One Interlude in a Botched Life
Just published but still unemployable in the United States, I promptly went back to life on the streets once again. This introduction traces the chaotic path of a vagabond — from low-paid labor on organic farms in France to squatting penniless in Berlin parks. Ultimately, this chapter tells the story of why I decided to teach in Korea once again.
I flew back home with a carryon backpack full of books. I just got published with an initial print run of 4,000 novels. I felt like a father. My mental spermizoa had struck target. I had that cocky gleam of self-congratulatory accomplishment. Every few minutes I would crack open my book like a pistachio nut and smell the fresh paper inside. I flashed this publication to several air hostess in hopes it would be my key to the mile high club. I drank copious amounts of cheap airline scotch and cranked Jazz loudly as possible. I felt like Jack Kerouak. The jet plane split the night toward a home I hadn’t seen in years. I imagined that I was moving toward a something powerful, and that this flashy brick of books proved my success. Meanwhile, my tickets were economy class. Although this was a time of pride, my decision to leave grew from a weaker shell. The United States had recently been attacked. September 11th spun my country out of control. A deep pang from my gut suggested that I was somehow needed back home.
I should have taken a digestive instead. Sentimental nationalism was the wrong choice to make. The United States was in a full blown recession when I arrived. There were no jobs to be found. Job loss was at its highest rate since the Great Depression. Savings were quickly exhausted and I was broke within two months. I spent winter bouncing around dark basements, dilapidated garages, and trailer homes. By spring, I was engulfed by the world of part time temp work. I walked dogs, painted houses, sanded floors, rolled boulders, and stacked stones. I even bid my time as an on-call social worker. It was all short term. Meanwhile, the United States was in a full blown war with Iraq, one that would last for decades, and I still had no solid job or shelter. With nothing better to do I took to the streets as a war protestor. Intimidating federal agents took my photograph in front of a secret prison, and police forces pointed automatic weapons at me while standing by the local Starbucks. I marched and carried a sign to virtually no effect; getting quickly dismissed by President George W. Bush as a special interest group. My pro-war government busied themselves instead with demonstrations against French Fries. And still no employment was in sight.
There was only two bites echoing from the 250 resumes that I had sent out. The first was for an ESL teaching job in an urban slum, but I was turned away for lacking a certificate. I took to hoarding food boxes. My next bite was at a temp job selling women’s clothing over the telephone. I sat in a cubicle all day, thumbing through fashion catalogues, while headphones protruded from my ear in wait of the next call. Women discussed for hours how they would look with certain items. I was like the bored boyfriend holding her purse. What did I know about trendy fashions and color schemes? I was digging dirty socks out of the laundry basket for an extra day’s wear. I would try to suggestively sell women matching sets, chit chat about how that yellow bikini would look nice on a tropical beach, and listen to how this new sleeveless shirt would make her ex-boyfriend jealous. Bloody Hell it was. After four weeks of training, I only lasted one day on the floor. My eyes twitched for days afterward. There is only so much conversation a man can take about women’s clothing without self-destruction kicking in.
Luckily, I managed to cage about $250 for all this suffering. I decided to quit America rather than give it another go. I went to the nearest travel agency to see how far I could fly on this sum. Americans were still in a full blown panic from the 9-11 tragedy. They cowered in their homes, trembling in fear that Osama Bin Ladden was still lurking at the border, and they peeked out only when U.S. government dropped its color-coded warnings back down to yellow once again. Airline prices dropped dramatically, since bankruptcy was on the horizon. Aviation corporation were practically begging for passengers to buy tickets. I asked the travel agent about the cheapest flights anywhere abroad. I got a few basic quotes then hit the Internet trying to shake down a job. Within one week I returned. I slapped down $220 on the travel agents desk with my mangled passport and, within seconds, had purchased my one-way ticket out. The grand prize winner was France. The first thing I did upon arrival was to buy a plate of Freedom Fries while the airline tracked down my lost luggage.
While in France I worked on an organic farm. It was under-the-counter employment. I was cheap migratory labor and my non-official hiring didn’t require any bureaucratic paperwork. The owner needed somebody to plant crops, weed, and mound potatoes. I also spent a great deal of time rolling out plastic lining and realigning water lines. It was the hard physical labor that I was looking for. I loved it at first. Farming was an ideal situation. I felt a sense of community with the family that employed me, and enjoyed the spiritual thrill of growing something valuable. We cooked and shared meals together. However, this hospitality soon shifted after the potato crop failed. The farmer planted them too early, and the long seasonal rains caused them to rot underground. All of a sudden, I was an economic liability. The farmer couldn’t afford my services any longer, but I wasn’t in the economic shape to leave the land. Then the experience stated getting nasty.
I spent the most part of June getting verbally screamed at in the fields. I would work all morning in the blazing sun, return in pride for a late afternoon lunch, and by sunset the verbal abuse would set in. These were extended session; 15 minute diatribes about how badly I worked and how flawed my intellectual capacity was. He almost struck me when I tied some knots wrong. At least twice daily, the farmer’s rage flared brightly as I clutched onto my hoe trying hold myself back. His barrages triggered long-dormant nerves, but I couldn’t fight back cause I lacked the funds to leave the land. I started to believe his threats that I was retarded or mentally incompetent. I struggled extra hard to please him and to prove him wrong. Oddly, I started to assume the role of a loyal dog. The more verbally abusive he became the harder I worked. But is remained obvious that the farmer resented my presence. I retreated in defeat every night to drink from a hidden box of wine. I turned to writing as a means of escape, distracting myself with prolonged writing sessions deep into the night. I seldom slept; I couldn’t sleep. Soon enough the farmer pinpointed my writing as a main topic of abuse. He insisted that I stop and complained when I persisted with this final outlet. Then writing became my way to defeat him. It was my way to grow something successfully on the farm.
I finished my new book in July. That exact same day I was told to leave. In the end the farmer gave me just enough money to get out of France. I was thankful to him, because I thought I would need to hitchhike. I cut down my belongings to fit into a single backpack and departed without incident. By the next morning I had woken up in Berlin. My working plan was to then hitchhike into Poland for a teaching job. I had remembered to pack my original MA degree and university transcripts, so I could probably parlay these qualifications into some type of low-paid work. I had taught English in Eastern/Central Europe before and had solid references. Most schools provide housing, so I could take it from there – one step at a time. Meanwhile, I had to figure out my way around Berlin. I had about 60 Euros in my pocket, so I needed to be frugal. Plus, I needed to move inconspicuously. I stored my back pack at the train station knowing full well that I might not be able to pay for its retrieval. I put together a daypack with clothing and toiletries for my immediate needs – and added my academic documents as an afterthought. Finally, I mailed off a few copies of my new book in case something bad happened to me. Something constructive needed to survive this ordeal at least.
I slept in one of Berlin’s public parks in the beginning. However, there were too many nocturnal activities to feel secure. I later scoped out a shady tree next to a city stream. Before long I hooked up with the Albanians. These two men had fled Kosovo as refuges and eventually filtered into Berlin. They had developed a system of obtaining shelter and food. In the afternoon they would set out to find food by any means necessary. Sometimes they dumpster dived. At other times they shoplifted. In the evening they would meet at a large youth hostel near the train station to split the goods. They had a decent strategy for cheap rooms. One of them would pay for a dormitory bed in the basement. His friends would drink beer upstairs in the main lobby and slowly disappear to the basement while staff wasn’t looking. We had over a dozen people squatting by the end of the night. Whenever I needed a shower I would join them. The hard floor wasn’t comfortable, but it was a worthwhile place to crash during night rainstorms. All I had to do was donate alcohol or food.
Most of the time I kept to myself. I walked all over the city while pondering what to do. At nightfall I made way toward my tree. This daily pattern was filled with an odd combination of exhilaration and misery. My financial situation was dismal. Although I had lived on the streets before, I had the home court advantage of being in the United States. Now I was homeless on a foreign continent. My self-esteem had plummeted due to the daily mocking on the farm. My 41st birthday was coming up quickly and I was incredibly depressed about it. A tooth split in half on a “discovered” hot dog causing severe dental pain. At the same time, Berlin was a wildly contagious city, and a tremendous burden was lifted upon my departure from the farm. Each day led to amazing events. One day a marathon runner ran past me carrying the Olympic torch. Another day I spotted a dozen naked sunbathers in a public park. Sandy beach bars sprinkled along the Berlin wall. I stumbled by an anti-war rally and joined in. Greece won a football match and an entire road was closed in celebration. The Love Parade spontaneously took place over one weekend. Trucks full of techno musicians paraded across the city while thousands of Germans danced in the street. I walked peacefully in East Berlin, the land of a sworn enemy, and was treated with tremendous kindness. What I saw in Berlin was the playful freedom that the United States had forgotten since 9-11. And I feel in love with Berlin like no other city before.
In the end, however, it all comes down to money. I had none, and Germany wasn’t exactly begging for English teachers. I had to find stable work quickly. I spent lengthy sessions in an Internet café hunting for jobs. There are dozens of websites out there that advertise teaching opportunities abroad. I made use of them to get off the streets. In two days I had over 100 job offers from Poland, China, Taiwan, Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam. I fired off e-mail to former employers inquiring if they had work. To my joy, virtually every one of them offered to rehire me on the spot. Friends also offered to wire money for my safe return. I had a support base. What I needed to do next was arrange transportation from point “A” to point “B”. The closest teaching job was in Poland, but I also had a reasonable offers from Hungary and Spain. The university in Thailand, where I had already taught for two years, strongly encouraged me to return. My former Korean employer also plied me with all kinds of persuasion. She needed a teacher immediately for her private school. In the United States I had no opportunity outside of temp work. However, within days I struck a gold mine with employment abroad. Perhaps it is my fate to be an English teacher.
A short bidding war promptly ensued. Schools offered various enticements. In the end, the winning bid came from South Korea. I was offered a six month contract with the risky option of extending to a full year. The school was in a tough financial crisis, so I was willing to accept a major cut in pay as long as I received the standard bonus and return airfare when finished. My former boss volunteered to wire me cash for an airplane ticket. I was amazed, really, because I could have easily taken that money and ran. But she knew me well enough to trust me. I had not spoken with her in four years, except to provide positive references for her school. I found her two new teachers since leaving Korea in 2000. Maybe it was good karma. Maybe it was a type of friendship. Maybe she was just desperate. Nevertheless, in testimony and praise of the global village, I was able to arrange everything while still in Germany. And I couldn’t even speak German. The entire process took a total of five days. I scored a job offer, downloaded a contract via e-mail attachment, picked up money from an international wire serve, purchased a ticket, and obtained my work visa from the Korean embassy in Berlin.
I retrieved my backpack from storage and treated the Albanians to dinner. I placed my old brick of published books in my carryon luggage. I flashed them to the air hostess in trade for her phone number. I flirted enough to get copious supplies of free airline scotch and played Jazz music as loudly as possible. Within hours my airplane landed in Korea. I had just enough money for a tube of toothpaste, a large bag of rice, and a bottle of soy sauce. I spent my last coin on a bottle of wine to celebrate my birthday.