He was a star athlete in basketball and football. I thought table tennis was a sport. Ladies would buy him shots at the bar. I once worked up the courage to ask the prettiest girl in my class—if she wanted to borrow my notes. He had a magnetic personality that would draw in our peers by the hundreds. And I had magnet Bittorrent links, downloading movies by the hundreds . . . of kilobytes . . . per second.
And so that second year in law school, when Vinay asked me to be his roommate, I was beside myself. Sure, we had our differences, but it was our similarities that brought us together. Chief amongst them, we wanted to live in the fanciest building in Washington, DC but at a cheaper rent than all our friends. Our sights were set upon the Alban Towers.
The building had everything we needed. Inspired by the National Cathedral across the street, stone gargoyles adorned the entrance, a grand piano greeted you in the lobby, and the roof overlooked all of DC. The common area was massive—easily accommodating Vinay’s attractive friends—and it had free wireless, which I would magnify to ensure our apartment had free wireless. As for the apartment, the jewel in the crown was a very thin hallway that led to our massive living room, or as we’d come to call it, the third bedroom.
Converting the living room into a bedroom allowed us to “ghetto the system,” a verb we created early in our friendship, bringing our individual rents well below $1000 a month.
And so began our revolving door of interesting living room roommates—or the “others” as we’d refer to them—Lost was a popular show at the time. There was Quiet Milosh who worked for the state department. He never spoke a word to us but we could hear him on the phone from midnight to 2am speaking a harsh foreign language. He used a pocketknife to cut vegetables and slept covered in an elaborate blanket—red, white and blue adorned with a two-headed white eagle. Our imagination ran wild. Perhaps Quiet Milosh was a mason whose ancestors had helped build America. We’d later find out it was the flag of Serbia and this led to a new house rule. If any potential roommates said they worked for the government, we’d now be sure to ask “which one?”
There were roommates with funny names like Joy Storm, who attempted to teach two Indian kids from New Jersey about the body’s natural chakras, or as Joy would pronounce: “shakras.” Others would try to sneak in pets. But the one I will always keep close to my heart is Han.
Han was from South Korea and had just emigrated to the United States to become a French chef. Vinay and I would be his first experience living with Americans. Our interview of him was swift. We were about to gain a roommate who wanted to cook dinner for us every day, was willing to pay a higher rent than either of us, and agreed to dividing the living room in half—one being his bedroom and the other half being a common space for us to have dinner together. His only caveat was, and I quote, “At 4am, I have to wake up and sharpen my knives.” Once he moved in, we slept right through the knife-sharpening and marveled at his unimaginable routine.
Han worked in his French restaurant from 430am to 930pm and arrived home at 10pm only to begin cooking the next day’s dinner for Vinay and me. While he cooked, Vinay and I would drink boxed wine and give Han our not-so-gourmand feedback on how he could improve on our prior meal. Han would fall asleep around 1030pm, the sounds of Vinay and I playing NBA Jam cutting through a thin chiffon Japanese folding wall that separated him from us.
Word spread around the law school, Vinay and Adi have an indentured immigrant who barely speaks English living in a corner of their living room who cooks for them and for no pay. The optics did not look good, but what scared me the most about this rumor was that most of it was true. In fact, the only thing that wasn’t true was what little credit they gave to Han’s English.
But such a thing is not meant to last. A few months into Han’s stay, I got the call.
“He Han. Han left, bro.”
I had seen 7 missed calls from Vinay and called him back after finishing Con Law.
“What do you mean he left? He leaves every day. He sharpens his knives and he leaves.”
“No dude. He left. He’s gone. There’s a note on the floor near your door. I can only read some of it but I can’t pick it up. You need to come here right now, bro.”
I drove back home and walked up to the building. The gargoyles jeered back at me as I passed through the entrance. Vinay had injured himself playing basketball earlier in the month and was in a cast and crutches. This is why he couldn’t pick up the note from the ground. I performed this most remedial of tasks for my athletic role model and read the note aloud to the both of us. It was in Han’s most formal attempt at English.
“Atidya and Viney, I feel very sorry for you guys. Mom came from Korea and saw me. We packed and leave today. I hope I remember you both. Security deposit is yours. The future is yours. Next time we see each other; I hope to cut you something nice. Han.”
So maybe his English was as bad as the rumors.
“The future is ours?” I asked and handed the letter to Vinay.
“I think he meant furniture.”
And that was the last we saw of him.
As karma would have it, I graduated in 2010 and arrived into a job market that was unforgiving. At first, I refused to give in, moved into the very same living room and took on every odd job I could find—somehow convincing myself that holding a clipboard outside the DC metro was legal advocacy.
All my proud attempts to ghetto the system ended in me just ghettoing myself. Eventually, I realized it was time to return home to New Jersey. On that last day in DC, I couldn’t help but think of Han.
He singlemindedly chased a dream regardless of what it cost or who might be taking advantage of him along the way.
It’s a simple lesson in the end: when the going gets tough, get up early, sharpen your knives and know when it’s time to move on. Because the future is yours.