First presented during the Litquake Festival 2011 as part of the "Words on the Waves" travel-writing salon.
I had missed the fucking boat to China.
I stood there at the Inchon ferry pier, listening to the toots of the boat I was supposed to be on, and I kept saying to myself, "I can't believe I missed the fucking boat." I couldn't get my mind around it.
I asked the uniformed man in front of me again, "You're sure the boat has already left? There's no way I can still get aboard?" He just smiled at me apologetically and said again the words I'd heard often from the official lips of uniformed men ever since coming to Asia: "I'm sorry, sir, it's impossible." Then, in the tones I'd heard from official Asian lips when they couldn't quite comprehend that you'd deviated from the way things were supposed to be done: "Why were you late for the boat?"
I was still trying to figure that out. I'd woken up at 9:30 in the cramped yogwan that smelled strongly of the unwashed Flemish man in the bunk above me. Moseyed over to the bathhouse, had a shower and shave, and when I came down the stairs to get dressed among the naked, chubby Korean retirees the clock on the wall proclaimed that it was 1:30 and I was fucked. Even writing this now, I still don't understand what happened to those four hours. By the time I'd thrown on my clothes and picked up my laundry from the cellophane-wrapped Westin Hotel (I'd dropped it off the day before, mumbling something unintelligible when the woman asked my room number), I had an hour before the boat left and an hour's subway ride to get there. No chance.
So I had missed the fucking boat to China, which meant I had another week and a half to kill in Seoul, a city that I certainly liked but had already seen, already "done." I wanted to get on to Beijing and freeze my ass off and ring in the Chinese New Year. Instead I sniffled back through Inchon with the emotionless vague black mood of a man who's just learned someone's been killed.
"Hey," a part of my mind started up, "So you missed the boat. Deal with that. Enjoy another week in Seoul. See Mae." An old woman with a megaphone and wheelbarrow full of fresh fruit, yelling words I couldn't understand, barreled up on my left; I wordlessly bought three bananas and with all the emotion of a storefront dummy began stuffing them into my mouth to shut up that cheery, rational, make-the-best-of-it-voice.
I wanted pampering. Whenever something threw me a curve on this trip — dysentery, getting lost, missing a fucking boat — I wanted pampering. So I sniffled off the subway, once again and for the next 10 days in the heart of Seoul, and headed for the tallest hotel I could find. Bar and restaurant, 22nd floor, the brass plaque in the lobby poshly informed me. It wasn't a need for alcohol; it was to know I had the money and the control to go "HAVE A DRINK" like all the grown-ups do and have a waiter bring it to me and look out on the miniature city sprawling away into the distance.
I don't know what the hostess thought when the big, shabbily-dressed man lumbered in with his boots and backpack, but her hostess instincts were finely tuned: "Would you like a drink?" she immediately asked, before I said a word. I began to feel like a Paying Guest, a man who's treated with respect and acts with dignity and would never, ever do anything as foolish as miss a boat. She led me to a table by a window, neon and traffic lighting up the night below. I brought out my book of Henry Miller short stories, the old paperback with its yellow pages that Mae had given me as a going away present the night before, though I was no longer going away; settled into my chair and prepared to be pampered.
I looked over the cocktail menu and remembered hearing my father (and, maybe, I seemed to vaguely remember, my grandfather before him) order an Old Fashioned, so I ordered one; it seemed right and certainly the kind of DRINK a man of the world would HAVE. A quietly polite waiter brought the glass. I began to think of Mae.
She was funny — older than me by several years, graduated from Berkeley and had drifted from job to job since then. Her dad was president of some company in Seoul, one of the giant chaebol; their apartment in Olympic Park was roomy and comfortable, and they had the requisite driver and maid of the Korean upper crust. We’d met a few nights before at a party for a guy neither of us knew; all night long she'd been unable to remember my name, but somehow I'd ended up at her place and in her bed, although we'd both swear the next day that it hadn't been our intention. Offering me her mouth to kiss she’d asked, “Wanna lick an ashtray?”
Just last night we had been at her place, and she was making what was supposed to be my going-away dinner when her dad called from his car phone and said he was on the way. She told him an "old friend" had dropped into town and asked could he spend the night; her dad reacted like she'd asked if it was OK to burn the place down. We had to work fast. To the bedroom, while the bulgogi got cold on the dining room table. Twice her father called to interrupt the proceedings and say he was getting closer and he wanted that strange boy gone by the time he got home. We picked up our lovemaking pace, and I had an image of her dad speeding home anxious in his chauffeured sedan, wondering who was doing what to his only daughter, and Shylock's crazed, woeful mantra played through my mind to the beat of sex: "My daughter, my ducats, my daughter, my ducats..."
The bar was beginning to close down and a waitress moved by, clearing my table of ashtray, matches and menu. "Thank you," I murmured automatically, as though she'd brought me a gift.
The one thing that made my stranding somehow bearable was that I was not the only one who had missed the boat. A day or so before it was to sail I’d met a young Israeli woman at my yogwan; she was also planning on taking the fucking boat to China (although at that point I didn't think of it as the Fucking Boat, not yet) and we had decided to travel together. I had some extra postcard stamps and she'd offered to buy them the morning we were to leave, so as I was hustling out the door I'd placed the stamps on her pack, figuring that if I was lucky enough to make the boat I'd collect the 3,000 won from her then. Later, as I was slogging away from the ferry terminal and thinking black thoughts, it had occurred to me she'd gotten her stamps for free after all.
So as I stumbled back into the courtyard of the Inn Daewon (I was somehow ashamed I'd missed the boat and had been tempted to seek out another yogwan so the other, worldlier travelers wouldn't see my defeat), I saw the Israeli woman sitting there. We traded the usual sitcom-stupid dialog — "What are you doing here?" "What are you doing here??" — then had a laugh and admitted our mutual relief that at least one other person in the world was equally stupid. She'd lost track of time exactly as I had, jumped on the subway right at 2 (meaning we were both sweating and cursing our way to Inchon on the same train) and had gotten to the ferry terminal a few moments before me — she'd grabbed a cab after running from the subway, while I'd bumbled around a few minutes pointing to my rough map of Inchon and blaring, "Ferry terminal? Ferry terminal?" to the uncomprehending passersby.
"And I thought I'd gotten my stamps for free after all," she said.
We sat around the table in the yogwan's open courtyard — it was probably nice in summertime, but in the January cold we had to bundle up in gloves and hats just to play cards or read the paper. After a while some of the other yogwan regulars began swapping stories about the times they'd missed a fucking boat, or a train, or suffered some other travelers' catastrophe. One guy named Ted — a vanilla young American who'd gotten caught teaching English sans working permit and was now waiting for the big boot straight out of the ROK — had once tried to take the same ferry the Israeli girl and I had missed, only from the Chinese side.
"We showed up in Weihai and said, 'We'd like to take the ferry to Inchon tomorrow,’” he remembered. “The Chinese just smiled at us at said, 'No you don't. There's no room on the ferry for two weeks.' So we had to wait."
"Two weeks in Weihai?" we hooted, because though we'd never been to the little Chinese port town, we knew it was hardly a traveler's paradise. Most travel books, even the off-the-beaten-paths ones, didn't bother mentioning it, and there wasn't even a train station, just a broken-down bus that bounced its way to where the rails to the rest of China started. "Yep, two weeks in Weihai," Ted nodded, looking schoolmarmish with his bony face and round glasses. "We'd cut our budget to the bones and there was no way we were going anywhere else. So we found the cheapest hotel we could and settled into our routine.
“Early every morning the bitch who ran the place would come to clean the bathrooms and try to roust us out of bed." (I knew from my own travels through the PRC that this was standard procedure: All good Communists wake up by 6 a.m. Conductors on overnight trains would start shaking foreigners awake early in the morning and keep shaking them periodically to keep them from going back to sleep, even if the destination was still hours away.)
"We'd ignore her and wake up around 10," Ted continued. "By 11 we were dressed. Shuffle over to the dumpling shop, eat for about an hour. Then we'd go back to the room and smoke cigarettes, play cards, listen to tapes on my boombox. They turned the hot water off between 8 and 5, so we'd leave the tap on and when we heard the water start up in the evening, we knew it was time to shower up. After that, back over to the dumpling shop, then back to the room to smoke cigarettes and play cards. We killed two weeks that way. I got to know every one of those tapes by heart."
"I still can't believe I missed the boat, and it's all my fault," the Israeli girl said, only temporarily distracted by Ted's story. "Oh come on, you can always find someone else to blame it on," somebody suggested in a thick Brit accent. "Blame it on the Communists," Ted stated firmly. "Never miss an opportunity to blame something on the Communists."
Later I set out to find a new yogwan, figuring that if I had to spend another two weeks in Seoul I could at least try to do it in a place that had no bugs and a proper bathroom. I called one place someone had recommended and asked if they had rooms. "Yes," the ajimah replied. Good, where are you located? "Yes," she again replied. No, how do you get to your yogwan, I tried again. "Yes," the ajimah began again before I banged the phone down.
I tried a second yogwan and was relieved to hear a voice with workable English. The woman told me she had rooms available, and we made plans for her to meet me by the subway station. But 10 minutes passed in the freezing Seoul dusk and no sign of the ajimah. I called back; the woman was there and said she hadn't been able to find me — went to the wrong subway exit. We tried it again. I was to stand in the lobby of a certain office building, no more than a minute away from her place, she promised. I told her I'd be holding a newspaper. I waited with my paper another 10 minutes, feeling like a junkie waiting to meet the Man and enduring the stares of business-suited Koreans hurrying home. Then I swore and stalked off, refusing to call the poor ajimah again and send her out on a third journey into the cold. It looked like the Inn Daewon for me once more.
In the bunkhouse that night, I dreamed I was riding on a bicycle behind my father. When I was five years old he'd load me into the kiddie seat on the back of his bike and pedal off for the Dairy Queen. Both of us screaming wildly, laughing, as he slalomed between garbage cans and dodged traffic. Only in my dream, it wasn't Keystone Drive but a wooded path my dad was furiously pedaling through, and I sat full-grown in the kiddie seat, and I was saying, "You know, after I graduate in the spring I think I'll take a year off and travel. After that I don't know what I'll do." And then I woke up in my sleeping bag on the yellow linoleum floor in Seoul and thought, "I have graduated. This is what I'm doing now."
It was a little before noon, and the half-dozen bunks in the room were empty. People were talking in the courtyard in German- and Nepali- and Irish-laced English. Somebody was playing music on a scratchy old tape deck; I couldn't tell if it was the Doors or Dylan or maybe even the Beatles, the voice sounded a little like Ringo Starr. I pulled on my jeans and went out to use the bathroom, stopping to knock on the door where the music was coming from. Now I thought maybe it was Van Morrison. "Yeh?" a nasal Cockney voice answered.
"Who's that you're listening to?" A curtain was pulled aside and I saw the face of a guy I'd seen around the yogwan. "Oh, hullo," he said; he'd seen me around too in the week we'd both been staying here, but neither of us knew the other's name. "It's World Party," he said, the name of the Welsh band coming out like, "Wuuld Pah'ee." I thanked him and smiled and went into the urinal.
Back in my bedroom, I peeled the last banana I'd bought from the street vendor, now two days old and getting soft. I pulled out the Henry Miller book Mae had given me, opened up to a story called "The Brooklyn Bridge" and almost immediately came across these words:
"Every man, when he has earned the rightful death which precedes maturity, returns to his childhood for inspiration and nourishment. It is then that his slumber is disturbed by prophetic, troubling dreams; he resorts to sleep in order to become more vividly awake." I stared at the pages, which smelled of must and of years spent on some library shelf. Miller, my fellow expat, reaching across 50 years with a message for me, all grown up but still clinging to the kiddie seat as my father pedaled through the unfamiliar woods.
Outside Wuuld Pah'ee was still playing, and I had another flash as I thought about the name. World Party — isn't that what I was on, here in this yogwan in the middle of Seoul, tending bar in Osaka before that, humping around the jungles of China with Swedes and Scots and Australians, dancing and drinking with young beautiful Taiwanese in the suburbs of Taipei? Isn't that the party we’re all invited to attend?
A light snow was starting as I headed over to the bathhouse, and by the time I emerged Seoul was dusted with a couple of flaky inches. I called Mae, telling her I was stuck in Seoul for another 10 days. She told me her father was out of town for 10 days. A beautiful synchronicity.
During that time we went through two cases of beer, about a dozen movies, several joints and many late-night conversations about life. Ten lazy, too-short days later, I was finally on the fucking boat to China. The world party had resumed. That was good too.