The awning above Young-sik was hardly large enough to shield him from the sun, as he leaned forward on his stool to begin shining the shoes of his current customer.
They had to be a businessman or some other white-collar worker, judging by the fedora and heavy gray suit that caused them to sweat excessively even in the shade. However, rather than remove a layer of clothing as would be wise, they instead pulled out a handkerchief to dab at their damp forehead, before stuffing it back into their pocket.
Young-sik found this mildly infuriating in more ways than one and sought to broach the subject as politely as possible.
"Sir, I can't do my job if you keep moving. Just take off your jacket if you feel uncomfortable."
The man acknowledged his presence for the first time, by glaring harshly down at him.
"Absolutely not. It would be indecent, and I am not some tramp like you."
They shoved their shoe rudely back in his face for extra measure, and Young-sik knew that he needed to tolerate it, no matter how much he wanted to quit and walk away.
After all, he had a duty to help support his family, and he could always complain later to his friend and coworker Kyung-soo. The two of them had both dropped out of school a couple of years prior and then became shoeshine boys to make themselves useful somehow.
As someone who had never excelled at academic pursuits, he'd initially found it liberating to work and earn his own money. It allowed him to occasionally afford luxuries such as ice cream, and at some point last year, he'd even made enough to buy a ticket to see the film Breaking the Wall in a theater.
He didn't think that he would ever forget the excitement of watching actors move and speak on the screen as if it were real life, and what it had been just as pleasing, was the fact that the film hadn't contained a single ounce of the garbage that was Japanese nationalism.
Unfortunately, polishing shoes for countless strangers every day had a way of becoming tedious beyond belief. He now longed desperately for a change, he'd even begun to envy his sister Young-ja for staying in school. After all, she was destined to work a comfortable job as a teacher or secretary for a few years, then marry a man of their parents' choosing and spend the rest of her days as a coddled housewife.
He'd be lucky to get a factory job and earn barely enough to feed his future wife and children. It would be a miserable existence, and as a result, he figured that it'd be wise to treasure these years while they lasted.
Still, he couldn't help but imagine other possibilities, as he finished polishing the businessman's shoes and beckoned for the next customer to come forward.
He'd lived in Seoul for all of his life, and a part of him still hoped to travel beyond the city's boundaries someday. His grandparents had originated from a village over a hundred miles to the south and migrated here before the birth of his parents, so it struck him as unjust that he should be forever confined to the same place.
Then again, the circumstances had been much different back then, with men such as his grandfather being forced by the Japanese to help build a railroad that stretched all the way to the port city of Pusan.
In contrast, he was a young man living in a liberated country, and he guessed that one had to be grateful for such good fortune. Perhaps, when this division between North and South was resolved, his parents would allow him to travel and resettle wherever he wished.