Monday, September 14, 2015

Choga

Benjamin plodded along Bleecker Street headed west toward Sixth Avenue or Avenue of the Americas as it had been dubbed in 1945 by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. That was before Benjamin had come to New York in the 70s. Benjamin had come to The Big Apple to seek his fortune, but it isn't clear just exactly how that turned out. Clearly, Benjamin was not wealthy, and as he walked along Bleecker he noticed how much it had changed when it was the center of the burgeoning music world of jazz, folk, and rock clubs that peppered the street with thousands of visitors milling around seeking the latest acts. Now the clubs had been replaced by drugstores and banks, The Village Gate was barely a memory, and Bleecker was becoming bleaker.

As Benjamin crossed La Guardia Place, he glanced up at a place that had almost been like a second home to him, a tiny Korean restaurant named Choga, up a flight, above The Bitter End.  It was closed now... not exactly boarded up, but empty and lifeless.

Benjamin paused, and for a moment he felt inclined to struggle up the steps as though this might magically make Choga reappear. Maybe something like that should happen, he thought. Maybe like Brigadoon, Choga could appear every hundred years when something magical might happen to people who came looking for adventures in the Village.

For Benjamin, Choga was a place of enchantment. The owner and cook was Mi-sook who had come to New York from Jeju Island, by way of Daegu. She added a regional touch to her Korean offerings, not that Benjamin would have known, since although he liked Korean food, he had no experience beyond Korean Barbecue and Kimchi. Mi-sook's repertoire was far more varied, and she often cooked custom dishes for her friends that never found their way to the menu.

Benjamin had been introduced to Choga by his  friend and colleague, Andrei, a composer from Romania. Benjamin regarded Andrei as the first true world citizen he had ever met. Andrei used Choga as a gathering place for friends to make plans for outrageous events in the village. Now Andrei was gone. Choga was gone. Benjamin felt as though his world was disappearing.

As he looked upstairs at the empty space that had once been Choga, he noticed the name and logos were still in place although it had been closed for almost a year.  October was near at hand, and the Village seemed poised for a celebration of Autumn and the end of summer. Benjamin remembered the many feasts and celebrations in Choga with his friends. He had met Mi-sook because he had been talking about someone he had heard about called Mi-sook, and the waitress told her boss that someone was talking about her at one of the tables. Mi-sook came to inquire, and all at once they became old friends as though they had already known each other from another time.

Choga had closed suddenly, without warning, and Benjamin frantically tried to contact Mi-sook, but she had disappeared. He and his friends had so many celebrations of events, happenings, birthdays, and holidays, that it was hard for Benjamin to imagine his life without his second home. Every Sunday night he would have dinner at Choga and contact his friends through his smartphone. It had become a ritual. He even documented the many different dishes and posted them on FaceBook. Mi-sook had introduced Benjamin to Makgeolli, Korean rice wine, and would often offer an especially rare brand "on the house," for special occasions.

It was very quiet on Bleecker. Night was coming. Benjamin waved at the upstairs as though Mi-sook might be looking through the window. Many times she had watched him walking on Bleecker and waved to him. He felt a rush of emotion and tears welled up in his eyes.

What had disappeared was more than a restaurant. It was a way of life, a brief reality so precious that he never realized how fleeting and transient such treasures can be.  If only once he could embrace that reality, celebrate it.  He tried to keep such moments vividly alive, but Time erodes such corridors of permanence.

This is how it happens, he thought. We continue to remember even as we  disappear.

Even so, Choga would always be a place he would return to in his mind, a haven for remembering some of his best moments and friends. As he continued along Bleecker he picked up his pace and smiled at people passing by. Benjamin felt something was enduring there on Bleecker Street. Despite the many changes eroding our sensibilities, there is substance to the past that shapes the present. He heard an echo of Choga resonating even as it faded into history... seemingly lingering forever.


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