Strange Memories in Busan


by Pablo Harris, photos by Mike Dixon

by Pablo Harris, photos by Mike Dixon

Strange memories on this nervous night, final hours before departing Busan. Three years later? Four? It seems like a lifetime, or at least an era of cloud shrouded verdant peaks and the deepest of ditches that exudes a stench up to the back alleys of Seomyeon, the kind of peak that never comes again and the kind of depression that no one should encounter. There was madness in any direction from Kyungsung to PNU, Hadan to Haeundae, at any hour. Many of us begin on these shores innocuously striking sparks that quickly blaze into soju-fueled conflagrations visible from Tsushima. Those who come to know and love the Bay Area of ROK in this era find Busan, a decade into the new millennium, a very special time and place to be a part of.

Maybe not in the long run. Maybe not to my students and the pickled collective conscience of this city, but no English or Hangul, no mix of Wordz, of lovers and acquaintances, natives and expats; no memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that briny corner of time in the world. Whatever it meant . . .


My central memory of that time hangs on a few days after a swerving ascent of the stairs out of a basement, back on the street into a black ice dawn that was about to slip even further into darkness. Instead of going home (as the vets here know, “nothing good is going to happen after 3am”)  I . . . I don’t know what I was looking for but what I found was . . . I found myself in an ambulance. I was sure I was in a taxi, yelling at the EMTs “Ajjeoshi Suyeong kajuseyo! Take me home!” A day or two later, I don’t know how many, I woke up tied down, ankles and wrists fit to be quartered, tied to the hospital bed rails with my mother standing over me. “What was she doing there?” Then there was my father explaining to me that I was in a hospital and what a hospital was. Hospital was a word that no longer registered. I never even had a thought as to “What was I doing there?” Just, “What were they doing there?” Days (a week?) later, after the bandages around my head were removed, I stared at a gruesome sight; one-third of my cranium had been removed leaving a concave football-shaped dent in my head.


For months I was an invalid. Fear, loathing, confusion, depression until Bass explained what had happened (though the details were still a bit sketchy because ten key seconds from the CCTV were “missing” before the police viewed the tape, perhaps to protect the guilty). What was certain was, as the doctor explained to Bass and his wife, “Your friend, we don’t know what we will find when the cranium is removed, he might not be able to speak, to walk, maybe vegetable. But we need another operation or . . . you ok?” Basic faculties could all be casualties from a blackout fall or shove down some stairs that left me severely concussed and bloody.

* * *

But what was prevalent in these halcyon days was the music. The creative energy of music emanating from subterranean dives epitomized this golden epoch and galvanized this magnanimous sense of community.




One Drop brought the party and the ass shook. Gordon blow your horn!


Kurtis Blo was the finest picker that ever played . . . whatever’s in order.


Batcho, the Philosopher-King from Kallipolis, ruled the pocket.


Kelsey brought the blues and sang our blues away.


Blue Eyes fiddlin’ in the rain, soothing summer swelter.


The ear-splitting Kimchee/DC on Halloween were more than a holiday but an experience.


And every Wednesday night at Ol’ 55, Edmunds ignited and stoked the kindling ’til Gino would pour gasoline on a wildfire ‘til 4 in the morn.



And I still can’t explain Poko Lambro but certainly they defined Bohemian Busan via Lubbock, Texas, importing eargasms from Buddy Holly country.

And that, I think, is the handle- this sense of amazing generosity and community over the forces of tragedy. The community of the Bu’s best, brightest, and most talented pulling together, and the doctors, nurses; it was a horrific blow but with some time and help from what seems like myriad of people, we were winning and perhaps, it’s been a blessing. Your energy simply allowed me to prevail.

So now, a few years later, you hike up Dalmaji Hill and look East, and with the right kind of eyes you could see me along California 1 on the Redwood Highway barreling down to Big Sur where the wave rolled me back to native surf. And while I looked to the West far beyond the sun, I saw you all there and heard your music. I hark back to this special time and place in days of miracles when you gave me the momentum to ride the crest of a high and beautiful wave, back to Busan, Home.


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