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first person

Illustration by Soozi Schlanger

Master Kim’s Taekwondo Studio is directly across the street from my second-floor walk-up apartment. A massive neon advertisement flashes 24/7 from its huge picture window storefront – now pink, now green, now pink – and its reflected colours illuminate my living space – now pink, now green, now pink – every day and all day, and more significantly, every night and all night.

Bold, pixilated, neon letters roll back and forth.



One day, soon after Master Kim opened shop, I walked in to ostensibly welcome him to our downtown Toronto neighbourhood.

I began by telling him all about the local history, describing the different waves of immigrants and entrepreneurs who had run thriving businesses here, from my father’s postwar kosher fish market to the many successful hipster coffee shops.

Master Kim was standing in a formidable, fight ready, relaxed pose. He was staring a hole right through me. Master Kim could smell an ulterior motive a mile away.

After some feeble attempts at small talk, with me doing all the talking, I got to the point.

“Ummm ... I just was wondering ... do you think you could please turn off your sign when you close up? The lights shine into my apartment all night while I am trying to sleep.”

I can’t remember if I even heard him say the word, “No.”

I left quickly and was behind my own front door within minutes wondering, what was I thinking?

That summer, through my open window, I heard Master Kim barking orders. Looking out, I saw young children in their white uniforms bowing in obedience for Master Kim, sparring for Master Kim, sitting quietly in rows for Master Kim. Parents, in awe of Master Kim’s disciplinary prowess, watched with gratitude and envy.

In time, like all who encounter Master Kim, I too surrendered. I gave up fussing about the flickering fluorescents.

At night in the emptiness of the city’s first lockdown, with so many businesses closed up, at least there was some activity across the street. And I was grateful that the window at Master Kim’s Taekwondo Studio still lit up the neighbourhood in blaring, rhythmic colour.

I watched how the pixels created meaning. I anticipated which word would come next and sometimes, for a fun morale booster, I chanted along.

I woke with the neon mantra and fell into sleep with the neon mantra. At night, from my attic bedroom, I watched incandescent ghosts of green and pink dance across my stairs.

Their pulsing reflections lulled me to sleep.

For many months, I, like most of us, have been staying indoors in self-isolation. I keep busy thinking, praying, worrying, cooking, eating, vacuuming, looking and listening.

I watch my world getting quieter and quieter. Over the years I have seen a lot of businesses change hands on this street. But now I am watching my neighbourhood’s effervescence slowly evaporate.

Over at Thirstea Bubble Tea, I no longer see gaggles of teens taking selfies while slurping up nuclear-coloured liquids. Shuttered.

At the popular Chung Chun Rice Hotdog, there is no lineup for rice dogs on a stick. Shuttered.

People who walk by, the few that do, walk with purpose, heads down. They are trying to get home fast. No ambling or window shopping or snacking. With so many businesses closed, street life slows down to a crawl. You can virtually see the silence.

On what used to be a busy and noisy street, Master Kim’s wonderfully annoying sign has, thankfully, been holding down the fort.

In this recent lockdown, regardless of the fact that no classes had been conducted for weeks and weeks and weeks, being that Master Kim is not yet deemed an essential service, the neon keeps on optimistically rolling this way and that, now pink ... now green ... now pink ... 24/7 ... the message becoming more meaningful with every day.

The ubiquitous words flashing across Master Kim’s storefront have been something to hang onto, even something to believe in.



During this unnerving pandemic, in search of an anchor or an answer, I can’t help but think of my parents’ unimaginable struggles, their resilience and their dignity. What would they say about this moment in history? In my mind, I review my father’s well-worn Second World War Siberia survival stories and all the useful advice he passed along such as, when choosing your bunk bed in a prison camp, always choose the top bunk. Otherwise, on the bottom bunk you will not only have your lice to deal with but all the extra lice falling down from the guy above.

Plus, perhaps more applicably: Be strong ... don’t let yourself go ... get out of bed and be a mensch, make sure you take care of your health ... wash ... get dressed ... don’t let your mind control you ... you alone control your mind and remember to be smart and be friendly.

Master Kim says it somewhat differently.



But I am sure my father would agree.

One night, while looking out my window and scanning the neighbourhood, the outside seemed darker than usual.

I heard myself gasp!

Not Master Kim.

The window was blank. Master Kim’s Taekwondo Studio – shuttered.

Many more sad, sullen, colourless nights passed by. No lights to cheer me up. No words of encouragement to ground me.

I pulled the blinds and rarely looked out the window.

Then, one late winter afternoon, my cat and I took a long, cozy catnap to cuddle against the cold.

I woke up to see her white fur illuminated, now pink ... now green ... now pink ... now green.



My guiding lights were back.

Just when they were needed the most.

Soozi Schlanger lives in Toronto.

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