Tag Archives: Koreatown

Ghosts of Koreatown

17 May


The first chapter from an unpublished novel of mine, about a young working class white guy who gets caught up in a centuries old blood feud between two Korean families in LA’s Koreatown:


As usual, I was the only white guy in the place.

I watched as the cordless microphone was passed down along the bar to Chin Ho, a pale faced Korean with huge bags under his eyes. I looked up at the wall mounted TV behind the bar. A Korean ballad began to play – words I couldn’t understand. Chin Ho dug into the tune – he was a good singer.

Once or twice, when I got really drunk, I’d try to sing in Korean. No one ever told me to shut up. No one ever grabbed the mic out of my hand. Instead they’d smile and slap me on the back as I gutted their language.

I looked over at the front door where a tall floor fan whirred and buzzed, doing its best to cool off the bar. Cars drove past. It took some getting used to – sitting in a bar and being on public view.

There was only an inch left in my bottle of Hite. At five bucks a pop I could only afford one or two a night. I looked up at the queue of songs running along the bottom of the video image. My song was next – I’d sing and then go home.

Chin Ho finished up and Min Jee, the good-looking barmaid, took the mic out of his hand. With a smile she handed it to me. Min Jee had her hair dyed an auburn color, with streaks of blonde highlights. She almost always wore golden earrings of some kind. For weeks now I’d been thinking of asking her out but I always took a step back. I liked coming to the Saja Room every night for a song and a beer – I didn’t want to do anything to fuck it up.

The first notes of “Moon River” began to play and I looked up at the karaoke screen. I knew the lyrics by heart but I liked the reassurance of seeing the words crawl slowly up the TV tube. The screen showed a flurry of disconnected Korean images unrelated to the song – a bungee jumper, animated cell phones, kids bouncing a ball, cherry blossoms waving in the wind – the images made no sense at all.

I weighed the mic in my hand. It had a lot of reverb and it made almost every singer sound like he was in the shower, his voice bouncing off the tiles. There were a few singers the mic couldn’t save – guys who sang angry, loud and desperate. Most patrons would stare into their drinks when a singer like that roamed the floor – they rarely sang from their seats since they were in too much pain to sit still. But karaoke Korean-style was all about flushing out the jim-jams. It was no American Idol fantasy. It was a balm for the psyche.

I began to sing, enjoying the feeling. “Moon River” was my song. My grandma back in Pittsburgh used to play that tune over and over. It had gotten under my skin in an odd way and when I first dropped into Saja and they handed me the mic, without thinking I asked for “Moon River”. The regulars all had their signature song and this was mine.

I glanced over at Ms. Tam, the owner of the bar. She was smiling. She liked it when I sang. The Koreans were middle class and were pleased when a white guy showed them respect – even a white guy like me, in jeans and a black T-shirt.

Ms. Tam looked to be in her 50s, still put together well, always wearing a sheath-like dress. I think her black hair was a wig, since it never changed shape. She always had a Marlboro pasted to her lower lip. The rest of LA had won the war against smokers but you’d never know it in Koreatown. It seemed like everyone in Saja smoked – the air was blue with it. I didn’t have the habit, but I breathed in so much second-hand smoke I’d probably have to start wearing a patch if I ever changed bars.

There was a young Korean woman standing next to Ms. Tam. I’d never seen her before. She kept her head down and leaned in towards Ms. Tam, like a shadow. Dressed in a white shift, she looked demure next to the older woman’s flash. I’d noticed that most Korean women had a really hearty sensuality about them. This young woman looked bled out and shy.

I dug into the lyrics –

Oh, dream maker, you heart breaker
Wherever you’re goin’, I’m goin’ your way

There was polite applause at the end of my song and some of the patrons raised their beers in a salute. I gave a little wave of thanks and handed the mic to Min Jee.

Min Jee said, “I like the way you sing that song. So much feeling.”

She brought the mic down to a grey-haired Korean and the old guy started singing an upbeat Korean number.

Maybe it was worth the risk, asking Min Jee out. Maybe there was a way I could approach it without feeling like a jerk if she said no. There was a fancy-looking Korean barbecue restaurant a block away. I could ask her to show me the ropes when it came to Korean cooking. I’d examined the menu on the front door a couple of times – it looked confusing as hell.

I was imagining sitting across from Min Jee, maneuvering a pair of chopsticks, eating something gooey and strange, when I saw a Korean dude walk into the bar. Instead of finding a seat, he stood in the open doorway. The guy had presence – a sense of style. He wore a sharp-looking suit without a tie; his glowing white shirt was open at the neck. He had the fresh look of a guy straight from the barber shop. It was strange the way he stood there, his eyes searching the bar. There wasn’t much to see – just a long row of stools, a tiny dance floor and a couple of restrooms off the kitchen. The guy’s eyes fastened on Ms. Tam and the young woman standing close to her.

The man smiled –

Then his head exploded in a burst of shotgun fire from the street.



1 Jun



Devon and I did one of our urban hikes. We decided to walk from my apartment in Koreatown, down the length of Western Avenue, and up into the hills until we reached the Hollywood sign.

No sooner than we were out of the front door than we encountered a crazy, good-looking Spanish girl babbling on the front step, grinning to beat the band. I thought she was talking on a cell phone until I realized she was talking to the sky. Devon got a little freaked, especially since she started following us – but she gave up after a block.

A hundred yards later we saw a Korean mobster roughing up an underling, doing the classic move where you pull a guy’s jacket down so his arms are pinned and then you slam him up against the side of a car. The whole thing had a balletic feel – like the victim was secure in his role. Devon pushed me, saying, “C’mon Dad – don’t look.”

Walking past the 99 Cent stores, talking with Ann on the cell, letting her know we were on our way to adventure. Devon couldn’t believe that block after block the Hollywood sign wasn’t getting any closer.

We had lunch at the end of Western and Hollywood Blvd., drinking Thai ice tea in a little restaurant with a huge hot dog perched on the roof. I was looking forward to having a Thai hot dog but it wasn’t meant to be. The sign proved to be from a former eatery now passing the torch to a bitter-looking Thai woman serving bamboo stir fry in the harsh LA sunlight.

Walking on down Franklin, past the AFI and a bunch of cool cafes and then hanging a right onto Beachwood, our shoes already heating up and our foot bones getting articulated in a strange ways. As we walked I told Devon that Bob Dylan was a kindred spirit, that he loves to walk the outskirts of whatever town he finds himself in.

We wound our way through the Hollywood Hills, past wonderful quirky homes befitting the Dream Capital of America. Devon and I commenting on the various vintage Mustangs along the way. And then, really dragging now, reaching the Holly Ridge Trail, with its “Beware of Rattlesnakes and Mountain Lions” signs. We were pushing it, winding back and forth along the hill, catching a glimpse now and then of the sign and radio towers above us.

Every once in awhile we’d look over our shoulders at a  wide screen view stretching from  Santa Monica to downtown LA, with the asymmetrical Wiltern Theatre smack dab in the middle.

We met a little Japanese hiker who looked fresh as a daisy – no way did he start in Koreatown like a couple of crazy Jersey boys. In fact, I’ll go on record – no one ever started in Koreatown to set off for the Hollywood sign.

We kept on, Devon worried about dehydration. I tried to reassure him that humans don’t die that easy.

Here he comes again on his way down, the battery-driven Japanese guy greeting us with, “I took a picture.”

We finally made it to the top. Looking down on the backside of the Hollywood sign. Where poor Lillian Millicent Entwhistle plunged to her death in 1932 when her acting contract wasn’t renewed.

But up on top I wasn’t thinking about Hollywood, or anything like it.

I was enjoying the fact that Devon and I had made up our own day – there wasn’t one like it to be found anywhere.



11 Oct


Writing this at a little table outside Ralph’s Market, facing Western Ave., the grey-green Wiltern Theatre to my right, traffic flowing past, and a solitary trumpet player performing a block away, probably for dimes and nickels.

My neighborhood is a mix of Mexicans and Koreans, in a northern section of Koreatown. Here and there are echoes of Raymond Chandler’s LA, especially when the sun washes over the Moorish curves of pre-war buildings.

I’ve always described myself as beset by duality.  I’m missing Ann and Devon and the total absence of family life is tough. I’m used to some kind of teeter-totter action.

I was getting worried, wondering if I was going to have to resort to living in a cut-rate motel – the kind over-encouraged actors, big dream screenwriters and crack whores live in.

Then I found a place in Koreatown listed on Craig’s List, a sublet from a Jamaican girl. Once I handed the money order over to her, I had something like $40 bucks to my name.

I have my own four walls around me – at least for the next three months.

My apartment is functional, but very dark. It looks onto an alley and a brick wall. Before I got out here, one of my criteria for choosing an apartment was it had to have light. Instead I panicked – rightfully so – and chose the first crib I could get. Thank God LA is filled with light. A dark apartment in New York would be tough, but I can walk outside and luxuriate in the sun. But it’s lonely.

I spent the last decade going from a driveway to a parking lot. Now I have to become an overnight expert in parallel parking.