5. 2023, The Wild Wild West

Sound the alarm

After weeks of pesky insomnia, I vowed to lie down early.

Just as I had finished my nightly routine and turned out all the lights, I heard a commotion on the street below.

“Come out!” came a woman’s voice.

The area where I live is not particularly famous for its safety so I assumed this woman was calling out someone to fight. I’ve seen stranger things in my neighborhood.

But the rustling and yelling continued so I grudgingly wiggled off my fold-out mattress to peep out the window.

I was shocked to see that everyone in my apartment building had gathered in their pajamas in the street.

Is this… is this a fire alarm? I wondered. Should I go outside? I debated, weighing the merits of staying indoors and waiting for an actual alarm.

Knowing Korean safety standards I groaned, threw a padded jacket over my pajamas, grabbed my valuables, and headed to the stairs.

Gathered there were at least six firemen.

“Go on outside,” they told me. I bristled. Why didn’t you bother to knock on my door and tell me to get out? Why are we relying on some woman yelling outside? Why doesn’t my building have a fire alarm??

Annoyed, I squeezed by the men and pushed my way outside where I waited with a motley group of strangers.

The tenants of my building were an odd bunch: all Korean, none in their 20s. I had assumed there would be more students given that this apartment is a short bus ride away from SNU but it seems we all gathered in Sillim-dong for the cheapest rent.

I waited on the corner near a man in flannel pajamas.

Another man, perhaps in his 40s, wearing an Adidas track suit and cap, approached me and explained in English, “A drunk guy was trying to cook food and ended up starting a fire. Everything is okay now. There’s no need to worry.”

I didn’t know who this man was yet was grateful for his explanation.

Until he told me which room it was.

“207? That’s the room directly under mine.” I felt another surge of annoyance for the firemen who didn’t bother alerting the tenant directly above the fire.

Worse, the firefighters weren’t even hot. If I have to stand in the cold in my pajamas, at least give me something to look at!

Two policeman rolled up a few minutes later and I took that as a cue to take a walk around my neighborhood while my building did or did not burn down.

After my second pass, the firemen had started to disperse and my landlord, who had magically appeared, said everyone could go back inside. For a moment I pitied him, then I remembered how he used a bar of soap to “fix” my A/C and the pity dried up.

I followed the crowd back into the building, but there was a trio gathered on the second floor.

One policeman stood talking solemnly to the landlord and… the track suit man.

When the track suit man said a drunk guy started a fire, did he in fact, mean himself?

Despite walking slowly to eavesdrop, I couldn’t solve the mystery, though two weeks later in dramatic turn of events I would find out exactly who he was.

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