Flamboyant Shirt Man

Less than three minutes on this bus and the world around me instantly transforms. From the quaint rural city peppered with tall apartments to flat farmlands lining the kempt Korean valleys. And in a few minutes we will reach a small village’s single bus stop at the bottom of a highway exit ramp. And every day, expectantly, I see him. Rolling down the exit ramp a distant figure, closer than he appears, waits for this bus. Balding, the top with rare hairs freckling his tanned head contrasted with a thick forest on the sides, propping up his baldness to prominence as if he wants you to notice before anything else that one feature. Then naturally you travel downward, to his face, which always blares a unique mix of confusion and moroseness – even if he is neither – occasionally switching between the two but more often than not a smattering of both simultaneously. He reminds me of the strained frown like an Andong mask that both communicates sadness and confusion. This face translates to the rest of his body.  Always hobbling onto the bus with a certain imbalance, but in a confused way as if he doesn’t know himself which side he is crippled on or where he’s going to sit even though he’s quite familiar with the geography of this bus he takes every day.

This leads to what you would otherwise see first see in the distance – his shirt. The warning flag of a shirt that makes him so distinctive – even more so than his face and posture. With swirling oranges and almost neon blues, this sheen-patterned short sleeve collared shirt, with the allure of a shirt picked off of a rack enticed only by the color, entrances me every day. It’s one of three shirts he wears to work, and they’re all similarly vibrant. Today is the green and blue hypnotic mini-swirls. This, surrounded by the muddied tones and solid non-patterns of the usual rural fare, sticks out. He is a bright spot in the otherwise cold autumnal landscape, especially when the weather has taken the leaves from the mountains.

That was two months ago. And the last day I saw his shirt. Today is a gray landscape with overcast skies. It’s a cold day. Not snowing, but still cold. And as the bus leans off, towards the exit ramp, a figure from the underpass crosses the street, and waits for the bus to reach him. His bald head uncovered in this cold makes him noticeable. The bus moves before he could even tap his card as he gets on. He’s wearing the same dark blue long down jacket he’s been wearing since winter started. He blends in with all the other subdued and singular colors that marks Korean fashion, especially here in the countryside. I always wonder what he wears under this jacket. I imagine something practical like a sweater or something seasonal, but without the coat, I’ve never seen him in anything other than his bright multicolored shirts. And I wonder when they’ll return, or maybe they never left, maybe at work he takes off his coat and out comes his vibrant orange and blue metallic shirt.

But I can only imagine. He’s still trying to find his seat. Every morning, winter or fall, it’s like an act in Kabuki theater. His face contorted to one look, so contorted it’s as if he embodies the spirit of a mask, and his body following suit. His legs stiffly spread wide to manage the swerving of the bus as it rumbles down the country roads, he walks in a unique manner, exaggerated and almost like he is unsure where he will sit. He does this every morning as the bus goes from the bottom of the off-ramp back to the on-ramp and onto the highway. He finds his seats and sits down. With his dark blue down padding, he blends in with everyone else. The drama dies and I fall asleep. When I wake up at my stop, he has long gotten off the bus. I walk the rest of the way to school. The sky is still grey and then fields are still an icy dark brown.

That was one month ago. Snowy days are still fresh in my mind, but it’s a bit more temperate. The mid-Korean winters are so enveloping that it’s easy not to be able to see past that season and imagine it as how your world will always be. But today is warmer and I’m a little more hopeful. Color hasn’t yet come back in the landscape but the sky is brighter and I feel a warm glow when the sun pierces the window’s bus seat. I still have a jacket on, because I still don’t trust the weather. The bus rattles down the highway away from the city. It leans and I see him. The bright orange and blue shirt, with highlights of silver.

 

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