I was left to shift for myself Saturday night. The weather was mildly chilly. I was near Hongdae. I wanted a kebab. For reasons immaterial to the story I'm about to unfold I was wearing a well-tailored business suit.
Hongdae is what Koreans call Hongik University and the neighborhood surrounding it. English teachers like myself have no business at the University; we mean the neighborhood whenever we speak its name. It will not surprise you to read that Hongdae consists, basically, of three things: cafes, bars and night clubs. Pedestrian traffic on weekends is intense, so there's also street food to be had.
So there I was, in my suit, propelled towards Hongdae by my longing for a kebab. I got lost on the way but was able to follow the increasing density of pedestrians and alcohol to the mother lode. I found a Mr. Kebab retail outlet. As I was standing in the street, stuffing a chicken kebab into my face, not even caring that the swarthy Turk who prepared it for my consumption had touched it with an ungloved hand, I pondered my next move. I located within myself a desire for one of those giant dumpling things that are often sold alongside mandu (smaller dumpling things). I don't know what they're called. Giant mandu?
What followed was perhaps an hour of wandering around Hongdae looking for a street vendor making plus-sized mandu. I trod up and down every street. I passed at least 5 Ho Bars (I lost count). I ignored solicitations to join the Sexy Party. I got a free hug from a random Korean man on a corner who was offering free hugs. But I didn't find giant mandu.
As I was disconsolately trudging past Hongdae's trash-strewn park for the second time, making my peace with not eating a baseball-sized dumpling, I came upon Makgeolli Man making a pit stop. Makgeolli Man is a weird guy who trudges around Hongdae arbitraging makgeolli from a farmer's cart. Makgeolli (mack-awl-lee) is a traditional Korean liquor. It's brown and, if you ask me, somewhat vile. Makgeolli Man buys bottles of it at convenience stores and sells it to pedestrians by the bottle or paper cup.
The strangeness of this business plan deserves an underline. In Hongdae, where the alcohol supply is unlimited, where every street is lined with speakeasies, where you can't throw a brick without hitting 3.5 Ho Bars, Makgeolli Man sells makgeolli, at a premium!, from the back of a farmer's cart. He buys his stock from convenience stores. So can you. Drinking on the street is okay in Korea, so you can walk into the same Family Mart as Makgeolli Man, buy a bottle of the swill, and stumble about the streets drinking it. What service does he offer? Surely not convenience!
But it actually was convenient for me on Saturday night. For reasons immaterial to the story I had half a mind to get a little drunk, and a liter of makgeolli would have been serious overkill. I also didn't want to wander into a random bar and get overcharged for the small amount of liquor required to tip me over. What I needed was some guy with only the overhead of a farmer's cart full of booze to sell me a paper cup of the stuff without all the rigmarole.
I loitered next to the cart. When Makgeolli Man emerged from the Family Mart with his resupply, he immediately checked out my suit. His eyes widened. "Gentleman! I love you!" he cried. "You American? Canadian?!" he asked. I opted for American, which earned a loud "American! I love you!!!" We shook hands. This appeared to be the most exciting thing Makgeolli Man had experienced in quite some time. He asked if I was from San Francisco or New York. I don't think he understood my reply, but he found it very exciting!!
Overcome with bonhomie, Makgeolli Man sold me two cups for the price of one. The moral of the story: suiting up pays off.