aster, unbent, passed
through your memory
between homeland and chasm.
A strange lostness was
bodily present, you came
living. (Paul Celan)
There are many things I love about drinking and drinking is one of my formative loves. However, if I had to choose just one aspect of intoxication that I love above all else, it would be this:
there is a moment around that third or fourth beer; towards the end of the second glass of wine; at the start of the second glass of scotch – a great warm contentment settles on the mind and one will find oneself (on a porch at dusk or in a dim bar, in a crowd or in silence) staring into the middle distance aware of nothing more than I'm having that feeling again. The feeling is most like looking into a mirror – suddenly you are more present than you have been before. As if your days were spent like some great, blind vessel content with the humming and whirring of the mechanisms within. In this drunk transcendence you suddenly feel yourself aboard the bridge and see the ship's deck, witness to its progress over dark waters. A spiritual 'steady as she goes' shouted by a bearded homunculus. You may take a moment now to imagine this soul-sailing captain within yourself. Who is he played by? What is his attire? Is he smoking a pipe? You bet! Myself, I imagine him as Brian Blessed when he played the king of the Eagle people in Flash Gordon. To those reading, please post your own self-images in the comments below!
But this feeling I describe is not brought on by alcohol alone. Introspection, head trauma and hangovers also achieve this sensation (though if you think about it, all three are pretty much the same thing). So it was I had a sensation of this nature just yesterday and thought I would frame the pretty little thing for all you fine figments of my imagination.
To start, our setting.
Ten minutes walk from my apartment lies the district of Cheolsan. It is a lurid CBD glistening with high-rise restaurants, bars and PC bangs. At street level it is almost impossible to delineate one building from another – one will often enter a tiny elevator and ride it to the four floor only to realise the bar you have seen advertised on the street is in fact the next building over.
It has become Lara and I's close-by drinking destination for one reason above all others – the entertainment. Cheolsan boasts a lot for the drunken westerner to do, such as the 4-D movie cinema called MAX RIDER, novelty bars and BB gun galleries, cocktail joints and claw games and nearly every kind of Korean restaurant available. Bosam (steamed pork), dak galbi (grilled chicken stirfry), hoe (Korean sashimi without the rice) and samgyupsal (Korean BBQ) are everywhere. There's sushi and Vietnamese, middle eastern and Chinese, McDonalds, Burger King, pizza, fried chicken, fried fish, fried rice. There are bakeries on every corner and street vendors choke the footpath with corn dogs and boiled fish sticks. It's not exactly Hong Kong but it is ten minutes from my door.
And of course, there is the batting cage.
The scene of our tale is a bar we frequent called 'Beer Garten'. One may buy a yardglass of Korean “beer” (I use the term in the loosest sense) for 6, 500 Won (a bit under $6 Australian) and the shapely glass rests in a small refrigerated cup holder set into the table. Lara and I went with the neighbours to meet-and-greet some local teachers at said establishment at roughly nine o'clock. We were chatting amicably when our night took a turn for the worse – I received a text message from “Matt of the Hat”.
Matt of the Hat was a New Yorker myself and Scott (one of the neighbours) got talking to in the market maybe a fortnight before. He seemed nice enough, had a jaunty fedora and said he would like to hang out some time. Thinking nothing of it, we exchanged numbers and went on our ways.
So I invited this stranger into our midst.
My first hint that was something was amiss was when I asked him about his music.
“What sort of music do you play?” I politely enquired.
“Fusion,” he replied.
Not, “a sort of fusion...” or “rock and jazz fusion sorta”, no no. The word came out unmolested, as if it were a reasonable answer rather than the verbal equivalent of a turd dropped neatly in my drink.
My second clue was when he began to explain that he wanted to make music by getting his “band” (and yes, he used air quotes) to make music in a junkyard. Not record an album in a junkyard, not make instruments out of trash, no, he wanted to make music by slapping bits of shit together. And record it there.
Feeling like he had one more second to redeem himself I asked what is officially known as the hipster bullshit probe.
He could have said, “because it would be funny”. Or maybe, “because I make trash music”. Or perhaps even, “I'm into sound composition not really music”. These would have been acceptable answers that would have made me spare his life in one of those “first against the wall” scenarios. But not for Matt of the Hat, oh no. Instead he said:
“Every album has the same damn drum kit. You listen to it over and over. Tsh tsh tsh [miming a cymbal]. I want to make something that has a different texture.”
“So, what. Sixty minutes of people banging stuff?”
“No, sorta punk and rock-y songs.”
“But made with trash.”
So I left for the batting cages. (Apparently this guy continued to wreak havoc on the assembly by going into detail about a two hundred year old conspiracy to blow up the twin towers and referring to women he had just met as a “stupid idiot” or an “argumentative bitch” when they disagreed with him).
So it was with a temper that I stepped into the cage and slapped the metal bat against the worn divot in the floor. I barely put a bat on my first twenty balls. I went back to the guy, got some more change and waited behind a couple of Koreans cheering on their friend. When he left I got back in, slapped the bat against the ground and missed the first two. Which was when it happened.
I loved playing cricket as a kid but it means that when I pick up another sport that uses some kind of hand-held implement I always act as if I'm playing cricket. When I took up tennis last year I would consistently play the ball down into the net. When I first got into the baseball nets I would start with the bat at my side and raise it up as the ball came, meaning I struggled to hit anything.
But it finally came together. I twisted my back knee and rotated my torso to face the ball and BAM. I hit four or five right in the middle of the bat and when I hit them the ball looked like a white comet as it streaked towards the netting. I put in another 500 won and sure enough, another four or five of them disappeared as if ordered by god to do so.
So what? I hit some balls around, big deal. But! It was with a savage irony that I recalled this moment in the shower the next day, bent double letting the blistering water run down my back. Staring at the hair in the drain I thought – that was a moment witnessed only by me with no hope of ever being appreciated. In what was for me a perfect triumph of physical display I was watched by no one. Surrounded by strangers and alone in a net I performed with a measure of grace and agility. And I will most surely forget this triumph, unseen and unnoted, for it was a minor and intangible moment lost to a world whose denizens are drunken boats drifting through rapids en route to a dark sea.
But I tell you now. If you could've seen me, seen the flat arc of the ball struck, heard the sure clenk of the impact, felt the wire and sweat, metal and canvas in your nose – you would have given a cheer. Not for the achievement (which was minor) but for the sheer rightness of the thing. But you didn't. And I only properly felt it twice – once in the cage and again in the shower as a strange lostness was bodily present.
So what is this song of the batting cage? I suppose it is of a triumph never discerned by any other than yourself. Of the aching tragedy that happens when we are happy and alone. So think of me next time you come to that self-sure plateau, when you look into the world with a certainty of your steerage and raise a glass to your own triumph – for you too have come dangerously near to living.
East, pictured in a batting cage. (Or a jedi rage?)