The Technology Conference

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My weird co-teacher, Jay, invited me to what he described as a “technology conference” in Seoul. Having zero idea what that actually meant and it only being my first week in Korea, I acquiesced.

Jay picked me up at 7am sharp. There was an old woman riding shotgun. He would not introduce us, insisting she didn’t like foreigners, which was fine by me. She didn’t exactly strike me as a barrel full of monkeys.

The soundtrack of our trek was peppered with lurid descriptions of club-bound sexy twenty-somethings disrobing each other with their teeth. I doubt the old woman understood the lyrics, but she seemed to enjoy the beats.

The conference center was huge. A weird, beige device on a pedestal was being ogled by people in suits. I was woefully under-dressed. Before I got a chance to see the doohickey, we were escorted into a mammoth auditorium complete with jumbotrons and pyrotechnics. It must have seated thousands. It all felt vaguely cultish. Throw on a couple cloaks and mutter some Gregorian chants and you wouldn’t be surprised to glance to your left and spy a virgin girl being sacrificed to an ocelot-faced god with plesiosaur flippers on a throne made of spinal columns.

Jay tried to explain to me what was going on. Apparently we were about to hear from some American spokespeople. They would announce their future plans, present current financial holdings, award top sellers, and initiate new members. Jay told me that if I joined “his company” and worked for him I could make a profit if I hired sellers beneath me.

“So it’s a pyramid scheme,” I said flatly.

“What?” Jay was visibly disturbed. “No, no, no. See, we all work together to make a profit. You broaden your sales network so you move higher up and make more money.”

“That’s what a pyramid scheme is, Jay.”

“But isn’t that a negative term?” I realized I was meant to be his “in” into the American market and Jay was distraught at the prospect of losing me.

“Look, Jay, I’m not a salesman and it’s my first week at a new job in a new country.”

Jay went on about making money for a secure future and took me down to the front where I shook hands with a man who claimed to have been an ambassador to Israel before he started selling salesmen. “Right, pal,” I think I said, perhaps too audibly. All of the American speakers were like caricatures of sleazy businessmen from bad 80s movies. Yet the throng of eager followers filling the hall was completely taken in. The old lady from the car? She ate it all up. Miss Personality herself. I tried to imagine her sour puss calling her grandkids trying to peddle whatever techo-hokum this snake oil factory was barfing up.

“You know, Donald Trump used to own part of this company,” Jay said, still trying to entice me.

“I don’t really like Donald Trump.” I said.

“But…he is very rich. And he has a TV show. He is very famous. I don’t understand you, Jonny.” He called me Jonny. Jay hung his head, the dollar bill signs in his eyes fading, trying to decide if he was more confused or frustrated. He determined it was the latter.

The conference went on for—I shit you not—over eight hours. After the thirty-second sales award was bestowed to a dumpy middle-aged woman brought out on a palanquin covered in balloons paraded through a gauntlet of indoor fireworks, I left the hall and wandered the facility by myself. Jay was defeated. I found the pedestal that had been admired earlier. All this brouhaha over what looked like the world’s clunkiest answering machine.

“It’s a video caller,” a smartly dressed woman said.

“This is what they’re talking about in there?”

“Yes,” she smiled. “If you have this device you can see your friends when they call you.”

“So it’s like Skype?” Or Kakao or Facetime or any other of the hundreds of video chat apps already in use.

She began fidgeting. “In the future everyone will have one. This screen let’s you see your friends or family.”

The screen looked like a pixelated 1990 computer monitor compressed to about 3-inches. I eyed the hefty price-tag attached to the antiquated gimmick box.

“You do know this is 2012, right?”

Originally published for 10 Magazine August 2015 issue.

Steel Mongolias

10mongolia color3There I was. Astride a brawny steed at full gallop, advancing across the vast Mongolian steppe with naught but a screeching eagle soaring above, suspended in a sky the color of eternity. My nose and lungs filling with the purest, most manly, thick air imaginable, and an endless, impossible horizon before me, the edge of which daring the gods to contain it. But before all that I was in Ulaan Baatar.

I sat in a rundown little bar sipping something local. The American photographer sat across from me doing the same. An older Mongolian gentleman sat in the booth behind, schmoozing a pair of gracious escorts. The photographer and I tinked our bottled beverages and soaked in the atmosphere.

Above us hung a vivid painting of a Mongolian hunting party depicting a horde of charging bearded men in full armor on horseback, swords drawn and bows poised, as they released a pitiless onslaught of arrows, dogs, leopards, and birds of prey upon four tiny fleeing antelope.

A member of the staff approached the old man behind me. Angry words were exchanged. The escorts attempted to dissolve into their seat cushions. The waiter left as the man spat and tossed a shoe.

The mood settled once more. The two women began to press the old man, gently, to leave. He was having none of it and, before they could drag his boozy hide out the door, he broke free of them, lurched toward the bar and began shouting at the steadfast barkeep. The old man pulled (what I took to be his bill) out of his pocket, tore it up, and threw the confetti at the proprietor’s face.

The escorts had vanished. The photographer stopped swigging, mid-quaff. My buttocks tightened. The other drinkers remained in suspended animation.

The slaps that were then exchanged between the old man and the barkeep needed no translation. The old man went behind the bar to puff his chest into the chest of the owner. Soon, several drunk and very large tavern patrons stood up, blocking our exit. Within seconds it was a real life saloon fight. Shirts were ripped off, tables were knocked over, chairs were thrown, and more slapping was heard echoing in the tiny chamber. Curiously, not a single punch was ever witnessed my entire time in Mongolia, but the naked torsos of all men involved were brutally adorned with the red imprints of the persistent slapping.

As the bar battle waged on, we sank into our chairs and pretended we didn’t notice—fearing our far feebler bodies might be enlisted to join the fray. “Don’t turn around,” warned the photographer through lips stiffer than a crowbar. A plastic bill of fare whizzed pass our heads before it shattered against the wall.

As the bar brawl seemed to reach a feverish delirium, the old man from the start gave the waitress a savage spank on the rear she before dash into a broom closet. He followed and slammed the door. She quickly ran out. The old man was alone in the closet. The world froze. He returned within seconds, cackling to himself and holding a birthday cake, its many candles already lit. Before we could obtain clarification on what had just happened, the man returned to the closet and shut the door. We never saw him again. The shirtless brutes simmered down and the bar became normal again.

In a corner I could have sworn the alien band from the Star Wars cantina scene began to play as a spider-faced janitor would have swept away a severed arm.

A staff member approached our table, nonchalantly straightening his hair and torn shirt. He made a gesture to apologize for the commotion and proffered a small piece of paper. I turned it over. In crude English it said, “from the two ladies” and included a phone number.

We did not call the escorts, however, we did go to another bar down the street where, amazingly, yet another fight broke out.

Mongolia is a grizzly bear-lumberjack dressed in Ernest Hemingway’s skin injecting straight whiskey directly into its eyeball with a rusty ten gallon syringe. And it is wonderful.

Originally published for 10 Magazine February 2015 issue.