Days of Whine and Hoses

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Days of Whine and Hoses

This is the time of year when bus drivers refrain from pulling away while you're halfway up the steps and holding four bags. This is time of year when the guy who sells you subway tickets says a phrase you didn't think he knew: thank-you. The time of year when delivery men on motorbikes actually give you the right of way on the sidewalk. The time of year when even ajumma smile.

As Christmas approaches, everyone seems to be on his best behavior.

Everyone but three senior Santa Clauses who are pumping gas and wiping windshields in northern Seoul. These St. Nicks have no interest in being jolly. In fact, it's all bah-humbug with this trio. As they check a car's list of needs twice, they gripe and grouse and snap at each other and at customers.

What in the name of coal-in-your stocking is going on here?

To find out, the reporter hangs out at the threesome's workplace, a Hyundai Oilbank gas station in Pyeongchang-dong. Immediately the reporter realizes he is not going to see the Three Wise Men on these premises. Instead, he's seeing up close the Three Stooges. Grumps at the pumps.

"I really hate what I'm wearing," growls Jui Hang-bum, 74, one of the very-unmerry men. "It's ridiculous to be in these red outfits."

"This stinks," says Kim Jung-gu. 75.

Under his breath, Lee Gyu-seon, 75, mutters something unintelligible.

Christmas bloom? How about Christmas doom?

All three of the bellyaching Santas are required by their employer each Christmas to don what the three men consider to be hideous costumes, even though this may be the season for such costumes, and even though their appearance brings satisfied chuckles from customers and sweet, wide-eyed looks from kids.

"It's really uncomfortable working in this outfit, especially for some- one my age," says Mr. Jui as he begins to fill a Sonata's gas tank.

Nearby, Mr. Kim checks the dipstick in a gray Kia and says, "Look at how filthy these sleeves get." He holds up a once-fluffy white cuff, now dark from grease stains. "This fabric won't stay clean for even a couple of hours.

"And it's not like we can wash these things every day and put them on the next day at work," snarls Mr. Lee.

"We were war heros for God's sake!" cries Mr. Lee. "We gunned down communists during the Korea War. We're not meant to be dressing up as clowns!"

O.K., O.K., the reporter says, but then what about the holly and lights that decorate the office window of this Oilbank station, or the plastic Santa doll that is tied to one of the station's gas pumps, or to the downy-soft Santa hats that all employees must wear?

Any joy in those items?

Mr. Jui looks up a moment. "Nah," he says.

This is the second year Mr. Lee and Mr. Jui must wear the Santa garb. Mr. Kim, who only started pumping gas in January, is a newcomer to the North Pole attire.

Glancing around in search of someone, Mr. Kim lowers his voice and says that the idea to wear the suits originated from the drivers of bus No. 135, which passes by the gas station regularly. "Every time the bus goes by this time of year you can see the drivers dressed as Santa Claus. I heard our employer got the idea after taking one of the buses home one day."

Listening closely to what Mr. Kim is saying, the other two men shake their heads. "That's not true, you're wrong about that," says Mr. Lee with his hands folded behind his back and clearing his throat. Mr. Jui, who has a hearing problem, wears a confused look that indicates he has lost track of what is being said by his two colleagues.

Indignantly, Mr. Kim announces, "This is the only gas station in the entire country that dresses its employees as Santa Claus!"

Mr. Kim adds, "What kind of Santa Claus has no beard? We don't even have a bag of presents. We're not real Santa Clauses!"

Kwon Young-duk, 46, who manages this Hyundai Oilbank franchise, and the young woman who works the register inside the station, only wear jaunty red Santa hats. Mr. Kwon says the idea of the full costumes came from his employer's son. "A lot of our customers, especially the children, love it when they see the three Santa Clauses pumping gas," says Mr. Kwon. "Some foreigners have stopped to take souvenir pictures."

The cold weather and the strenuous nine-hour workday don't really bother the three as much as the Santa suits they must climb into.

"We like to think of our work as a workout," says Mr. Lee. "It's good for the body, especially for someone our age. We're not doing this for fun. I'm still capable of working, and I just can't sit around the house doing nothing."

Mr. Kim, eyes brightening at the mention of work, strongly supports Mr. Lee's remarks, saying, "At our ages, it's difficult to get involved in work that requires heavy lifting. But working at a gas station helps you exercise those muscles and bones, and I really like working here.

"Remember that we served in the Korean War, and the entire country should know that."

Mr. Kim confesses that the first few months working at Oilbank were physically challenging. "I had to stand nine hours, and by the time I got home I was about to drop dead. But soon my body got adjusted to this job. Now I'm healthy as a bull."

Mr. Kim, his hands still folded behind his back, says in the seven years since he has been on the job at the gas station, he has never been to a hospital except to have some bad teeth checked out.

Mr. Jui, who has also worked for seven years at the Oilbank, says the job is much easier than what he did prior to pumping gas. Before he moved to Seoul in 1994, Mr. Jui was a farmer in Ohnyang, South Chungcheong province. He finally tired of plowing fields.

A dark-blue Daewoo pulls into the station and the driver looks at the crabby old Clauses with a combination of amazement and delight. "What great Christmas spirit," says Kim Hyun-woo, leaning out the window. "I definitely should bring my children here."

The reporter starts to say something, then stops.

After filling up the Daewoo, Mr. Jui says, "The hardest part of the day for me is when I gotta use the bathroom." At this point the reporter waits for the expected comment from Mr. Jui about his prostate. But those words don't come. Instead, Mr. Jui says that all three Santa Clauses have to wear their heavy gas station coveralls beneath the red clothing. Undressing is more work than changing a tire.

What about kids, though? the reporter wonders. Surely you fellas can't complain about the way little ones' faces must light up when they see you.

Mr. Jui tosses down a rag and says, "Children always ask for candy and toys. They're adorable and cute and they remind me of my own grandchildren. But we're not real Santa Clauses, and there is nothing we can provide them except the stuff in our pockets. And there is nothing in my pockets. In fact, this costume has no pockets."

Christmas cheer? How about Christmas sneer?

by Lee Ho-jeong

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