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Saturday, September 22, 2012

You Can Go Home Again


If taxes and things like the new airline fees we are all paying seem unfair, what do you call the passing of time? --that which seemingly prevents us from ever being able to return home again—as Thomas Wolfe’s book of the same name famously put it.

But is it true that we can’t go home? Yesterday, I returned to the neighborhood I once lived in as a Peace Corps trainee in Daegu, Korea. In the winter of 1973 it was a cold and dusty section of town, bordered by a large park (Dal Seong Park) that brought dignity and some open space to a dense community which once featured an ancient fortress and whose history dates back to the Bronze Age.
Dal Seong Park (spring 1975). Author seated on right.

Today it is no less a hard scrabble place. Mr. Lee, who owns a pastry stall in the neighborhood, told me the nearby alleys still feature old, dirty Korean inns where you can get “s.” “S?” I asked quizzically. “Sex,” he answered with a sheepish grin.  I wasn’t looking for sex but I was searching for something else—an old Korean bathhouse I had frequented for several months during that winter of 1973. In those days, hardly any Korean homes or inns had baths or showers. Every so often people would go to a public bath and share huge scalding hot tubs with dozens of people. I was returning to see what had happened to that bathhouse—an institution which has literally disappeared in Korea along with the less endearing "bucket brigade" of men who used to go door-to-door removing sewage with large sturdy brown buckets dangling from wooden polls that ran across their backs.
Honey Bucket Men (Daegu circa 1974)
I stopped and questioned two old women who were squatting in front of a store. I pointed across the street and in halting Korean asked if the building was a bathhouse about 30 years ago. One of the old women waved me on and the other laughed—they obviously thought I was crazy. But I soon found Mr. Lee behind his counter and asked if he spoke any English. He smiled and said “Yes.”  “Would you know,” I asked, “if that building used to be a bathhouse?” “Sure,” he said. “look at the top, it still has that large vent that was always on the roof of bathhouses.” Looking up, I noticed a barely visible red insignia depicting steam coming out of a circle that was synonymous with bathhouses.

I was pleased. The inn I once stayed at was now a lifeless parking garage but I had at least found my way home. I reminded myself of a traditional Korean folk music concert I attended just a few months ago. Sitting alone in the back row I suddenly started to cry. The familiar music had found an emotional vein sending years of sentiment and stored memories gushing uncontrollably.

One can indeed go home. I was there. But there is an emotional fee to pay for the time and memories that have escaped from the bottle--those things that naively once seemed so everlasting.

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