Sunday, November 21, 2010

Corner Grocery

I first met the owners of Corner Grocery—located in Everett, Washington—a little over three years ago. They came to me through that magic Korean network that never fails to astound me. The first Korean family I tutored for introduced me to a family who introduced me to a family who introduced me to THIS family… And how lucky I was to have met them. Tutoring their children is always one of the high points of my week. Their sons are brilliant. Tutoring them really isn’t work. It’s an honor. And the parents are probably one of the most adorable couples I’ve ever met. I don’t think I’ve ever met such warm and generous people.

Their family first moved here from Seoul at the end of 2006, for three reasons: One, air quality. (The father has some respiratory health problems, and needed to get out of Seoul’s pollution.) Two, educational opportunities for their sons. (The Korean university entrance exam system is ridiculously competitive. Most Korean teenagers get five hours of sleep a night because they spend so much time studying and attending after school and weekend academies.) Three, they have a family member who was already living in the Seattle area. Just a few months after they arrived, they took over the ownership of their family member’s convenience store in Everett. This is how they’ve made their living in this country ever since.

The store is much bigger than it looks from the outside, and it is packed with the usual American convenience store merchandise. Baseball caps are for sale near the register, embroidered with things like “Cowboy Up” and “Air Force”. Behind the register is a backroom with a concrete floor and a portable cooking burner where food can be heated. I don’t know how they would ever have a free moment to take a meal break, though. A customer seems to come in the door every two minutes, even on the rainiest days. Despite the impression I got from the bustling activity, the bad economy has hurt Corner Grocery’s business. But they’re getting by, at least.

A store like this is much easier to run in America than it would be in Korea. In Korea, things are too competitive. Here, running a business is not so intimidating. Most of their customers are Americans and Hispanic immigrants. Having a store in this part of Everett is nice, because the customers are warm and friendly…not cold and arrogant like “downtown people”, they told me. Also, the store is just a short drive from their home, which allows them to balance parenthood with running a business. Sometimes their sons help them out with tasks on the weekends. I remember seeing the boys’ arms splattered with white paint one evening when I came to tutor them over the summer. They had spent the day helping their father paint the store’s roof. Their father laughed and told me he had to pay them to come help! I think the store gives the boys more than just a source of allowance, though. One year, the youngest boy used the store’s walk in freezer to test a theory about light for a science fair project, so there are some unexpected educational benefits. And being ravenous teenage boys who seem to have grow two more inches every time I see them, I’m sure they take advantage of the store’s snack foods when they can get away with it!

I have learned one very important thing about immigrants in America. Their education levels often exceed what Americans might assume from looking at the jobs they end up taking in this country. When I was a student at Shoreline Community College, I met a Ukrainian doctor who couldn’t work in her field in Seattle because America is so stingy about giving certifications to qualified foreign doctors. (I've heard it’s because American doctors don’t want their high wages threatened.) I once dated a Chilean man who had been an art teacher in Santiago, but who was working as a tree cutter in America, simply because he lacked fluency in English. Americans treated him like a flunky, not like an intelligent man with a master’s degree in art. The owners of Corner Grocery also have career backgrounds that I suspect Americans might not guess. The mother is brilliant at math, and worked as a math tutor in Korea. The father was an engineer for the French plastics company Rhodia.

Because I want to bring more awareness about the actual experiences of immigrants who are running small businesses in America, I will start posting stories every now and then about some of the business owners I’ve met in the Puget Sound region. Stay tuned!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Magic Portal Travelers

Magic Portal Travelers are people who grab freedom by the balls and have their way with it. They listen with a patient smile while everyone else in the world lists off all the rules and limitations of the universe, and then immediately turn around and prove that list wrong. They are the people who don't wait around for ten years deciding whether or not they should move to a new city, or whether or not they should leave a relationship they are miserable in. Magic Portal Travelers know there is no such thing as burning bridges...Instead, there is only the creation of wings...wings that allow one to fly across any chasm. If my meaning is not clear, click here. Katwise is a Magic Portal Traveler. You'll see what I mean.

Last Thursday, I met a Magic Portal Traveler. He says I can call him Uncle Jake. I met him at Sureshot, one of my favorite coffee shops in Seattle's U-District. He was sitting on the south wall's sofa, wearing a black beret, glasses, and a thick red coat, reading William S. Burroughs's Junky. I didn't notice him (or anyone) at first because I was absorbed in checking my email on one of Sureshot's computers. Then I heard him quoting Robert A. Heinlein to the barista. "Moderation is for monks!" he was saying. Those are the kind of words that get my attention. "Hey, you sound like my type of person!" I called to him. And thus began what turned into a two-hour conversation with one of the most vibrant, truly ALIVE people I've met in ages.

Uncle Jake's mind moves so fast that I can barely keep up. It's not so much that he talks fast. It's more that he has a thousand stories and dimensions filling his mind at any given moment, and you've got to listen Magic Portal style to catch it all. Traveling the regular earth way just will not do. I tried to gather up every detail he told me about his life, though I know I'm forgetting many things. In no coherent order, here's what I learned: Uncle Jake is in his early sixties. He was raised a Quaker. He has a degree (I think a master's) in ethnomusicology. He once was the frequent angelic gifter of extra Grateful Dead tickets to fans who were "looking for a miracle". He is certified in midwifery (as everyone should be, he says). His sister is a veterinarian in Kenya, and he once stayed with her while studying the African origin of modern American music influences. He once ran a coffee house in Amsterdam, where marijuana was sold like cookies over the counter. He travels often, and he works on his own terms, in various jobs, in various places. He mentioned New Orleans, Portland, New York, Bulgaria, Colorado, Boston. He never learned to drive, but has taken trains all over the world. He used to travel with bands, doing all kinds of different work for them, but not for the band culture. It was the crew culture that interested him. He once had a house in Portland, and when it burned down, he lost 10,000 books. He was in the Navy. He chose to have a vasectomy at the age of seventeen. He's a chef. He's been hired to come to Seattle and shape up a failing restaurant. It's a good deed he's doing, too, because there's not much in this world that could make Uncle Jake stay somewhere damp and cold for the winter. In fact, this is the first winter he'll have experienced in thirty-two years. (His home base is Hawaii, and that's where he prefers to winter!)

As he told me all this, he kept pausing to say hello to other customers coming into Sureshot. He seems to know everyone, even though I don't think he's been in Seattle that long.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from Uncle Jake's stories:

"I stopped aging because I saw no future in it."

"The two most important words in the English language are 'pay attention'. If you pay attention, the universe will give you what you need."

"I'm dangerous because I plant ideas in peoples' heads that aren't there, but that should have been."

An hour into our conversation, I asked him, "Do you write?" It was more of a rhetorical question. All Magic Portal Travelers are storytellers, this goes without saying. "Sure, I write," he said. "I write pulp. Not bodice rippers. I write absolute garbage and sell it to mystery magazines." It seemed to me that there are actually two types of writing Uncle Jake does, one for money, and one for himself. The latter sounds much darker, much more powerful. "When I write, I'm not fit for human company," he said. "Just stick a feeding tube in and leave me alone!" I imagined him holed up in a lighthouse when he said this, lightning and waves crashing all around, pen like a sorcerer's wand in his hands.

As I left Sureshot, I felt like I was flying on a magic carpet. That's how you feel after spending two hours talking to a Magic Portal Traveler. I think everyone I walked past could see the magic carpet, too. I saw more smiles along the Ave. than I normally do. The thing about Magic Portal Travelers is that their magic spreads out from them like ripples around a pebble in a pond, concentric circles reaching out to touch everything. When the day began, I was feeling pretty terrible, struggling with a lot of conflict and chaos in my heart. But after talking to Uncle Jake, my thoughts had left that two-dimensional prison and were soaring through purple clouds, looking for magic portals of my own.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Young Creatives

I have a student who is a snarky, forty-two-year-old philosopher-dreamer in a fifteen-year-old's body. This kid blows my mind. He's only lived in this country for a few years, yet his English writing is astounding. And I'm not talking formal SAT English. I'm talking CREATIVE WRITING.

I try out all sorts of writing assignments with this kid. I give him a list of ten vocabulary words and tell him to write a story. I make CD's of eclectic, wild, and magical music and have him pick ten songs to write about. I give him an envelope containing three random objects and tell him to link them together in a story plot. I email him links to James Jean and Salvador Dali paintings and instruct him to write a stream-of-consciousness piece inspired by his favorite images. I have him watch experimental silent short films and write his own ideas of what possible character dialogue might be. The results are always delightful. I can never guess at what he might write. Sometimes his characters are eerily beautiful aliens in some alternate reality. Other times they are assassins running lawless in Mexico. The one thing I can always count on is his sarcastic, perceptive humor. None of the moral assumptions in the world around us fool this kid. He sees through it all, and he likes to poke fun at it in his writing.

Lately he and I have been passing a story notebook back and forth. He keeps the notebook for a week and writes part of the story. Then he passes it to me, and I write the next part. The first notebook ended up being a science fiction story about an android boy and a crow-magic girl who get into all kinds of trouble while time traveling. Recently, we started a new story. I let him come up with the initial storyline this time. I was floored when I read it. The character he chose to create was a gambling-addict divorcee going through a mid-life crisis. I could not believe the kind of insight this fifteen-year-old kid had into the loneliness and patheticness of troubled adult life. He wrote about sad empty beer cans littering the divorcee's apartment, and about a ridiculous teacup dog the ex had left behind.

The only thing in his writing that reflects his young age: a certain breed of gory, video game violence. Oh, does this kid love video games!

If I have reached a point in my own life where I am capable of having a protege, this kid is it. I spend a lot of time selecting art, music, films, books, essays, and short stories to expose him to. I want the entire world of creative expression to be open to him, because I think he has one of the most beautiful minds I have ever encountered. I can only imagine what he'll be like as an adult if he is already so perceptive and creative at this young age. I daydream about a future moment when he accepts the Pulitzer Prize or ends up on Interpol's most wanted list for orchestrating some villainous computer hacking scheme that throws the entire digital world into beautiful chaos, and I can say with pride, "Yup, that's my student!"

Sunday, November 7, 2010

“Сорока” Magic

“I don’t roll that way,” Magpie says, and maybe he doesn’t know that those are simultaneously the most painful and most galvanizing words he could possibly say. Both a punch to the gut and a kick in the seat of the pants. Not a condemnation or a judgment. Instead, it’s an “I won’t go there with you” from someone I deeply respect and adore. So I have to part from him right away, because I fear I’ll either say something in defense that sounds mean, or that he’ll see the tears I feel threatening to wet my lashes.

The bus from downtown is of course late, as it always is. Ten minutes late, and I apathetically let the rain fall on my glasses, mixing with my own rain. I’m never overly embarrassed about crying in front of strangers. It’s only crying in front of a man that humiliates me.

The truth is my hunger comes from a void. It’s the same void that generates my distrust of men. How did it form? I cannot tell for sure. A twisted family heirloom of sorts? A thing that goes hand-in-hand with a writer’s spirit? Whatever, the source is not important. It’s the current situation it’s caused that I’m battling with now.

The bus is so crowded...standing room only. Terrible, terrible. I feel so raw, and here I am standing in front of so many pairs of probing eyes. And here in the back of the bus, they are all broken people... The ragamuffin teen dykes who ask me while rolling cigarettes, “Do you do brown?” The blue-collar workers just daring life to throw one more burden at them. I scowl out the window, my heart being pulled at all four corners by some medieval torture method. At one corner are Magpie’s beautiful eyelashes and mind, and at another, his disapproval. At the third corner is the temptation to destroy everything sacred in my world, and at the fourth, an intoxicating and sparkling enchantment that is bigger than me or Magpie or anyone I know.

Here is how the story always goes. I know it well, yet have lived it again and again, like Groundhog Day (the movie). I see a magic in men that actually isn’t there, and every time I see it, I believe I am capable of harnessing it. I am certain it will turn the void into something divine, something with the power to intoxicate my passion for all eternity. But the thing about men is they’re no more magical than any other creature on this earth. The delusion is in my perception. My eyes have rainbow cracks in them. Opal-luminescent snowflakes keep swirling across my vision.

I am standing sideways in the aisle, facing the seat where a Norwegian girl sits speaking heavy Nynorsk to her travel companion. Off to my left, a few seats back, a fat drunk Native American man is sitting with an equally fat white woman. Sitting on the floor in the aisle next to them is a scruffy teenage white boy. The drunk Native starts singing, quietly at first. “Oh come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant...” The fault lines in my heart are threatening to quake, but I smile a little at his song. He sees my smile and starts singing louder. “OH COME YE OH COME YE TO BETHLEHEM...” Ah, I see. A lass scintillates most vibrantly when her heart is most conflicted. “COME AND ADORE HIM, CAN I GET YOUR PHONE NUMBER…” the Native sings. The fat white woman laughs. I smile and shake my head. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE,” the Native sings to me, still to the tune of “Oh Come All Ye Faithful”. Across the aisle from him, a young construction worker is texting on an I-Phone. The Native’s singing causes him to look up, and when he sees me, he says in the most polite way, “Sorry, Miss, I didn’t see you were standing. Please, take my seat.” Scintillating, I tell you. “That’s okay,” I say. “I’ve been sitting all day, really.” Actually, I want to hug that construction worker and cry. Instead, I pull out my little notebook and attempt to write while standing.

I have been too terrified to tell anyone. Are you ready to be the first? No man on this earth can ever love me as much as I need to be loved, that’s my secret. Which is to say that there is no expression of love a man could show that would ever be enough to slay my doubt, my suspicion, my void. And so my hunger is infinite. And so I go looking for small scraps of love from every man who glows with any amount of magic at all, because no one man is capable of giving enough, and the void demands that I collect it however I must.

I make a thousand decisions—all of them conflicting—while the Native lights a cigarette right there on the bus. To stay, to go, to stay AND go, living a lie, a dichotomy, an ugly, ugly paradoxical life. I imagine warning my husband that I am a danger, “time-explosive” as he once said. I imagine giving him a sort of disclaimer. Leave me now before it’s too late. I will hurt you, destroy you, even. It is inevitable.

The white teen sitting in the aisle takes the cigarette away from the Native, snuffs it out with purple-gloved fingers. “You’re going back to jail,” the fat white woman warns the Native. The white teen digs through his backpack, takes out a bundle of sage, and lights it to get rid of cigarette smell. (Because Sound Transit will surely view lighting sage as less against the rules than lighting cigarettes?) I take out my library book on Russia, to have something sturdier to lean my notebook against. “RUSSIA!” the Native says. “WHAT’S HAPPENIN’ IN RUSSIA?” “Trouble,” I say. “WHAT KIND OF TROUBLE?” “Woman trouble,” I say, and he hoots with laughter...


Спасибо, Magpie. You are a beautiful friend. Maybe you didn’t mean to, but I think you saved my marriage tonight. I think you made me face all I have been afraid to face.