Monday, March 31, 2008

Travelogue Break: R.I.P. The Hub

I want to take a break from this regularly-scheduled travelogue to acknowledge the passing of The Hub, the former newsmagazine supplement of the Emory Wheel.

From 2005 to 2007, I wrote columns for that mag, covering everything from turning 21 and mourning the loss of a fake ID to living with a gay roommate who didn't do his laundry.

I don't have a passion for traditional reporting, but I do have a passion for personal writing, something that The Hub allowed me to pursue. I won't forget the giddy kick I got out of sitting in a campus shuttle and finding a stranger flipping through the mag and finding my article. I suppose one of the reasons I started this blog was to bottle that feeling, though I can't lie, there's something special about printed word on a printed page that this blog can't quite capture...

So that's why I already miss The Hub. I'm grateful for the opportunities the magazine presented me and regret that it won't be around to service future campus writers. The reason for its end is a simple one: it didn't make money. That makes me a little sad, and not solely for selfish reasons, for I thought the rest of the magazine's content was rewarding and well-written. If you're curious, you can see for yourself here. You'll find an archive of the ten issues; I contributed to nine of them.

Here's hoping a similar publication appears on the Emory campus sometime soon to give more writers, and for that matter, readers, that gloriously giddy kick.

A Former Hub Writer's Blog
Innocence Abroad: yet another american expatriate english teacher


My Hub Columns
October 2005 "Love Online? LOL": Our friendship died when it entered the real world...

December 2005 "Dead Ends": Confessions of a former rapper (and baller and novelist and...)

March 2006 "Guessing Game": What do musical preferences say about your sexuality?

May 2006 "The Thrill is Gone, Baby": When it comes to drinking alcohol, it's no fun to act your age

October 2006 "Spreading Love Too Thin": Are college students destroying a word through overuse?

December 2006 "Three's Company": Me, my roommate, and the elephant in the room

March 2007 "Shalom, Snoop": The Holy City rocks out to American pop music

May 2007 "Graduating to Unemployment": In the words of Joey Lawrence: Whoa, the future is scary.

December 2007 "Tour de Korea": Lance Armstrong I'm not. But in South Korea, I Rediscovered My Bike.
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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Travelogue #31: My Not-So-Lonely Planet Guide to Fukuoka, Japan and Busan, South Korea


I got bafflingly lost and I ate fifty-dollar blowfish. But that's not all I experienced in my trip to Fukuoka, Japan via Busan, Korea. What follows is my not-so-lonely planet guide to two Asian hotspots that don't get the press of a Tokyo or a Bangkok, but that still offer dynamic sights, sounds, and salsa-splattered broccoli.

I'll explain that one later.

TRANSPORTATION

Forget airplanes. You can get from Seoul-to-Busan-to-Fukuoka by train and ferry for a round-trip total of $230. There's one caveat: the trains are so suffocatingly overheated that they can drive a sane man to hike up his sweatpants and start cursing like Andrew Dice Clay. You might wonder why I was wearing sweatpants then and why I am name-dropping the Diceman now. I don't have answers to those questions. All I know is that I tried blanking out the heat with my headphones and the quirkfest of the Juno soundtrack. The time was 6am, and I closed my eyes, looking for peace and sleep.

It didn't work.

"$%% #@#$!" I muttered, ripping off the headphones in disgust and blindly flinging them at my neighbor. "Sorry, Jason," I said. "It's okay, man," he replied, opening his eyes a wink, bewildered by the projectile strike of a pair of headphones to his chest.

Indoor temperatures, Koreans, and me: this has been a unsatisfying triangle since my arrival in October. There's no seeing eye-to-eye, for on a warm day after this trip, I wore shorts to school and my students were shocked. "Teacher, it's cold!" they exclaimed. When they saw I had hair on my legs, they lost it. "Why don't you shave?" they said. "You look like a wolf!"

On the train I waited miserably, sweatpants riding high on my wolf legs. "Are you guys not hot?" I asked my friends. They weren't, at least not to the degree I was. I kind of hated them for not sharing in my agony.

Relief came in the open waters.



Ferry time. We hopped something called the JR Kyushu 'Beetle' Hydrofoil from Busan to Seoul. Though it bobbed like a rubber duck at first, the ferry calmed down to slash across the Sea of Japan in under three hours.


Hello, Fukuoka.

HOTEL/ ACCOMODATIONS



Look at the pictures above and you'll see Japanese hospitality in action. We came to the country relatively aimless and definitely hotel-less. Employees at the AM/PM Pharmacy made it their personal mission to not only find us nearby places to stay, but to also find us the best block for Fukuoka nightlife. Twenty-five minutes later, they had drawn a map to everywhere we needed to go and see.

After a few nervous moments, we landed a hotel for $80 a night: Court Hotel Fukuoka Tenjin.

I will never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever forget the name of that hotel.


As for Busan, Lonely Planet: Korea warns that, "it's best to avoid Texas St. - a small district opposite Busan station that's home for shifty people, Russians, hostess bars, and the occasional street hold-up- a night." I read this snippet days after we'd returned home, and I laughed, because guess where my friends and I ended up after our arrival in Busan?

Yep - Texas St, except we had no clue about its reputation. Upon first glance it looked like many other big city Korean streets, what with its neon lights and bars and restaurants stacked high, one atop another, rising into the sky in a blur of brightness. "There's a motel!" I said, wanting to take charge after a trip spent either lost or following others' leads.

"Motel" was a darkened building without a front desk. Its bellhop sat behind a sliding glass door, the kind you'd see on a tollbooth. "25 a night," he said. We asked to see a room, and he indifferently showed us to the end of an empty hall and opened a door. We were greeted by the thick smell of old smoke, a battered chair by the window, and a sad bed that had probably seen its share of questionable bodies doing questionable things. Jason compared it to the place where Tom Hanks stays in Big, a seedy high-rise peppered with gunshots and accented arguments among strangers.


For only five dollars more, we found a perfect hotel in the heart of Busan: Hotel Angel.

We were not shot.


FOOD

If you're looking for cheap food and drinks, don't come to Japan. Even ice cubes will run you $2 a head at some establishments, including the one in the following picture:


Notice our smiling faces. Notice how we hadn't yet received the check.

But we did eventually.


In brighter news, one of our favorite meals came in a restaurant, like many others, incospiciously hiding along a narrow alley. The name of the place is Yusuke Matsuzono, and its motto is "Be Happy."




We were very happy, savoring a multi-course meal of a delectably luscious chicken leg followed by something mysteriously and deliciously mozzarellay (a rarity in Asia). Some courses were tastier than others, but one specifically registered with me: a simple one. Broccoli...broccoli splattered with salsa.

I never ate broccoli in the United States. I mean never. I associated it with greens like spinach, and if Popeye couldn't convince me that spinach was worthy of a chomp, then I figured nobody could turn me on to greens.

But I didn't account for the one-two punch of Japan and salsa, odd cousins brought together for the sole purpose of introducing me to broccoli. Salsa, meet broccoli. Broccoli, say hi to your new amigo, salsa. I didn't know you two had anything to do with Japan, but here's to new tastes on new tongues. Here's to broccoli. Next time my mom offers you up, I will accept you and your bushy green crunchiness. That is a promise.



Then there was the ramen. Not the kind you get in the crunchy baggies at Publix, but a meticulously-prepared version with a strangely comforting tinge of sweetness with its spices. I think I enjoyed it in retrospect more than at the time of consumption, for it was deep into the night and I was thrown off-kilter by the process. Yes, it was a process to eat this ramen. First, we had to select our preferred soup via a vending machine outside the restaurant. We pressed buttons for extra rice or even a glass of beer. Next, we were shown inside to a curtained cubby. The idea is that one must be, well, one with his ramen.


Somebody, one of my friends but I don't remember who, compared the setting of this place to that of a former porn shop, where the owners decided to throw up their hands and say, forget it, let's keep the curtains, let's keep the privacy, but we'll lose the Everybody Really Loves Raymond videos and gain the ramen.

HISTORICAL LANDMARKS


Presenting the Hakozaki Shrine, Fukuoka's oldest shrine. Built in 923 to honor an emperor, an empress, and a princess, we felt its majestic pull at sundown, the sky gradually tinting black, thunder crackling as if we were on a movie set. And there was also the fact that we were the only ones there.




For that hour the shrine was ours. The air felt different. Mystical but real. We felt transported to a different time...well, almost. We took too many pictures to have a full-scale Back to the Future moment.


GAMING



No, you're not seeing things: those are indeed women playing video games. Step into a Japanese arcade and you won't see a crowd of pointdexter Revenge of the Nerds extras; you'll see grown men and grown women playing everything from Tekken to Virtual Tennis around the clock. Speaking of Virtual Tennis, I found myself in a heated battle in the role of Roger Federer, scrapping for points against a Japanese man at a parallel console playing the role of Lleyton Hewitt. He won. I considered shaking his hand afterwards, but opted instead for a you-cool-man nod. I didn't know if I broke the rules of Japanese arcade etiquette, mainly because I didn't know that there were any rules.

I didn't see any Dance Dance Revolution. Maybe I was five years too late for that.

NIGHTLIFE

In our only night in Busan, my friends and I were exposed to this:



How pleasingly mind-boggling is it that Unk, the black rapper who brought us "Walk It Out," was likely asleep in his Buckhead mansion at 10am Atlanta time while a pack of droopy-jeaned Koreans perfectly mimicked the dance moves to his song at 12am in a Busan, Korea nightclub? Does Unk know this is happening as it is happening? Would he care? If he doesn't, he should, because I'm not talking about some random AP article that says hip-hop music is big in Asia; I'm talking about one real moment in time. A few seconds, a few minutes. Walked it out. Walked it out.

It's a not-so-lonely planet after all.



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Monday, March 17, 2008

Travelogue #30: Can Japanese Blowfish Kill You Deliciously?


H
ere I am, paying fifty dollars to eat a dead fish that just might kill me.


Welcome to Japan, where blowfish (fugu) is considered the swankest of delicacies, and where one ill-advised cut can leave an eater dizzy, numb-lipped, and six feet under. You see, the fish is flush with poison (tetrodotoxin) and chefs are required to gain a special license if they want to serve it. In 2006, David Nakamura of the Washington Post discovered, "Last year, 830 people applied for a fugu license in Tokyo...but only 500 of them passed the exam." In other words, that's 330 people who can blowfish you to the grave.

I hope I'm not chilling with one of them.


* picture courtesy of Yong Ho Cho

My friends and I sit folded-legged in a cozy blowfish joint nestled in a small alley by the Naka River in Fukuoka. We're the only customers, but we're not treated as such, no, we're treated more like a long-lost family who's finally come home. Hospitality comes in slabs of blowfish sashimi before we're even charged a cent. My friends lick their chopsticks clean, marveling at the unique texture of a fish that's somehow slippery and dry, with a curious flavor like that of transparent, edible stickers. Meanwhile, our waitress (who acts more like our grandmother) dabs a blowfish fin into a white cup of sake. VoliĆ : blowfish fin sake. In simpler terms, think of liquor...with a fishy aftertaste unfurling in your mouth like a blossom.

To be honest, I hadn't marked "blowfish" or "blowfish fin sake" on my Fukuoka trip itinerary, but hell, my friends were determined to do so, and when in Fukuoka, it's your prerogative to chow down on the quirkiest-looking fish in the sea.

Was it delicious? I wouldn't use that word. Was it unique, peculiar, and potentially fatal? Yes, yes, and yes. The taste of blowfish and its sake cousin is locked into my memory, and with only thirteen blowfish restaurants in the United States, I don't anticipate consuming the spiked wonder again anytime soon. And there we see the draw of flirting with rare foods: we gain a guaranteed memory of a specific, singularly tangible moment in our lives, something that can't be said for a hodgepodge of Wendy's memories. In the past ten years, I've eaten approximately 962 Spicy Chicken Fillets (that's an unscientific estimate). I don't remember every sandwich, though I will always remember #963.


It happened in Canal City, a multiple-story entertainment and shopping complex in Fukuoka. Minutes earlier, I was complaining to my friends about the dominance of McDonalds in Southeastern Asia and the utter lack of Wendy's. There are no Wendy's in Korea, and the situation in Fukuoka looked nearly as dire until -


Hallelujah.



Sweet Jesus, Hallelujah.

Less than twenty-four hours after we'd eaten blowfish, we packed the booth at a Wendy's that looked like any and every other on the globe: the navy blue-checkered carpet, the beige tables, the green-backed chairs, and the strictly Japanese customers. Yes. The other guys ordered nuggets and fries, and I didn't hesitate in asking for my Spicy Chicken Fillet. Biting into it was an experience simultaneously ordinary and surreal: ah, the familiar mayonnaise-slathered tomato diveting into the flaky chicken patty - it made me remember all those late-night drive-thrus on Poplar Avenue in Germantown, TN. I was back in the burger bubble, away from a world of blowfish and beyond, but I didn't feel all that sentimental leaving Wendy's. I was ready to go. The Spicy Chicken Fillet is the same and it will continue to be the same. My taste buds, however, are evolving.

But don't put a fancy handkerchief on me just yet, for tonight I'm anticipating a dinner at Sbarro. That's right, Sbarro Pizza.

Maybe it's not blowfish, but it sounds delicious.


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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Travelogue #29: How I Ended Up at a Police Station in Fukuoka, Japan at 3am...and Somehow Found My Way Home


N
othing good comes out of a place called Happy Cock.

It's 2am in Fukuoka, a bustling Japanese port city that a month ago I didn't know existed. Outside the Happy Cock, my friends wait among Japanese girls in slinky t-shirts and tattered jeans and beering Japanese dudes in thick-zippered jackets. I'm not dressed for this: I'm wearing an Old Navy hoody and three hours of sleep on my face. Everybody within earshot pants for the all-you-can-drink deal, but I'm exhausted and ready to say good night.

"I'm heading back," I say. "What's the name of our place again?"

"Center Hotel," David replies quickly. The club doors fling open and closed, revealing a huddled and bopping standing-room-only crowd among showers of strobe lights. My friends want to join the debauchery, and they want to do it now.

"Center?" I ask.

David checks with Yong, our friend/language maestro. He's a man who speaks fluent English, Korean, and Japanese, and he's the reason why we aren't utterly lost in a city unknown to most American tourists. Yong is a man with answers.


"Yeah that's right that's right. Sorry, I seriously got to pee," he says, "Like now."

"Center," I chant to myself as I tell my friends goodbye and shuffle into the elevator. Center Hotel.

With that, an adventure begins, one that leaves me, hours later, wondering how the hell I'm going to find my way home.

Nothing good comes out of a place called Happy Cock.

After I tell him my destination, my taxi driver mumbles in Japanese. He tethers the word "Center" in between his syllables and I worry: what exactly is he saying?

The cab winds around illuminate storefronts and restaurants I only sketchily recognize. This is my first night in Fukuoka, so my knowledge of its geography is limited to thoughts like "There's that Chinese restaurant!" and "There's that AM/PM pharmacy!" A few disorienting turns later, the car brakes at the Central Hotel Fukuoka.

Shit.

This looks like the wrong hotel, but I'm not worried. I recognize it from the afternoon, when my friends and I walked past it and talked about its 1970s pink-and-white decor. I'm close to where I need to be. I'm in the right neighborhood.

I'm not worried.

Through the narrow roads behind the Central Hotel Fukuoka, I walk. Something tells me my real hotel is close, maybe one street over, maybe two. I got a gut feeling that I'm right, even though it's late and getting later, dark and getting darker, and I'm wandering in a city I can't place on a map, a city whose language I don't understand, a city with more than one Center Hotel. I walk. Confidently. I can't call my friends because my phone doesn't work in Japan, and I don't have the number for Yong's Japanese cell. But this isn't New Year's in Seoul when I needed two high school girls to help me find my friends; this time, I'm close to where I need to be. So I walk.

My feet are moving faster than my brain. Is that the Hakata rail station to my right? What the hell? Where am I? Keep going, my feet say, keep going.

There's a hotel to my left. I see it. Big white sign.

The Central Hotel Fukuoka.

I must have walked in a circle.

With determination I step into the Central Hotel Fukuoka and turn left to the elevators. I try to tell myself that maybe this is my "home" after all, that maybe my friends and I did indeed check into this place. For real. There could very well be a rear entrance to this hotel with different signage. Maybe that's what's confusing me. My friends said Center Hotel, my cabbie took me to Center Hotel...this is my hotel. This has to be my hotel!

I study my room key. It's a generic one; all it says is 803. One thing I definitely know is that the eighth floor is the top floor of whatever hotel is mine. I rush into the elevator and look at the line-up of numbers, hoping to God they end at 8.

They end at 13.

Shit.

"Excuse me," I say to a well-dressed man at the front desk. "I have a problem."

I hand him my room key. He inspects it as if he's appraising an antique: squinted eyes, thinking, calculating. He speaks only a marginal amount of English, but he looks absolutely focused in helping me any way he can. He's working phones and maps, maps and phones. I'm witnessing the much-ballyhooed Japanese hospitality firsthand. I appreciate it, but secretly I'm begging him to give me a definitive solution right now.

My room key tells him nothing. The phones tell him nothing. The maps? In front of me, he lays one out that lists all the hotels in Fukuoka. Urged by my pleading, he translates their Japanese-charactered names: one after another. After another. After another.

"Tenjin Center Hotel," he finally says.

"Yes! I think!" I say, grasping to his words like a life preserver. "I think! I think that's right!"

He marks the location in black ink and gives me the map. I leave shooting thank-you's and arrigatos, but his only response is a no-big-deal wave. That's Japanese hospitality.

"Tenjin...Center?" the cabbie asks.

I say the name again. Three times. He repeats it back to me and then he starts driving. My worry dissipates a bit as we enjoy small talk about Korea and teaching English. Small talk with a cabbie on the way home...this night is finally turning normal.

The car slides into reverse down a narrow alley. It stops. "This is hotel," he says. "It has changed name."

"Oh my God," I say, my head down at my chest. "This isn't it. This isn't it."

I don't know what else to tell him: in the rear view mirror all I can make out is his concerned eyes and his wispy moustache.

"This isn't it," I say again. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry."

"Police station I take you." He turns off the meter, making the ride to the police station free. Nice guy.

The officer swishes his finger across the map, pointing at a blue box lined with Japanese characters. "Is it Aire Max Hotel?" he asks.

"No, no, no," I sputter. "Center something, Center - "

"Center Hotel! Fukuoka Center Hotel!"

"No. That's not it. I'm sorry, I'm stupid, I can't remember. I'm stupid!" I jab my finger hard against the side of my head but this makes me no smarter.

The cabbie has delivered me to this English-speaking officer on what looks like a quiet night at the Fukuoka police station. A few confused cops are standing around, piping in every so often with a Japanese word. These guys were flipping through newspapers when I arrived; now they're trying to help a lost American find his way home.

"It's not Fukuoka Center Hotel?" he asks me, both of us hunched over the map.

"No...no...no..."

With a befuddled brow he stares at me, as if I'm a victim of a terrible car accident and he doesn't know if it'd be better to pull at my limbs or leave me there, body bruised but in tact. "Do you have friend's phone number?"

"I don't," I say. "I made a mistake. Stupid. I was stupid and I made a mistake."

Stupid is the only word I say with swagger, and stupid is the word the cop best understands, for he nods when I say it.

We aren't getting anywhere, but believe it or not, I think I recognize the neon glow of hotels beyond the police station's wide windows. I think I remember the walkway up the Naka River, snapping pictures along that path hours ago, though it feels like days.



"I think I'm going to go," I say. "I think I'm close. Thank you for your help."

I don't know if I really believe my own words, and the cop can tell as much. The last thing I hear as I exit the station is his voice in the background, rising like a question mark.

It's late. Really, really late. And I walk. Oh God, how I walk. Through dark alleys with the occasional bright sign in Japanese lighting my path. My hotel is in a small alley, I remember that, but there are dozens of small alleys here and I keep taking the wrong one. My hotel is near the river but not on the river, I remember that, but every time I feel like I'm getting closer I end up inches from that stupid fucking river.

I'm kind of going crazy. I spot a random sign ahead that I think reads, "Memphis Diamonds." Memphis, Tennessee is my hometown. The sign actually reads "Member Diamonds." Am I hallucinating now? I hustle through random corners of Fukuoka lit by mockingly-glowing vending machines, and I hear stray voices that I swear, I swear, belong to my friends. I know they're at Happy Cock, but in this moment, with my eyes spotting every hotel in this city but my own, I want to see them here.

If my mom knew this was happening, she would have two heart attacks.

Walk walk walk I'm losing it WHY dark dark dark vending machine Japanese sign car headlights GOD WHY AM I SO STUPID? river bars still full people Japanese people I'm lost in Japan Jesus Christ!




Shidax Plaxa is a karaoke joint in Fukuoka, but in these wee hours, I'm praying it'll be my saving grace. I can't walk aimlessly anymore. The AM/PM pharmacy, the Chinese restaurant...I got to be close to my hotel, but I can't trust my judgement. No way. Not on this night.

A new Japanese man is helping me now. We're sitting at a table in the shiny lobby of Shidax Plaza, and we're looking at that same goddamn hotel map. I don't know anything anymore. Calling myself stupid has lost its verbal fizz. Worst-case scenarios cycle through my head: will my friends call the police station? Will that officer pick up the phone? "Yes, we did see a young man, but he wandered away, saying he knew where he was going." I'm drained. Defeated.

Lost.

But the Shidax man is dogged in his concern. He studies my key and when I ask him about the internet, he takes me next door to Toyo Hotel and guides me to the computer.

I google "Center Hotel" and "Fukuoka", my fingers smudging the keys and switching to Japanese characters. I type sloppily but this stranger helps me tab the settings back to English. If nothing else, this night has granted me an overwhelming showcase of Japanese generosity. In my helplessness, I'm awed by the nonchalant kindness of these men whom I will never see again.

Online I find a hotel that looks familiar. There's a phone number next to its photograph, and the Shidax man promptly calls it. Could it be....? No. Out of service.

What now?

He gives my room key to a lady at the front desk of the Toyo. Meanwhile, I google in vain. Center. Center. Center. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. I check my Gmail. Who can help me -

"She found your hotel," he declares.

No way. I don't believe him. No way -

"Court Hotel," he says. "Very close."

She found my hotel! She found it! I approach her to shake her hand but instead I take both her palms and hold them. "Thank you thank you," I say, like a peasant granted a fortune. "Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you."

The Shidax man and a friend of his walk me home. The Court Hotel Fukuoka Tenjin is a two minute stride from Shidax Plaza. I don't know how I missed this one alley amid my dozens of twists and turns, but that's not important right now. I'm home.


When I tell the Shidax man thank you, how I appreciate him so much, his generosity, all he says is "take care."

I will. I will take care to be more responsible and independent in my travels. I will take care to be prepared, to write down important phone numbers, to write down the name of my hotel. In the future I might not be a smarter traveler, but at least I won't be so stupid.

The next morning David and Yong claim that they both said "Court Hotel," that I must have misheard them. Maybe I did. Maybe I didn't. But when I close my eyes, I find myself still searching. Walking walking walking. Center Hotel. I will find you. Any minute now.

I will find you.


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Thursday, March 6, 2008

Travelogue #28: Where Were You, Really?: Late to Work Because of a Girl With No Make-Up?



Nobody wants to be the guy who stumbles into work late. Out of breath, coat hanging halfway off his arms, he's the guy who mutters, "traffic was bad," the adult version of a "a dog ate my homework."

Last Monday, the dog really did eat my homework.

It started when three friends and I took a bus to Seoul Station, where we bought ferry tickets for a weekend vacation to Fukuoka, Japan. (Blog forthcoming) We got everything we needed, and we were ready to leave with a solid hour and twenty minutes to get to work. Typically, a bus ride would take us to Bundang in no more than an hour flat.



But Monday was not a typical situation: a lazy snowfall turned persistent and sticky, and our bus route took more detours than Mullholland Drive.

"Um, are we going the right way?" I asked.

I didn't recognize anything through the foggy windows. Traffic moved at a maddening sputter-sputter clip. I checked my cell phone. Bad news. I was going to miss my first class. My favorite class.


Paging Natalie to the rescue. "Yeah, I can take your kids," she said. Whew. My comfort was only temporary, because the snow still fell and the bus still clugged so damn slowly, making it possible that I would miss my second class as well.

I was fortunate to be accompanied with friends/colleagues in the same predicament, but that made me feel only marginally better. We swapped nervous calls with the school, with the message relayed back to us a simple one: "Get here now."

Our bus finally chugged to its stop.

We ran.


And ran.

video
Five minutes into the second period, I arrived, marker in hand, ready to teach. I had completely missed my first class, but I apologized to the administration, swearing that it wouldn't happen again, that I was the guy who came early to work. But this time?

The traffic was bad.

I looked to thank Natalie for helping me out with my favorite group of kids. She greeted me with a mischievous smile, "Alex, I told them you fled to America without saying goodbye."

"What?"

"You went to the Coffee Bean and met a girl in a sweatshirt and you fell in love. And she went to Brown for an MFA, so I told the kids you really wanted to be with her, and you flew back to the States desperately looking for an MFA writing scholarship from Brown so you can be with this girl."

Natalie so impressed me with her imagination that I became convinced that I was in love with a sweatshirted girl from Brown. A girl whom I met at the Coffee Bean, and I don't even like coffee.

No wonder the students drank up the story.

"Where were you, really?!" they shrieked at me. It was Wednesday, and I was on time, but apparently I had some explaining to do.

"Guys, Natalie was just telling a story - "

"Where were you!" they asked, their words running together, their bodies practically on top of their desks.

I told them to be quiet, and then I calmly told them the truth: about the buses, the snow, the traffic... and Natalie's wild imagination.

They bought it, but they remained skeptical, and I heard that skepticism firsthand as they presented their responses to the homework assignment: Write a letter to Mr. Pollack. Beg him never to miss class again. Be sure to tell him you miss him.

"What I don't understand is you started liking a girl who wore sweat shirt, jean and sneakers, and no make-up!" Keira wrote, "she is more important than your own class that you said you missed us the whole Sulnal holiday?...You should never miss class. It is an excuse to miss class."

But Keira, the traffic -

"We WEREN'T missing you," Anna wrote.

Anna, I'm sorry -

"If you decide to come back, I thank you," Ray wrote. "If not, I really beg you to come back."

Thanks Ray.

My students read their letters aloud, and even with the tone of their notes ranging from earnestly sweet to sarcastic and dry to pointedly accusatory (In the words of Grace: "Did you order her (Natalie) to lie to us? Because if you did, I'm never going to trust you again. Never . I mean it.") I was flattered that my absence could affect their day just as much as my presence could, for better or for worse. "It doesn't matter if you missed our class," Anna said. "It was a nice day."

I grinned goofily through the recitation of each and every note. "Tell us the real reason why you couldn't come, or we'll ask our Korean teacher if we can change our teacher," Grace said. "P.S. Forgive me if I sounded kind of rude, or anything. Nothing against you!" They would shout me down if I said it aloud, but I love these students. I love this class, and I will never miss it again, no matter what happens with traffic, snow, or fictional Brown girls at the Coffee Bean.


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Saturday, March 1, 2008

We'll be right back!

My next post probably won't be ready until Tuesday. I'm going on a trip to Fukuoka, Japan this weekend, and I likely won't have computer access.


I try to religiously maintain my Sunday postings, so please excuse this week's delay!

Thanks for reading.

Unrelated Post: I wasn't too happy to see Michael Clayton get Oscar attention. I ranted about that flick in the last blog entry I posted before I left for Korea.
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