:: Article

The Place People Play

By Sybil Baker. 

Those who read Korean call it “Noli”—the first word in the sign, which means in English, The Place People Play. Those who don’t read Korean simply call it “The Bar.”

You are a male Westerner, in your mid twenties, tiring of the weekends in the foreigner bars. The first time you go to The Bar, your coworker takes you, a drinking buddy from the English language institute you work at. It’s a word-of-mouth kind of place, impossible to discover or find on your own.

You’re in Seoul’s college district, and the streets are packed with drunk Koreans, stumbling from bar to bar. Your friend bustles you off the main street and negotiates the labyrinth of side streets, each crammed with dozens of loud drinking establishments haloed in flashing neon signs.

On one indistinguishable street, your friend guides you down a narrow staircase that leads to an imposing wooden door. The smallest bouncer you’ve ever seen stands at the entrance, his lack of height accentuated by the fact that you’re two steps above him, his hair hidden in a red bandanna. Your friend holds up two fingers and the bouncer swings the door open.

Darkness, noise, smoke, sweat… barely enough room to stand. The wooden benches lining the walls are packed with Koreans and foreigners sharing tables and pitchers of beer. In a cavity in the middle of the room, white girls in spaghetti strap tops jive to Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” as a group of Korean salarymen dance jerkily with no one in particular. A predatory circle of foreign males edge the dance floor, coddling pale draft beers and talking animatedly to whoever will listen to them. When you and your friend walk in, they look in your direction, then away, disappointed that you are not the other sex.

Since there are only two of you, your friend finds some table space with a group of Koreans. They slide over and pour you and your friend mugs of beer from their ten dollar pitcher of pale Korean beer. The girl beside your friend is pretty and giggly, her long black straight hair snaking over the promise of bare shoulders. Her friend is pretty, too. Glossy hair pulled back in barrettes, the skin of her slim pale leg hauntingly pressed against the trousers of the Korean man in his thirties, who offers you a pencil-thin cigarette, then lights it for you. The Koreans communicate in broken English and share their beer and cigarettes. Your short time here has already taught you about sharing: beer, cigarettes, and food—yes; the girls, on the other hand are off limits. They cannot be shared. After clanking glasses with the group for the sixth time, you gaze around for other prospects.
Through the haze, you strain to hear their accents of a group of girls dancing in front of you. You decide they are mostly Irish and British. They pour gin and tonics from a plastic pitcher and seem permanently attached to the dance floor.

Your friend returns with a pitcher of beer, which he uses to refill the table’s glasses. The Strokes “Last Night,” is playing now. A few tables away, another Korean man in his late thirties is perched on the long wooden bench against the wall. He gyrates and unbuttons his shirt as a small group gathers and cheers him on. The guys at your table take the lamp suspended above you and point it on him, like a dreary lighthouse summoning a sinking ship. His shirt falls off; underneath once-powerful muscles is the flab of a bodybuilder who has seen his better days. As he toys with his belt, his girlfriend tugs at his pants loop, pulling him back down on the bench. As he buttons his shirt the small crowd disperses in search of the next moment of fun.

The DJ is a short bald man wearing a dirty Canadian flag t-shirt. You snake your way through the crowd, your feet sticking on the layer of beer with each step. Scraps of paper with requests written on them line the bar: The White Stripes, Britney Spears, Black Eyed Peas, The Doors, Nirvana, Cake, Jimi Hendrix, the Pogues, Beyonce. Behind him, a wooden shelf creaks with the weight of ancient albums lined up like library books, irrelevant in the haze of the computer screen playing illegal downloads. You request Franz Ferdinand.

You rejoin your friend, who is fool-heartedly chatting up the Korean girl at the table with the short skirt and limited English. You turn to another group of guys at the next table, who proudly tell you they are Pakistani. Factory workers who send half their salaries to their extended families in various small villages. Their hair is carefully combed and they flaunt crisply ironed button-down shirts and black creased pants.
One of them offers you a cigarette—a Korean brand—and lights it for you. You “cheers” your mug of beer with them.

“I am a bad Muslim,” the Pakistani who has lit your cigarette confesses. “I never smoke or drank at home.”
“Satisfaction” comes on and the Pakistanis jump onto the dance floor en masse. Turning back to your group, you offer your own cigarettes, Marlboro Lights, to the Korean guys, to return their favor. You’d quit smoking before you came to Korea, but last month you started up again. As you smoke and sip your beer, you notice a buxom redhead across the room lean over to kiss some anemic looking guy she’s just met. His Manchester United jersey is zipped up to his Adam’s apple. She’s drunk and keeps falling into him and whispering into his ear. The Brit laughs raucously, greedily rubbing his hands over her body as she rises, a little wobbly. You can barely see her through the maelstrom of people dancing to Dexy’s Midnight Runners on the dance floor. “Come on, Eileen…” She yanks up the strap of her top and totters upstairs to the bathroom. With gusto, you ‘one-shot’ your beer with the eager Koreans and follow her.

You almost get pulled into the group dance, but manage to weave to the other side. The steps are narrow and sticky, and almost bump into the redhead as she a roll of toilet paper stacked in a crawl space next to the stairs. Before she closes the door to the women’s stall, you glimpse the single toilet and the trash bin overflowing with used toilet paper that is forbidden to be flushed into Seoul’s delicate and antiquated plumbing. The men’s door is locked, so you lean your pounding head against the wall, reverberating with the whining of Jimi’s guitar. “Manic depression has captured my soul…” The Brit stumbles up the stairs, brushes unceremoniously past you and casually enters the girl’s bathroom.

Just then the men’s door opens, and you walk into a urinal that overlooks an alley. You stare outside at the throngs of people on their way to other bars. The cramped room reeks of vomit and piss and shit. From the girls’ bathroom, you can clearly hear a few grunts from him and porn star moans from her.

Back at the table, your friend is still chatting up the Korean girl, and you laugh at him for wasting his time. You’re lonely now—it’s after two, and the place is only getting more crowded with people you don’t know—and don’t really want to know. Your request, Franz Ferdinand, comes on, and you sidle onto the dance floor, not bothering with a partner since no one else is.

You see her then, this cute brunette with pixie hair and a jean miniskirt. She’s with a few other girls and you glide toward her slowly, like water. You loiter on the dance floor after Franz Ferdinand, through Black Eyed Peas, Bob Marley, and Joan Jett. Pixie Girl opens a space for you to join them, and suddenly you’re in. You’re gold. You really want a beer and a smoke, but you can’t give up your space now. So instead you keep dancing, the air thickening with sweat and smoke, making you dizzy and disoriented.

The drunk redhead is back and alone now, slumped over one of the benches. Strangely, you feel a little guilty and a little sorry for her, now that things are going your way. Suddenly the music stops and the blinding lights illuminate the crowded room. The two tiny bouncers rush to your table, where your friend is involved in a scuffle. The bouncers sandwich one of the Koreans from your table and drag him outside. The girl with the bare shoulders cries out to him, and pulls her friends with her outside after him. Your friend has been spared.

The lights go off again as the Canadian DJ plays “Everyone was Kung Fu Fighting.” You rock back on your heels, teetering, falling back into a crowd of beefy guys who sneer at you. As you regain balance, you see that Pixie Girl has disappeared.

It’s three a.m. now. People, mostly Westerners now, spill in from outside, overwhelming the tiny bouncer, although even the standing room has long since evaporated. The Bar is just one revolting mass of drinking, smoking, dancing, and snogging. The non-smokers are all bumming your cigarettes now, and you are running dangerously low. You circle, searching for Pixie Girl, but give up after a few loops and dejectedly join your friend at the table once more.

By four a.m. Pixie Girl mysteriously reappears. With the bravado of the last half-dozen pitchers, you stagger over to her table of friends, which includes some guys, but you ignore them, and drunkenly ask for her phone number: you don’t care how brazen you are, you might lose her again. She carves her number into the wood, where layers of graffiti have built up over the years.

The graffiti, in both Korean and English, has become the unofficial wallpaper for the place. Messages range from the exuberant 2002 World Cup days, to dire warning messages, to declarations of drunkenness, loss, and love.

Pixie Girl jumps up with her friends, and they’re all back on the dance floor, dancing to Billy Idol. You try and join the group but can hardly stand, let alone dance. You slump over the table and peer dejectedly into your flat beer. The Bar is thinning out.

At five am you lope off to the bathroom again and when you come back you see that Pixie Girl is really gone. Frantically, you rush to the table to find her phone number, but there are half a dozen numbers carved there. You borrow a pen from a Nigerian who is trying to resurrect the passed-out redhead. With a shaky hand you write Pixie Girl and the date on the table to commemorate the encounter.

At six, the music stops and the lights go on. You vaguely remember your friend disappearing a few pitchers ago. You are alone.

You stagger onto the street as the sun rises, hoping its rays will burn the markings of the nameless road into your head, so that next week you can find your way back once again. 

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SB: This story is based on one of my favorite bars in Seoul and the people that frequent it.

 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sybil Baker’s fiction has appeared in numerous journals, including, most recently, Paper Street and The Bitter Oleander. Her essays have appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle and A Woman’s World Again (an anthology), and she was the winner of Seoul, South Korea’s essay contest in 2005. Currently she is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Before that she lived in Seoul, South Korea, for twelve years. 

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, October 29th, 2007.