Train to Beomeosa
By Andrew Lawrence Crown
Copyright © Andrew Lawrence Crown, 2020. All rights reserved.
A wizened old woman sat across from me on the subway from Kyodae Yok, or Busan National University of Education station, to Nopo Dong, the end of the line, where I would exit the train and catch the bus to Gyeongju, where I taught at the university. I could see by the wrinkles, extending in thick crevices from around her eyes down to that part of her face that was concealed and hidden from view by her anti-corona face mask, that she was very old. The wooden walking stick, a kind of cane for hiking in the mountains, she held in both hands, confirmed my estimation of her advanced age. There were numerous elderly passengers like her on the subway at the early morning hour of 6:20 a.m., some of them, just like the woman sitting across from me, all decked out in their hiking gear and on their way to the trails in the mountains on the outskirts of the city of Busan. There were also many other older passengers on train, traveling on their way to the shik dongs or gagaes, small mom and pop run restaurants or shops, where they worked each day to earn their modest living as post-retirement age workers. Geumjeongsan and its Beomeosa Buddhist temple was the most common destination for the hikers among the elderly passengers on the train, though there were others trails I was not as familiar with. Gore-Tex hiking pants and color coordinated hiking jackets, along with the latest modern hiking shoes and backpacks, were the universally preferred uniform for the mountain climbers, a style of dress quite different from what was once more common some twenty-five years earlier during my first stay in Korea. Back then, in the mid-1990’s, the preferred climbing apparel was a replica of the hiking gear worn in Europe many years ago, and the Korean mountaineers sported the heavy hiking boots and thick wool hiking socks pulled up high above the calf below the old style pantaloons ending at the knees, resembling the Swiss and Austrian mountaineers of days gone by in their lederhosen.
The elderly woman sitting across from me on the subway was unmistakably on her way to the mountains and Beomeosa Temple for an early morning climb and prayer. I was impressed by her fortitude and strength which scaling the mountain would require, a kind of hardiness and resilience about her sharply contrasted by the wrinkles around her eyes that I knew continued and extended across the entirety of her face, even though most of it was concealed from my view by her mask. I also wore a mask on the train, as did everyone else I observed there and practically everywhere else in South Korea. The donning of a face mask was not a political statement in South Korea, one of a handful of countries that had most successfully controlled and countered the corona pandemic through the institution and enforcement of a series of rational and reasonable public health policies and measures based on sound science, rather than on political considerations. I was certain the rational, science-based response to the pandemic in South Korea was the primary reason why there were only 500 or so deaths in the country from the virus at the time I took that morning subway ride in the late autumn of the year 2020. I could hear the public service announcements regarding the virus on the subway loudspeaker as I rode the train, and I knew enough Korean to understand the message to me and the rest of the passengers aboard informing all of us that the wearing of face masks was legally required on the train.
As I started to reflect silently to myself about the scene before my eyes on the moving subway car, thinking about how rational everyone around me seemed to be, I could not help from contrasting that picture of order I saw to the image of hazard and risk I had observed so often on the train back home in Chicago almost a decade earlier. Back then, occasionally I rode the Brown Line from my neighborhood in West Lincoln Square to the stop at Armitage where I would exit and walk to the selective enrollment high school where I was a teacher in the History Department. In Korea I knew I could ride the subway late at night with almost no fear or concern for my personal safety, but while I lived in Chicago, I made certain never to ride the Brown Line late after dark, due to the risk of becoming another statistic, one of the countless victims of crime in Chicago. While my thoughts drifted from the elderly mountaineers on the train with me in Busan where I was the only weiguksaram, or foreigner, aboard, to the multi-racial mixture of passengers on the Brown Line back in Chicago, I recalled all of those myriad and oft repeated conversations with Doctor Rubenfield years ago, during which the good doctor tried to dissuade me from returning to South Korea with my Korean wife Suji and our son Joseph. Doctor Rubenfield’s advice I completely ignored, and rightly so did I dismiss his counsel, since I understood how he, like most other Americans, including all of my friends and family back home, knew very little about South Korea beyond what he saw or read in the news concerning the North Korean threat and militarization of the Korean peninsula.
“South Korea might not even exist within a few years, Paul,” Rubenfield cautioned me. “You’ve seen the news like I have, and I know you follow politics closely. Aren’t you afraid of the nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles the North Koreans are developing and with which they are threatening the South, and even us in America? The whole country might someday soon be entirely wiped off the map, and you and your family with it. Why doesn’t the political and military situation over there in Korea alarm you more than it does? You appear to me to be oblivious of the reality of the threat over there.”
Although I was not disquieted about the threat level in Korea as was Rubenfield, I knew the doctor was right about one thing at least. I did follow politics closely, since political science was my field of study as both an undergraduate and graduate student, and I had taught political science at both the high school and college levels for years. As someone who lived in South Korea for an extended period of time, was married to a Korean wife, and followed the news regarding my adopted home carefully, I was convinced that the US-South Korean alliance and South Korea’s own 600 million personnel strong military force was capable of deterring the North from launching an invasion or missile attack. I cannot say I was completely free from concern about the North Korean threat. Nonetheless, my understanding of international relations and the concept of deterrence, persuaded me that the always tense, but also relatively stable and predictable status quo on the peninsula would hold for the foreseeable future. I did my best to reassure the doctor that my family and I would be safe living, working, and studying in South Korea, safer even than we were trying to eke out a middle-class existence in that crime ridden city of my birth, Chicago, where I perceived the risk and dangers to life and limb to be comparably more pressing and tangible than they were in South Korea.
Good old Doctor Rubenfield. He was an expert concerning the science of psychology, but his understanding of geopolitics and the realities of the politics and culture of South Korea were minimal at best, so I decided without hesitation to ignore his advice and return to South Korea with my family. I explained to the doctor that with the abundance of free time I would possess as a university professor in South Korea, I would able to focus more on my writing. To this rationalization the doctor cautioned me to consider my career choices more carefully. All the writers he knew, he told me, were depressed, bitter, struggling financially, and driven to drink and other vices as a mechanism to cope with their lack of success and failure to achieve the renown and recognition in the field of writing and letters they so desperately aspired to. This admonition from the doctor led me to recall a conversation I had with my college girlfriend some twenty-five years earlier regarding the habits and lifestyle of so many of the male students in her major department, The Department of English at the University of Illinois. A Korean-American who immigrated to the United States with her family when she was thirteen years old, she told me how most of the males in the English Department were heavy drinkers and smokers. This, she believed, was their manner of over compensation for the dearth of manliness or machismo with which they were often perceived or misperceived as devotees of literature and poetry. For Hemingway the big game hunting, drinking, and fighting was how he asserted his masculinity, and the men in the Department of English tried to do the same by hard drinking and chain smoking outside of class time.
Another recollection rose to the forefront of my mind as I drifted from memory to memory while riding the train. The recollection was of the first time I was finally, after decades of writing, able to convince my father to spend some time reading a few of my stories online. At that time, I was planning on returning to South Korea with my wife Suji and our son Joseph in just a few short weeks. A retired accountant, manager, and system analyst, my father was never able to comprehend my own interest in literature, political theory, philosophy, or other scholarly pursuits pursued through a life devoted to arts and letters. Though I had been writing for over two decades at the time, my father had never before demonstrated any interest in reading my work. We both sat at the dining room table in his condo located in the Irving Park neighborhood of Chicago, my father reading one of my short stories online on his laptop computer, and me awaiting his response. My father’s consternation and frustration with me for choosing as my vocation a literary life was obviously apparent as he sighed and groaned with a grimace on his face, while I could visibly see him struggling to make sense of the story he was reading. It was a challenging piece of literary fiction, as complicated and demanding of the reader as most of my writing was and is. Finally, in the middle of the story he turned off the computer and gave up trying to make sense of the piece of fiction. I asked him what was wrong and why he did not like the story. He pleaded with me not to pursue writing as a career.
“You are still young enough to go to law school or study for your MBA, Paul. Why don’t you forget about teaching English in Korea and find for yourself a more stable and rewarding profession than your tenuous position as an academic and writer? I’ll never be able to understand why someone as bright as you are would choose for himself a profession in which failure and financial insecurity loom as an ever-present possibility. And besides the fact,” my father lamented to me with an exasperated voice. “Everyone knows that only fags write fiction and poetry.”
I laughed aloud at this ludicrous remark, which I knew emerged not from any bigotry or intolerance on his part, but instead from my father’s never-ending disagreement with some of the fundamental choices I had made in my life concerning my education and career.
“So, Dad,” I said with the intention of countering my father’s characterization of the writing life. “I suppose you consider Shakespeare, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Twain, Melville, Hemingway, Tolstoy and all of the other great writers to all be just a bunch of fags.”
I laughed again. My father was after all an old man, sometimes set in his ways, who I knew was speaking more from his frustration with me and my unwillingness to adhere to his career advice, rather than from any real bigotry against homosexuals. I fact, in his old age he had become far more liberal and supportive of the Democratic Party than he had been during his youth as a staunch Republican, and he enthusiastically supported the Democratics’ attempts to legitimize and legalize same-sex marriage and other basic rights and freedoms for homosexuals. He turned the computer back on and proceeded to finish reading the story he had been reading previous to his outburst, while I continued to chuckle and snicker over the preposterous nature of the comment. When he finally finished reading the story, he turned off the laptop computer again in near silence, saying only in the manner of critique and analysis, “It’s wild. Just wild your writing is. I can’t say I completely understand it, but it certainly is a wild ride.”
I did my best to reassure my father that even if I never made a dime from my writing, I would not end up in the poorhouse as he feared I would, because I always had my teaching to keep me afloat financially. This soothed away some of his consternation with my decision to pursue such a financially unrewarding vocation, and he promised me he would try to read some more of my writing later. I was somewhat at a loss to comprehend his disapproval and dismissal of the writing life, because my father was himself a great consumer of art and culture, and had been for his entire adult life. He held season tickets to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and from the time of my early childhood, he regularly attended, and demanded that my sisters and I attend with him and our mother, the summer classical concert series the city held in Grant Park for decades, and later in the newer Millennium Park downtown. This he did even when we lived in the South Suburbs and had to make the trip into the city to see the concerts. A lifelong devotee of cinema, he never just watched movies. He dissected them with incisive analysis, so fond was he in engaging in long, in-depth conversations of critique and analysis about these films with both family members and friends. After he retired, he read a great deal, trying to compensate for his failure to do so frequently during his long life of work. In essence, my father was a great consumer of culture, so I was always confused by his staunch refusal to embrace my decision to try to create and produce the kind of cultural products he was so fond of consuming.
Another political scientist explained to me, after I told him of my father’s steadfast refusal to embrace my devotion to writing, that this kind of attitude on the part of my father was fairly characteristic of the petty bourgeois. A member of this class, according to the political scientist, eagerly consumes the artistic and cultural products produced by the intellectuals laboring within the economic superstructure of a capitalist society, without giving any serious thought to or appreciation for the real struggles endured by the artists and intellectuals, whose sacrifices and intellectual toil are required to create this art and culture in the first place.
The term “petty bourgeois” of course is derived from Marxist theory, and I thought it to be an apt one to describe my father, though I was far from considering myself to be a Marxist. In reality, though I was something of a young radical in high school, after I completed college and graduate school, I always viewed myself as a moderate politically and ideologically speaking. My deep interest, acquired in graduate school at The University of Chicago, in the work of Leo Strauss, classical political philosophy, and the Western canon, drew me towards this moderation and the political center. My father, like me, was also interested in politics, and he read the entire Tribune each and every day of his life with religious regularity. However, unlike me he had never delved into the profound depths of political theory, and so he mistook my proclivity towards this field of intellectual endeavor as some kind of awful and reprehensible commitment to radicalism.
My taste in music also left my father with a confused and inaccurate conception of my political leanings. I remember once, I played for him on my stereo, while he was visiting my wife, my son, and me in or Lincoln Square condo, one of my sizable collection of Tom Waits CDs, He listened with disdain written on his face to the hard-boiled style music and lyrics, and then he called me a communist. The confusion and inaccuracies in my father’s understanding of my tastes as an intellectual, writer, and coinsure of music elicited another hearty laugh from me at that moment. In his favor, I recall that at the time my wife, Suji, expressed her agreement with the old man, telling both of us that she considered the music of Tom Waits to be music only the certifiably insane could understand and appreciate. “This noise you call music, Paul, is made for the meetchin saram or the crazy people,” Suji said.
These recollections flowed through my mind as I rode the train to Nopo Dong while I continued to study the lines on the forehead and around the eyes of the elderly woman on her way to Beomeosa Temple and a hike in the mountains. I wondered how much longer, how many short years would pass before I too would resemble the elderly passengers on the train, with a face full of wrinkles and a sturdy cane to help me walk. At fifty-one years old I was no longer a young buck, though I always felt and viewed myself to be twenty years younger than I was in reality. I experienced the profound sense of the inevitability of the passing of time and the changes it would inflict upon my body, mind, and spirit. The students at the university always were surprised when I told them my age, and they typically guessed I was about forty years old, ten years younger than I was in reality. But on the train, I realized I was looking at my future when I studied the faces of those elderly mountaineers. I felt a sudden impulsion to devote myself even more to my reading and writing, so that by the time I became an old man myself, I would have amassed a substantial body of work, an intellectual and artistic legacy I could be proud to be remembered by. I hoped that somehow, some way, my stories and essays would outlast me and my life on this earth and my attempts to document through my fiction and other writings, among many other themes and subjects, the life and experience of the expatriates in South Korea.
Simultaneous with all of these thoughts was the sense of loss I felt when I remembered how my unfortunate mother never reached the age of the elderly passengers on the train all around me. Cancer took her away from us, all of the Robertsons and her multitude of friends, just a few days after her birthday at the relatively young age of sixty. An adjunct professor of mathematics for most of her career, she was more academically inclined than was my father, and she supported more than he did my quest to become an intellectual and writer. I distinctly recalled her joy and excitement when I landed my first faculty position as a professor of political science, even though it was a rather undistinguished adjunct post at a small and unnoteworthy community college. Prior to that time, she had encouraged me to apply for college teaching positions, pushing me hard in that direction during that initial period of my professional life when I was too insecure to envision myself as a professor, even with my distinguished educational background and student career. These days the burden of that early self-doubt has entirely vanished, and I view that time of insecurity with a kind of bewildered dismay and regret when I consider the foolishness of it all. My mother was one of the people who pushed me out of and freed me from that foolish state of mind, which was such an inaccurate estimation of my potential, given all of the honors and distinctions I had rightly and dutifully earned for myself as a student. The sense of loss grew as I rode the train when I realized my mother never got to read my best work, most of which I wrote after she died. One of the lessons I learned from this unfortunate situation whereby my mother passed before I could share my writing with her, was my conviction that it was better to put my work out there and available to the reading public online, in spite of the fact that I earned not a single solitary cent for my efforts. Better it was to share my stories and essays widely, than to stow them away in a drawer somewhere, hidden from the criticism of the rest of humanity, while I hoped and dreamed of a day when my work would be published by a conventional publisher, a day which, given the challenging nature and character of my writing and prose, I knew might never come.
“You never gave me any trouble. You never gave me any trouble growing up.” Those were some of the last words my mother spoke to me as she lay dying from the cancer with her veins full of morphine for the pain in Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. My mother never got to see the kind of success my three sisters and I achieved in our careers in the years after she died. We had all struggled a bit in our personal and professional lives when we were younger, and it was only later that we reached our current state of stability and security. “What did I do wrong? How did I fail you?” she wanted us to tell her in the hospital because she feared some of her errors and shortcomings in parenting had left her four children with a plethora of insurmountable burdens and handicaps in our lives.
Yes, it was a shame, I believed, that my mother never reached the age of the elderly people I saw on the Busan subway who were determined not to let old age exclude them from participating in one of South Korea’s most popular pastimes, mountain climbing. Mother was not really so different from these Koreans all around me. She played her tennis game as long as that was possible, even with the cancer, and she taught her calculus classes at the local colleges until almost the very end. Twenty years after my mother’s death, I, at fifty-one years of age, became more aware than ever before that someday I too would find myself as old as those elderly Koreans on the train, that was if I did not succumb to some terminal illness or life ending accident before that time.
I sensed my own mortality more clearly than I had ever before. Twenty-five more years might pass by in a flash, and then I too would be one of the elderly, provided I would be lucky enough to be granted by my maker the chance to reach old age. Would I be able to scale mountains at the age of seventy like the mountaineers on the train? Even with my comparatively stronger body condition and strength, my observations of the older Koreans on the train filled me with an awareness of my own vulnerability. It was not that I felt myself to be in any kind of immediate danger on the train traveling through Busan. After all, the subway in Busan was far safer to ride than the “L” back home in Chicago. A ride on the train in Chicago, even through a relatively safe neighborhood, was an entirely different experience due to the ever-present possibility of one becoming another victim of crime in that crime ridden city of my birth. Serious, and certainly violent crime, was virtually non-existent on the Busan subway, and I knew I was safe on the train late at night, at a time and hour when reasonable people considered it to be risky and even foolish to ride the L in Chicago.
My thoughts and reminisces then, once more, drifted away from Korea and the old mountaineers and the entire scene all round me, to the time I nearly lost my life riding the L back in Chicago. My very real encounter with the possibility of violent death on the Chicago train took place some fifteen years prior to the then current time in Korea. My car was in the repair shop, so I took the Brown Line from Rockwell in Lincoln Square, on the way to Armitage in Lincoln Park where I intended to exit and walk east several block to arrive at the selective enrollment high school where I was employed as a history and social studies teacher. For the third time since I had started teaching at the high school, someone had smashed in the rear window of my Corolla, forcing me to get a new window installed before the car would be safe and ready to drive again. I never found out for certain just who smashed in my car window, but I always suspected someone connected to the school was responsible for the vandalism which I believed was intended to be an act of intimidation and a threatful warning to me. My career at the high school was plagued by all manner of controversies and conflicts with the administrators, a result of the complicated, and I believed, filthy micro-politics which made my workplace a kind of cesspool of back stabling and discord. Those co-workers of mine who were close to the administration cautioned me against harboring such paranoid views concerning the vandalism, and they told me it was more likely that some young thugs in a street gang were the responsible party, rather than anyone associated with the school. Meanwhile, those colleagues who were closer to me and experiencing the same kind of friction at the prestigious but also discordant school, believed I was on to something and told me it might be part of the administration’s efforts to force me out of my position, a position I was able to hold on to almost solely due to the fact that I was a tenured faculty member.
When I talked to the police to file a report about each of the incidents, something I was required to do for the purposes of insurance, the officers I spoke to always told me the most likely culprit was a former girlfriend or lover taking out her revenge on my car for our failed relationship and affair. The problem with this theory, I told the police, was that I was a happily married man who had never once carried on any affair with a lover, girlfriend, or mistress after my marriage to Suji. I told the cops I had always been true to my wife and had no other lovers. Each time I made this assertion of fidelity to my wife, the officer filling out the report over the phone appeared to doubt the veracity of my claims of faithfulness, and they each sounded unmoved and blasé concerning the incidents I reported to them, since they considered them to be relatively minor in severity compared to the kind of murders and other violent crimes routinely terrorizing other neighborhoods in Chicago they deemed to be far less posh than my Lincoln Square. I soon realized the police would be of no assistance to me in my attempts to identify the culprit or culprits of the crimes I dutifully reported to them.
The repeated vandalism, together with more serious crimes committed in our neighborhood were, along with a host of other factors, some of the reasons why my wife Suji demanded that we leave Chicago and return to South Korea where we, and especially our five-year-old son, Joseph, would be able to live our lives in comparatively more safety and security. Just a few blocks away from our condo a young teenage boy, only fourteen years old, was beaten to death in a park, just steps away from his home. The boy was murdered by one of the numerous street gangs vying for control of the area near our neighborhood, which each of the rival gangs considered to be their exclusive territory for drug sales. A victim of this same contest for territory, another youth was soon afterwards murdered in a drive by shooting in the vicinity of the gas station around the corner from our condo where I habitually filled up the tank of the Corolla and sometimes stopped into to purchase a coffee from the Dunkin Donuts shop attached to the gas station. Needless to say, Suji was horrified by the routine nature of this kind of violence and crime, the like of which she had never heard of or even considered as possible in her native country. Sure, there was some minor property crime in the metropolis of Busan, Suji’s hometown, but in South Korea she had never been forced to try to live in the midst of the atmosphere of fear, danger, and intimidation foisted upon us in the relatively upscale Lincoln Square. I too was appalled by the crime in Chicago since I had been raised in the safe and comfortable environment of a middle-class suburb where there was almost no violent crime.
The crime in Lincoln Square was all the more unsettling for Suji and I because most people in the city that we knew considered our neighborhood to be one of the most desirable gentrifying areas for young couples and for families like ours. Though our modest condo was beautiful and we loved it, the insecurity we felt due to the very real threats to our personal safety and our very lives completely ruined any pleasure and satisfaction we derived from our significant financial stake in our condo and the neighborhood surrounding it, which the relator who had sold us on the property had promoted as a community on the way up.
Due to the realities of the crimes committed in the near vicinity of our home, I tended to be cautious whenever I rode the Brown Line from our neighborhood to work at the selective enrollment high school in Lincoln Park. With my car in the shop once again for the installation of yet another rear window after the third incident of vandalism, I took the Brown Line to work, thinking all the while about just how different the experience was riding public transportation in Chicago when compared to the experience of doing the same in South Korea. The houses and buildings near the Rockwell station were beautiful old single-family residences and old greystone apartments, in which many young people like us, who saw opportunity and a future for the neighborhood, made their homes and tried to raise their families. Looking around at the people on the Brown Line train during the early morning commute to work, I saw many people in business suits with briefcases, people who I believed were similar to me. They looked like middle-class professionals who were trying to make a life for themselves and their families in Lincoln Square, believing the risk of crime was worth taking due to the real beauty of the gentrifying neighborhood, which the die-hard Chicagoans among them viewed as one of the most desirable places in which to live in the city. The more people like these I saw on the train, the more comfortable I tended to feel, even as I was also aware that a routine ride on the Brown Line, like a routine visit to the gas station, held the real and ever-present risk of ending disastrously as just another incident of violent crime leading to serious bodily injury or even death. Like everyone else in my position who was riding on the Brown Line, I had acquired the ability to push this awareness of the danger I might encounter on the train into the back of my mind, so I could even relax and enjoy the morning commute. This feeling of comfort stemmed not from any idealistic naivety on my part. Instead it was a kind of tolerance for risk emerging out of repeated experience and habituation to a condition of life from which I believed I could not at that time escape. So oblivious to the risk was I that I hardly noticed when the young teenage boy, who looked to be no different from the hundreds of teenage boys like him I encountered each day I taught in a Chicago high school, pointed his gun at me and threatened to kill me with it.
I was seated on the train after just after boarding at the Rockwell station. The teenage boy, who looked to be about fifteen years-old, sat in the seat directly across from me. He was dressed in the ganster rapper style popular with the city youth at that time, his pants baggy and sagging low below his waist, above which he wore an oversized sweatshirt style hooded jacket. His red baseball cap he wore at a sidewise angle, and that should have indicated to me that he was a member of a gang. But at the time I saw nothing unusual in his attire which looked so similar to the clothing worn by so many of my students each day at the high school. I looked him over once or twice, without drawing attention to the fact, and I assumed he was on his way to his school, just as I was on my way to mine, on the early morning train. His hoodie sweatshirt jacket reminded me of the one worn by Trayvon Martin, the youth from Florida who had been wrongfully murdered by an overzealous neighborhood watch vigilante. The case was in the news at the time, and many of the students, and even some of the teachers, at the selective enrollment high school, wore similar hoodies at school to show their solidarity with the movement to protest the young Floridian’s wrongful death. Since everyone was talking about the Trayvon Martin case at the time, I made the error of letting down my guard around the teenager on the train, who I believed was also wearing the hoodie to demonstrate his solidarity with the murdered teen in Florida.
My concerted effort to place my trust in the youth on the train, in spite of the visible signs indicating he very well could be a gang member, in the main was what led to my near brush with serious injury and even death on the Brown Line that particular morning. I smiled warmly and said hello politely when the boy moved from his place on the train to sit down next to me. I asked him if he was on his way to school, and to which school that was. The response I received from him was nothing like the warm welcome I had greeted him with. He reached deep into his hoodie jacket and I felt a hard metal object press against my side. Confused and startled by this strange sensation, I looked more carefully at the boy and I saw that his right hand was buried deep in his hoodie pocket and holding the object he pressed against my side which I suddenly realized was a gun.
“Your wallet or your life,” the youth said to me, loud enough for the other passengers on the train to hear the threat. A woman somewhere behind me screamed in fear, while several men on the train more calmly tried to reason with the boy.
“Don’t do this. You don’t want to do this. Please don’t kill that man. He’s a teacher.”
Only then I became aware of the very real danger I was in at that moment. I realized I was being held up at gunpoint on the Brown Line, but for some reason I remained perfectly clam, level headed, and almost unperturbed. The fact that the teenager resembled so many of my students at the high school was what led me to misperceive and underestimate the very real level of risk and mortal danger the situation held for me. I decided to try to reason with the boy, knowing that any attempt to resist with violence or physical struggle would lead him to pull the trigger.
“I can give you my wallet, but there is less than thirty dollars cash in it and only one credit card which I will immediately cancel with a simple phone call to the bank after you run out of the train with my wallet at the next stop. Why don’t you take your hand off of that gun in your pocket now and change your course of action here? You are surrounded by witnesses on this train, and you can’t kill all of us, now can you?”
“Give me your wallet or you’re a dead man,” the misled youth repeated.
I slowly reached into my pants pocket to retrieve my wallet while the rest of the passengers watched in silence, amazed by how I maintained my composure, as tranquil and collected as though I was in no danger whatsoever. I handed the boy the wallet. He used his free hand to rifle through it, looking for the cash, while his other hand remained fixed to the gun in his hoodie pocket. He quickly found the meager sum of cash in the wallet, less than thirty dollars’ worth, and then he stuffed the money into the other pocket of his hoodie without the gun inside. Just then the train reached the next stop on the route, and when the train came to a rest and the doors slid open, the boy quickly stood up, threw my wallet on the floor of the train, ran out of the open doors on to the station platform, and ran away a top speed to make his escape. The doors of the train slid shut and the train proceeded towards the next stop, since the conductor several cars ahead was completely oblivious concerning what had just transpired in the train car in which I had just been robbed at gunpoint.
The other passengers on the train crowded around me and asked me if I was alright, while the woman who had screamed picked my wallet up off of the floor where the youth had thrown it, and she returned it to me.
“Here is your wallet,” she said with concern in her voice. “You’ve got nerves of steel. How were you able to stay so calm with a gun pressed up to you side? These thugs terrorizing the neighborhood place no value on human life. They will murder a perfect stranger at the drop of a hat. They’ll kill you for no reason at all. All you have to do is look at them the wrong way or say the wrong thing, and they’ll shoot you in the face for it.”
“She’s right,” said one of the men who had urged the boy not to shoot me. “These criminals are making it impossible for the rest of us in the neighborhood to enjoy the tremendous changes for the better happening here, now that so many professional people like you are moving in and trying to change the environment here with all of your sorely needed success, decency, and style of life.”
I thanked the other passengers for their concern, and I told them I was alright and not even the least bit shaken by the experience. I put the wallet back into my pocket while some of the passengers urged me to talk to the police and press charges against the robber in order to help them clean up the neighborhood, which was in danger of being overrun with thugs like the one who could have killed me only a few minutes before. Someone on the train must have called 911 while all of this happened, because at the next stop, Montrose, a police officer stood on the platform when the doors slid open, and he asked me to step out of the train and on to the platform with him in order to make a report of the crime. I exited the train with a few of the other passengers who were witnesses. Upon discovering from them that I was a teacher in a Chicago public high school who was cool as a cucumber while being held up at gunpoint, the police officer asked me if I would be willing to say a few words to the culprit in order to share some of my wisdom with him and attempt to lead him towards a better path of life than the one he was on currently. The teenager had been easily apprehended by the police only a few steps away from the stop where he ran off the train, since someone on the train had silently dialed emergency with his cellphone while the crime took place. The witnesses and I gave our version of the incident to the officer and provided him with all of the details. Not much time was required to do so, since the entire episode had transpired in what felt like a short flash of time. After the witnesses and I told the officer the facts, he spoke with me for a few minutes about the high school where I taught, and about the presence there of other students headed down the wrong path in life, like the one who robbed me was.
A few moments later a pair of officers appeared on the Montrose platform, leading the boy now in handcuffs to where I, the witnesses, and the first police officer who spoke to us were standing on the platform. When the officers, holding tightly the arms of the handcuffed boy as they walked him toward us, reached the place where we were assembled, a few of the witnesses yelled at the kid and let him know their minds with a series of angry imprecations. In contrast to the witnesses, I remained silent while the rebukes, some of them made in the Spanish language, lasted, until finally one of the officers asked me if I had any advice for the person now in police custody. They told the boy that I was a high school teacher who had devoted my career to helping kids from socio-economic circumstances and backgrounds just like his, and they advised him to listen to my advice which might, given all of my experience and education, be considered by the boy to be profound.
“What is your name, young man,” I asked him as he stood defiantly but handcuffed between the two police officers.
“Javier,” the boy answered me. “Javier Jimenez is my name.”
“Do you go to school?” I asked him. “Which high school do you attend?”
“Amundson. I go to Amundson High School, but I never go to class. Most of the time I don’t even show up for school. School is just a waste of time anyways. I’ve got better things to do with my time.”
“If you are not satisfied with your current position in the world, school is the best option available to you to take you to a better place in life, one of more comfort and security. I don’t know much about you Javier, since you were a stranger to me before you threatened my life for the meager sum of thirty dollars. If you come from a poor family, one that is struggling to get by and make ends meet, I want to tell you that education is your best ticket out of poverty. Go to school, graduate from Amundson, and then go on to college or learn a trade, and I promise you will find that there are better, more profitable, more ethical, and safer ways to earn a good living than holding up a complete stranger who has done nothing in life to harm you.”
“School is a waste of time. I’m flunking out,” said the boy. “I can make good money the easy way selling drugs with the rest of my homeboys who protect and defend me. My brothers in the hood always have my back. They’ll never desert me. They help me much more than those stupid teachers at Amundson who don’t know shit about what life is like out on the streets.”
“Those teachers of yours at Amundson are trying to help you build the foundation for a better life than the one you are living now. Place some of your trust in them and I think you will find they will help you get to a better place than the one you are in. Selling drugs and running around with a gang is only going to end with you in prison, or perhaps murdered by some other kid just like you who will shoot you the same way you almost shot me this morning. Trust those teachers at Amundson and I promise you will see more possibilities open up for you. Do well in school and you might even be able to go to college after you graduate.”
“I hate all of my teachers. All they do is write me up in discipline referrals and send me to detention. I’ve got better things to do with my time than listening to their useless and boring lessons. Life is more exciting and fun running with my brothers. There’s nothing better than getting tanked up with my boys from the hood. All the bitches want us for all of our fearlessness and cash. None of the hottest babes can resist a man with a badass street rep, a big gun, and loads of dope and cash for fast good times.”
“There will be more money and a safer way for you to earn it if you stay in school.”
“I’m not going to graduate from high school, and college is for pussies. I can’t pay for college anyways. My mother is a cashier in a gas station, and my father is a line cook in a rundown greasy taco stand. My parents will never have enough money to send me to college. I’m making more than both of my folks combined when I’m selling dope and living large with the gang on the streets.”
“Think about the danger of your lifestyle,” I urged him. “Most likely you will end up in prison or shot dead by another lost kid like yourself.”
“How did you get the money to pay for your education?” the boy asked me. “These cops here told me you attended The University of Chicago and several other universities. Where did you get the money to pay for all of those expensive schools? You must be some kind of a millionaire. Don’t you have to be a rich kid to go to a school like The University of Chicago?”
“I busted my ass as a student,” I told him. “All of my hard work paid off for me and I earned a full scholarship to attend The University of Chicago. I’m not a millionaire. I come from a middle-class background and was never a rich kid.”
“Did you have to go to a high school like Amundson? Kids is crazy there and almost nobody but the geeks study hard like you did. I bet you went to one of those posh suburban high schools for rich kids. That is how you were able to go to all of those fancy colleges. It’s out of reach for me. It’s just not possible for an ordinary kid from the barrio like me.”
“It is possible Javier,” I told him. “I’ve seen with my own eyes kids like you from the barrio make it to college. The first thing you need to do is to imagine and believe it will be possible for you. If you refuse to believe you can be like me and do what I have done, then you are right, success in life will remain out of your reach.”
The boy stood there in the handcuffs with the police holding him tightly by the arms, and for a moment he looked as though he might be giving my advice some serious thought. I believed for a moment that it might be possible for him to find a way out of his dismal and self-destructive view of life and the world and his place in it. Then he shook his head from side to side like he was trying to shrug off the faint sliver of hope I had intended to impart to him with my advice.
“Nah. Nah. Hecky nah. Damn brother. You went to The University of Chicago for free? I’m not like you, man. I’ll never be able to do what you did. It’s better for me to try to make it the best way I can on the streets. College? No, I’m better at pushing dope than studying any day of the week.”
“Alright. Alright,” said one of the police officers. “This teacher has to get back on the train and report to work now, something he does five days a week to earn an honest living, which is more than I can say for you here, Javier, who almost killed the kind teacher here for a measly thirty dollars. Listen punk. This gentleman has devoted his career to helping young people in this city make something of themselves. You should thank him for all of his efforts instead of pointing a gun at his side. Alright now. Me and the other officers are going to take you to the station where you will be locked up until the juvenile division takes over your case. You will have plenty of time to consider the teacher’s advice while you are locked up behind bars.”
All of these memories of the incident on the Brown Line flowed through my head as I rode the subway back in Busan, South Korea. The thoughts moved me with their salience and my regret at not being able to help all those lost kids back home in Chicago like the one who had almost murdered me. Chiraqu it was, just like the combination of the words Chicago and Iraq with which the movie director, Spike Lee, renamed my hometown in one of his movies about the epidemic of violence in Chicago. Teenage wasteland, only teenage wasteland. That was how some of the veteran baby boomer teachers on the verge of retirement at the high school where I taught, had referred to the city and its youth, as we talked over coffee in the faculty room about some of the hopeless cases who were our charge at the school. On the train in Busan, I felt thankful for the comparatively safer life I lead in South Korea as I pursued my career as a university professor in that country. In the same moment I was overcome by a sense of sadness when I thought of the hopelessness of so many of the kind of students in Chicago who were like Javier Jimenez, and who were no longer my responsibility to educate. I felt a certain sense of guilt at having given up trying to teach all of those terribly disadvantaged young people who I wanted to help escape from the misery of their condition in life. I knew I had escaped from all of that dismal desperation, and I now faced an entirely different set of challenges teaching at the university and raising my son in South Korea, where the culture and the societal emphasis on education surpassed fanatical levels of competitiveness and ambition.
The next stop was for Beomeosa Temple, and I watched with admiration as the wizened old woman rose up from her seat on the train with astonishing agility and vigor for someone of her years. I imagined she was smiling under her face mask with the same kind of brightness and enthusiasm evident in the sparkle in her eyes almost buried withing the folds and wrinkles of that portion of her face visible above the mask. She stood up as the train came to a stop, and because it was obvious that I had been observing her closely for most of the train ride, she addressed me in tolerably good English.
“You are an English teacher, aren’t you?” she asked me.
“Yes. I am a professor at a university in Gyeongju.” I answered.
“I thought so,” she said laughing at the sound of her own voice speaking English, a foreign tongue for her. “I knew you were a teacher. Thank you,” she said just before she exited the train. “Thank you for teaching our Korean students.”
A moment later she was gone from the train and making her way to the subway exit and onward towards the hiking trial to Beomeosa Temple. I remained on the train since the next stop was Nopo Dong, the end of the line where I would be able to catch the bus to Gyeongju and the university. Overcome with admiration for the fortitude of the elderly hiker, I could only hope that I too would be able to scale mountains when I reached a ripe old age like hers. It was nice of her to show her appreciation for my efforts as an educator. So nice it was to feel valued and wanted, and, I thought to myself, how nice it was, even with all of the inconveniences and challenges of an expatriate life, to be able to live and teach in Korea.