone in the building with Mann. “Martyrism is not and American trait,” he said. “Why don’t you come down with us?”
“Why don’t you throw away that blue helmet and join me? It is here that this war will be won or lost.”
“You think very mighty of yourself.”
“Not of myself. Of the power of free speech.”
Krisman’s eyes flashed down to the desktop microphone. With one finger he gently pushed it until it tipped over backward on the bench.
“More powerful than all our rifles?”
“More powerful than ten-thousand rifles,” Mann replied.
Lieutenant Krisman adjusted the strap on his helmet and walked to the door, pausing before exiting.
“You’re full of shit, Mann,” he said. “Skeletons don’t look alike. I’ve seen them, at the gravesites in Sarajevo, in the burnt-out homes of Herzegovina, on the roadside beneath a bridge near Dubrovnik. Some are missing parts, some have cracked and broken ribs, and some have chunks of skull missing. You’re full of shit, Mann. Skeletons don’t look alike.”
Peter Mann, a man of many words, now looked back in silence.
“Having your skeleton blasted to smithereens,” Krisman continued. “A hell of a’lotta good that does, uh? Keeping your skeleton in one piece is the object of this game.”
With that, they were gone, heading down the ridge, descending fast to the tree-line. At one point Bernard pulled the transistor radio from his pack, turned it on, and held it in his hand as they walked. They all listened.
“It is a funny thing,” the squeaky voice on the radio said. “They call themselves ‘Peacekeepers’ even in a land that has no peace. They claim to be the ‘Protection Force’ but cannot protect anyone, not even themselves. And they say they are “United Nations’ in a country un-united. They are Pharisees, I say. The hypocrites of the new millennium.”
“He’s talking about us?” Alec asked, then realizing he was, he said: “Why didn’t you let him blow his head off?”
“We are saving his woman,” Bernard said. “He should be grateful for that at least, if nothing more.”
“Let Freedom Ring,” the voice on the radio continued. “You, the people of Kosovo. You are the gatekeepers. You are the arms of freedom, the arms that hold the torch. So long as you are here, so long as you are willing to fight, the gates of freedom remain open, for you and for all of Kosovo.”
Krisman said nothing. He only looked back occasionally at the small white building perched up on the ridge, expecting it to vanish anytime.
They hurried now, making quick time downhill over the same terrain it had taken them twice as long to climb.
It came very quickly, in a sudden flash. Two laser-guided munitions streaked out of the blue, Kosovo sky like lightening bolts, hitting the building and burying it momentarily in a white cloud of smoke. Krisman turned in time to see the building engulfed in a hot flame. When the smoke settled, the building and the radio tower were gone.
The sound of the blast, delayed in reaching them, now echoed down the canyon. The three men exchanged glances, knowing the certainty of what it meant. The transistor radio in Bernard’s pack spewed out a steady hum. As Bernard switched it off, Monika crumbled to her knees crying. She remained there for half an hour with Bernard and Alec consoling before she was able to get up and move again. Even then, and only with their help, was she able to move down the mountain, sometimes having to be dragged, or having to stop frequently as her legs would occasionally give out. Finally they reached the place where their Hummer was parked, hidden in a grove of pines.
Six weeks had passed since the radio station and been eradicated from the ridge top, and it was now early spring. Alec, Bernard and Lieutenant Krisman sat high on a hilltop in the tall grass among some small purple and yellow flowers, watching a wave of refugees flood across the border into Montenegro. From there many would join the long refugee trail north through Hungary to Western Europe. They had dropped Monika off at a NATO Red Cross outpost near Vitomirica three weeks earlier with hopes she would be reunited with family, if she had any left. Krisman left a letter in English explaining the circumstances of how they had found her and asking for assistance in her care, although he knew, she was just one among many. She had been quiet as they traveled, rarely speaking, and only then to herself in her native tongue. She had seen many things, Krisman knew. Things that would make anyone quiet, things not meant to be seen by a person so pure of heart. It was etched in Krisman’s mind, an image of her sitting on a dirt embankment in Subotica, her hair drooping down, her face lifeless, tears glistening on her cheeks. She had cried spontaneously and often, and when she waited for the aid worker to examine her, she collapsed in a pool of tears. Krisman knew, any pureness left in her heart, if not already, by then had been wiped out.
The sun was shinning warmly on them now, and the three men sat relaxing, taking in the warmth upon their shoulders as they watched the thousands of people make the border crossing below. Bernard lay flat on the green earth, his chin on his folded arms with a blade of grass sticking from his mouth. The other two men were also resting and watching, Krisman with both arms back and palms planted outward on the ground, and Alec sitting with his legs crossed, elbows on his knees, and binoculars to his face.
It was quite a spectacle, a mass of humanity, people of all kinds, children, grandparents, families together, and families apart, carrying everything they owned, some reuniting, some rejoicing, some downtrodden and completely broken, many just happy to be out of harms way. From their position high on the hilltop, the hoards of people, with the many vibrant colors of Albanian quilts, cargo bags, and garments of all shades, appeared like a mosaic – a colorful tapestry – flowing like a river of life.
All the colors lead into one, Krisman thought. It is the color of life. It was good to see the living again, to see people with hope again.
As Alec watched the mass migration through the magnification of the binoculars, he could see with great detail the many faces of mothers, and daughters, and children, and grandmothers; faces drawn from war, some hollow with death, yet others elated with freedom.
“Hey! Look at that! There!” he suddenly cried out.
He pointed into the crowd with an outstretched finger. The other two turned and looked in the direction he pointed. He took another look through the binoculars. “Check it out,” he said, handing the binoculars to Lieutenant Krisman while still pointing with his finger.
Krisman took the binoculars and peered through them. He was quiet at first. Then he saw her, Monika, pushing her way through the crowd, against the flow. He watched, curiously, as she struggled upstream. He followed with the glasses ahead of her path, maybe twenty yards ahead, and he saw another person heading downstream with equal determination. The two of them were cutting diagonally against the flow of people, toward one another.
He focused in. “I’ll be damned,” he blurted out.
Hard to believe, he thought. It’s Peter Mann! Somehow the son-of-a-bitch had gotten out!
Lieutenant Krisman adjusted the binoculars, bringing them sharply into focus. He could see Mann clearly now, carrying a very large pack, swollen at the sides like a pregnant porcupine with many wires hanging out and an antenna strapped to the back. He watched as Mann fought through the crowd, and Monika doing likewise, each knifing their way toward one another.
The other two soldiers had stood up now, astonished by this enlightening development, and were staring out in the direction Krisman was viewing.
Krisman handed the binoculars to Bernard, pointing in the direction he should look. Bernard put them up to his face, adjusting them.
“Shit!” Bernard cried out as he focused in on Mann. It was like seeing a ghost. He should be dead! “Let Freedom Ring,” he said with his heavy French accent.
Below, Peter Mann stretched tall above the crowd to see Monika, now only ten yards away, waving her hand high so he could see her. By the time Krisman had the binoculars back to his face, the two were embraced. Mann lifted Monika off her feet and whirled her around, parting the crowd. Then the crowd consumed them, quickly, and like two twigs in a river they were swept away in the current of people.
“All the colors lead into one,” Krisman mumbled to himself.
“What?” Bernard asked.
But Krisman did not reply. He just kept watching them through the binoculars, watching them as they vanished in the crowd, blending in among the collage of colorful Albanian quilts, garments, and cargo bags, flowing on across the border into Montenegro.
Frank Scozzari’s fiction has appeared in The Kenyon Review, South Dakota Review, Roanoke Review, Pacific Review, Skylark Literary Magazine, Reed Magazine, Eureka Literary Magazine, Foliate Oak Literary Journal, Spindrift Art and Literary Journal, The Licking River Review, Limestone – A Literary Journal, Sulphur River Literary Review, Hawai’i Pacific Review, Chrysalis Reader, Thema, and many others. Writing awards include Winner of the National Writer’s Association Short Story Contest and two publisher nominations for the Pushcart Prize of Short Stories. His fiction has also been featured in Speaking of Stories, Santa Barbara’s preeminent literary theater.
photo by US Army.
by Linda M. Crate
you’re that cracked mirror,
you’re that seven years bad
luck that clings like moss —
you’re all the nightmares
coming true in whispers of
the night; you’re living for
no one, you’re nothing —
you will blow away in the
mouth of the sky, you’ll be
scattered like dandelion dust;
you cursed everyone that met
you with memories that will
linger longer than you do.
Linda M. Crate is a poet based in Pennsylvania. She welcomes your comments at veritaserumvial[at]hotmail.com.
photo by Jeremy Martin
by Liam Scott
I’m in Love with modern moonlight
And the neon when it’s cold outside
I’m in love with rock ‘n’ roll and I’ll be out all night
To Sinchon Rotary from Inchon International Airport. Airport Bus Limousine # 6044. I’m just back from an E-2 visa run to Japan and, yes, it feels like I have been on some sort of public profile tour. I get off the plane bob and weave through immigration and set feet on solid ground. And it’s not just in my head that Korean Immigration is clocking me and to the best of my knowledge it has nothing to do with making 3WM. I am up to about 10 delays, missed trips, rescheduled flights skittered boat crossings and the like which when all combined should add up to about two months of ‘overstayed visa’ time. Of course it’s a melodrama involving officials and a back-packer, “Why have you overstay?” “I didn’t know, Mr Kim at Immigration office told me to get a bigger passport. I need more pages.”
I’m not trying to laugh at ‘The man’ or belittle his life but the fact is, he started it. I was doing well living at “Yakcheonsa”1., the Buddhist temple on Jeju Island: early wake-ups for chanting, rice and soups really anytime of the day, making headway with the Korean language. I even found my own personal Bodhi Tree (2) to sit under. It was all handy dandy good until the men from the government paid a visit. I told immigration officials at Jeju airport I would be staying at Yakcheonsa and had the invite letter from a monk to clarify it all. Two months later the same two who begrudgingly stamped my passport showed up at the temple dining hall to stand in front of the community kitchen sternly looking for me and when they saw me turned the other way. They dressed identically in some sort of security guards of the twilight zone episode. Two everyday stiffs in cheap nylon navy blue suits and at the bottom white tube stocks fitting into goofy moonwalk black sneakers without any brand name on them.
Their cold posture and cheap indifference took the head monks away from their lunch, and away from the dining table. The two whispered their own officialdom brand of poison into the monks ears, and two weeks later I was chauffeured back to the airport. Off of the Buddhist temple on Jeju Island and back to Seoul, or first Incheon International Airport. The last two days at the temple were anything but a panic. The place had marked it’s calmness on me and even though the monks would not go to the mat against Korean Immigration and their gossip jibes of me being an unsavory rule breaker, no matter, I had quickly found a cheap place to stay. A Hasuk-jib (3) in the Seoul megapolis: student housing in the student district of Sinchon. It’s gonna be cheap and greasy but that’s ok. The last time I was in Seoul was in Sinchon. I was slithering through wet alleys shot-up with neon then down into a basement bar with temple-food thin bodies grinding out some of the wildest rock ‘n’ roll scenes imaginable.
Back again it seems sooner than expected; Sinchon Rotary via Airport Bus Limousine # 6044. The digs were not half bad. I was on the top floor of a five floor walk-up. My floor was coed with Japanese nationals studying Korean and the bathroom and kitchen were scrubbed completely into sanitary submission every day. The J. students wandered around the common space slurping Ramen and always talking about, “Police Bar.” Just then that sounded to ominous to me. From the triangle window of the common space I could stretch one way to see the guidepost of Sinchon Rotary, the Hyundai Department Store, the other vantage was angling down to street level and there it was the crustiest bar still standing in East Asia, Woodstock the ’70s Bar. The smells of Sinchon are famous on their own: from the cat-pissed-on-the-floor bar toilets to the baby-loves-love perfume walls opening or blocking everyone to come into the Hyundai Department Store. Besides the smells, the one thing I can’t escape is that early in the morning I had come off temple for keeps and by the time the sun was dropping I had landed into the debauched drinking quarters of Seoul.
Coming from the tangerine greenhouses of Jeju to an urban hothouse of Japanese students, confused about their own and everyone else’s identity, I wanted to get into a universal space where bird is the word (5). Where some foreign music ( a.k.a. rock ‘n’ roll in Korea) would be played loud. Part two of my desire was also throbbing because my expat monologue was on the tongue.
‘I wanted to tell someone that I was just escorted off the Buddhist temple do to two immigration officials, dressed like non-union plumbers, who came to the temple, that I called home, to convince all the monks that I was squatting. I guess I have no other place to be, so now I am here…’
The little cross walk alleys and four corner intersections of Sinchon are always disorienting or fun depending on the mood, the weather and the amount of vomit-made soju puddles on the pavement. I found the Nori Bar in about twice the time it takes me to find bars, museums or churches that I know pretty well. Then I heard and felt what was happening in Sinchon really for the first time. The place was in-between songs when the door got pushed opens towards me. All the dark mud colored walls were scribbled over by hands that seemed most comfortable when holding a purple crayon. Waves and swerves of graffiti communicated in mass dis-coherent rushes what could have more easily been throw down in one line: “Abandon hope all you who enter here.” I focused and started on maybe what was the 10th beer I had in all of two months and then it began loud and disturbing. Sounded like some theme to a Gustav Mahler symphony played by giant Slavs with wrenches for drum sticks banging on carcasses of rediscovered heroes. The strings were made of steel spaghetti veins taken from the living not the dead. I was transfixed on the word “Wichita”. The bar tender thought I grabbed a piece of scrap paper to make a song request but it was for the lyrics to this song that some anti-hero was singing,
“Don’t want to hear about it.
Every single one’s got a story to tell
Everyone knows about it.
From the Queen of England to the hounds of hell.”
–The White Stripes, Seven Nation Army (6 Link)
There were never more than 15 patrons in Nori Bar that night, and I never got round to telling about my temple life, yet this would be the first of many tangled nights of trampolining madness at Nori. This was in 2004, then Sinchon was in full madhouse swing. It was before Hongdae variegated its entertainment zone by plopping down some rock clubs for expats. Meaning someone got dollar-and-cents smart and added the live music market to the house music wasteland of Hongdae clubs. Refreshing maybe, anything to make a buck for sure. It was about making a scene where whitey: the-expat-creator, could shuffle in with guitar and make noise that generally sounds out a self-serving yawp. A yawp you say? Isn’t good rock ‘n’ roll always a yawp? Well I say the most debilitating thing that planet Korea will ever suffer while I am here began when whitey English teacher showed up with guitar. Editor’s note: that issue, images and scene will be explored unyieldingly and at length in future 3WM features.
Now is now and in the same passer-by-ism look and persona of hey, screw it, I’m just in from an E2 visa run: time to let it fly via Airport Bus Limousine # 6044. I’m alive, free, but now also legal– same shit perhaps but a different stamp in the passport. And the dark half of the year is coming. The veil between the two spheres of the living and the dead is shredding and dissolving. Time to exorcise all demons, exorcise all fear of strangers. I’m a legal alien in Seoul and want some of that Sinchon paganism of the street. I want to give peace a chance. I want to give rock ‘n’ roll a chance.
Coming out of the packed bowels of the Sinchon subway is some particular Asian urban scent blast. A perfumed wonderland. Sweet sweet sweet desire in the street congealed with fresh coffee and grilling pork chops. Getting through the perfumed phalanxes can be such a pain in the ass that there were times when I lit a cigarette in each hand in order to create the minimal space needed to get passed the glitzy and unblushing mob. But I don’t want to sound like too much of a white-ass myself. This is all really a fire mechanism for camaraderie. Its primary sponsor might be “Bean Pole by Juun.J “accessory”, still, there is an undeniable urge and vibe suggesting that we all have just been shepherded by Hermes from a claustrophobic underworld to a refreshing open place.
There is a slow down on the corner for both males and females to stop and to get a tall as an oil rig eye full of themselves in the Hyundai Department Store front mirrors. A 40 feet high dapper dressers experience. And yet what a real chance for a real culture jam. To continuously throw bits of rice cake (when no one is looking, of course) around the subway exit and move away to let squalls of pigeons gather in their own deep ranks and reign hell on the trendy. This is what happened in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (8), and don’t bet there won’t be a short sequel made by RoK Moviemakers (7). The Birds-Transgressive (Korean version).
To save that epiphany for another time as I have made it this far and the side street to the Sinchon boozing troughs is close. It could be a big night ahead and no one can expect to be fed on the shot-put flight between Korea and Japan. Bird is the word is close and that means a pit stop for street grub. It is the last stall before alcohol and was named, “Nice street food in 2009 by SBS media.”
I could smell it of course before I could read that pitch. Pork Burgers in Mayonnaise. Better to hang back a little and see how this comes out. But if the government keeps handing out awards for good taste I suppose it might be okay. There are two kinds of paste, sweet and sticky and even ketchup. The Burger Lady twirls each one on twice for one burger effectively turning it into a mud pie trying to stay afloat in a swamp. She won’t accept the fact that I want one twirl around the burger with one sauce. I tried to let her choose the sauce on her own but that enhanced hungry street food confusion. She has been looking at me like the immigration officials did on the temple in Jeju and the way airport immigration officials always do, piercing at me again with that here comes the rough hewn beast slouching towards Bethlehem look. I’m communicating with her in Korean, but she can’t break down my motions and stop and turn it over to me. No one is being thick here, it’s all part of the training she needs to keep everything in place. Grill the burger each side for a minute, drop on the white crumbling bun and start twirling the sauces. 2$.
Her life is bracketed. She has six nights a week out here becoming at one with the noise and smells of the sizzling griddle. She’s probably not up for any other job or much more in the future other than griddled pork on white bread. Regardless of who becomes mayor of Seoul, or, if the sea of Japan renames to the Yellow Sea, or when China pegs it’s currency to the Martian standard. She is in one clean mind’s eye view, the Burger Lady. This is one thing I remembered trying to take with from the time on Yakcheonsa Temple. When you start to emphasize with those around you and dig where they are coming from you have opened yourself up to a heap of suffering and from that comes misjudgment, and from that continuously more suffering. It seems fairly preposterous to me right now. I am legal to be here, Planet Korea, but there was a time when it made sense for me. Away from the Burger Lady. Down the street from the corner of her stall is an old landmark, The POLICE BAR.
Liam Scott is enjoying the ex-pat life in Seoul, South Korea. He welcomes your comments at slsseoul[at]yahoo.com.
photo by Monica’s Dad