The Traffic Guard

Who is this woman?

Korea is a nation bursting at the seams with weird people, but right now down below my apartment is surely one of the weirder characters trapped inside this odd little half-peninsula—trapped by the oceans—trapped by the North—a middle-aged woman, not quite a grandmother, but definitely more than a mere ajumma, and certainly a bit of a nutcase, who frequents the divine neighborhoods of Namsanjeong in the evenings, and can generally be seen standing in the intersections of the alleyways, trying in vain to stop and direct traffic with hand signals. I have no idea why.

I can remember one of my first days in Busan, that hallowed age when I was so miserable and so unknowing of all the strange adventures awaiting me—I stood on the curb of one of the inner-city four-lane highways, where cars, buses, trucks, and motorcycles regularly appear to drive in excess of eighty miles an hour—I stood on the curb, a little too close to the road, right next to the crosswalk, with my back to the incoming traffic, looking instead toward a sunset on those fanciful, impossible, and really quite beautiful Korean mountains, which this peculiar city is built around—indeed they are so high and so steep even the indomitable real estate developers of this concrete jungle nation cannot sink their claws into that pine needle-strewn soil too deeply—and then at once something vast and terrifying and powerful whooshed behind me, and before I knew it a bus had barreled past, a blur of roaring force—it was inches away from me, and had I stepped slightly to the left, I would not be annoying you with all my dashes and parentheticals today.

Thus, surely, many people meet their ends in this land by expiring beneath the wheels of screaming automobiles, and it’s possible this half-halmoni is closely related to a victim of just such an accident, and that the event was, in effect, the anvil that broke the camel’s back. She belongs to the mythical generation of Koreans who slaved their whole youths away turning a war-torn backwater into an Asian tiger, a sacrifice which appears to have reduced many of them into a class of rather unhappy people; to lose a child, on top of all of that, to some asshole driver rushing after a paycheck—that would send anyone over the edge. So while I lack the truth, that’s my theory for the root of this woman’s strangeness.

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