Sometimes–okay, always--I wonder if I’m losing my mind. (Or, as my old former manager Tony would say, “That’s one problem you shouldn’t worry about since you don’t got a mind to lose.”) For instance, the other day I left my phone in a cab on my way to teach my wife Jina’s elementary students. She asked me to pinch-teach for her–at the last minute, of course–as she had to take care of something at the bank.
I thought I’d left the phone at home since the zipper to the pocket on my backpack where I keep it was down, or that Jina had forgotten to put it back after texting me instructions on what to do with the students.
As it turned out, she hadn’t touched the phone and I was merely being paranoid. I was able to contact her by borrowing one of the student’s phones, and she managed to reach the driver, who offered to come back to the spot where he’d dropped me off and return it to me.
“Heavens, that’s awfully decent of him,” I thought in my best posh English accent.
I asked the students to wait for me, went outside to the corner, and kept an eye out for the taxi in question. When a cab pulled up to the curb ahead of me, I ran up and started to talk to the driver, then let him go when I saw that it was someone else.
The driver had given me a funny look; he probably thought I was an Amway salesman.
Then I noticed a little boy running down the sidewalk on the other side of the street. He looked like one of Jina’s students. I thought he’d escaped from the classroom. I yelled out his English nickname (Roger). He paused to glance at me, then ran on.
“What’s he doing?!” I thought. I felt like Alexander Haig temporarily assuming the U.S. presidency after Ronald Reagan was shot, insecure despite my assertion that “I’m in charge here.”
Suddenly the driver I was waiting for appeared. He said he wanted 10,000 won (about 9 bucks) in exchange for the phone. Who was I to argue? I was lucky he’d gone out of his way to return it. Only I didn’t have any bills smaller than a fifty, so I asked him to wait while I went and bought a couple of pastries at the bakery across the street in order to get some change.
I decided to give him an extra five thousand won out of gratitude, and he seemed to appreciate that. People tend to like money–a lot. I know I do. I just wish I were better at making it, but we can’t all be Lloyd Blankfein, the corrupt, guardian angel-flanked president of Goldman-Sachs.
When I got back to the school, one of the kids had locked the door. Fortunately, I had the key.
I surveyed the faces of the four children in the classroom and was both surprised and relieved to see Roger’s among them. The instance of mistaken identity outside must have been that old devil paranoia at work again.
One of the good things about being absent-minded is it can make you more forgiving of other people’s oversights, even those that could prove fatal to you.
About a month ago I woke up to a funny smell that reminded me of smoke. The smoke detector on my ceiling, which always reminds me of the earth orbiting the large round light of the sun in the middle, made no comment.
I got out of bed and opened the door to find a sea of smoke flooding the apartment. It started at the ceiling and came all the way down to waist-level. I dashed to the stove to remove the offending frying pan of king crab soup, transferring the funeral pyre of smoldering blackened crustacean to the stove in the alcove where the washing machine lives and sliding the window open wide. I poured water on the crab to stop it from smoking then ran around and opened all the rest of the windows. The freezing outdoor air thanked me and rushed into the place like a horde of lost door-to-door Mormon missionaries.
It took about a week to get rid of the stench.
There’s absent-mindedness, then there’s being an asshole. The other night while Jina and I were lying in bed getting ready to go to sleep, she asked me if I knew the source of a rumbling sound. I said it sounded like someone’s car engine idling. Sure enough, when I went to the window, slid it open, and took a look outside (but not before going to the kitchen to get my glasses since I can’t see shit without them), there was a boxy white truck parked down on the street with smog pouring from its ass-pipe.
“Do you want me to go talk to him?” I asked her. Notice how I used the pronoun him, and not her. I knew the offending party had to be a man. What woman would ever do something so dickish?
As Veteran for Peace and happy-go-lucky, sex-loving, ukelele-playing folkie Emily Yates would say, “Try Not To Be A Dick.”
Jina said not to bother and we found our way towards slumberland.
But then, on Sunday, a similar-looking truck appeared while I was getting ready to take a nap after finishing my obligatory idiotic church-going ritual, or shall I say it appeared in the wake of the noise blaring from a megaphone mounted on its roof, which had announced its arrival several minutes before (these drivers tend to move very, very slowly). There were boxes of apples and other produce stacked in the bed of the truck.
My neighborhood seems to be a hot-spot for these pernicious vehicles. Although it’s technically illegal for people to hawk their wares in this manner, it’s a law more honored in the breach than the observance. And, to quote an old friend of mine, “My ears are more sensitive than my dick.” (Actually, make that “balls,” even though “sensitive balls” sounds like an oxymoron, like “valiant pussy,” or “compassionate torturer.”)
So you can imagine how un-delighted I was by the advent of this obnoxious obstacle to my peace of mind.
Without further ado, I peeled open the window, pulled the screen free, stuck my head out, and screamed, “Shikeulo!” (That’s the Korean word for noise.) I yelled it again, even louder, for good measure, then added the following words of advice:
“Get the fuck out of here right now!”
Despite the throbbing in the left side of my neck, which was probably my carotid artery signaling the approach of a stroke, the tactic worked. The truck meekly slinked away, though it took a few minutes for the noise to die off completely.
Another time I just went out in my pajamas, recorded the driver’s license plate number, and asked him to turn his “announcement” down.
Last Friday while I was on the subway, I was tempted to ask a jerk yammering on his phone to shut up, but instead I moved down to the other end of the car. For all their complaining among friends and family, Koreans tend to put up with a lot of shit in public, which lets the assholes get away with being themselves. My boot camp-like marriage and its attendant assertiveness-training have made me more outspoken in responses to such disturbances than I used to be, even though I sometimes add my own annoying texture to the atmosphere by whistling random tunes in public stairwells or on subway station escalators.
Maybe one of these days my doppelganger will accost me and shout “Shikeulo!” in my face.
How can you live in hell without becoming a devil?