It’s become a tired cliché to observe that Itaewon has changed in recent years. You may as well point out “Hey, the Brooklyn waterfront looks a bit different lately.” The neighborhood has (marginally) cleaned up, grown up, and consequently, rents have shot up. And also like northwest Brooklyn, depending on when newcomers first arrived—be it 2, 5, 10, or 20 years ago, they tend to think, “It used to be cool when I first got here. You guys missed it.” Or alternatively: “This is nothing, it used to be a real shithole when I was here.”
Whether you prefer the newer elements of Itaewon (candle-lit Italian restaurants, Guatemalan coffee and posh nightclubs slanging 15,000W bottles of Hite) or the “classic” version (dank, dimly-lit dive bars, vomit-caked men lying in gutters, military punch-ups and roving ladies of the night), it can all still be found here.
Personally, I’m a bit on the fence—god knows I appreciate the decent coffee and authentic Lebanese food, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss the squalor and weirdness a bit. So I appreciate that Seoul Pub remains.
A throwback to old-guard Itaewon, Seoul Pub is a living monument to a rapidly-vanishing drinking scene. While the crowd is mostly expats and tourists, there is a healthy sprinkling of locals as well. Like many great dives, the age range is broad; patrons may be anywhere from 20 to 70. A dingy but highly-visible yellow sign announces the pub’s presence on the main drag, across from the legendary Hamilton Hotel, where it’s resided since opening in 1998.
I get there at three o’clock and wait a bit in the stairwell for the staff to arrive and open. Actually, I wait an hour. But peeking through the glass door, I see the tavern’s familiar wooden interior—booths, floorboards, paneling, and L-bar. There are two small televisions from the 1980’s that usually play baseball or soccer (no one is ever really watching), a pool table in the rear that sees a lot of action, and a windowed smoking room directly to the right of it. While plenty of football club banners hang from the ceiling, Liverpool FC claims a place of honor above the long bar itself. I stretch out in the little bench/alcove in the entryway for a nap.
The bartender finally arrives, and I come in right behind her. It’s a bright afternoon and sunlight is streaming through the 2nd story windows—one of the bar’s best features. Running the length of the tavern and looking directly out onto Itaewon’s main drag, it’s the perfect spot for people-watching: Western backpackers both young and old, stylish young Koreans, Chinese tourists on shopping missions, Nigerians, Moroccans, women in hijabs, women in niqabs, and one unfortunate-but-energetic man in a bowling pin costume handing out fliers for a 24-hour alley.
I settle in on a stool and order an OB draft. Typically I get bottles at Seoul Pub (the drafts sometimes smell faintly of eggs) but a tap beer is only 2500W, and right now cheap is good. I plan to be here for a while.
The second customer of the day enters only minutes behind me: Murat, from Tunisia. A well-dressed young man with a shaved head, he lives in Seoul and is an importer/exporter of cosmetics.
“In the Middle East, in recent years, men are becoming more interested in the grooming. With lotions, things like that. These are very busy times for us.”
Murat sets up his afternoon office in the smoking room and begins making and taking phone calls. I hear at least four languages (Japanese, Arabic, English, French) while he issues orders, approves sales, and lights one cigarette after another. At one point he asks me how to spell ‘Tuesday.’
“Thank you,” he says, texting at a furious rate. “There are five languages up here,” he taps his head, “and sometimes things can get confused.”
After a while I order a burger and fries.
“It has pork, you know. They mix it with the beef, to save money,” Murat warns.
I glance at the bartender. “Is that true?”
She considers a moment. “Maybe.” I order one anyway. It’s pretty good, but a bit sweet—definitely more than half pork.
After an hour or so it’s still just me and Murat when the owner enters. Mr. Jung is a rail-thin but muscular man in his late 40’s wearing shiny, tight hiking clothes that look expensive. I hand him my business card and we hit it off when he sees I’m an English Professor in Daejeon—it’s his hometown. Better yet, I work at his alma mater. We chat about his pub and his drinking philosophy.
“I don’t drink at home. And outside work, I don’t drink. I don’t drink anywhere else—only here. You see outside I am very active, I like soccer, biking, and fishing.” I order another OB draft, pacing myself for the night ahead.
A crowd of regulars has begun to trickle in, including an Australian hagwon teacher named Aaron. We start to shoot pool. Murat is enthusiastic but not terribly good, and it’s all he can do to strike the ball he’s aiming at. Aaron has some skills; in fact, it’s clear he’s better than me. He toys with Murat a bit and then I’m up.
Aaron thumps me soundly, and I leave three balls on the table, but I’m not properly loose yet. I smile and shake his hand, then order a Jameson on the rocks, sip it slowly and nurse a grudge against Aaron, and against all of Australia, including the koalas. I can get a little competitive. My heart-rate accelerates as I add my name to the rapidly-growing list on the whiteboard for a rematch.
After another tough loss to a punk from Spokane, a young, leggy Korean woman with crazy in her eyes and five teeth in her mouth approaches me and gestures at my box of smokes. She seems to know everyone in the bar. She bums a yellow American Spirit off me and we quickly establish that we don’t share a language. We have a conversation anyway, speaking to each other in hopelessly rapid, complicated patterns, and using our hands a lot.
I order a pint of Indica (a faint, if definite nod to the changing tastes of the neighborhood), a strong, hoppy IPA from upstate New York—drink six. My moment has arrived: the rematch is on. Aaron is my opponent at the table once more.
As players of darts, bowling and pool (the booze sports) understand, there is a magical middle-ground of inebriation where you achieve barroom apotheosis and cannot be defeated. For me, that’s drink number six. Like everything good in this life, this window of skill is ephemeral. Soon I’ll order another round, and while my confidence will grow, my skills with deteriorate from that point on—and then the magic will be lost. But for now, at this moment: Aaron isn’t going to beat me. He can’t.
After sinking one off the break, he methodically ticks each of his balls off the table, missing on the 8-ball and ceding me the table with a wicked grin. He thinks he has an advantage; he is mistaken. As many veterans know, this situation can be misleading. There are now no balls blocking my shots, and a player is never more dangerous than when they are one shot away from a loss. They tend to play fearlessly, and that is what I do now. A shot banks in, then a combo, then another. Aussie Aaron isn’t smiling anymore.
When the 8-ball rolls into the far corner pocket at a snail’s pace, Aaron looks like he might snap his pool cue. Instead, he twists his face into a horrible false smile and shakes my hand. “Good game,” I say, but what I mean is “fuck you, and your kangaroo too.” The Moroccans in the corner clap politely. I take a bow, soaking in the rush of victory. Everything is wonderful. I lose the next game by five balls.
When I return to the smoke room from a piss break, Aussie Aaron and Murat from Tunisia are talking about women and wives. “In the West, you are still fight for women to have rights, but in Islam—in true Islam—women already have rights. In our families, the woman is the boss in the home. She is in charge of the money, because Muslim men understand that the women are best with the money.” Aaron isn’t buying it.
“But can’t you guys have tons of wives? Like, at least 3?”
“Yes, but you must show that you can provide for all of them. You must prove that you have, ah, financial resources to care for them. And if your first wife does not approve of the second, the second must live somewhere else. So then you must buy another house.”
Dave, a professor at a local evangelical college, also looks skeptical. “I dunno,” he says, sipping his beer. “I’ve heard differently.”
“Yes, but that is not true Islam. Many Westerners only know what they see on the news about Islam. Do you know what ‘Islam’ translates to in English?”
“Submission,” Dave says without skipping a beat.
“Yeah, it means ‘to submit’ Aaron agrees.
“No, my friends. You see, it means peace,” Murat says beatifically, sipping a beer and waltzing out the door to lose again at pool.
Dave rolls his eyes a bit as the door shuts. “Pretty sure it means ‘submission’.”
My backup arrives—Brian, an English teacher living and working in Seoul, and an old friend from New York. We clear out a table in the back, order a pitcher and workshop each other’s manuscripts while the pub’s bustle steadily builds. At the center of it all is Mr. Jung, moving about the room whipping up a frenzy, challenging various people to beer-chugging contests–winner buys. Another favorite of his is a shot “game” where six people all agree to take a shot, and dice is rolled to see who will buy the round.
“It’s a very economical game,” he says while pouring six shot glasses full of rum. “For 83% of the people playing.”
12:00 AM, or whatever
“Have you noticed that both of Mr. Jung’s drinking games revolve around customers quickly consuming vast amounts of alcohol?” Brian remarks while we watch a table of women fight back tequila shivers.
“Actually, ALL of Mr. Jung’s games are like that,” says Jake, a military contractor from Ohio in his mid-fifties. We chat with Jake a bit, a patron of the pub for almost 20 years. “I used to be in the Air Force here.” He eyes me and Brian. “You boys are military, right?”
“Uhm, no. We’re educators.” He nods and starts talking about all the recent failed missile launches in North Korea. The bombardment of Yeonpyeong. The sinking of the Cheonan.
“That’s why I’m here right now. I’m here to help our friends.”
It turns out drinking for half a day makes you have to pee a lot. I make another run to the restroom but the urinal is taken so I open the stall door. It’s unlocked, and swings open to reveal a man sitting on the toilet. Pants around his ankles, head in his hands, he does not move.
“Oh, uh, sorry…” I mutter, but he doesn’t even look up. I shut the door and wait for the urinal to be free.
A friend of Brian’s arrives at about 1 o’clock—a translator—and looks around, clearly horrified. Afroman’s “Because I Got High” blares over the din of the crowd. An incapacitated man is being carried away by his friends, who vow to return after putting him to bed. A very drunk fake blonde drops her phone, shattering the screen. The shot lottery in the corner is still going strong, fueled by Mr. Jung’s shouts of encouragement.
“This place is hell. This is my hell,” he claims while shaking my hand, and at this point I’m a little offended. Hell, I love this bar. I first set foot in Seoul Pub in 2010, and today alone I’ve spent nearly twelve hours in it. A sense of proprietary kinship with the place has begun to form in me. It’s as if he walked in here and insulted a family member. I bristle a bit, but let it slide. We all get a pitcher.
Mr. Jung approaches us, far more animated than before. “Okay! Steve! My friend! You will play drinking contest, now?”
I agree and follow him to the bar. Five drafts are poured. He explains the “rules”—last one to finish pays.
I start off well, but my mug is the last one to hit the bar by at least a second, and just like that about 25,000W is added to my tab. I swear.
“That wasn’t bad,” Brian offers as I return in shame. “You were only a second behind.”
“You don’t understand beer-chugging, Brian. Losing by 1 second is like losing a 100m race by one second. It’s an ass-kicking.” I order a beer to soothe my wounded pride.
The crazy-eyed Korean lady with great legs and few teeth is back in the smoking room, and she’s throwing air punches at Brian, with a smile and from a safe distance. She makes a questioning sound. Then she points at his ear. He finally gets it.
“Oh, she thinks I’m a boxer.”
I get a sense of déjà vu because this happened once before in New York—due to his father being exposed to a ton of Agent Orange, one of Brian’s ears is surgically constructed. People sometimes mistake it for ‘cauliflower ear,’ a condition resulting from hematomas that form due to repeated strikes to the ear, mostly affecting boxers and wrestlers.
“Ah. No, I’m not a boxer. Aneyo.” She seems disappointed.
3:00-4:00 AM or thereabouts
“Mr. Jung, why don’t you get some plasma? Some real televisions,” a businessman says, gesturing at the pair of ancient, tiny fat-backed TV’s perched atop the bar. “We are in the land of electronics, it is 2016, get some good ones.”
Mr. Jung shakes his head. “No, no. I can’t do that.” They joke back and forth for a while, but the man can’t seem to understand his position.
“Listen,” I finally butt in. “Look around. If he put in some big shiny flat-screens, it would ruin the whole vibe. It wouldn’t be classic.”
Mr. Jung’s eyes light up and he smiles. “You understand,” he nods. “But he not understand.” He picks up a pair of scissors and approaches the man with a wicked smile. “Maybe he need brain surgery…”