I ride the Seoul subway, line six. A small young woman in a colorful dress gets in and takes a seat. She is not Korean and she wears a scarf. As relative outsider in this monocultural megalopolis, I instinctively feel solidarity with the timid girl, whose face was ridden with acne. I smile at her.
When I sit down I leave a respectful distance between me and the muslim woman, but I notice that the laces of her right shoe were neither properly tied nor tucked inside. I hesitated. Should I tell her? Or is looking at a female foot frowned upon in her cultural paradigm? Would it sound like a lame excuse to start a conversation of the kind her religion tends to guard so strictly, the kind with an erotic dimension, with distant fantasies of impossible lovemaking as pleasurable distraction from the spleen of our daily lives?
I decide to say it.
The young woman’s face shone. She smiled at me three times and thanked me after she had put her footwear in order. Then she thanked me again as she alighted one station before mine, her eyes twinkling and vital. I observed the unapologetic smirk on my own face in the opposite window. This is the kind of experience that makes me make sense of the world. This is the kind of scene I love to write about. I want to convey, and understand, how a few seconds of interaction, wordless and genuine, can make us so happy.
…and then in the subway station something beautiful happened I was waiting for line number 3 to take me home and saw an older man at the vending machine going through his bag for some coins to buy himself a cup of instant coffee which tastes like yesteryear as I told him and he replied in English to my clumsy Korean I said hurry up using the best honorific form I knew as the train was entering the station and he was still sipping his coffee from the paper cup, and just before the doors closed he zipped into the subway train and asked me to come sit next to him on a seat reserved for the elderly, which I did quipping I now had a special license. After the usual exchange about my provenance the man asked how old I was, thirty-eight I said, thirty-nine in Korean age I should say, he replied I am eighty-one in Korean age so I should say eighty. You look very young I said, and he really did, so you were born in 1937 I said yes he was he said and out of his bag he pulled out this hardcover book published in the year 1937 and I guessed he always carried it along it was a book of songs and as we passed the stations he started flipping through the pages until he reached Schubert’s Ode to music and then the old man began to sing. His voice was clear not quivering and he sang with intonation and beautifully and I had my little moment right there and then until we arrived at Yaksu station where I had to change trains and let him go and said goodbye using the best honorific and then with only little hesitation I put my own coins in a vending machine and treated myself to a small paper cup of cheap, bitter, magical coffee…
I imagine feeling elated
when I walk in the underground concrete
counting irksome smiles and turnstiles
breathing bubbles into transient thoughts
that need not be fierce and piercing
I imagine yellow trains leaving
on the lower levels that connect the shopping
and further I imagine electric voices
barking liberation from melting speakers
and all the imagery on the other side