Tag Archives: gross stories

A Sunday

Telling a drunk story entails risk. For those who weren’t there, who weren’t involved, the recounting is never as enjoyable. Their appreciation – if it is to be found – derives not only from the merits of the story , but from how the story plays off their knowledge of the storyteller. Yet, even with the proper level of familiarity, finesse is required. Drunk stories, after all, are not intended to make the storyteller look good.

I’ve always said on these pages that I’m not much of a storyteller. With the right audience, however, in the right context, this is one of my stories. I’m not quite sure how it’ll translate to this format. But my buddy Jim is getting married next month. And in honor of that, a drunk story:

Kurosawa made this classic film called Rashomon. It centers on a crime that takes place, and the truth of that crime being reconstructed piecemeal through the recollections of three or four different characters. There are contradictions in each of their stories, embellishments, obvious lies. Each version though adds depth, each calls into question objective reality and whether it exists at all. This day was kind of like that for the three of us involved.

This drunk story takes place in Japan. Naturally. I don’t know how much longer my liver would have held out living in that country. It was the land of all-you-can-drinks, where getting fucked up under the cherry blossoms was not only socially acceptable but a national pastime. On weekends, public bathroom sinks were sporadically filled with vomit; pillars and walls in train stations adorned with slumped figures of the wasted, of both genders and all (adult) ages.

It was a Sunday.

Once, maybe twice a year, this sake brewery 90 minutes northwest of Tokyo would open its doors to the public. There’d be samples, sales, food: a grand old time. I hadn’t heard about it. It was the kind of festival that attracted primarily natives and presumably drunkards. Katsuya was a native, maybe a drunkard. I’d actually never met him before but he was a friend of Jim’s, which was good enough for me. He was the one who passed along the word.

The gates opened at 10 or 11, I forget. Either way, it seemed excessively early for a sake festival. It worked out nicely for me and Jim though, at least in theory. We had tickets that evening for a baseball game, and not just any regular baseball game. A Major League Baseball all-star team was in town visiting. American all-stars. We were American, so we wanted to be there. We’d check out the festival, stop home, then pop over to the game. Easy as pie. American apple pie.

We met at the train station near the brewery, the three of us – Katsuya, Jim, and I. We all had arrived about 20 minutes before opening, as per Katsuya’s instructions. Introductions were made, and we shared an easy laugh about the absurdity of preparing to get (reasonably) drunk before noon. Japan, right? We started walking towards the brewery, but stopped about halfway there. There was already a line about three blocks long – like it was Black Friday outside Best Buy, only with more alcoholics.

Once the gates opened at 10 or 11, the hordes streamed onto the brewery grounds. It was a bit chaotic, as you might expect from any alcohol festival, but not too much so, as you might expect from any alcohol festival in Japan. We got in line for a couple of sake samples here and there; generous portions were provided.* There might have been some informational displays around, but like everyone else, we didn’t pay much attention to them.

*I nearly got into a fight when this guy blatantly cut ahead of us in line. When I started to make a scene, his response was to repeatedly say “Chill, we’re all having fun here”; he then proclaimed that he would have expected a reaction from the Japanese, but not from another expat. I didn’t even know what that meant, but I wanted to stab him.

After downing several samples, we headed off to gauge the food situation on the grounds. The crowd was by now immense. It was at critical mass; the situation seemed less fun than overwhelming, as events in and around Tokyo can be sometimes. So, after each purchasing a wooden sake cup – filled with sake, of course – we huddled and considered our options. It was Katsuya, I think, who came up with an inspired plan: buy a bottle, get some food, and have an impromptu picnic at a nearby park.

In line, ostensibly to purchase a single bottle to share, was where it all started to fall apart. Katsuya deftly jumped ahead of me and Jim at the last second, then selected and paid for a bottle before either of us realized what was going on. It was a gesture to old friendships and new, he said. A genuinely touching sentiment. But in the heat of the moment, Jim and I responded in the only way that made any sense. We bought additional communal bottles. We ended up with six in all (roughly 750 ml apiece).

I was already drunk when we left the grounds of the brewery for a park Jim had located on Google Maps. We each had had at least three servings of sake by then, between the samples and the overflowing wooden cups. At a convenience store, a konbini, we bought some onigiri (rice balls) and chips, plus a few beers for alcoholic variety; I grabbed a piece of fried chicken as well, devouring it en route. It was well before noon when we arrived at the park.

We drank nearly four entire bottles of sake there.

Katsuya left us at the park. He had mentioned earlier that he needed to meet his wife and child. They were nearby, or back in Tokyo, or something – it was a little mysterioso. But at some point in my drunken stupor, I noticed he wasn’t with us anymore. While the trek to the bathroom in the park was substantial, he had gone for what felt like ages. He did reappear momentarily, presumably from the bathroom. Then he left for good. Jim and I both thought he seemed remarkably sober.

Ironically, Katsuya would later mention he thought Jim and I seemed to be in surprisingly good shape when he left us. All three of us were wrong. Later that day, Katsuya drunkenly dropped his baby while on public transit. …Yeah. Fortunately, there was no lasting damage, though Katsuya’s wife understandably was quite displeased with both him and us. To this day, and perhaps on a related note, I have not met her.

It was still early, maybe 1 or 2, but now windy bordering on uncomfortable. At some point, Jim and I realized we needed to make our way back to Tokyo. My head was pounding; I was blackout drunk. Jim still had the wherewithal to use his phone to figure out which way the train station was, so I followed blindly. I couldn’t walk straight. My head was slumped down; I was dragging myself along, hoping I wouldn’t slam into anyone or anything.

Of this journey, Jim does remembers being strangely overcome with a singular focus on reaching the station. He knew I was behind him, primarily because he heard this distinct clopping noise. That turned out to be me as I kept looping from sidewalk to street and back, in diagonals and circles. But we were both in dire straits. At the station, it took Jim about four tries to get his metro card properly scanned.

We must have been a sight at the station. Past the ticket gates, I made it up a set of stairs one at a time, slumped over the railing, hoisting myself along. I don’t know how I didn’t fall. Maybe I did and forgot about it. Thankfully, it was the terminus, so there was a train sitting, waiting to begin its journey back to Tokyo. Jim and I made our way aboard, collapsing quickly onto a bench. I closed my eyes a moment and lost consciousness.

I was sprawled on the train bench when I came to. I felt like garbage, even moreso now than before, as drunkenness gave way to the in-between before the hangover fully appears. It took a minute to process my reality, but I soon realized that:

  1. I was alone;
  2. The train was rested and emptying; and
  3. There was a Japanese woman yelling at me.

I dealt with the last and most immediately pressing bit first – the yelling and gesticulating stranger. Judging from her tone and volume, she was chiding me for being wasted on a train at 2 on a Sunday afternoon. But past her disgust, she seemed to be trying to convey something else. Eventually I followed her gestures, looking beneath my seat. And on the floor, I saw a cell phone: mine. I looked up to thank her but she was already gone. Eventually, I dragged myself off the train too.

I didn’t know where Jim was, but I was feeling worse and worse. I went straight to the bathroom in the train station, locked myself in a stall, and sat on the ground. It might have been a public bathroom in Japan, but it was not the kind of public bathroom in which anyone should be sitting on the ground; it was a squat toilet for starters. But I was in no position to be particular. I sent Jim a text, then rested my head on the floor and started moaning.

There, behind the locked doors of a squat train station toilet, I passed out again.

At some point, someone started banging on the walls, perhaps with an emergency of their own. I tried to respond by moaning my pain, but I couldn’t put words together. I was a drooling mess. Eventually they left me be. I ended up spending about an hour in the bathroom, lying down. Eventually, I used the squat toilet properly and without incident, a remarkable deed given my condition. When I felt slightly better, I checked my phone. There was a text: Jim was back in his Airbnb.

Halfway through the train ride towards Tokyo, Jim had apparently gotten it in his head that we needed to make a transfer. We did not. So, while I was passed out, he stepped off intending to check a map. The train took off, as a train does. Jim pounded on the window to try and get my attention, but to no avail. Then, left behind, he wandered that station for a bit. He vomited in public. Then he boarded another train back towards Tokyo.

The station I was at was about a 20 minute walk from the Airbnb, a mile away. In my condition, it might as well have been a million miles away. I threw myself into a taxi on the north side of Shinjuku Station – the busiest train station in the world. I thrust my phone at the driver, but he couldn’t make heads or tails out of the display. I couldn’t form coherent sentences yet, so eventually I grabbed the phone, dropped a pin near where the address was, or seemed to be, and handed it back.

The driver kept looking at my phone over the course of the drive – always a great sign. He ended up dropping me off at a hotel by the south exit of Shinjuku Station. My brain was fried though, and I figured it was not worth it to steer him to steer me in the right direction, so I paid and left.* Then I stumbled down the streets in search for Jim’s place. I got lost twice before I found the complex. I climbed up the stairs and banged on the door. …There was no response.

*To recap, I paid 1,000 yen (roughly $10) to take a cab from the north side of a train station to the south side of a train station.

The lights were out. It didn’t make any sense to my feeble and fragile brain. I still felt awful, so I lied down on the ground in front of his unit and curled up in a ball. I tried to catch a nap, but it was too cold, too windy by then. I checked the address again and again on my phone, shivering on the floor. Finally, after probably 10 or 15 minutes but what felt like 45, I banged on the door again. This time, there was some noise, some feet shuffling. Then the door opened.

Jim was holding the knob. He didn’t say a word and neither did I. We both turned into the living space, where two double beds decorated either side of the room. Jim fell into his bed, I fell onto the other one. I passed out immediately.

It was pitch black.

Groggily, I checked the time. More than an hour after first pitch.

I felt like garbage, of course. But I had a singular thought. We had spent about $35 apiece on our tickets, and we were going to this baseball game.

Jim would later tell me that his first memory of the late afternoon was waking up to my repeated cries of: “It’s gametime, man! Gametime!” After the transfer mishap, he had successfully made his way back to Tokyo and the Airbnb, but he had no recollection of my banging on the door the first or second times, let alone getting up and letting me in. I’m not sure why he didn’t protest when I insisted we go to the game 90 minutes late.

We made it to the Tokyo Dome that night around 9 pm. It was the seventh inning when we took our seats. But baseball being baseball, the game lasted another hour – enough time for the American team to score a few runs, enough time for us to get some curry rice. Mostly though, we sat still, moaning every once in a while, sipping our sodas. When the game finished, we joined the masses walking to the station. Jim rode to his Airbnb, and I went home.

I didn’t drink sake for about a month after that.

(Photo by Ralf Steinberger, CC BY 2.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Revisiting Seoul

I’m a terrible storyteller.  Already uncomfortable with spotlights,  I find myself questioning the entertainment value of my own tales. I never dive in; instead I’m ready to trail off at a moment’s notice. Worse, I don’t have a repertoire. Ideally, I would have honed a select few go-to stories at social gatherings, each charming and witty with a dash of self-deprecation, all revealing my hidden depths. No, my stories reveal only the depths of my idiocy. They tend to be all self-deprecation, funny only in an uncomfortable way (like The Cable Guy), involving toilet paper or vomit: not for polite company.

This is one of those stories, uncensored. It is gross.

In 2011, I was fortunate enough to be invited to an academic conference in Seoul. The participants were pampered: we were taken out for fancy meals, put up in a nice hotel, even provided gifts (promptly regifted when I returned to the States: grad school!). The conference lasted for a couple of days; it’s not important. But I lingered in South Korea for four days after, never having visited the country previously. So after leaving the conference, I packed up my shit and headed over to a hostel, excited for adventure.

The first day on my own was fun. I visited the Changdeokgung Palace, then hiked up to the Seoul Tower. For lunch, I found local fare – pork bulgogi, rice, a million side dishes. The food was fine, though the restaurant wasn’t all that sanitary. It was a mom-and-pop operation; the dining room looked almost to be in their home, and the proprietors and their friends sat on an elevated area chatting, bare feet out. It was quaint and gross. I doubt the food had more than a negligible part in what was to follow. But I did take note at the time.

The real story begins my second day. I wanted to do a legitimate hike, and had decided upon Dobongsan (Dobong Mountain) at Bukhansan National Park. It fit my modest aspirations: its central peak had an elevation of just 739.5 meters, but was rocky enough to still be a challenge. The trail was straightforward, would take around four or five hours round-trip, and promised stunning views. I figured I would climb up and down, and have plenty of time to kill before an evening baseball game on the other side of town.

10:00 am. It had taken about an hour on the metro to get from my hostel to the park. The walk from the station was short, 15 minutes, passing through countless little food stands and street shops. I planned to hop into one of them for breakfast. But nothing looked appetizing, and the only other option was a Dunkin’ Donuts (they are weirdly everywhere in Seoul). I decided not to, not wanting to feed into the stereotype of the close-minded American. Instead, I was the stupid American, skipping breakfast altogether.

I did stop at a convenience mart, buying three bottles of water, a Pocari Sweat, and one bag of potato snacks. I figured that would hold me for the duration of the hike. I rarely ate breakfast back then, and still feeling jet-lagged four days into the trip, I had not been eating anything until 2 or 3 pm anyway. In retrospect of course, I wasn’t hiking mountains those other days. Regardless, I would plow through the trail and eat something substantial by 2 pm. I was chomping at the bit to start.

The hike began modestly. It was scenic, not too busy. I had my Superman t-shirt on, for maximum irony as it turned out, and set up a bunch of pictures of myself “holding up” giant boulders. I strolled my way through, taking pictures of anything and everything, and broke into the potato snacks. At some point however, I got lost. I ended up taking a rather steep trail to nowhere in particular, then having to backtrack. It was not an insignificant delay. Three hours in, I was still nowhere near the peak.

I was already a couple of water bottles down when I ran across a Buddhist temple – and attached water hose – tucked into the side of the mountain. It was a fortunate and necessary pit stop. As I pressed on, the hike had become more strenuous, far more so than I anticipated. A section of literally 400+ stairs appeared out of nowhere. A cliff where I had to shimmy through holding ropes and metal handrails. Some parts near the top were essentially rock climbing. I had not expected this.

2:30 pm. Four and a half hours into a planned four hour hike, I finally reached the top of Dobongsan. It was an incredible feeling. The view of Seoul was breathtaking; the metropolitan area immense, unimaginably so. My exhaustion and hunger and fear and anxiety were all forgotten, at least for the moment. But I was in trouble, and I knew it. My stomach was making a ton of noise in protest, especially as I walked past people setting up shop, enjoying elaborate lunches. I contemplated whether to ask a stranger for a snack. I didn’t.

After the summit, I put my camera away. I knew I had to make my way down the mountain as quickly as I could, to find food somewhere, but my body didn’t have that gear anymore. I felt terrible; my stomach jumpy with every motion. I stopped often, resting, preparing myself physically and mentally for the next small segment of the descent. I polished off the last of the potato snacks, then the water. I had nothing left. By the time I returned to the town, it was nearly 5:00 pm. The hike had taken seven hours.

As I wandered back past the street shops however, I felt weirdly okay. In fact, I wasn’t even hungry anymore. I figured I’d buy a ton of shit at the baseball game and be back to tip-top shape. But that calculus changed as soon as I saw the vending machine at the train station. My body reacted viscerally. I bought three drinks and sucked them down, one by one. They held me over momentarily. Once I boarded the metro though, I felt dizziness, tingling. I needed something solid in my system, and fast.

I left the station once I reached my transfer spot. There was a street vendor but I worried about its cleanliness, even in my state. Instead, I made my way into a barbecue place, where an Abbott and Costello routine broke out. I pointed to a picture on the menu, but the waitress refused. “These are intended for groups, not singles,” her Korean noises and hand gestures said to my illiterate ears. “It’s a lot of food.” I tried to respond in likewise fashion, noises and gestures: “I am dying. I will pay for any fucking portion of food.” She held firm. After what felt like 10 minutes – probably in reality 2 – of inane back-and-forth, I left and made a beeline for the street vendor. I bought a hot dog.

6:00 pm. Ten hours into my day, I had my first bite of real food, food not of the potato snack variety. But my body didn’t react. Confused, I took another bite. This time, my stomach shut down completely. I nibbled at the bread but to no avail. I wasn’t going to get anything down. I continued to sit next to a few smokers and a bum, hoping to muster up an appetite. Feeling terrible, I abandoned the hot dog after about 20 minutes. I dragged myself up the stairs, feeling half alive, back into the metro, and immediately went into the toilet.

As soon as I closed the door to the toilet stall, I puked. Two bites of hot dog, and what seemed like every ounce of liquid I had consumed over the course of the day (if only that was it). But I didn’t feel much better after the ordeal; if anything, I felt the same. My brain apparently fried, I marched back onto the metro, and towards the stadium, towards the baseball game I had planned to attend. I made my way out of the station there, needing to sit every so often and catch my breath. I made it to the stadium box office, bought my ticket, and stumbled up to the upper level and my seat. I had precious little left.

I kept moaning during the two innings I was in my seat for. I felt truly awful; my body was basically draped across the armrest. I figured I needed to try and put something in my system again, because I couldn’t conceive of making it back to the hostel otherwise. I made my way out into the concourse, where the only options were KFC and Burger King. I don’t know why I was so discerning given my state, but I wanted a soup or a noodle. I headed down to the first level, but had to stop after one ramp. I laid down on a bench. I wouldn’t get to the second ramp for another 20 minutes.

Of course, the options ended up being the same downstairs: KFC and Burger King. Defeated, I bought a small order of chicken nuggets from the former. Without even a bite though, my bowels suddenly screamed for attention. I hightailed my way to the bathroom – fast as I could go – and sat on the toilet for what felt like ages. More liquids out of my system. It was an ugly scene. Eventually, I left the toilet, tiptoeing my way back to the same bench, and laid down again. Flat on my side, I nibbled on a nugget every once in a while, eating two and a half in all. I couldn’t manage more. I wanted to die.

It was at that point that I finally gave up on the baseball game. I had the pressing concern that I had to beat ballpark traffic, as I couldn’t imagine physically standing on the metro for the 40 minutes it would take to get back to my hostel. I zombie walked my way down the ramp… and straight to the toilet again, though not quite in time this time. My boxers were left in the bathroom trash can. I left the park commando, sneaking a peek at the scoreboard: it was the 7th inning, a good two hours after I arrived. I remember literally nothing about the baseball aspects of that game.

The meander back towards the station was a feat, probably dwarfing the hike up Dobongsan. I couldn’t climb any stairs without draping myself over the handrail. I couldn’t drag myself a few hundred feet without sitting for five minutes. I opted to wait for a second train for the potential of empty seats – and was fortunate to have that need fulfilled. My head rested in my lap the entire ride back. I never stopped moaning. Upon arrival, I left the train and immediately went to sit down on the platform. After another five minutes, I climbed the stairs and sat again. I emptied my bowels in the toilet, then went back out and sat for ten more.

My hostel was a three minute walk from the train station, but I still had to sit outside the station to prepare myself for that walk. Once I felt ready, I started around the corner. There, on the sidewalk next to a construction site, I promptly vomited the chicken nuggets and remaining water I had in me. A young mother hurriedly, and hilariously in retrospect, yanked her child away as they walked past. On the way back to the hostel, I had the foresight to buy water and crackers. I finally made it home, and went straight to the bathroom again. And again.

I’ve never felt physically worse in my life than I did that day, and I hope I never will. I slept for ten hours, showered, sat and munched on crackers, bought a bagel at a coffee shop a half-block away, slept for three hours, laid in bed for three hours, then slept for 12 straight hours after that. On my last day in Seoul (two days after Dobongsan), I made it to the station at Hwaseong Fortress before I realized I didn’t have the strength to sightsee – not even close. I stumbled to the mall connected to the train station and watched a movie, then headed back to the hostel to sleep again. And that was my week in Seoul.

When people ask if I’ve ever been to South Korea, I say that I have. I offer some platitudes about how overwhelming and incredible a city Seoul is, and I stop there. Because some stories shouldn’t be told in polite company.