Monday, December 23, 2013

time warp: 1994 revisited

Batman—Bruce Wayne—lost his parents in Crime Alley. That's where it all started for him. For me, my teaching career in the Land of the Morning Calm began here, in the grungy alley pictured below:

I used to live in this alley from about June 1994 to June 1995. I worked at a hagwon, a cram school, called the Korea Foreign Language Institute, which was right across the street, literally a 60-second walk away. The yeogwan in this alley used to be called Jongno On-cheon Yeogwan: Jongno Hot Spring Inn. I rented a room there, as if the love hotel were an apartment building, for W400,000 a month. The room was small; it initially had a huge bed in it, which I finally asked the manager to have removed. I set up a humble computer desk, bought some space-saving mesh racks on which to hang clothing and other items, and got some cheap bookshelves, which I didn't end up filling. 1994 was pre-Internet for me; I had a computer, but it wasn't hooked up to any World Wide Web. My buddies Tom and John would visit on occasion; John liked some of my computer games, and one time he came over for a marathon gaming session when he was pissed off at a girl he had broken up with. "Fuck... women," John said bitterly that night, over and over. I wonder whether he still remembers that incident.

The next two pictures are of the yeogwan itself, now rechristened Hotel JR, which I suppose could be read as either "Hotel J.R." or "Hotel Junior." The place has gotten a new façade as well as an incongruous electronic marquee. See below:

The new entrance to my old place:

My yeogwan, back then, was pretty nasty. The walls were thin, so I could clearly hear drunken arguments, fights, and sloppy, desperate sex every night. Disgusting brown or black water would occasionally shoot out of the bathtub faucet and the bathroom sink, so I learned never to trust the pipes. The air in the 1990s-era Jongno district was so full of pollution, mainly bus exhaust, that my boogers always looked like charcoal. Christ only knows what sorts of carcinogens I was breathing in on a daily basis. The alley was often mined with pizza-sized vomit splatters, which became breakfast for the morning pigeons that would pick through the vomit for the chunks of ramyeon. And the roaches... Sweet Jesus, the roaches. The roaches that came into my room were so huge and heavy that I could hear their feet tick-tick-ticking as they crawled across my rubberized floor at night. They often crawled into my room through the wall-mounted air conditioner.

I wonder whether Hotel JR has cleaned up its act. I wonder how roach-free the place is, and how nice the facilities have become. As I stood in front of the yeogwan's new façade this past Sunday, I found myself temporarily transported back to 1990s Seoul, back before cell phones, when beepers (bbibbi in Korean) ruled the day. That alley holds many ghosts.


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