Ryan and the Technicolor Wardrobe
Short Stories and Essays

A few years ago, when I told a buddy that I was going to New York, he told me to put my headphones away and to listen to the chatter on the subway.  He wasn’t from New York, but he had seen a Twitter feed of someone who posted the inane and outrageous things he would hear on the various subway lines.  As much as I’m a fan of free entertainment, I kept the headphones on, choosing the soothing sound of local rappers, Jay-Z or the Beastie Boys over the mentally unhinged.

On my most recent trip, I opened my ears to the locals.  Not because I was curious to hear what my friend was talking about, but because I had lost my headphones somewhere in my sister’s apartment.  They weren’t particularly expensive headphones, but I knew they would mysteriously appear the second that I bought new ones, so I spent a couple of days bouncing around Manhattan with no ability to tune people out.  Unfortunately, the locals  on the trains were  on their best behavior, so there was little entertainment as I zipped around between Brooklyn and Manhattan.

On one of these headphone-less days, I was supposed to meet up for dinner and drinks with my co-worker Daisy.  Daisy also invited an ex-co-worker of ours, Denise, who I had once mistaken as a server during a night of drinking back when we were co-workers in California.  Denise asked  if I even remembered who she was, and before I could respond, she brought up my prior lapse of recognition, for which I don’t blame her.  If I was in the same position, I would probably rub it in whenever the opportunity presented itself.

After a round of drinks, Denise received a text from her friend Jenny, who happened to be in the area.  Jenny joined us for drinks while she waited for a couple of her guy friends to arrive.  She had just accepted a job offer for a teaching position earlier that day, so she was in a celebratory mood.  We congratulated her, we toasted to her new job, and we chatted with her, even as her friends showed up.  While we were definitely all having a great time, Daisy and Denise needed to turn in early because they had work the next day.  Jenny asked me if I wanted to join her and her friends, and I agreed after Denise assured me that they were a good time.

They were definitely a that while we were at the first bar, but things started to fall apart shortly after Denise and Daisy left, and we headed to a new location.  Jenny grabbed on to my arm as we walked down a stone cobbled street.  The act was innocent, she just needed some assistance walking down this uneven street while in her heels, but it was misinterpreted by one of her friends as an invitation to hit on her.  After we reached a sidewalk, she let go of my arm, and soon after, he started holding her hand.  I knew Jenny had a boyfriend back at her apartment, but since I was basically still a stranger at this point, I was going to stay out of her or their business.

After spending half an hour just trying to find her friend’s car, we headed to a hotel that he was going to stay at for the night.  Since we were in New York, the hotel had no parking for him, so he pulled the car over, and hopped out so he could check in.  After he left the car, Jenny mentioned that she needed to use the restroom, and I volunteered to walk her to a bar or a restaurant, so we got out of the car.

Once we were out of earshot, Jenny told me that the hand holding had freaked her out, and that she was pretty sure that her friend had set his sights on sleeping with her, which she wanted no part of.  This was not what I wanted to hear, not because I wanted her to be fine with cheating on someone, but for someone who had just met her just a few hours prior, this was a lot of potential drama to process.  She admitted that she didn’t need to use the restroom and that she wanted to just get away, so I walked her to a bar and we ordered a couple of drinks.

We sat down and I asked her what subject and grade she would be teaching, and she immediately dived into telling me about how excited she was to be teaching 10th grade English, complete with ideas about her curriculum.  She apologized for boring me, but she in fact, was the exact opposite.  It was inspiring to hear her geek out about something that she was so obviously passionate about, and it didn’t hurt that she would occasionally drop in colorful little phrases like “I can’t wait to teach those motherf*ckers about the death totals in Hamlet!”

In the midst of our great conversation, I told her about the speech I was working on for my best friend’s wedding.  I mentioned that I wanted to say that he was “selfless” but I was afraid that people would hear “selfish”, and she offered the word “altruistic”, which I did in fact actually use in the actual speech.  I was so grateful to have had this conversation with her, and it took the most random of circumstances to get us there.  I met her through a friend, who I had no idea that I was going to see, on a day where Jenny just got this new job, and only after we had to escape her friend’s car after he made an awkward pass at her.  Though I know I will never see her again, since she’s moving, she’s left an indelible impression on me.

I left that night inspired, but at the same time, I felt bad for her.  On this triumphant day for her, she had to make a new friend to celebrate her good news, while one of the people that she thought would be there for her, was spending the night scheming how to get in her pants when all she wanted to do is talk about her new job.  It was the one night in New York where I was glad that I didn’t have my headphones, so I could actually hear a stranger around me, to give them the one thing that they wanted that night, and that thing was to be heard.

The first time I hung out with Cameron was probably about 10 months after I met him.  We had shared many a lunch break together, but we had never taken things outside the confines of the mall that we worked at.  As shallow as it sounds, the event that finally tipped the scales, was Cameron getting a Nintendo Wii, right after it was released.  I spent many weekends searching in vain for a Wii, so I finally had my reason to want to stop by Cameron’s abode.  Cameron was more than willing to have me stop by to check it out and my friend Jason decided to tag along to check out this revolutionary gaming device.

We stopped by the apartment on a Saturday night and Cameron played the gracious host while his wife sat quietly at the kitchen table.  He offered us a beer from his well stocked refrigerator, he showed us his cats, and then gave us the tour of the apartment, ending at his brand new entertainment center in the living room, the same entertainment center that housed the much sought after Nintendo Wii.  I also noticed a small computer tower within the entertainment center, and decided to ask about it to make conversation.

“Oh is the computer there acting like a media center?” I asked.

“Yeah, that’s where I keep all my porn.” He proudly responded.

Jason and I shot each other a quick look of disbelief, and I think Cameron interpreted that look as one of confusion because he decided to elaborate on his previous statement.

“You know, I download it with BitTorrent.”

The admission that Cameron enjoys pornography was not the reason causing Jason and I to feel uncomfortable.  It was his cavalier attitude about it.  I didn’t imply that I knew anything that would cause him to tip his hand, and Jason had literally just met him.  Plus, his wife was within earshot, making things even weirder, and while the collection of pornography might be hers as well, I don’t think she would’ve recommended her husband make it part of the house tour when guests arrive for the first time, but since we wanted to play on the Nintendo Wii, we decided to get past the awkwardness.

Outside of that incident, Cameron and I had a pretty normal friendship.  I would come over, we would eat pizza, drink beer, and play video games.  We would goto the occasional hockey or baseball game, and we’d grab lunch at work.  He came from a well-off family so he would be quite generous to me.  When he upgraded from an Xbox 360 to an Xbox 360 Elite, he gave me the the old Xbox and its controllers.  When he decided that he didn’t want to have an iPhone, just months after it came out, he let me have his after I found it sitting in a drawer.  I appreciated these things tremendously but I later found that these gifts came with a hidden price tag, he expected me to never criticize him.

I would find this out during a game up pick up roller hockey.  We had both taken up the sport to get in better shape, but Cameron’s unhealthy diet was making it extremely difficult for him to make any progress.  After a particular game, I recall him wanting to go to Jack in the Box afterwards so he could order a double bacon cheese burger, large fries, and a soda.  I had told him that would negate any sort of positive from our hockey game but we ended up at Jack in the Box anyways.

The time I burned the bridge, however, I had called him out  to skate back and play any defense.  He was tired, so he started to stay in the offensive zone, waiting for the rest of his teammates, including myself, to fish the puck away from the other team.  After a while, I got fed up and shouted at him “You’re not a scorer, so why don’t you get back and play some defense?”  He shouted back that he didn’t appreciate me berating him in public, and while I didn’t back off on my stance, I didn’t try to escalate things further, I would just reaffirm my previous sentiments.

I didn’t think this was any sort of a big deal.  I was showing him some tough love, not just for his benefit as a hockey player, but as a person who wanted to lose weight and get fit.  Skating was going to help him burn calories, not standing around waiting for the puck.  I honestly thought it would blow over quite quickly, but that was really the last time I ever hung out with the guy.  Apparently, he would tell mutual friends of ours that he demanded an apology, but he never got it from me.  It’s not because I wasn’t willing to, but because I wanted him to communicate that to me directly instead of through other people, which he never did.  I had discovered some less than functional aspects of our friendship and realized that there might be too many to overcome.

Sure, I could’ve gone out of my way to apologize, and I could’ve made a stronger effort to “not berate him”, but somewhere along the line, another conflict would’ve been bound to surface, and we’d have to play the same roles: I’d probably say something to try to help him, he’d take it as vicious criticism, and I’d have to hunt him down to apologize again.  While it was pretty harmless on a free recreational roller hockey rink, that hypothetical next time, could’ve be on a road trip, in Vegas, or somewhere where a spat could’ve left me suddenly without a place to stay or without transportation, so it’s probably for the best that we parted ways there.

I wonder if I would’ve gotten a similar reaction if I had questioned why he needed to introduce his box of porn to us when giving us the tour of his apartment.  It sounds silly, I know, but it also sounds silly that he would stop talking to me because I gave him a hard time about being lazy during a roller hockey game.  Perhaps, I would’ve found out sooner that he wasn’t going to take kind to opinions that conflicted with his and I wouldn’t have spent so much time investing in a friendship that was going to combust quite quickly.  I guess I can’t consider the whole experience a total bust.  I did end up with an Xbox 360 and iPhone.

I returned from Record Store Day 2013 with most of the items that I wanted, but instead of leashing a sonic fury in my house at 8 in the morning, I decided to take a nap with the intention of listening to all of my new records when I awoke at a reasonable hour.  When I did awake, the first record that I decided to listen to was ironically not something new to me, but something that was only previously available to me on CD, and I didn’t even start the record at the beginning, in fact, I started the record at the end of the last song.  Even the most devout music fan would observe that I was engaging in some very bizarre behavior especially without the context of which album I was listening to.  I was listening to a compilation called No Alternative, and I was eagerly waiting to see if the record, like the CD, had the unlisted track, “Verse Chorus Verse” by Nirvana. When No Alternative originally came out, I knew about the Nirvana song because my friend’s older brother bought it long before I did and he gave me the head’s up about the “secret song”, so waiting to see if the song was also on the vinyl edition was the closest to being surprised about the “secret” that I was going to get.

I can only imagine how amazing it would’ve been to be someone in 1993, listening to this compilation all the way through, and right when they thought the album was over, Kurt Cobain’s guitar and voice chime in, playing a Nirvana song that was previously available only via bootlegs. Of course, most “secret songs” aren’t as exciting or good as this particular one.  More often than not, they’re not as good as anything on the album and that’s they’ve only made it as a “bonus”.  Either that, or the song doesn’t fit in with the rest of the album, or perhaps in the case of Ash’s 1977 album, the “bonus” isn’t a song at all. On 1977, what follows the last song and a few minutes of silence, is a recording of the band laughing hysterically and vomiting over and over again.  Why this is on the album – to this day, I still have no idea.

So with a personal history with such mixed results, I’m not sure if I miss that the “secret song” is pretty much extinct. I haven’t  particularly lamented the decline of the “secret song”.  The last one I remember finding was “Shhh” by Atmosphere off Seven’s Travels and that came out in 2013, a whole 10 years ago.  I like “Shhh” quite a bit but it’s not making me a cranky old man about the death of the secret song. I could easily go on a tangent about how the internet has made it virtually impossible to keep these songs a secret, or how iTunes and Amazon has forced bands to include these songs as bonus tracks as an incentive to buy rather than as a secret for the hardcore fans, but there are still secrets – they’ve just evolved.  Now there are secret videos embedded in sites, secret usb drives placed in random locations for fans to find, special guests at festivals, so it could be argued that it’s more exciting now than it was back in the time where one would skip through 5-10 minutes of silence on a 20 minute song to see if there was a song tucked at the end.

It’s entirely possible that not all record collectors have a conflicted apathy towards the “secret song”.  On the same day that I bought my vinyl version of No Alternative, and re-discovering the secret song all over again, I saw that there was a special 7″ record being sold that came in a sleeve that was completely black.  The only information on the packaging was that it was part of Warner Bros. “Side by Side” series where they have a band cover a song on one side, and they have the original version by the original artist on the other side.  Not only was the song a secret, but the artists as well.  The record was picked up on blind faith by more than a handful of people that morning, including myself, and I hope they were pleased with results.

Of course, even though the 7″ was a total surprise, it wasn’t the first record that I opened when I got home from the record store.  That, of course, was No Alternative, just so I could hear the secret Nirvana song.  There was definitely a feeling of euphoria when I realized that there was definitely something after Patti Smith’s “Memorial Song”, and since I already knew about the “surprise”, I can only attribute the satisfying feeling to the surprise of re-living something that has become so steeped in nostalgia and realizing that while a lot of things have changed, the fan in me hasn’t.

I’ve never had a particularly good grasp on speaking any languages outside of English, which is a surprise since English isn’t technically my first language.  It didn’t take long for English to overtake Korean, but nonetheless, English is my second language.  It’s taken a hold of me and it won’t let go.  3 years of Spanish in high school, and 2 years of Korean in college, plus various Korean schools and lessons at home from my parents, couldn’t loosen the grip that the English language has on me.  I used to get criticized for my terrible Korean speaking skills, sometimes by children, and they would mistake my lack of knowledge for a lack of trying.  That’s not the case.  I’m just a Korean boy who grew up in Minnesota with very few Korean kids to speak to on a regular basis, and then when I gave Korean the old college try (literally), it just didn’t take.

My friend Barrett has a similar tale.  He’s a 3rd generation Chinese-American from Fresno.  His Chinese speaking skills are pretty much non-existent.  His parents speak fluent English, and while my parents don’t, my older sisters were all speaking plenty of English in our house.  Fresno doesn’t exactly have the biggest Chinese community in the world, let alone California, so even if Chinese was spoken in Barrett’s household, he wouldn’t have many friends to practice speaking with outside the home.

Of course, while my Korean speaking skills are completely derivative, I’ve soaked up a lot of Korean culture just by being around my first generation parents and going to a Korean-not very American, church for my entire childhood.    Barrett hasn’t been afforded that luxury so something simple as learning how to use chopsticks has passed him by – or at least this is what Barrett perceives with this specific situation.  I’m not so inclined to agree.

A few years ago, on Barrett’s birthday, we headed to Warner Brothers studios to catch a taping of Conan.  It was on Barrett’s college bucket list, and since I worked at a school that had Spring Break coincidentally on the same week as Barrett’s, I decided to go with him.  Barrett was especially excited that we were going on this particular day because he and Conan share a birthday.  We headed up at the crack of dawn and waited in the Warner Brothers parking structure hoping to get on the standby list.  We were the first people there so there was very little anxiety about whether we would get in later in the day.  It was pretty chilly so we decided to get a nice warm meal – a bowl of ramen at Daikokuya in Little Tokyo because it fit the 2 criteria on Barrett’s list: 1) delicious, 2) cheap.

We ordered a pitcher of beer and a bowl of ramen each.  Even though we were understandably excited that we were going to see one of our comedy heroes later in the day, we needed sustenance if were to continue our high level of enthusiasm. The piping hot bowls of ramen were delivered to our table, and I was ready to dive in.  I sensed some hesitation from Barrett, but I wasn’t sure of the reason.  He looked frustrated, so I asked “what’s the problem?”  Barrett’s problem was the utensils.

“I can’t use chopsticks.” he muttered.

“But we’re eating noodles…” I tried to explain.

“I need a fork.” he said defiantly.

Seeing that Barrett wasn’t in the mood to learn a new skill on his birthday, I flagged down our waiter.  When the waiter approached our table, I told him that my friend wanted a fork.  The waiter looked confused, then he looked to the bus boy, threw his hands up in disbelief and said “for-ku?”  The bus boy then ran to the kitchen and brought the waiter a fork, which he handed to Barrett.  It was quite the scene, and at the time, I believe it left Barrett a little embarrassed.  It probably didn’t help that I couldn’t contain my laughter throughout the whole ordeal.

It didn’t ruin Barrett’s birthday. He was able to see Conan O’Brien and that was all that mattered.  The “for-ku” incident was just a footnote to the main event, but it’s something that we both talk about to this day.  Barrett still attributes his non-existent chopstick stills to his 3rd generation Chinese-American heritage even though my infinite-generation white roommate can use chopsticks with ease.  While it’s pretty clear that upbringing or lack there of has nothing to do with using two sticks to pick up food, I’ll let Barrett have this one, because we’re friends, and because it’s funnier this way.  Friends should let their friends get away with certain delusions as long as it’s not hurting anyone, and frankly, Barrett’s chopstick deficiency is about as harmless as it gets.  Besides, if Barrett chalked this up to his own laziness, it hurts the story, and I can’t let that happen.  If Barrett wants to think he can’t use chopsticks like I can’t use the Korean language, then so be it.  I’ll look the other way for him so the “for-ku” story can live forever.