The view from the cafe is bleak. The focal point being the gritty concrete wall lining the subway exit, almost completely covered in pieces of green sticky tape. Green sticky tape seems to be the preferred medium of adhesion used to plaster up the advertisements for Chinese food, churches and brothels, all of which compete for space along the concrete wall. To the left of the wall is a woman selling fake Chanel handbags on a collapsible table. To her right is a man selling fake Armani sunglasses, and to his right there is a woman selling cheap pet clothing. Just another day in East Asia’s hub of sidewalk commerce.
Looking down towards the sidewalk, I’m reminded that the local municipality paid last year to rip up the entire footpath and re-do it with pastel green bricks. Years of spitting (yes, actual human spitting) had rendered the previous sidewalk into a slippery black mess that was downright disgraceful, even by Korean standards.
The whole mess was ripped out and re-tiled late last year, and after approximately 11 months, spit has once again claimed most of the sidewalk space. At first, black cancerous spit wads started showing up near the wall and I thought that they were surely the result of elevated spitters, spitting down from the top of the stairs. After some observation, it became apparent that this was not the case. In fact, the wall/ground spit was coming from workers who spend their smoke breaks holding up the wall and spitting all over the ground directly at their feet.
Furthermore, the enterprising ajeossi who runs a shoe repair shack out of a tiny box under the stairs tends to pop out for a smoke every 30 minutes or so, and he too indulges himself in several minutes of wall-pacing and spitting, the result of which is essentially a black trail of cancerous spittle leading from his tin shack to the end of the wall and back. The middle of the sidewalk remains about 70% spit-free, with the outer areas almost completely blackened. One can’t help but wonder if municipal officials won’t take a look at the condition of the sidewalk after just 11 months and decide to squander their budgetary allowance for sidewalk rehab elsewhere next time around.
As I consider this and the other important issues of the day over a mediocre cup of overpriced coffee, I watch an ajumma with a fake Burberry handbag doling out church flyers at the bottom of the stairs next to the spit wall. She is jumping up and down to stay warm. It’s starting to get cold outside, so she has to keep moving.
Has my reader ever stopped to think about the mechanics of human interaction involved with the handing out of flyers? For example, why do some people take flyers while others refuse? In fact, as I walked down those very steps not 30 minutes before, I noticed a Korean man behind me who was attempting to use me as a human shield against the advances of the church flyer wielding ajumma. Such was his aversion to the church flyer ajumma, that he was actually willing to duck and hide behind a foreigner to avoid even the prospect of being handed a flyer.
I observe other men who actually make a concerted effort to run around or otherwise dodge the flyer ajumma. As if ignoring the flyer ajumma weren’t enough, more than a few passersby actually speed up and take evasive action when confronted with the potential receipt of a church flyer.
I note that the runners and dodgers tend to be men and women in their 30′s and 40′s, walking alone. Those in their 50′s and older tend to just treat the flyer ajumma as if she doesn’t even exist. So invisible is she to them, that a few of these stone cold retirees nearly walk through her. Couples, high school students, and older women seem to be more open to accepting the flyers, out of pity if not humility. One older woman takes the flyer and then without looking at it, chucks it into the cardboard-filled wagon she is pulling down the sidewalk. The flyer ajumma looks incensed, if only for a split second. She then continues her routine of handing out flyers while intermittently jumping up and down to stave off hypothermia. If you think teaching English sucks, try handing out flyers outside of a Korean subway station in the winter.
Once the cafe starts to fill ajummas, the noise level passes beyond tolerable and I mobilize. I’m headed to Familymart, where the seating is limited. I’m a regular customer at this particular Familymart. The staff recognize me, though they will never in a million years acknowledge this fact. I am a daily customer, and I drop in around the same time each day. Sometimes I visit two or three times a day. I always buy the same items; tall cans of Japanese beer and cans of salted nuts. I imagine the clerks have nicknames for most of their regular customers, like “bald soju smell man” or “chain-smoking strawberry milk man”. They probably refer to me as “drunken salty nuts foreigner” or something like that.
Of course, I have a nickname for every clerk who works the counter, and today it is “The Pumpkin” who is busy playing games on his smartphone when I arrive at the checkout counter. I call him “The Pumpkin” because his hair is fashioned into a perfect bowl-cut, and dyed bright orange. He also paints his nails black, in keeping with the overall Halloween theme he has going even in months one would not normally associate with Halloween.
He seems slightly put off by the fact that he has to take a break from his smartphone in order to ring up an actual customer. He looks up from his screen and scowls further when he realizes that it is “Drunken Salty Nuts Foreigner” with the usual beer and nuts. In actuality, I’d like to reach over the counter, grab him by the throat, and slam his head into the cash register repeatedly. Instead, I play my usual game and smile stupidly while handing over the cash, which he quickly shoves into the register so that he can plop down and continue playing ‘Anipang’ or whatever lame game has managed to keep his attention for more than 60seconds. It seems like everyone under the age of 65 has their face glued to a smartphone at all times. In fact, interaction with other humans seems so loathed, that I’ve actually seen Koreans on the subway staring at blank smartphone screens, the batteries having long died, in an effort to erase themselves entirely from their surroundings.
As hopeless as The Pumpkin is, I hold within him some beacon of hope for the future of Korea. Surely his bright orange hair and black nails represent a giant ‘Fuck You!’ to the dominant Confucian conformist culture, or perhaps just to his parents. In either case, his generation represents a shift away from the ajeossi culture of noisy drunken soju consumption and whoring. Perhaps instead of having to get piss drunk in order to relate to one another, his generation will sit around painting their nails together and talking about their feelings.
Whatever the case, The Pumpkin is my least favorite Familymart employee, and he just so happens to be the longest working employee at this particular branch. They get some young university girls who come and work for a few weeks or months, but inevitably they encounter drunken belligerence or unwanted sexual advances during a night shift, and quit. Such is the nature of running a convenience store in the middle of a large red light district I suppose. As I go out the door and back into the cold, I am overcome with the impulse to go back to the spit wall. I’d like to spray paint the words “Hell Does Freeze Over” across the wall. Not out of any personal sense of anger, but just for a bit of holiday fun. If only I had a can of paint.