▲ Steve Tesseniar reflects on an encounter between a speeding Seogwipo bus (left) and an elderly man going about his day (right). Photos by Steve Tesseniar
The distinguished Korean man in his 80s stood at the edge of the busy cross-walk, a small bag of oranges dangling from his hand. Still handsome with a kind face, he was dressed in a light brown three-piece suit with well worn dark-brown dress shoes and a matching brim-med hat.
Having just emerged from the daily market, he squinted in the direction of his new destination, Art Street. I refer to this small but chaotic intersection as “The Gauntlet.”
It’s a place where speeding cars meet slow-moving watermelon trucks. Scooter delivery guys, believing they are immortal, buzz around, over and under any obstacles that may cause them to roll back the throttle for even a second. Trolling taxis move at a snail’s pace looking for potential passengers. Add to all of these moving parts a chorus of never ending horns and the fearsome traffic police - with their mighty megaphones mounted on the top of their cars blaring endless warnings to illegally parked cars - and you have a virtual Seogwipo orchestra of moving parts and sounds.
And so it was under these conditions that the old man started a slow shuffle across the pedestrian crosswalk. At that moment the congested traffic broke free and started to flow quickly again. Out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of a large, speeding red and blue bullet in the form of a tourist bus. It was closing in on the slow-moving old man like a heat-seeking missile.
I’m no math whiz, but even I could calculate that the old man’s path would intersect with the accelerating bus. As I held my breath the old man did something so unexpected that my mind snapped a photo, an image that will stay with me forever.
He stopped in the middle of the crosswalk and turned 90 degrees to his right, and raised his right hand parallel to the street, his palm facing the oncoming bus. The young, blurred face of the bus driver became clearer and clearer as the bus closed in on the elderly man.
And then, the squeal of brakes being applied and the whirling sound of a bus engine trying to wind down and stop quickly. The bus shivered to a stop just a few meters from the old man.
The bus driver, in his mid-30s, sat behind the big steering wheel, the expression on his face not one of anger or contempt, but rather a look of curiosity and respect.
The elderly gentleman stood with his right hand still extended and the bag of oranges continuing to dangle in his left hand. His head was tilted back and he was looking into the massive windshield at the bus driver.
And I know it was only for a few seconds, but it felt like an eternity. A rare moment in this fast moving world where time stood still.
Not a single word was spoken, but if a conversation would have taken place I imagined the old man saying, “Young man, please slow down. I’m just trying to cross this street with my bag of oranges.”
And the young bus driver would respond, “Choesong hamnida, halabeoji. I’m sorry, grandfather. It’s just that I have all these excited tourists on my bus and so many deadlines to meet.”
And with a slight nod, the old man squared his shoulders toward Art Street and continued his slow journey. When he was safely out of the middle of the crosswalk, but not completely to the other side yet, the bus driver put the pedal to the metal and roared like a bat out of hell down the narrow street. As the bus zoomed past, a little girl sitting in her mother’s lap, her beautiful face framed by the window and her nose pressed against the glass, sat quietly taking in all the sights and sounds with wide-eyed innocence.
And what choice does a writer have in such a moment? I dropped my backpack right on the sidewalk, fished out my writing journal and scribbled, “In the space of one minute I have just witnessed a powerful snapshot of Korea’s past, present and future.”
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