- onNovember 11, 2014
- Vol.17 Autumn 2012
- byKim Junghyuk
Records state that the Neotown Union of Building Managers was officially dissolved in August 2007, but it still survives as an underground organization. It was an underground organization even before they disbanded—the managers always lived underground—but now they have taken cover under perfect darkness, the underground of the underground, the pit of the world. No other organization in the history of mankind has fit the description of “underground organization” so perfectly. The building managers of Neotown call themselves SM, a title that originates from that unforgettable incident of April 2007 called, in official SM parlance, the Battle in the Dark. SM is short for Slash Manager.
The Neotown Union of Building Managers differed slightly from the usual building managers’ association found in most cities. Gopyeong City’s Neotown was comprised of small buildings lower than ten stories—multi-purpose buildings for the most part—that were clustered closely together, rather than the high-rise that has become standard for modern apartment complexes. The Union was formed, in part, to deal with the unique challenges posed by this style of development. A problem in one building would spread to another building with the speed of a computer virus. An abnormal pressure rise in the outdoor units of one building’s AC system meant that someone from a different building was sure to complain of the same problem before the day was out. This was inevitable as all the buildings were built around the same time and according to similar plans. The Union of Building Managers was formed not to protect the rights of the tenants but to protect the building managers from mass complaints or questions from the tenants. As has been the way with all organizations since the Earth was created.
The first president and founder of the Neotown Union of Building Managers was Gu Hyeon-seong. He would have actually made a better president of the Association of Megalomaniacs, if there was such a thing, except he had no idea that he was a megalomaniac. As has been the way with all megalomaniacs since the Earth was created. An architect by training, he enjoyed sticking his nose in everybody’s business and was a member of the Neotown Organizing Committee as well as a sponsor of the Gopyeong City Architect’s Association. It puzzled the people of Gopyeong City as to where Gu got all of his money.
“Gu’s favorite word was ‘repairs.’ He called it a beautiful word. He said, ‘There is no way to build a perfect building. Only repairs can make a building perfect.’ Don’t you think that shows how much of a perfectionist Gu Hyeon-seong was?” says Lee Mun-jo, the man rumored to know Gu best. Lee was the Union’s co-founder and official No. 2 man; however his was a title in honor only compared to the organization’s No. 1 man. Gu Hyeon-seong was a millionaire that owned seven buildings in Gopyeong City, while Lee was merely a glorified maintenance man. Lee was more Gu’s right hand man than anything, and it was he that took care of most of the day-to-day practicalities. Building management was something like a hobby for Gu Hyeon-seong. With all of his money he still insisted on living in the maintenance room in the basement of his building, and was wont to say that he knew of nothing more entertaining than managing buildings. Neotown was built in 1991, and the Union of Building Managers was founded a year after in 1992. From 1992 to 2007, Gu and Lee ran the Union successfully for fifteen years. Nobody rebelled against their dictatorship, nor ever questioned their decisions. Until the Battle in the Dark of April 2007, that is.
Gu Hyeon-seong was nobody’s favorite, but nobody could deny that he had built up Neotown almost single-handedly. Gu strived to make Neotown a world-class destination. He threw himself into the entire process, overseeing everything from building plans to promotional strategies, so that within three years Neotown earned both the title of ‘Best Area to Open a Real Estate Office’ and ‘Best Area for Business’ as voted by real estate agents across the nation. Gu even wrote a book on the subject following the success of Project Neotown. From Basement to Rooftop, Building Management 101: All Buildings Are the Same was written for the building managers of Neotown, but as its fame grew as a work of genius that redefined the way people thought about the city and buildings it became the definitive tome for building managers everywhere.
Building managers especially liked “Chapter 23: How to Change a Fluorescent Lamp.” Unlike the rest of the book, this chapter reads almost like a work of fiction with its detailed description of ungrateful tenants that assume building managers are born knowing how to change fluorescent lights and the mortification building managers suffer changing fluorescent lamps under the watchful eyes of said tenants. The author also included helpful yet easily overlooked tips such as how to gauge the temperature of a lamp without touching it, how to insert the tube into its socket, and how to open large shades with ease. It was a huge comfort to building managers simply knowing that somebody understood their plight. Indeed, one could say that the Union of Building Managers’ success under Gu’s leadership was largely due to the success of From Basement to Rooftop:
“We know that the light will burn, but still we reach out. We wonder how long the lights have been smoldering, flickering on and off; we imagine how hot they must be, but still we reach out. We have no choice because the tenant is watching. The tenants think that we are born with unnaturally thick palms. They think that our gloves are made of ice. They think that we cannot feel heat. The best thing we can do is to change the light and get out of the house as soon as possible. We reach out to fight the heat of the fluorescent lamp. If anybody asked me what could possibly be lonelier than a flickering fluorescent lamp, I would say us.”
To celebrate the book’s publication, Gu invited the building managers to a reception at which he read the above passage out loud. One building manager was reportedly moved to tears. From Basement to Rooftop sold over 400 thousand copies and remained on the bestselling list for a long time. The book provided the general public with its first glimpse into the job of building manager. Of course this prompted some to point out that it also served as the catalyst for the Battle in the Dark. The incident could have been averted if nobody had laid the building manager’s profession bare for all to see, the book’s detractors said. But the deed was done. When a book is read by over 400 thousand people it should be no surprise if one of them chooses to interpret it to the disadvantage of others.
The foreword of From Basement to Rooftop starts with the interesting question, ‘Since when do building managers live in the basement?’ In his research on the history of building managers, Gu Hyeon-seong discovered that building managers used to live on the rooftop or on the highest floor of the building. Over time they were moved steadily downwards until finally being relegated to the basement floor about ten years ago, which according to Gu closely correlated to the change of the building manager’s status. Contracted security companies usually hire four guards and one building manager per ten-story building, and in the early days of building management the power wielded by one building manager was equivalent to that of four guards. This applied to the building manager’s salary as well. Building managers enjoyed their heyday back when small buildings under ten stories were going up willy-nilly, but then computers and CCTVs started to replace them. Formerly the highest authority of a building and its tenants, the building manager’s position was reduced to that of a maintenance man changing fluorescent lamps and air conditioner filters and unplugging sinks. From a certain point it became accepted practice to allocate the maintenance room of a small building to its basement. Gu concluded his foreword with the following sentence:
‘Even now, building managers are slowly suffocating in the turbid air of the basement with no proper ventilation.’
At 10:00 PM, April 14, 2007, Yoon Jeong-woo, building manager of Home Safe Building, was trying to placate the tenant in No. 605. The issue was noise. The tenant in No. 605 was a woman in her mid-twenties living by herself who complained that she could not sleep at night because of the noise next door. No. 604 was occupied by a couple of newlyweds that had been married for three months, and the sound of them having sex traveled through the walls every night. The squeaking of bedsprings, the woman’s sighs interspersing the squeaks, punctuated by the man’s heavy breathing every now and then. When the woman reached orgasm she screamed so loudly it could be heard throughout the entire building. Yoon Jeong-woo was well aware of this, as he too had heard the woman’s sighs when passing their door in the hallway. Ten days ago, upon receiving No. 605’s complaint, Jeong-woo installed four sound absorbers on the wall the tenant shared with No. 604. The sound absorbers proved ineffective. Yoon Jeong-woo wondered if he should install more sound absorbers or add a one-inch layer of compressed sawdust fiberboard insulation. Any experienced building manager would have chosen more sound absorbers without a second’s doubt, but Yoon Jeong-woo had been on the job for barely four months. He was still fresh from the Building Manager’s Academy where he had been taught that installing a one-inch insulator and a sound-absorbing plaster panel was the only acceptable response to this kind of problem. This solution, however, required major construction. The woman in No. 605 complained bitterly about the noise. She had not had any sleep for three nights, she said. That was when the lights went out. All the lights in Neotown went out at once. The woman in No. 605 screamed, and the entire building hummed with the sound of people wondering what had happened. The entire building had been plunged into darkness instantly. The building next door was the same. Yoon did not know how to react. He tried to think of the appropriate response to a blackout, but the lights in his head had turned off as well. Yoon apologized to the woman in No. 605 and headed for the maintenance room in the basement.
Yoon Jeong-woo remembered how the name “Home Safe Building” had appealed to him the first time he heard it. He would have chosen to work at Home Safe Building over dozens of others if that had been the case. Yoon considered himself very lucky to have gotten the job at Home Safe Building. On his first day of work Yoon gazed with satisfaction at the word “Home Safe” engraved above the front gate of the building. He assumed that the owner of the building must be a baseball fan. In baseball, a baserunner is safe when he reaches home base before the ball. What did a person have to outrun to be safe in a building? He liked his job protecting Home Safe Building. It made him feel like a catcher in a baseball game, or a goalkeeper in a football game. I’m going to save all the tenants, he said to himself with a fist pump. It was a habit of his to compare everything to sports.
Yoon berated himself for not bringing a flashlight as he headed down the dark stairs. He had come as far as the third floor when he saw a light in the hallway. Several people were standing around with flashlights. Yoon shouted out in the darkness toward them.
“We’ll have the power up soon. It’ll only take a little while.”
One of the flashlights shone on Yoon’s face.
“I’m your building manager, Yoon Jeong-woo. Could I please borrow a flashlight? I have to go to the basement and it’s so dark.”
Three of the flashlights shone on Yoon’s face at once. The people muttered something to one another in the darkness. It was hard to hear what they were saying. The three people went back into their apartments. It was a response to be expected. Not many people recognize the face of their building manager. They might recognize a security guard they saw every day, but one could hardly expect them to recognize a building manager they saw a few times a year and do him a favor. And it is harder to trust somebody in perfect darkness when one cannot even see one’s toes.
* Translated by Cho Yoonna.
Kim Junghyuk is a writer, film critic, music columnist, and cartoonist. He has received the Dongin Literary Award and Lee Hyo-seok Literary Award. French editions of his books include Your Shadow Is a Monday (Les ombres du lundi), Zombies (Zombies, la descente aux enfers), Wandering Bus (Bus errant), and The Library of Musical Instruments (La bibliothèque des instruments de musique) published by Decrescenzo éditeurs. English editions of his books include The Library of Musical Instruments published by Dalkey Archive Press.