|my most amazing student
The school was Korean. The boss was Sam—Dr
Lee. Was he a PhD? I don’t know. I called him
Dr Lee because he liked it. He had a degree in
English from Seoul University—the Harvard of
South Korea. It was super Harvard with an
acceptance rate of .025%. I would get a new
student and ask if they were a university grad
and they would say yes and I would say—Seoul?
--and they would become hysterical.
So there I was at CWC—Columbia West College—
called such because Koreans are suckers for
the class logo—names like Gucci, Rolex, Lexus,
Harvard, etc. Thats how I got the job. I was a
UC Berkeley grad. Sam took one look at UC
Berkeley on the resume and said: youre hired.
Too bad I wasnt getting a class salary to go with
the class school on the resume. The rate was
$20/hr—down by half from the $39 I was
making at my last job—teaching for LA Unified.
That job was in the toilet—a long story. The
short version is: no students.
The subject was ESL--English as a Second
Language—English for immigrants, the
immigrants were Mexican and if you are a
Mexican living in Los Angeles the learning of
English is not a priority. Its way down the list. It
makes more sense for white people to learn
Spanish. The Koreans were the same. They
came over and settled in a Korean neighborhood
and nothing had changed. It was Korea Plus—
Korea with great weather and golf courses up
the Kazoo. Thats why they were here: they
were golf junkies.
But either way, over there at Unified they
werent coming to class in sufficient numbers to
keep the class going and we got a new boss
who decided to crack the whip and mine was
the first ass to feel the lash. At 64 I was back
on the street.
I went on unemployment for 6 months plus a 3
month extension—the perfect way to live—and
the time was spent in a productive way, a golf
junkie myself, on the course over at Brookside
in Pasadena working on the handicap that I
gradually reduced from a 9 to 6—not bad!
Unemployment ran out as it tends to do, LA
Unified wasnt hiring and I was obliged to go the
CWC route—the private school route—the
$20/hr route and forget the perks—health
insurance, vacation pay, sick leave. The job was
the perk—your salary.
But—a job. Also convenient. I lived 4 blocks
from the office. Class started at 9 and I left the
house at 8:53. You have to live in Los Angeles
for a few years to appreciate the significance of
that statement—walking to work. Plus I liked
Koreans. I taught them for years. Once you
managed to suppress the racism on your part
that was a natural consequence of living in los
Angeles where you daily rubbed shoulders with
every bastard race known to man--you began
to perceive a few things about the Koreans
that were entirely positive:
They were smart.
They were motivated.
They were funny.
They practiced birth control.
And lets not forget: beautiful women. Beauty is
in the eye of the beholder and in the eye of this
beholder I liked what I saw. If you are a white
guy there is always an element of the exotic in
the non-white woman. The problem with Korean
women was in the ass dept. They need to
integrate with the spades and then you would
have something—a beautiful Asian woman with
a terrific black ass. Perfect!
CWC was quartered on the 7th floor of a derelict
office bldg on 6th/Catalina and you entered the
elevator and every time you did you took your
life in your hands.
The “school” was an office suite each the size of
my bedroom and a reception area half the size
of my bedroom. There was a storage area that
doubled as a library/kitchen with a microwave,
hot plate and refrigerator stocked with
Korean goodies—the kim chi (fermented
cabbage, the bul gogi (fermented beef), the sae
woo gim (fermented fish)—not bad. You entered
Sams office following lunch and he opened his
mouth and the fumes came at you in waves and
your eyes watered up.
The first day.
I waltzed through the door of the classroom to
be greeted by an empty classroom with zero
students and I sat down to wait and I waited
and waited some more. I wrote a letter.
Then another. At 10:30 Sam poked his head
inside and I said: maybe I should go home.
That was the first day. The second day was
more of the same. I wrote letters, did some
It was a sinecure. you may recall the sinecure,
a popular concept during the 19th century
designed to provide a minimal income for
artistic types, usually writers—including
Hawthorne and, I believe, Throeau—who were
incapable of holding down a real job. They were
taken pity upon by the local authorities and
given a sinecure—a job that required one thing—
to show up for work each day and stay there 8
hours. From time to time a document might be
placed on the desk in front of them to check for
spelling errors or the incorrect use of an adverb.
You get the idea
The third day.
I entered the room at 9 on the button and sat
down to read my book—a bio of Beckett—
another suffering writing bastard who taught
English—the early years in Paris before he got
tight with Joyce.
A student enters—a woman, age 40. She takes a
seat—in the back, as far from me as possible
and I introduce myself and ask her name—Soo
Ying-- and said: how long have you lived in Los
This told me something—a woman who has been
living in Los Angeles 15 years to pick the
language up at the rate of one verb per year and
now I am expected to reverse the process. It
cant be done. Plus she was a stiff. I had been
teaching long enough to realize a stiff when I
saw one and there was but one thing to do: go
on auto pilot.
We conjugated verbs, read from the book,
listened to the CD. Or I would invite her to
speak and we could spend a minute or two
staring wordlessly at each other.
I showed for work every day to teach my stiff
and sometimes she came to class and
sometimes not and sometimes it was for an hour
and sometimes 2 and when she didnt come I
went into sinecure mode and wrote letters
and read my Beckett bio.
Beckett was a strange one—even for a writer.
He married once to a Frenchwoman and they
lived not in one but 2 apts in Paris, he on the
third floor and she one above and they got
together for dinner or to discus the mundane
affairs of married life or at intervals of weeks or
months or years to have sex. From time to time
he would invite some chippy over and leave a
note for the wife that he was swamped with
work and entrance to the pad forbidden. You
get the idea. Faulkner was the same. Faulkner
said: marry once and only once and stay as far
away from them as possible.
More time passed. Sam began to advertise,
including some spots on Korean TV—featuring
yours truly--and this produced results—a
student here and there and at some point I had
a class, a class of 5 and a good class it was.
There was Jin Ho the nun, very sweet, Mi Sook
the young mother or about to be, pregnant with
her first child, also a sweetie, Hannah the
hairdresser who was hot and Rachel who was
raising 2 teenage daughters.
Teaching ESL is a job like no other. Teaching is
energy and teaching ESL is energy x3. You enter
the room and there they are, one student, 3
students, 30 students and they are looking at
you and on every face the look is the same: do
But now I had Rachel the mother raising 2
teenage girls and that was always fertile ground
for conversation. She arrived every day at 9:15
on the button and there was a familiar
expression, the crossing of the eyes expression
and I would look at her and say: now what?
As I say—a small class but good. There was
energy and energy is the key. I entered room at
9 on the button and one by one they drifted in
and I leaped into action. I told jokes, drew
funny drawings, flirted with Hannah, the
hairdresser who was hot. She had a terrific ass—
the black ass!
Hannah said: jack--do you have a girlfriend? I
said: no—I am a failure with women. I wrote
the sentence on the board and underlined
failure. I said: look it up in your dictionary. So
they looked it up and started to laugh. They
loved that one.
At some point a story appeared in the Times—of
a bust over at Concord International Language
Institute. The owner of Concord was an Iranian
hustler living in a $4,000,000 house in Beverly
Hills financed by the fleecing of the federal
government out of grant money.
There was something called a Pell Grant,
student financial aid, worth $5,000 per student
and forked over to these private language
schools for each student signed up that
qualified for the money. The problems began
when 1) the students failed to qualify but were
signed up anyway; 2)they qualified, were
accepted into the school and given the visa, the
I5 and were never seen again; or 3) they were
Concord scored for a full sweep but it was
category 3 that proved fatal because no
journalist worthy of the name will fail to sniff
out a story involving the issuing of student visas
to Russian hookers who could be found any
morning at 6am, not in bed dreaming of English
but in front of the donut store corner
Sunset/Highland trolling for squares
So the Iranian lowlife got busted and the school
closed and some of the students found their
way over to CWC.
Now the boss decided to move—to classier digs
2 blocks away—an office bldg on Wilshire. There
was a café in the lobby and some snappy office
space up on 9 where I had a real classroom
featuring a spectacular view of the hills of
Griffith park with the observatory perched atop
Things were rolling and there were some new
hires—two new hires—both slobs. I make the
slob point because the boss was anything but.
He was Mr Fashion. He looked good in a suit and
had a vast collection—all winners. He liked it
when I complimented him on his threads—to
pinch the lapel between thumb and forefinger
and massage to the material and I would say:
Then he turns around and hires Steve and Dean.
Steve was a hippie burnout with 5 kids and a
wife who never learned to iron a shirt or, failing
that, to send to the cleaners. Steve arrived for
work in an unshaven state, an uncombed hair
state, an unironed shirt state. He looked like he
spent the night under a car. I wasnt
magnificently groomed but next to Steve I could
pass for Cary Grant. There was an attitude to go
with the look—to complement the look.
If a grim outlook is your meat read Beckett. And
if super grim is preferred—Steve is your man.
Me: whats happening Steve?
Im just waiting to die.
He was forever bitching about the boss and his
skin flint ways but I had run a business and
knew something about this one—to pay the
employee as little as possible and keep as
much for yourself—the free enterprise system
and god bless it. Communism is for losers.
Dean. Dean came dressed not to teach but for a
workout at the gym--in sweats and flip-flops.
He was homosexual and could regularly be
heard inside his room on the phone screaming
at the boyfriend. Then he would become so
distraught to call in the next day unable to
work. It happened once a month, every month—
like a woman having her period.
Dean had a nickname: Mr Punctuation. Students
would leave his room following a class looking
like they had been beaten over the head with a
rubber mallet. Then they would enter my class
and say: no more commas!
There was a system at CWC. The system was: no
system. New students appeared, they entered,
took a seat. There was no beginning or end to a
class--only a middle. There were no tests,
homework, assignments on the side for extra
credit. There was no nada. A new teacher
would be hired and begin to teach and 2 days
later enter my class and say: what is the system
here. And I would say there is no system. Thats
Its not easy to teach this way and if the job was
occurring at the real Columbia, in New York
instead of the Sam Lee version in Koreatown Los
Angeles-—none of these problems would exist.
But then I would never have met Risa.
She sailed through the door one day to take a
seat in the front row that placed her at the
closest possible distance from the teacher.
She was early forties, tall for a Korean, solidly
built with some meat on her bones—a pleasant
departure from the norm, the Korean female
norm that took its cue from Audrey Hepurn—a
woman adored by Koreans—and the Japanese
as well. Leave it to the Japanese to organize a
tour to Rome--the Roman Holiday Tour--
featuring every single location to appear in the
Back to Risa. She was beautifully dressed—as
are they all--Korean women. They could be
exquisitely beautiful or exquisitely ugly but the
one thing they shared in common was a
scrupulous attention to personal appearance.
They looked like TV news anchors—not a hair
out of place or an unironed shirt or non-
drycleaned suit. Lets not forget the accessories—
the scarves, jewelry, purses, and compacts,
boots and shoes, etc
I had women come to class every day for 3
months never to wear the same outfit twice.
Koreatown was a hive of beauty parlors and nail
parlors and skin care and hair salons and
massage therapy spas, etc—you name it.
And Risa was the classic. She was dressed not
for ESL class but for a diplomatic reception or
We went back and forth--the introduction, date
of arrival in Los Angeles, neighborhood of
residence, etc. She was married with two kids.
The husband was a dentist.
She was in Torrance—the South Bay— a one
hour commute on the Harbor--barring any sig
alerts—accidents--and there was always a sig
I said: why are you in Torrance?
My uncle lives there.
She was renting a townhouse.
She said: I need space. Otherwise I would kill
I said: do you ever beat them?
This was a subject that always interested me—
the raising of children.
Yes—all the time. I have a special stick I got
from the Buddhists. I have a name for the stick.
I call the stick chaos. One day my son found the
stick and broke it. How do you say—to do like
Here she mimed the son snapping the stick.
I said: To snap in two.
Yes—he found the stick and snap in two. I
laughed. I said: I have 11 more.
Why are you here—in Los Angeles?
I am here to learn English and for my children to
Your English is good.
Thank you but I dont think so.
She said: I also teach.
What do you teach?
I am a professor of Textile engineering.
I said: so you have studied chemistry.
I said: I was good at math but not chemistry.
Chemistry was my blind spot.
I explained the expression—to have a blind
spot: the recognition of a flaw in your character
you are unable to correct but manage to move
ahead in life in spite of.
She said: can you write that on the board please.
I wrote it on the board. She scribbled in her
This happened infrequently—for a student to 1)
open the mouth to speak in complete sentences;
and 2) to develop the thought; and 3) to ask me
to write something out on the board; and 4) to
scribble away in the notebook. Frequently there
was no notebook and sometimes not even a
And now when I think of her one of the images
that first comes to mind is the notebook and she
scribbling madly. She took notes, notes, notes.
She took more notes in 5 minutes than the
entire class would take in 5 weeks—or months
Back to the blind spot. I said: we all have our
blind spots. I went around the room asking
them to identify the blind spot they would like to
correct and it was Risas turn and she said: my
It only takes one student of a particular type to
provide a boost for the entire class. They enter
the room and its like being struck with
lightening. The energy level in the class goes up
100%--200%. That was Risa. She had that gift—
an extraordinary gift.
I had a few of these students before before—
mostly women—including Flora—a physician
from Mexico City who once launched into a
flaming description of the female orgasm
and the physiological process by which it was
achieved and what it felt like to be achieved.
The class was in an uproar.
That was the first day. On the second day she
arrived and said: good morning Jack. I brought
She also brought a list of words—slang/idioms—
she asked me to explain
Where did you get the list?
So I went to the board and we ran down the list.
The first word was porker.
I wrote it out: porker: equals a fat person.
Next: to bang someone: to have sexual
Next: couch potato equals someone who
watches 6 hours of television per day
Lisa said: why potato?
I dont know. Good question. Should we use
couch bul gogi?
That drew a laugh. They became hysterical.
So it went. It was a long list—15 words
I said to them: you must know the slang. All
languages have slang and its this that produces
energy in the language--to add flavor—salsa.
Read Shakespeare—or any great writer. The
writing is riddled with slang
Time passed. She was there every day, always a
bit late because of her kids and getting them off
to school and quickly to acquaint herself with
the single most significant fact about life in Los
Angeles: you behind the wheel of your car.
But she never missed a class and it didnt take
long—lets say a week—before she was the
Queen of CWC
I always knew when she arrived—a little mini-
uproar occurring outside the door in the student
lounge area where the students gathered for
coffee before class. I could hear her chattering
away in Korean and these little eruptions of
laughter. She was hilarious speaking English so
I could imagine what it must be like in her
A week passed. She said: Jack--I want to take
you to lunch.
I got these invitations from time to time and
normally they were turned down. Why? Because
it wasnt lunch with a friend. It was lunch with a
Korean with a precarious grip on the language.
It was teaching with sandwiches—or Korean
BBQ—quite good. But teaching just the same
and I wasnt getting paid. That was the
But Risa was a different story. For her the word
“no” did not exist. When she decided to scoop
up the kids to live in the US for 2 years with the
husband back in Korea to work like a dog at his
dental practice to finance this trip it was a major
call with major reservations on his part and
back and forth they went for a time but in the
end, as I say, she was a woman who got what
She said: I am like a dog that gets a bone
between its teeth.
Also by this time I had fallen under her spell—or
beginning to. There was a spell and she knew
how to exercise the spell—brilliantly. She had a
presence--an energy and a humor and an
enormous charm that was irresistible. She was
fun. Fun is always at a premium.
On to lunch. We took Julie the receptionist with
us. Julie was another victim of the Risa effect.
Julie said: shes so unusual!
I said: shall we eat Korean? I enjoy Korean food
No—I want to eat American.
Down in the elevator to the garage and into
Risas car—a spanking new Mercedes SUV and
on to Langers deli, corner Alvarado/7th across
from MacArthur Park—going thru one of its
periodic cleanups by LAPD to chase out the
scum—the homeless types, drug dealers, thugs
from the gangs, transvestites, pedophiles,
necrophiles, zoophiles (sex with animals), etc,
etc. You get the picture. They would execute the
cleanup and replant the grass that had been
blasted out of existence and repaint the boat
shed and stick a few trees into the ground and a
year later everything would be back to normal.
The neighborhood was a toilet but Langers was
the place. LA has some good delis and of them
all its Langers that goes to the top of the list.
We entered and took a booth and Risa scanned
the menu, the size of one of my paintings, and
said: what do you recommend?
I cant recommend anything. You are Korean.
What are you having?
I am having the #88: pastrami and chopped
liver with Russian dressing.
I described pastrami—smoked beef rubbed with
a paprika/cumin mix to produce this crust--and
chopped liver—chicken liver—mixed with bits of
onion and apple and rendered chicken fat—
She said: maybe I will have the steak.
The steak is good. It comes with an amazing
We order and conversation began. What do you
talk about to a woman who speaks the language
but only some, not all of it—that you have
known for a week. With this woman it wasnt a
I was always telling them: throw it out there.
Dont think too much. Just start talking.
She started talking:
I came here for two reasons. I made a promise
when my children were born that one day I
would take them to visit America. And also I
wanted to see for myself what the country was
like and if it was the same country we see on TV
and read about in the newspaper because that
country, the country on TV and in the
newspaper, did not seem to me like such a nice
place. What is the word—for when a big person
beats up the little person
The word is: bully.
I gave her my views on this—that there was
some truth to it but also there are 2 sides to
She said: they said you are a writer.
What kind of writer?
Writers got asked this question all the time and
it was a problem because there is no simple
answer. If you said I write novels you got a
blank look and if you said I write philosophical
essays you got a blank look and if you said I
write biographies of Jesus you got a blank look.
But now I had my answer which was: I write
books in which the third person singular does
not exist. That was my answer which also drew
the blank look but at least it was an answer
that satisfied myself
On to the husband.
I speak to him every day. Today he was playing
golf. I hate that. I said to him: why arent you
working! He said: because I am depressed!
This was something I saw all the time.
I said: you are here for two years but many of
these women come over with the kids and the
husband never sees them again. The kids get
into the university, become fluent in English and
totally embrace the culture. They love the
freedom. They become Americans. There is no
way they will return to Korea and the husband
is stuck. He has his job and his friends and no
desire to emigrate to the US where he will
always be an outsider even if he learns
the language which he is never going to do.
There was even an expression to describe these
men: they were called the “bird husband”
because half their time was spent flying back
and forth between Korea and the US to visit the
I said: I feel sorry for these men. They must
wonder why they ever decided to get married
and raise a family.
She said: you are right. It is hard.
She spoke of her life in Korea. Not a bad life.
They had a big house and belonged to a golf
club—membership to join: $1,000,000.
Recently she installed a home theatre
movie system in the house for $120,000
I said: you mean $12,000.
Koreans sometimes got the zeros mixed up.
She said: No--4 zeros. The sound system was
$100,000. I owned a house in the country my
grandfather gave me and I sold the house to
pay for the home theatre system. So now
it is my personal home theatre system that my
family can enjoy but they must ask permission.
I said: I understand.
Now she mentions a meeting with the boss—to
fork over $1500 in return for which he was
obtaining a social security number. That was
one of the ways Sam financed the education of
his kids at the following schools: Harvard,
I said: why do you need a social security
Because I must apply for a credit card.
You have a bank account that comes with an
Yes but the ATM card is only good for $300 per
Are you saying that $300 is insufficient to cover
the normal daily expenses of life?
I looked at Julie—sitting there with a look like
her eyes were going to fall out of her head.
That was lunch.
Now the husband arrived for a visit and they
scooped up the kids to depart on a Sam Ho Tour.
Sam was a legend. He was amazing. If you
were Korean living in Los Angeles you took the
Sam Ho tour. He had figured a way to put these
tours together for a ridiculous price. Do the
math and it was cheaper to move from your apt
in Los Angeles and go on a Sam Ho tour for the
rest of your life. It was all included—
transportation, hotel, food and coupons to
discount other tours once you arrived at your
destination. The food wasnt bad. Koreans are
obsessive about food and if the Kim Chi or Bi
Bim Bap wasnt up to par Sam could be sure to
hear about it.
They took the Yosemite/San Francisco/
Monterey Peninsula tour and she returned and I
got the report.
She said: its 3 days on a bus. The first day we
drive to Fresno and visit the raisin festival and
go to bed. On the second day we drive to
Yosemite and look at the waterfall and then
drive to San Francisco and visit Fishermans
Wharf. Also we took the street car ride—the
cable car. That was fun. On the third day we
drove to Pebble Beach where there was a
problem with the bus and my children were
dying and we had to rent a room at the lodge for
$350 for 3 hours so they could take a nap. Then
we returned to the bus for a ride to Solvang to
eat pastry and we visited the mission in Santa
Barbara that was interesting and we drive back
to Los Angeles.
I said: the kids must have gone nuts.
No--they were good.
What about your husband?
He is a stoic. Suffering is not a problem for him.
He was just happy to see the children.
I met the uncle and the kids. The uncle was in
business--a collection of 99 cent type stores--
Shims Discount--down in Torrance--a gold mine.
Koreans arent dumb. Get a cash business--like
He was a sweet man and the English was good
but there was an accent and it was brutal. Of all
the accents, brutal-wise, Korean goes to the top.
I said: you have a wonderful niece.
Yes--we are berry powed upper.
The kids were kids, the son who was 11 and the
daughter 8, very sweet and full of energy and
smart, smart, smart. It was clear in spite of the
occasional beating that she was a tremendous
mother. They got the love they needed that was
balanced by a sense of discipline and respect
for order. She enjoyed her children and as she
said to me: I think that is the secret—of being a
good parent. You must find out a way to enjoy
She kept them busy--another secret. There was
school and lessons following school--piano and
clarinet, swimming, math, more English.
Koreans are lesson happy. find someone giving
a lesson and on the other end taking the lesson
is a Korean.
Meanwhile there was a new hire. Dean and the
boyfriend decided they could not live without
each other and were moving to Hawaii to get
married and start a family.
The new guy was Joe—a breath of fresh air—a
teacher who looked like one—meaning to dress
properly and he even read books. He read
Conrad who I could never read and I read
Beckett who he could never read.
He was a law school dropout and, obvious to all
after a week on the job—a natural teacher. He
had energy and a terrific enthusiasm for the
students and the enthusiasm was returned--
esp on the part of Gina, divorced mother of two.
This was a few months later and Risa said: did
you know Joseph and Gina are living together?
Me: you dont say.
Risa got all the gossip. She wasnt a gossip, she
was discreet, but she was Risa, the mother hen
type and if you were a young woman student at
CWC having the usual problems with men—
those dickheads—it was into the ear of Risa you
poured your woes. And from Risa it went to
me—because I was the teacher--from whom
there are no secrets.
Gina got pregnant and Joe had his hands full,
with her two kids and another on the way and
he teaching his brains out at CWC for $20/hr
along with a part time job at some private
Jewish prep school on the west side.
He wasnt a basket case—not yet. But that was
just a matter of time.
I took him aside and said: you must get a job
with LA Unified. These private language schools
are for losers—the Steves and Deans of the
world. The money is peanuts and there are no
benefits, etc. Its a dead end. You must take
the CBEST (California Basic Educational Skills
Test—a breeze) and go downtown and fill out
some paperwork. You will be working within a
week--I guarantee it. They are always looking
for subs and once you get your foot in the door
something will happen. There is tenure down
the road you would be a lock for and then you
are sitting pretty. Gina will be thrilled.
That was my pitch. But as someone has said:
people are going to do what they are going to do
and the accumulated wisdom of your 67 years
has gone for naught. Its like talking to outer
I got into the habit of arriving for work early to
breakfast at the cafe downstairs and from time
to time Risa would join me for a little one on one
to work on the English and in this way a few of
the gaps got filled in.
The husband she met in this way. She was 22
and completing her engineering studies and
already working on a masters as a preliminary
to the PhD. She had little interest in men. They
were a distraction and, also, a pain in the ass.
You didn’t need a PhD to figure that one out.
She had bigger fish to fry.
But the parents decided it was time for the
process—to find a suitable marriage candidate
for their daughter—this princess—to at least
begin. She came from that generation—the
arranged marriage generation. You werent
obliged to marry the man but also you were not
free to marry some “dolt, cretin or sweet talker
on his way to jail’” as one of our poets has
So the process began—to flush out a candidate—
the respectable son of some respectable family
and a meeting is arranged—for the son and
family to visit at the house.
The parents trade chit chat while the son and
daughter scope each other out and then the son
and his family leave and the parents of the
daughter (Risa) say: what do you think?
In this way candidates come and go. In Risas
case it was on the 3rd or 4th of these meetings
and its the dental student who turns up and
leaves with his family and Risas parents await
the verdict and she says: hes not bad
And that was that—a few dates follow, if you
can call them that, where they meet for coffee
and sit 9 feet from each other and at some point
the engagement is announced.
Needless to say there is no sex—not even a
quick feel or squeeze of the ass.
I said: it seems to have worked out.
She said: yes—he is my fate.
Time passed. More students appeared—all
women. I was assembling a harem. I said to a
friend: if I had money I would buy one of those
mansions in Hancock Park just like the Korean
hustlers and divide the upstairs into 15 rooms,
bedrooms to serve as boarding for Korean
students, women only at $600/month— and it
would be my version of the Playboy Mansion. I
would be the Korean Hugh Hefner!
And the stars of the mansion would be: So Na.
So Na was 22. She was a turn-on. She wasnt the
bombshell type. But—a turn on. The brain is the
real sexual organ. She reminded me in some
ways of my second wife—the girl next door
type. They shared the same gift--the greatest
gift—to make you feel good.
She entered the room and when she did you had
a class on your hands. It was like drawing back
the curtains in a dark room to let the sun in—
She lived in La Canada with an Aunt who ran a
concession for the Mondrian Hotel in Hollywood.
So Na helped out on weekends and the plan was
to return to Korea to study hotel management—
I said: of the 9 million type jobs there are in the
world this is the one for you. Its perfect.
On the day she left we took her to lunch and I
presented a copy of my book and inscribed it
thus: to So Na who puts a smile on my face. I
didnt add: and makes my dick very hard.
Soon Yi—Sunni. That was a good name for her.
She was a So Na type—that radiates a vibe—the
feel good vibe. And she was a beauty—
I said to her: you have the perfect Korean face.
You saw these Korean model or young actress
types in the fashion mags and Korean TV soap
operas and they all had that same look—the
adorable look—like a cartoon heroine drawn by
the Korean Walt Disney.
Sunni had a deeper kind of beauty. The features
were strong and to display a great strength of
character. So I complimented her of all this and
she said: goody!
She was 26--a dancer. She taught aerobics at
some Korean health spa and also tried out for
the Laker girls—along with 1500 other Los
Angeles dancer/starlet wannabe types but
failed to make the cut. Too bad—I could have
moved out of my seat in the nosebleed section
over at Staples center.
She was coping with a tough period—working
but still being supported by the parents and
there were feelings of guilt.
Korea remains stuck in the early 2oth century in
some ways—such as a young unmarried woman
hitting 25 and beginning to exist under a small
but highly visible cloud. She isnt over the hill
but the hill draws near. That is the image as
perceived by the culture. And its this that partly
accounts for the desire to emigrate to the US
where shows like Sex and the City—average age
of the heroine 34—present a different and more
widely accepted view.
She had the perfect Korean face and the
dancers body and to that you could had a loving
heart. I was sucker for that one—the loving
heart. It threw me for a loop—every time.
I said: its too bad I am old because I would
marry you in 5 minutes. That was the truth.
Laura and her sister. Laura was 28, the sister
22. The sister followed her around like a puppy
with the mother. It was cute.
They were both beauties but the difference was:
Laura was 28. There was a presence and quite
a presence it was. It was the upper class
presence—like Risa. If you had to put it in one
word that word would be: breeding. Another
word is : class. Another word is: manners. Now
she was in Los Angeles where the average
citizen had the manners of a peasant cleaning
horseshit from the stalls.
Her English was excellent. She spoke with an
accent but not a Korean accent. It was some
kind of Eastern womans prep school accent—the
English of Bette Davis—or maybe Lauren Bacall.
I said: where did you get that accent? Have you
been to England?
Was your teacher English?
No--she was Korean.
The accent remained a mystery—from a
Laura was tall, she was beautiful, she was kind.
There was the accent to put the icing on the
cake and the combination of all these things had
a mortal effect. She would enter the room and I
would look at her and my head would start
spinning and my heart to go pitty pitty pat—or is
it pitty pat patty?
She was 28 and I was 67 and you could have
knocked 20 years off my age and I would still be
old enough to be her father and I would gladly
have given those 20 years to bang her one
time. Then I would drop dead—a happy man.
Sometimes Risa would catch the look—the dirty
old man look and start laughing.
To the women I must add Deuel—the class pet.
I said: where did you get the name?
Its from the bible. It means: servant to god.
Deuel--in the bible they are all servants to God.
A wonderful kid. He was 16. His English was
also excellent. He attended private school in
Korea—molto expensivo-—and it showed. His
father was a surgeon and that was his ambition
also. And he would achieve it—of that I had no
doubt. He was mature beyond his years and had
success stamped all over him. He had
enthusiasm to burn and a terrific kindness and
caring for others that was unusual in anyone let
alone a 16 year old. He had a habit of bursting
into the room every morning punching the air
with a fist and to erupt with a cheer: COLUMBIA
Laura said: I love our class. Risa is so amazing.
I said: amazing is for openers.
But Laura was right. It was a good class—maybe
my best. I had been teaching for years and had
many good classes—great classes. But this one
was special. It taught itself. I would enter the
room and look at them and say: what do you
want to do?
Risa had one problem. She liked to drink. And
the drink of preference was soju—Korean white
wine similar to sake but with a higher alcohol
content and it packed a punch. She wasnt
alcoholc. She had too much self discipline for
that and also she was a mother and would let
nothing interfere with the raising of her
children. But--as we say in Buffalo—-she had a
taste for the sauce.
I saw her in action a few times at lunch or a
birthday party and I could recognize the signs—
a sparkle of anticipation in the eye--signs I
knew well from a previous life.
She would arrive for class on Monday and I
would ask about the weekend and she would
give a laugh—the soju laugh--and say: I drank
One day she spoke of the book--a concept I
didnt entirely understand but it went something
like this: in Korea as in all countries there are
the good families, the bad families, the ugly
families. And you have the best families—the
ones at the top. These families maintain a
document—The Book. Its an archive, a record, a
diary of the family going back to the beginning
many centuries before. Something like this is
more than it seems. It becomes a symbol—to
represent the highest qualities and
achievements not only of the family but the
society as well. And this is all one needs to
know of a family in Korea—that they have The
Book. That says everything. Risas family had
The Book. And to lose The Book is a tremendous
blow--such as occurred during the war—World
War 2 when Korea was occupied by Japan and
The Books of many families were destroyed or
lost—including The Book of her own family. But
then some years later it miraculously surfaced
to be returned to the family. That was the story
of The Book.
I said: I like it. We dont have The Book. We have
Now she said: what does “guru” mean?
She said: Jack--you are my guru.
I said: maybe in English but nothing else.
At some point I had an idea: movie day Every
Friday I would show a film and make popcorn
Sam said: they can watch movies at home.
I said yes but at home they dont have Jack to
stop the action and go back and forth with the
scene to explain expressions such as: They’re
called boobs Ed, or: That rug really ties the
room together; or: A kind word and a gun will
get you a lot further than a kind word alone, etc,
He said: what movies?
We can start with Roman Holiday because
Koreans adore Audrey Hepburn.
Do you know the movie I am Sam
You mean the retard film?
Sam gave me a look—a familiar look—the “I dont
know that word” look. Sam had a degree in
English from Seoul U—the Harvard of South
Korea--but his English remained full of holes
and I wasnt always 100% sure he understood
something I was saying. He was also a man who
had three children—a lawyer, a doctor, a civil
engineer--and the schools were Harvard, Yale
and Colgate so I couldn’t fault him too much
in the success dept.
I said retard means a little slow in the head
Sam said: said that is a good movie for
them because the Sean Penn character repeats
everything 3 times.
There was a logic here I couldnt argue with but
it also meant I would have to listen to Sean
Penn—not my favorite actor—repeat everything
9 times because I was showing the film 3 times
a day, once each per class.
He said: where are you going to buy the
Pause. I didnt quite follow this one.
He said: go to the 99 cent store.
So I showed I Am Sam and My Fair Lady and a
few personal favorites such as The Wild Bunch
and Road Warrior and now Risa says: I want to
see Sex and the City.
I said: I havent seen the show because I dont
have cable but I am told it is explicit. Do you
know that word?
Yes—it means to show the sex.
The other students might object.
You had to be careful with the Koreans. They
were the devout type. And Risa herself fell into
that category—to arise at 5:30 AM each morning
to attend church before delivering the kids to
Will you ask them?
The other students said: yes.
But there was a question: what about Deuel?
I said: I will give him something to do—a test.
He will understand. He is servant to God and in
the classroom I am God. Everyone knows that.
So I ordered the show and a 2 DVD set featuring
12 episodes from the first season arrives and
its Friday and movie time and I make popcorn
and pass it around and draw the blinds and shut
off the lights and insert the movie into the
computer and there is an intro with a flurry of
images to set the tone and the episode begins,
episode one and the scene opens with a bang,
no pun intended, with the Sarah Jessica Parker
character in bed with a guy who has hid head
under the sheets eating her pussy.
I was in shock. I knew the show was explicit
but not this explicit. All I needed was for the
boss to poke his head into the room and I would
be back on the street filing for unemployment
But no one seemed to object and I let it roll.
End of episode one—that was not bad. A
refreshing surprise. It wasnt dumb. The writing
was good. There were some funny bits and the
girls were great. There was a chemistry.
Also it was New York where I had lived 4 years
and brought back many fond memories—of
meeting my second wife to create our own
version of Sex and the City 40 years previous.
We watched Sex and the City—a few episodes at
a time punctuated by student choices—more
Audrey Hepburn, also Gone With the Wind—and
one day I had a thought—a Risa thought.
We were downstairs in the cafe having coffee,
I said: I had a thought. This is it. You want to
watch Sex and the City because these women
represent something—they are symbols for you.
They have this freedom—sexual freedom—that
they are exploiting to the max—to bang their
way through the A-list of New York bachelor
types and God help any of these dudes who
decide to give them a hard time and his reward
for this behavior is a good kick in the balls (I
didnt say balls).
That was my thought--that her own experiences
with men as a young woman had been
restricted or repressed by the society in which
she was raised and now she felt she had missed
out on something—whatever that thing was—
I said: but this is my point: you are the one,
Risa, who is their hero—or heroine—not vice
versa. Why? Because its what you have they
want: a husband who makes a good living and is
devoted to you and 2 beautiful children. This is
what all women want and these hot shot New
York Sex and the City babes out there getting all
that action are no different and they would give
it all up in 4 seconds to be you. Do you follow
She said yes—I understand. And I have thought
of that also. But I still want to see the show!
I said: tell me about your friends in Korea----
the women you hang out with and what you talk
I have no friends.
Pause. I didn’t quite follow this one.
How can you say that. People adore you.
No--this is the way I am. I prefer to be alone. I
am married with two children so I can never be
alone and I enjoy my family and yes I have a lot
of friends but they are not really my friends
because what I want most in life—how do you
say it—my fantasy—is to be alone in my house
and to sit on the couch drinking coffee.
She had spoken of this before—the fantasy of
the couch and drinking of coffee and I
understood—or sort of understood--what she
was getting at because I had some of that in
I said: you are hilarious.
But she did have a friend—Ming Soo—on her
way to Los Angeles with her own two kids in
Risa said: she is the wife of a colleague of my
husband—another dentist. That is how I met
her. And once I met her I could not get rid of
her. Everything I do and everywhere
I go she must do the same. Why is she coming
to live in Los Angeles for 2 years with her two
children? Because I have come here to live for
two years with my children. Why did she have
two children. Because I have two children!
I said: She is a Risa groupie. I want to meet her.
You will meet her. She is coming to the school to
take the class. I have told her about you
I asked about the English.
She had a great laugh. There were three
laughs: the silly giggle—to keep a proper
attitude going; the general all purpose joyous
eruption from deep within; and the mocking
chuckle to express despair at some demented
statement on the part of the teacher.
The English is poor. Maybe less than poor. You
must be kind with her.
Ming Soo arrived. She was younger by a few
years and yes the English was poor. But I liked
her immediately. She had energy and
enthusiasm to burn and a booming laugh--to go
with a booming figure. She would arrive at
school and poke her head into the room and give
me the booming laugh.
How are you darling?
I am fine!
Then I would look at Risa, standing behind
rolling her eyes.
Time passed. Deuel was living with his sister
and her husband and the sister was pregnant
and now she had the baby. Deuel was an uncle.
He was excited. He said: now I can learn how to
be a good father!
The kid was amazing. Where else are you going
to find a 16 year old to say something like that?
The Crises—part 1
Time passed. 6 months, a year. She continued to
take the class—punctuated with a Sam Ho tour
whenever the kids had a break from school and
she scooped them up to hit the road with Sam.
There was the the Grand Canyon/Las Vegas
tour, the Mexico/Baja tour, the
Yellowstone/Grand Teton/Salt Lake City tour,
etc. She was a tour junkie.
I said to her: you are a fantastic mother. Your
kids will grow up and always remember this trip.
From time to time the husband would perform
the role of bird husband to fly over for a visit
and yet another tour.
I remember the classic—the granddaddy of
tours—the New York/Washington/Niagara
She showed me the brochure.
You flew to New York—to JFK--and got onto the
bus for the ride to the hotel in New Jersey. The
next day it was on the road to Washington to
check out the Monument and Lincoln Memorial
and the following day back on the road to
Niagara Falls. You looked at the Falls and took a
ride on Maid of the Mist and bought T-shirts and
returned to the bus for the ride to Boston to visit
Harvard and MIT and then it was back to New
York to tour the Empire State Building, the
Statue of Liberty and Ground Zero. That was
your big New York adventure.
I said to her: this is insane. There must be an
option to stay put in New Jersey and pass on the
Washington/Niagara Falls trip. You could spend
an extra two days in New York—the greatest
city in the world.
No—we must go to Washington. My husband has
an uncle there.
If she was American and not Korean I would
have said: fuck the uncle. But Koreans are
faithful to the relative. It may be a relative they
havent seen for 30 years and couldnt care less if
another 30 years passed without a meeting but—
he was the relative.
Time passed. She arrives in class and hands
over a letter.
She said nothing—a bad sign--and to go with
the silence a distant expression--super bad
sign—but something eloquent in the expression
that said: help me
I could always tell when a crises had struck—
over at the bank, or the school or the mechanic
for her car or downstairs in the garage to
discuss a surcharge with the scumbag owner of
the parking concession, etc, etc. It was a long
list but large or small they all derived from a
similar grievance--a culture clash between
Korea and the US with Korea on the losing end.
And then a familiar line: we dont do this in
Korea! I got this one all the time—not only from
her--and my reply was the same every time: you
arent in Korea.
This crises fell into the large category-gigantic.
The writer of the letter was a real estate agent
and the story was: a bank, Washington Mutual
was foreclosing on the property in which she
lived and she was being evicted. Attached was
the eviction document--a 3 day notice to vacate.
I said: you have a lease do you not?
They cant evict you if you have a lease.
I got the help me look
Ill call this guy—the agent.
Normally I didn’t involve myself with the affairs
of a student but this wasn’t an ordinary student
and I decided to make the exception.
I called the agent who said: the lease is no
longer valid because the property is not being
sold to some other owner. Its in foreclosure.
Thats the issue. The bank has the legal right to
evict all tenants.
It was 2008—a year you may recall if your own
house went into foreclosure because of
something called the sub-prime crises in which
banks were handing out mortgages featuring
a no down payment wrinkle as the lure and a
good lure it was. It was now possible for a
homeless type living out of a cardboard box
down on San Pedro St to qualify for a
mortgage and move out of the box into a
$400,000 home in North Van Nuys. That was a
true story—reported in the Times
Then the bubble burst and the mortgages began
to fail and back out on the street along with the
homeless types were all these other types—
middle class types.
I didnt have that problem. I had a job paying
peanuts—$22/hr but housing-wise I was sitting
pretty. I had a cool apt—and the coolest thing
was the rent: $540 a month. I had rent control.
It was a $1300 apt—but not for me!
I said to the agent. Why is the bank evicting the
tenants? She is paying the rent. Why not just
raise the rent—the usual procedure?
The bank wants to do a rehab of the property
before putting it back on the market.
The agent—an Englishman who seemed decent
enough—said: the bank is prepared to give her
$2500 to relocate but she must agree to be out
in 2 weeks.
I said: she cant do that. She returns to Korea in
5 months. She has two kids in school. What is
she going to do with them—move to a hotel? Will
the bank pay for that?
We went back and forth for a bit and I hung up
and spoke to Risa.
I have a friend who is a lawyer. I will call him.
I said: Who is the owner?
The owner is Young Soo Kim.
A Korean scumbag!
I said: dont do anything. Dont talk to anybody
and dont write any checks. OK?
If anyone calls tell them you have a lawyer.
Thank you Jack!
I called David the lawyer who referred me to
Larry the lawyer—the specialist in real estate
law. I explained the situation—that she was
returning to Korea in 5 months and her main
concern was not to disrupt the education of her
The lawyer: The agent is right. The bank can
evict. But I will write them a letter. The letter
wont do any good except for them to know she
has a lawyer. Also its Washington Mutual. Who
knows how many other foreclosures they have
on their hands down there in Torrance and this
could serve to stall the process. I will write the
letter and we can take it from there.
Two days later. I got a call from the agent who
wanted to know whats what.
I said: she has a lawyer.
Does she really want to get a lawyer involved?
She has nothing to lose. She returns to Korea in
5 months. Where is she going to rent an apt for
5 months? And even if she finds one she has to
cough up another $2500 deposit that she will
never see again just like the scumbag Korean
woman who disappeared with the other $2500.
She may as well give that money to a lawyer
The crises—part 2
Time passed. Time was the issue. Every day
that passed without incident was a bonus--and
one more day of unpaid rent. Maybe she would
get lucky and things would move slowly, as
these things tend to do, and if worse came
to worse she could move in with Ming Soo and
her 2 kids.
I got on line and read up on the eviction process
and explained the process. I explained it all
complete with illustration--little boxes with
labels and arrows pointing to other boxes.
I said: this is the process—the law—that the
bank must honor because they are a bank and
not some low life scumbag landlord.
1: a notice is sent to vacate—that you have
2: if you ignore the notice-- which you are going
to do—the next step is for the bank to file a
complaint in court.
Then its on to step 3--a hearing at which the
tenant can choose to appear with a lawyer to
protest the eviction—which you are not going to
do because you have no case.
Step 4: the court rules in favor of the bank and
hands the matter over to the sheriffs dept—the
police—to pay a visit to your house and change
the locks. You are given notice of this—5 days to
move out before the sheriff arrives. If you
havent moved out all your possessions—
clothes, furniture, the dishes, silverware and
cooking gear, beds and bedding, the piano, the
painting I gave you, etc, etc—it all goes
into the street.
I said: The point is this: its a waiting game.It
takes time for all these procedures to occur—
especially when the city is Los Angeles—where
crime is our middle name and the courts are
I said: are you following me
She gave me a kind look. Its always nice if you
are a man to get a kind look for helping a
woman—esp if its a fantastic woman with two
children who deserves better than to be fucked
over by some giant corporate bloodsucker.
She said: Thank you Jack.
Dont thank me yet. We must wait and see. But
dont worry about it. We will cross that bridge
when we come to it. Do you know that
the crises part 3
In the end it worked out—perfectly. A month
passed, then 2, then 3. She was over the hump.
There was letter here and there from the banks
lawyer and notices of one sort or another and it
all went into the file—the Risa file. But she was
over the hump.
If worse came to worse and she had to move
out the next day she could move in with Ming
Soo for 2 months and then it was back to Korea
But at some point the inevitable was bound to
occur and it occurred with a month to go before
the return to Korea at night at 1 am with a
pounding on her door and she takes a peek out
the upstairs window and its a huge spade. She
I said: its a notice to vacate—this time from the
sheriffs dept. Start packing.
The spade returned the next day and slipped the
notice under the door. She had 5 days to be
I said you have 5 days. Can you be out. You
must be out.
Now you must visualize this: Im in class
teaching. Julie pokes her head inside.
She said: Risa is on the phone. Its an
I took the call in Sams office.
Jack--the police are here. They are changing the
locks. I am outside in the street.
Jesus Christ! The summons said: no later than
July 11th! Today is July 11th. You have until
I dont know.
She seemed calm. I was the one losing it.
I said: what about the movers?
They are coming.
Ask the cop if I can talk to him.
The cop comes on the phone. Its funny about
cops. You dont talk to them. They talk to you.
He says: we are changing the locks. Today is the
day she must be out of the house. After we
change the locks she will be allowed back
inside. But we return tomorrow to verify that
she is gone.
I said: She will be gone. The movers are on the
I spoke to Risa: They must change the locks.
When they finish you will be allowed back inside
the house. Do you understand? YOU WILL BE
ALLOWED BACK INSIDE THE HOUSE. But you
must be out today! Call the movers back and tell
them. Are they Korean?
OK—call me later.
She called later. The movers arrived and in
three hours everything was in the truck and the
family relocated over to the house of Ming Soo.
A close call!
The next day. The last thing I expect to see is
her at school. But there she was.
I started to laugh.
I said: youre not in jail!
That was the great eviction crises.
She said: I want to do something for the lawyer.
Its taken care of. I gave him a painting. He likes
And here I will end this story. She moved in
with Ming Soo and her 2 kids for a month and
they took one last Sam Ho tour—the Sedona/
Painted Desert tour and returned to say goodby.
I had a present for her—two presents—a DVD of
Sex and the City—the second season—and a
copy of my book—the essay collection that I had
For my dear friend:
I am going to miss you.
I know you like to say you have no friends but I hope you will
make an exception for me. I have been teaching for years and
had many wonderful students—amazing students—and I never
thought I would say one was more amazing than another—but
now I have to say it: you are my most amazing student.
I hope when you return to Korea and think about your visit to
America that these will be happy thoughts—of the students and
teachers you met at Columbia West College and the many
wonderful classes we shared.
My best wishes to you and your family
Your (devoted) teacher
I said: you must promise to email me.
No—I will call.
The next day Julie handed me an envelope.
Mrs Park left this for you
On the front this:
*I’m sorry about my humble letter.
I opened the envelope. Inside a note and five
Thank you for your thoughtful gift.
And you know what….I don’t know how I can express my
thanks….But you know…if I go back to Korea I will never come
back here. But if I come back here I want to take your class.
You’re my guru (as you know) and actually you’re my real friend.
It’s an honor of mine…Thank you
My uncle said “Americans love to take cash…” so I put cash in
this envelope. It’s my honor and my love and my expression of
Love, Mira park
And that was that. She returned to Korea. She
never did call or send an email. But that was her
way—a woman who lived in the moment—and
squeezed every drop of juice out of that
Now when I think of her, as I often do, I know
she is happy because that is the kind of person
she was—and the image that forms in my mind
is of the house with her inside and its quiet and
she is alone, sitting on the couch thinking her
thoughts, Risa thoughts, drinking coffee.
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