Monday, July 14, 2008

Seoul Friday Night

Elvis Perkins--"All The Night Without Love" (mp3)
The Smithereens--"Blood and Roses (live)" (mp3)

So here's a Seoul Friday night. Our last one. Get home about 4:30, unwind, wait for the sweat to dry from our clothes after a 2.4 kilometer walk back to our apartment, maybe sleep, maybe play the ukelele, maybe open the plastic 2 liter bottle of Cass beer in our refrigerator. Crackers and cheese "party cubes." Ipods and mini-speakers. Leaning out the window onto our mini-terrace from the 24th floor. Talk of what do we want to do. More talk of what do we want to do. More and more talk of what do we want to do. Finally, we settle on the Juju Tent Bar. We have walked past it for three weeks (Tommy for two years). Here's the deal: a retracted orange tent by day, a thriving, hopping soju bar by night and into the morning. Many is the day that we have walked to work around 7 am. and people are still sitting in the Juju Tent Bar, drinking and eating. But we never had the courage to invade this Korean haven until now.

Tommy calls Jason, our Canadian pal, and says, "Meet us at the Juju Tent Bar" and off we go. We are seated and try to buy the t-shirts that the waiters wear, since they are the coolest shirts we've seen, but we are rebuffed time and again. Meanwhile, we have soju sent our way and beer and water since it is still hot out even as the sun starts to go down. Tommy wants to get an appetizer from the menu, and we are feeling adventurous after the soju, which tastes like watered-down vodka and makes us wince after each swallow. So he sees a fish a couple of tables over and a couple surgically dissecting it with a pair of chopsticks. After much pointing from the menu to that table, the waiter understands, and shows us that we have ordered the salted mackerel. Soon we are dismantling our own fish, me with tentative explorations, Tommy pulling strips of salted fish flesh with great gusto.

Jason is late by now; having a car of his own, he doesn't take many cabs, and this one has bogged down in the evening traffic, we think, but don't know because we don't have a phone. We try for the t-shirts with different waiters, but with no more luck. Time passes. Beer flows. Eventually, Jason shows. He orders a Korean omelet which tests our chopstick prowess. Around us, the tent bar has come alive and there are no tables anywhere. We watch the people over several Cass. There is a girl in a Penn shirt, and on the way out, I approach her table and ask her if she went to Penn, too. She says that she is class of 2000, but this apparently creates no collegiate bond between us, so I say, "Class of '79. Congratulations." And we leave.

The night takes us to Rodeo, several blocks down and across the street. They call it the "Hollywood" of Seoul; I'm not sure why--bars, clubs, restaurants, plastic surgeons--maybe that's why. Jason wants to find a place he had been to years ago called Monkey Beach, but the addresses and logos and lights are all packed together and we wander. Tommy sees his favorite hot dog guy. We stand in front of his unattended stand until he runs up from somewhere, tosses on of his bacon-wrapped sausages on the grill, douses it in some kind of butter mixtures and presses it against the griddle until it sears on all sides. We opt for relish and onions. It comes served in a cup, the dog, bun, and toppings protruding from the open end and we take turns biting into it. It is the best hot dog I have ever eaten.

We wander some more, with no luck. I amuse myself as we walk by snapping pictures of odd names and unusual phrases on the many establishments that we pass. Finally, somehow, Jason spots his mecca amid a myriad of signs and we head down some steps to see what all of the fuss is about. But we can't see much because the whole bar is awash with color--pinpoint laser lights and beams the spiral constantly and cover everyone with digital specks and shapes. The crowd is young, the music insistent, that kind of club mix where one song after another has been remixed over the same Night At The Roxy beat. They are selling longnecks for 2,000 won and buckets of gin and tonic for 10,000. Jason opts for both. Tommy and I argue the merits of "We Are The Champions" remixed for a new generation. If you were drunk, or drunker, you would be puking by now as your feeble brain tried to figure out which lights to follow around the room.

I barely notice, over in the corner, a man with a bare torso and drawstring pants tending to a fire.
Tommy has met a young man who is at Emory. The frames of his glasses are illuminated a bright green. He has an entire bottle of Jose Cuervo at his table. Around us the seats at the picnic benches fill and, as often happens in bars, suddenly this one is full to.

The man continues his rituals, which seem to be religious, in front of the fire. Then we begin to smell the kerosene and it is suddenly clear to me why we are here, why Jason wanted to find this place. It's for the show. The fire show. To the rhythmic beat of music selected for his performance, he swings buckets of fire and batons of fire at hyperspeed. He is dark, cut, and sweating, and the women love it. We are cheering, hoisting our beers in salute, snapping pictures, but through it all, I feel a little off. He seems more like a traditional Korean performer coopted into a bar than a bar performer, and for that, I feel a kind of pity, as I did when my grandfather took me to see Seminole Indians wrestle alligators in Florida. Maybe, it's just too far into the night.

Jason heads to his cab; we head to the Kraze Burger, an overpriced Japanese burger chain whose novelty has worn off this second time. We are dull, we are bloated, and we are looking at this food in front of us, wondering why we ordered so much. But Saturday morning is sleep, perhaps the only day when we have no wake-up call, and after eating a couple of bites of burger and a few fries, we up the streets and up the hills to our building. We are done; Seoul, on the other hand, is just getting warmed up, but it will have to carry on without us.

Elvis Perkins and The Smithereens are available at Itunes, though perhaps not these performances.

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