Down one alley off the main Itaewon stretch there was a bar in a basement called The Old Crane. People could never really tell if it was named after the bird, as it was in Seoul which was in Asia so people assumed it was quite likely to be the case, despite the distinct lack of cranes. Sammy, the so-called owner, maintained he had no idea where the name came from. He was one of those fairly nondescript looking middle aged Korean men. He was short and tubby, and always wore black trousers pulled up over his hips hugging his belly, and a single coloured polo shirt tucked in tight. It was his hair though that made him famous, always immaculately combed back over his crown with badger like tufts of grey on each side, and always immaculately waxed and combed. He would wear it with much pride and was often seen fixing it in the bar mirror throughout the night. He had bought the bar ten years before I met him, and at the time he didn’t have the money to redecorate the interior or pay for a new sign, so he just left everything as it was. Regulars who were attracted to the dark bar usually came for the live music, always rock and always good, the anonymity, and a chance to look at the long legs of the bar staff, all of whom were young women and all of whom were employed on the pretence that working here would be a great opportunity to practice their English. Sammy encouraged the wearing of short skirts and shorts as, he insisted, the customers would be more inclined to strike up a conversation. To keep them happy they also could drink as much as they wanted while working. After he got lucky in a game of poker, the type where it was rumoured the ownership of expensive cars, restaurants, and golf club memberships were often put on the table, Sammy eventually had enough money to redecorate. Three quarters of the way into the bottle of Richard Hennessy he’d bought to celebrate his success two regulars who’d been drinking in the bar since before Sammy ran the place convinced him that customers preferred the sticky carpet, dark corners, and drunk university students behind the bar. Before Sammy could see sense he had taken up an invitation to another card game and subsequently lost every Won he had won the night before. Since then the regulars who had so inspired Sammy had left the country, apparently recruited to Kuwait to help source bacon locally for the US troops stationed there preparing to go to Iraq. Sammy had not spent any money on the bar since, except on light bulbs and stock, the latter being where he could be found indulging himself in when not checking his hair in the mirror. The bar was often busy, noted for the vibrancy of its live stage, but because of the poor wiring and old fuse board, there were nights when the whole bar would be enveloped in darkness and shards of broken glass littered the floor from exploding light bulbs. After this started to happen regularly Sammy splashed out on a generator which he hooked the fridges and PA up to, and for the rest of the bar he passed around nightlights. A flashlight was taped to the non-functioning sprinkler pipe which ran across the ceiling. This served adequately as a spotlight for the musicians on stage. Much like everything in that part of Itaewon though the old businesses started to be bought out by new and aggressive entrepreneurs. The story goes that one afternoon Sammy was seen locking the door behind him and picking up a small hold-all. He was asked what he was doing and he looked up aggressively then pushed past staring into the ground and muttering curses. The bar didn’t open that night, and a week later there were workmen coming in and out. Before most people knew The Old Crane was closed, a shiny new sign appeared that read The New Crane, with an elegant looking bird wading through the high-rise of Seoul. Most assumed Sammy had gotten lucky in the cards again, but the new place had no sign of Sammy. Apparently it served decent fusion tapas and there was a DJ there on the weekends. Sammy was reportedly seen last in Dongdaemun selling knock-off Calvin Klein underwear. What was left of his hair was still combed as perfectly as possibly, although he had lost a lot of weight. He stood at his stall wiry and wizen faced trying to ignore faces which look familiarly at him. The late nights and Hennessy had finally caught up with him.
– Conor O’Reilly