MOULARD PUZZLE CAFE, ILSAN — I am seated outside piecing together the last of the Starry Night puzzle’s frame. A puzzle cafe is exactly as it sounds, a cafe where you may sip a coffee of something a bit stiffer while assembling a myriad variety of puzzles. The drinks are mediocre, though the beer is at least well priced, but the real draw are the puzzles.I excuse myself to the bathroom and let Danielle try to go it alone in figuring out how to interpret the Thousand Pieces of VanGogh sitting on our table.
When I returned she remarked on an event unfolding across the street. “I think there is a drunken businessman in that cab who is refusing to get out,” she said directing my attention, ever so discretely, toward the cab parked across the street in front of Home Plus–the mega-store that’s like a five-plus-story Super Target.
“Yeah, he keeps leaning into his cab and yelling at whoever is in the back seat,” she said referring to the cab driver who, looking rather distressed to say the least, was at that moment gazing skyward with his hands on his forehead, as if to show the busy street of spectators and passers-by that he was dealing with some kind of uncivilized or immature child. It’s not even 10:00 on a Friday, and already resembles a scene in which most people would expect only the most unruly of frat-boys would partake; but this is not a frat boy, this was likely a middle aged, family man, probably dressed with a coat and tie.
EARLIER THAT WEEK ALONG WHAT-COULD-BE-ANY-MAJOR-ROAD, ILSAN—We were walking home after a long day at work and decided to stop at an Italian place called Pomodoro, about a quarter of the way home. When we left we could see, on the side of the road just beyond the restaurant, a taxi cab with two men standing nearby. The cab’s door was open, and as we approached, we could hear the men’s voices and could begin making out their body language. They are into something pretty heated and we can almost smell the alcohol on their breath as we pass them by. It’s just after sundown on a weekday.
LAFESTA SHOPPING CENTER, ILSAN—On a stroll about the shopping center we spot a man using his blue blazer for a blanket and briefcase for a pillow, sound asleep under a park bench. He was maybe homeless, as least temporarily, but chances were he had been sleeping there since early that morning. It’s before 10:00am on a weekday.
SEOUL METRO TRANSIT, SUBWAY LINE THREE: SOMEWHERE BETWEEN GUPABAL AND SAMSON STATIONS, ABOUT HALFWAY BETWEEN THE TRAIN’S START AND ITS END—We boarded the train at Gupabal—there isn’t anything particularly intersting at Gupabal, or if there is we haven’t found it yet, but half of the line 3 trains go as far as Gupabal while the other half take us home to Juyeop Station—and situated in the seats at the train car’s fore that are reserved for the handicapped, expectant and elderly was one of the finer of Seoul’s honest and hard-working bread-winners, unbelievably and belligerently intoxicated and presumably heading home. Standing near him a man—older than the Suit but not a geriatric—wearing a red shirt, and his companion heckle the wetsuit on their way out of the train, the man in red making what sounded like a coughing noise; the kind someone makes to disguise them saying “jackass” or some other obscenity. The drunk gentleman shouted something followed by the Korean equivalent of “the bird.” It’s unclear what exactly was said, but something the intoxicated exchanged with the elderly man across the aisle from him set off a shouting match that quickly turned violent.
The elder of the two, a retiree heading home after a hike, merely trying to defend himself, was wearing a light blue hiking tunic and boots, and looked in far better condition to be throwing down, as it were, than the man attacking him. The disputed appeared, at least in part, to revolve around a fan—one of those paper ones that sort of accordions out—and was, at various times, used to bait the now vicious drunk into the adjoining car.
Eventually a good Samaritan intervened, after the kicking began, and attempted to diffuse the situation. And, while this more strapping and a bit taller man did manage to keep the menace detained, as soon as he went back to his seat the assailant returned. The geriatric lept to his feet and used his full weight to keep the door closed while the attacker kicked fiercely at the door; kicking, as if by some stroke of magic, a subway door could be kicked in like a criminal’s apartment’s door in a cheezy crime film. At some point at one of the subway stops, the old woman who was sitting nearest the elderly adventurer got off the train, whether it was because of the unfolding scene or not was unclear; the woman sitting across the aisle from her, nearest the action, remained seated. Just after the hiker got up to hold the door shut, he opened it just enough that his opponent could squeeze a hand through, and as soon as the assaulting hand had breached the doorway, he slammed the door on it. A short while later he grabbed the inebriated by the tie, threw him to the seat he had previously occupied, and put him in a choke-hold, at which point the younger man again intervened by separating the geriatric and exiling the drunk to the train-car-turned-holding-cell from whence he came.
A blind panhandler walked through and the woman seated next to us gave him a 500 won coin. There was no way he could have known about the brawling 50+ crowd between whom he had briefly called a cease-fire.
After a short calm—even the lowest scum-bag wouldn’t continue the brawl while the blind man moved about—the attacker, held off by the younger man, got to his feet and showed his now bloody hand to the other passengers-turned-spectators among us and, before he began smearing his blood on the door’s window, belted out the most uncivilized and pre-pubescent battle cry I’ve heard outside of my classroom.
Eventually the middle aged hiker held the bloody-handed assailant in his cell and motioned for the geriatric to grab the emergency call microphone to summon the authorities—something he was threatening at various stages of the conflict. After the call the three of them somehow communicated that they would be getting off at the next stop, the middle-aged-guardian-of-us-all as their escort and mediator.
* * *
It’s worth noting that for every example of dipso-maniacal behavior or crapulence we have seen there are at least as many, if not several fold more, examples of the men here being truly respenctable citizens, parents, and gentlemanly, but the fact remains that public drunkenness is rampant and often rude, obnoxious, or violent. Regardless of the day of the week, venue, or audience, it is common to see men dressed in casual to formal business attire—complete with shiny pants and sequined ties—three-, four-, or five-sheets-to-the-wind often roaming the galbi restaurants and bars in our exurban neighborhood in packs before heading home, smelling of soju and beer, and passing out without so much as seeing their children until the next morning.