The magical mystery commute, complete with soul bus
Cafe No. 603 is a bus that runs from Sinwol-dong, western Seoul through Sinchon and to City Hall. It looks like any of the blue buses that roam the city every day, but Ko Chang-seok, the driver, tries to make it just a bit more soulful. He calls his bus the “music cafe” and refers to himself as a “D.J.” who not only plays songs over the speakers but impersonates radio announcers, tossing witty comments back to the passengers through a small microphone attached to the collar of his white button-down shirt.
“What a brilliant crisp autumn morning it is today,” the 52-year-old cried as a middle-aged woman and a stern-looking man in a suit climbed on the bus near Seoul Station. They didn’t say anything back, but he kept trying to chat anyway. “You must not be saying ‘hi’ to me because you’re angry that my cafe doesn’t serve any coffee, but I welcome you to Cafe No. 603.”
That got some giggles from a group of high school girls in the back.
“Now the music goes on for this hour, starting with ‘Without You’ by Harry Nilsson.”
The wheels, and the CD, started spinning. But when the vehicle came to a stop at the next red light, he lowered the volume and spoke into the microphone again.
“Ah, what a nice song this is,” he said. “It was originally recorded by Badfinger for their album No Dice, until it was noticed a year later by Harry Nilsson and became a hit single in the 1970s. Later, the pop diva we all love, Mariah Carey, did a remake and that version was a big hit in Korea.”
By then, passengers in the seats were staring wide-eyed at the driver ahead ― who the heck is this guy and how did he become a bus driver? The traffic light turned green.
“And we’re moving again. Be careful and hold tight on to the handles in front of you,” he said, and then cranked up the music again.
Mr. Ko has been driving buses for 11 years. He’s currently employed by Jungbu Transportation, one of some 50 transportation companies associated with the city’s bus system.
Once a salesman at a small trading company outside of Seoul, he spent his youth working to pay back debts for his eight younger brothers and sisters, leaving him little to live on. He needed his job, but the company told him he was too old to keep working for them, so he came to Seoul looking for another job and obtained a bus driver’s license.
Having to spend 10 hours on the road everyday, he said, he found that music was the only thing that kept him going. He tried to listen to songs on a mini cassette player while he drove, but that brought complaints from some passengers, who wanted to ride in peace.
In 2001, however, Seoul buses were furnished with an audio system. He tried playing music again, this time with a short introduction to each song. The rider response, he said, was better. He also hung a sign behind his seat so he could take requests. Younger people requested hip-hop; older riders favored the Bee Gees. He had to buy more CDs and cassette tapes to meet their demands. He now rides with 20,000 songs on CDs by his seat, assorted into seven categories such as “songs for the morning,” “songs for rainy days” and “love songs.”
“If there’s no request, I usually play classics from Shostakovich or Strauss in the morning, pop songs by the Eagles and Simon & Garfunkel in the afternoon and softer ballads and Korean folks songs at night,” he said.
But he also follows strict rules: Don’t talk while he is driving. Only talk when the bus comes to a full stop for a red light. And stop the music every 50 minutes to turn on the news on the radio.
Not everyone appreciates his efforts, however. An angry looking couple climbed on the bus one day, apparently having just fought, and told him to “shut up.”
Mr. Ko immediately lowered the volume but he continued to play songs about love. One of them was Ray Peterson’s “Tell Laura I Love Her.” He then recited a love poem about how it is foolish to hate someone when life is so short. When he looked up, the expression on the man’s face had softened and the woman was near tears.
“When the bus stopped, the man walked over to me, apologized and thanked me,” Mr. Ko said, smiling. “They said I stopped them from a potential divorce.”
He proudly showed off a plastic-covered photo album, padded thick with cards and letters his passengers gave him.
“When I catch the bus you drive in the morning, the day turns out to be lucky,” read one of the cards, signed by a “student living in Mokdong.”
Another was from an office worker who wrote that he had “learned a lot about being kind and generous, even to strangers.”
Some passengers even pass up other buses, waiting until he arrives, he said. The company often receives calls from passengers asking what time Mr. Ko’s bus will arrive at a particular stop. The bulletin board for his company’s Web site is also bombarded with the same question. This reporter caught him at the Seosomun stop near City Hall at 9:50 a.m.
“It’s my first time seeing a friendly bus driver,” said a middle-aged woman on the bus.
An older woman sitting across from her stood up and walked to the front and handed him candies, thanked him for his service and got off the bus.
Candy is nice, but Mr. Ko said that these days, he’s saving up for a laptop computer.
“I heard that it is much easier to search and play the songs if you use a computer,” he said, adding that his wife does not know that he had been setting aside money little by little during the past year. He saved up 700,000 won ($730) so far, and needs 500,000 more to buy the model he wants.
“I can’t wait until I surprise my passengers with more new songs,” he said.
by Lee Min-a