A slice of the city from the corner store

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A slice of the city from the corner store

Seoul can seem like it’s closing in on you sometimes, especially when it takes so long for the sweltering summer heat to seep away. The scalding cement curbs rise up, the office towers block out the sky and the rows and rows of apartment blocks stretch off into infinity. In those moments, it’s time to get yourself street-side, into the thick of things. Time to tune into the energy that courses through the veins of this seething city, to take in the good and the bad and maybe join in on a little of each.

It’s time to get yourself to a pyeoneuijeom, to a convenience store near you. Whether your neighborhood is swanky or sketchy or anywhere in between, there’s guaranteed to be a corner store within spitting distance. Here the beer is always cold and cheap, there’s (almost) always free plastic seats for you and your friends, and you can sit back and soak up all that makes Seoul one of the up-and-coming metropolises of the world - and a few things that may be keeping it down.

Sip your drink as you watch earnest friends drag their drunken buddy home, or a man piggybacking his overindulged date off to God-knows-where. Watch as college kids come into their own (this city will be theirs someday, even more than it is now), or as ajeossi curse each other good-naturedly over a couple bottles of soju and dried squid.

As any given evening becomes night, there will be a boozy, celebratory feel to the alleyways around you. The ease of access to alcohol and the ready headiness with which the populace indulges is part of what gives Seoul its peculiar energy.

At the pyeoneuijeom I’ve been asked to share Chung Ha (Korean sake) and muk acorn jelly with a drunken old fellow who desperately propositioned me when I tried to leave. I’ve saved a salaryman whose bomb shots had gotten the better of - gathering his dropped documents, peeling him off the pavement and bundling him into a reluctant cab. I’ve been offered jobs and dates, I’ve made friends and I’ve made enemies.

Curbside at the convenience store, you feel like you have your finger on the pulse of the city. The uniformed students on their way home from the hagwon, the soldiers and their dates, the elderly cardboard collectors, the sharp-tongued ajumma at the tteokbokki stand across the way and the shiny-suited execs squatting for a smoke. They all conglomerate on the sidewalk to create a mosaic of the characters that comprise the city of Seoul.

Next to me now, at a particular place I like to frequent, two old friends are passed out at their table, two exhausted tubes of OB between them. A pack of birthday party pals passes by twittering, the requisite cake clutched in their eager grip. Headlights flash past, trot music blares from somewhere, there is the smell of grilling meat in the air and the stars must be somewhere above, although the city’s light has overpowered them.

By Richard Scott-Ashe [richardscottashe@gmail.com]
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