There's a place near here that isn't so much a place as it is the place-between-places... it's an area that you pass through to get somewhere else. In the past ten years or so the Koreans have moved in, there are stores -- whole shopping centers -- with korean-only signs, the abstract inside-outness of their letter forms glow in purple neon against the sodium orange sky at night, informing the asian initiates as to what commercial potentials lurk within but perplexing my round-eyes.
Late at night I make a visit, make a destination of a way, smooth my black car between the toyotas with opaqued windows, ride tandem with a tractor trailer delivering ice cream, watch my mirrors for the cruisers with a thin light bar on the roof turning out from the seven elevens.
It seems sometimes that the world is made of many worlds, all overlapping and interconnected; not just in space but in time as well, if you travel ten thousand miles in space you can also travel back five hundred years in time... and this Koreatown is no different -- fifteen miles away, and twenty years back... synchronicity is hard enough to maintain within your skin, never mind within your house, your city.
There's a small establishment, black glass windows with silver metal frames, black tile floor with white grout, bottles on glass shelves in front of mirrors set with television sets of all different sizes and proportions, the bartenders in short tight skirts, wearing blue-lit headset phones in their ear, give the brandy bottle to the customer to pour, serve puffed fries out of plastic jars, put a shot glass full of coffee grounds in front of the guy lighting his cigarette, dodge the matron in her below-the-knee black dress who checks the register, wait on the middle-aged men in sharkskin with a smile, stretch their necks and wipe the counter with a towel the color of charcoal, and whisper to each other as they pass.
There's another place at the other end of the shopping center, the front door leads to a hallway. On either side, behind closed doors, there are rooms with low tables surrounded by small groups of laughing people, serious. At the end of the hall is an alcove with a bar large enough to serve three with no stools, a bandstand with a keyboardist and a singer, singing to the hallway, his voice presumably piped into the little rooms. A thin man and a thinner woman lean on each other next to the stage, their eyes large and empty, they ignore their surroundings and each other. A waiter will show you out the way you came in, making pleasant conversation about the weather.
If you drive back away from the main road a block or two, you'll go past a sub shop, past a car audio place, past a pager store with a sign "cash loans on car titles," past a drug store and an insurance office (converted houses with metal awnings over the windows) you might notice a little one-story bar set back from the street. Low and dilapidated, surrounded by porches that look as though they were built out of discarded rabbit hutches, draped with christmas lights, and plastic triangular flags and pvc flag-signs that the beer companies print, it sits on a one-way street between a tiny parking lot choked with pickup trucks and an all-night pizza place. There's an oval sign like a rudder on the roof that says SUNSET GRILL.
When you read about the concept of a time-vortex, you scoff, you might think wouldn't that be neat ...and maybe a little scary... you might even wonder what it would be like if there ever could be such a thing. But they are all around us, everywhere. They just don't work quite the way you expect, the way a reasoning mind would project.
The Sunset Grill is a holdover from another time in this neighborhood, but it's not a fossil, it's alive, and the people who go there are living in the same time as you and me. The same time on the outside at least, or in the same time on one track -- but they are tapped in to another time as well. It's possible that it is a time that never was, in reality, but they share it, they create it together, and they get something from it or they do something with it that gives their lives purpose, or makes it bearable, or maybe makes it unbearable. It's tough to say and probably unnecessary.
Inside the vestibule is a cigarette machine, $4.50 a pack. If you ask her, the woman behind the bar will explain that the rule is that since the machine is in the direct view of the bartender it is allowed. About a fourth of the floor space is devoted to the stage for the band. They sit in the window, the drummer in the corner, the others squeezed in around. There are cymbals arranged along the top of the wall, signed with black markers, dented and bent, draped with tiny white lights. A four piece band can fit, and add a singer when she's sober enough to remember the words. Or not. The mixing board crowds the door, and you should learn to wait until the song ends to go in; it's just respect. There's a tiny bench with a plastic beer pitcher, usually about a third full of crumpled bills. The band will do covers. Taking Care of Business. Cocaine. Tequila Sunrise. Jumping Jack Flash. School's Out. The Boys are Back in Town. Twist and Shout. Little Pink Houses.
The drummer, the bass player, the guitarists, the singer, why are they here? They play loud, they play with the confidence of long practice, their hair is gray, long, thinning. Their bellies are thick, their faces are lined. They outnumber their audience. The bartenders ignore them and they ignore the bartenders. The owner wants them to finish, wants the night to be over, wants to count the register and go home. They play something from Aerosmith. Highway to Hell. Jack and Diane. Knocking on Heaven's Door. They dedicate that song to Saddam.
The guitar players fingers are thick. His playing isn't crisp, but he gets the job done. The drummer is a guy you'd expect to meet working behind the counter in an electrical supply warehouse, but he's playing the drums like a musical instrument. He's sweating and he's pushing the others forward, keeping them honest. When the set is over he's the only one who accepts the offer of a free drink, sipping from the plastic cup the bartender brings him and wincing, then carefully placing it down on the bench next to an empty beer bottle and going back to winding the cords and packing the microphones. Later he comes to the bar and gets change for a five. He leaves two bucks for the bartender and goes back to packing up the amp.
These people get something out of this, there's a reason they play and sing these old songs. Do they even think about it? Could they put words to an answer to the question why? There are things you do because you have to, what else would they do. The regulars sit on their stools like barnacles. Their puffy eyes watch the bartenders work the jagermeister dispenser; when they settle up they need help reading the tiny text on their tab printouts. The white in their clothes glows lavender in the blacklights that are mounted behind the beam above the bar. The bartenders have learned to be careful, very careful. Distance is the most effective shield we know.
There are two couples at a table, white guys with korean girls tonight, the guys are drinking more than the girls. They don't quite fit -- it's not that they are out of place, they are out of time. They aren't from far enough back, maybe ten years. An old man sits on a bench, his back to the wall. He has a fresh Heineken he ordered at last call. He's watching the ass of a very drunk woman as she fumbles in her purse, looking for her phone. She thinks she lost it, maybe in the parking lot, maybe in the ladies room. There's somebody in there, so she can't go and look. People tell her to call the phone but she says the ringer is on silent. The guy she's with is pissed off. The old man is trying to pretend he's not interested. A couple of bills fall from her purse onto the floor. He stops trying. Her boyfriend lets them lay there a while before he picks them up. A guy in a dark suit pays his bill, and he turns to leave, dropping a twenty on the floor. As he walks towards the door past the band who are packing their gear, somebody calls to him and picks it up. He turns and they give him the money. The old man turns to me. "I like this place," he says.
"What time do you think it is?" I ask him.