Many years ago, during my first year teaching in South Korea, I landed smack dab in the middle of the expat music scene in Itaewon. There was a bar there that held open mic nights. It was largely patronized by expats, primarily Americans and Canadians, though once in a while I’d meet an Aussie or someone from some other far flung country. The company and conversations were always fascinating. I can think of many people I met there, drinking into the wee hours of the night. I have no idea who the people in the photo above are, but that was a pretty regular scene at the Big Electric Cat where we all gathered to play.
One of the most spectacular people I met there was a 15 year-old Russian born Korean girl who had run away from Russia to Seoul where she was working, without papers, in another expat bar. She was a remarkable girl. We got on really well. Soon after I met her her mother had come, somehow finding her, and took her back to Russia. I missed her. There were lots of incredible encounters with amazing people. I recall talking late with one Aussie, both of us were drinking and talking about our lives prior to Korea… and how those lives had led us there. I don’t recall much about what was said, but I recall one powerful moment. As we hashed over our lives and the reasons we had both ended up in Korea, he said “No one ends up here because everything’s alright back home.” That really stuck with me, because it was true.
I had lots of adventures, gigging illegally in clubs, perhaps one day I’ll tell the story of the bust, the big raid the night before my gig night when “Looney” (as he was known) was taken away, off stage, and put in a Korean jail… and he was there legally on a performers visa… unlike me. But for now I know who and what I want to talk about. I had this friend who I will call “Bryan.”
Bryan became my dearest friend while I was there. He had an enormous smile and an energy that positively cast out in all directions. He was a powerful if not undisciplined performer and songwriter. We had started writing a song together (which eventually appeared on one of my CD’s) but it didn’t go anywhere until I sat down with one aspect of it and used it to write one of my very best songs. A song I started with him in Korea, worked out in the Philippines, then wrapped up back in Korea. Bryan’s energy was almost too intense for me, and even though we both had to teach early in the morning, we often stayed out until 4am. Amazing times. It doesn’t even seem like I lived those times. Wow… it’s all so distant now.
Bryan had once been a member of Blue Man Group, part of the franchise, but he burned out on having to go out night after night and repeat the same formulaic show… and somehow ended up in Korea. To this day I can’t figure how he ended up in Korea, he kept that pretty close to his vest. Honestly, I’m not even sure he ever had papers, and I seem to recall him saying that his documents had been forged. My experiences in Korea were full of that sort of thing.
Bryan was a good friend, the kind that would remember your birthday and make it special. We had a great party the night of my birthday at Bonji, a restaurant and bar where we both gigged illegally… the place that was raided, in fact. I had met Bryan early in my stay in Korea, and I recall him going way the hell out of his way to help me find one of the black market grocery stores that sold American foods that had been stolen or illegally obtained from the military base in Itaewon. I ate a lot of illegal salsa and $6 cans of refried beans thanks to that grocer. In order to get by in Korea you had to KNOW things, like where to get black market food. Bryan knew this, and went through the whole ordeal of changing trains and walking me through the icy cold streets of Korea to find this little market. I thanked him, and he shrugged it off, saying he was just paying it forward. That may sound corny, but us expats relied on that sort of thing from one another to get by. Thanks to Bryan, I treated other expats with the same kindness, going out of my way to help them if they needed it.
We soon became inseparable. Night after night drinking and performing. We were both in bad shape, though were having the times of our lives, hopping from one unlikely club to perform in another. Crazy times.
Bryan had a spot-on sense of humor. One thing he wrote for an expat paper really stuck with me. You first have to understand a few things about the Korean experience before the joke is funny, and one is that there were tons and tons of Canadians working there. The Koreans like the Canadians because Americans are more likely to laugh at management and tell them to fuck off than the Canadians are… hell, I told my bosses to fuck off more than once. Korean culture is very Hierarchical. Bosses are dictators, and Koreans submit, Americans don’t. The other thing you need to know is that there are only 2 spices in Korean cooking, red pepper paste and Spam. At least red papper and Spam are all I could taste… if the dishes didn’t taste like squid. Add to this that the Koreans are obsessed with their food… I mean OBSESSED! Most of us hated the food, many of us pretended to like it just to make our lives easier, even Bryan pretended to like it, but when we were being honest he would tell the truth. The bit he wrote in the expat paper was largely about what brought him to Korea, and I recall him starting off the article with this statement, “I came to Korea for the same reasons everyone comes to Korea, for the food… and to meet Canadians.” It was really the irony of going to Korea to meet Canadians that kept me laughing.
We went out to Insa Dong one afternoon to check out the shops, especially the sprawling mall that sold nothing but musical instruments. Insa Dong was around the corner from one of Korea’s most spectacular palaces. Like most of the palaces there, this one had been burned to the ground by the Japanese, then devotedly rebuilt by the ever-stubborn Koreans. The Japanese had dug terrible scars into the history and people of Korea. There was also a fantastic Buddhist Temple in the same area, and Bryan and I had gone there just to catch our breath and find some quiet in the chaos of Seoul. We had taken off our shoes to enter the temple, and when we came out, Bryan could not find his. It was suggested that since someone had stolen his shoes, that he take any shoes that fit. Bryan wasn’t about to do that, so we started home, him in his socks. I’m not sure I’ve ever laughed so hard. Funny, but a moment later I found myself laughing ever harder.
Several blocks away, Bryan turned to me and said “I don’t think I was wearing my sneakers…” In other words, he had been looking for the wrong shoes! We, of course, had to backtrack to the temple and sure enough, there they were, Bryan’s shoes. And that, my friends, was the moment when I know I had never laughed harder.
It pained me to leave Bryan after my contract was up, and 6 months later he was the first person I tried to find in Korea when I returned. It’s very difficult finding an expat in Seoul. It takes a lot of tracking and talking, but finally I found out what had happened to him from one of our mutual friends.
I discovered that Bryan had decided to stop taking his meds. I knew this was bad. I had lost one friend to suicide, and another, Phil, to madness. I recall trying so hard to help Phil, but he just wouldn’t stay on his meds. He eventually hurled himself 90 miles per hour down the wrong side of a highway and drove headlong into an elderly couple. He crippled them. I broke off that friendship, realizing the many times I had been in a car with Phil… with him behaving and driving erratically, and it was no good driving myself as twice Phil had knocked my car out of drive, and into neutral, while I was on the highway. He was dangerous to be around. I have a number of other dreadful stories to tell about Phil, but I will spare you the details. I eventually had to cut Phil off.
Years later I tried to help a chronically depressed friend of mine, Meg, but she too would not stay on her meds, and of course she fell apart too. I had learned through Phil and Meg that there is nothing you can do for someone like that, nothing but let them ruin you, too, perhaps even kill you.
Bryan called me after I had been diagnosed with cancer. Yep, he was off his meds and living on the streets, sleeping in the subway stations in Korea as an illegal and, from all I had gathered, turning tricks for wealthy men just to get by. He came over while I was recovering, and I was horribly disturbed by his presence. As powerful as he was in the prime of his personality, he was equally powerful in his collapse. Seeing him chilled me to the bone.
Bryan spent that night in my apartment, up all night, pacing around in the other room… it was profoundly unsettling. I knew I couldn’t deal with this. I gave him fifty bucks when he left the next morning and told him to get something to eat. Additionally I had loaded his backpack with whatever portable snacks I had around. He had been impossible to talk to, like all manics, there was no reasoning with him, and he was utterly convinced that he had thought this through and had made a rational decision to stop working as a teacher and sleep in the subway stations as an illegal. I was furious. I was not only furious, but disturbed, saddened, and scared.
He showed up two days later, was just hanging around outside the apartment waiting on me to come home so he could stay the night or get more money. This had to stop. I was terribly unsettled.
I had cancer, was undergoing radiation treatments, my immune system had broken down. I simply could not physically be around someone who was living that way. Add to this that I had lost Phil and Meg to the same madness, and years before, Andy to suicide. I didn’t know what to do, but I knew I could not be around Bryan, it was far too dangerous, and far too disturbing. Encounters with Phil used to unnerve me for days after, and I felt the same sticky sickness having been around Bryan. I had to break it off. It was a torture, having to cut off a friend who had meant so much to me the year before.
I called him and laid it out. He hung up on me. It was the last I ever heard from him. I often wonder what ever became of him.
For weeks after that I suffered over whether or not to turn him over to Interpol. The way he was living was a disaster, and though I knew he would never forgive me, I knew he needed to go home and get it together. At the same time I was recalling my Granny’s deathbed advice, “Be nice to people, try not to hurt anyone, and mind your own business.” The dilemma was… was this any of my business? I found myself trapped in that existential loop. Bryan needed help, I was his only friend. Was it not my duty to help him, even if the help was going to be tough?
I couldn’t answer the question. Everyone around me was convinced that I needed to mind my own business. I was not convinced this was not my business.
I’m still not sure if I made the right decision.
I chose to mind my own business.