For those of you debating the merits of an additional lung full of air, I have excellent news. Step down from the balcony railing; it’s too soon to jump. I am currently working on a book. A hard cover photographic collage entitled “Korean Lavatory: Modern Impressions (2012-2013)”. This 365 page coffee table monster contains photographs of little or no documentary or artistic merit, but which instead portray the daily lives of ordinary citizens by capturing in photographs the aftermath of their most intimate moments. Pre-production run individual copies have already been printed to serve the clamoring celebrity book review market and world leaders and church leaders and those highbrow name-droppers at the New York Times Book Review. My agents are already setting up talk show, and internet, and radio interviews. Ordering information for this book will follow on a need-to-know basis. What I can tell you now is that this will be a limited edition heirloom publishing project with each book individually numbered, accompanied by a holographic Certificate of Authenticity, autographed by me, and accompanied by an 8×10 glossy photograph of me in a purple swimsuit, coconut oil rubbed all over my glistening muscles, riding a horse on the beach in Jeju-do. Look forward to adding this piece of artistic literary history to your investment portfolio.
Anyway: there will be three book categories–the Standard, the Legacy, and the Friend of Jake.
1. The Standard edition will be published, printed and bound using the highest quality materials, design and construction. The price per book will be $196.00 each (USD only, no KRW). Shipping to western countries will be approximately $67.86: shipping within Korea will be $33.43 via quick-service motorbike.
2. The Legacy category editions will be leather bound with diamond studded embossed letters in elephant ivory and gold. They will be printed on calfskin parchment with vellum separators between the pages. These literary additions to your investment portfolio will be delivered by a parachuting Gangnam room salon whore in an electric purple vinyl microskirt trailing pink smoke bombs. She will be guaranteed to be brainless and full of silicone add-ons. The book will retail for $6548.00. No discounts available for multiple orders, and only one parachuting whore per order. And if you damage the electric purple vinyl dress you are paying for it. Come on guys, don’t act like animals.
3. The FOJ (Friend of Jake) edition of the book will be identical to the Heirloom edition except in place of a parachuting room salon whore–I will be delivering the book. I will knock on your door, I will introduce myself, I will hand you the book, I will make eye contact, I will shake your hand, I will autograph the book, I will pose for pictures with your miserable family, and I will smile. You will become an FOJ (Friend of Jake). Cost per book: $73,251. No I will not have sex with you. Wait a minute . . . . ok, no I will not have sex with you. And no I will not be wearing an electric purple short vinyl microskirt. Wait a minute . . . ok, not sure about that. Anyway, come on guys; let’s be serious. This is all about writing. You wouldn’t ask Shakespeare to have sex with you, would you?
My second photo book project, due out in early 2015 is entitled “No Means Yes”, and features 365 pages of photographs taken in rooms of love motels in which the occupants have recently checked out. The used baby condoms, the blood, the sticky tissues and the rumpled and crumpled sheets tell the love stories of ordinary citizens through the eyes of a love motel cleaning lady.
As a service to my reader, I have included seven pages of “Korean Lavatory: Modern Impressions (2012-2013)” below with bonus commentary not available in the book. The entire featured week (December 4th through December 10th) was shot in a single communal restroom located in a modern Korean office building in Seoul. The photographs are taken in the men’s restroom exclusively. My wife’s friend’s husband who is a Korean police officer told me that taking pictures in the women’s restroom could be considered a “crime” but that men are offered no such protection in the men’s restroom. Double standards.
For the entire seven days spanning December 4th to December 10th, my colleague and I ventured back to the same two stalls in the same office building restroom, giddy with anticipation. What would we find today? Would it be something special? Something creative? Something artistic? What would the residents, employees and occupants of this building teach us about their characters and personalities? Let’s find out as the photojournalistic anthropological journey unfolds:
On December 4th we discovered a red liquid mess in stall number 3 of the building’s public restroom. This discovery was somewhat disappointing as the evidence in the nearby used-toilet-paper disposal bucket took any potential guess work out of the blood-red contents of the toilet bowl. It should be noted that instead of flushing used toilet paper, the Koreans prefer to discard it into a waste basket where it piles up until someone, usually an economically disadvantaged and/or old person, comes and cleans the waste basket. What we have here is a case of “Ramen Blowout”, which is common when a person quickly consumes spicy ramen on an empty stomach and the chemical/MSG combination fight their way through the intestinal tract like prunes through an old lady. The resulting “blowout” looks very much the same as what was originally consumed. The discarded bowl is a locally branded “Nongshim Shin Ramyeon” with the Han character “辛”, meaning “fiery” on the bowl. The aftermath at the scene does beg several questions, the most intriguing of which is ‘Did the man consume the ramyeon while simultaneously defecating?’ Did he throw the ramyeon bowl into the used toilet paper basket as a form of protest? Was the failure to flush, combined with the discarded bowl of ramyeon intended to be a type of warning for would-be consumers of Nongshim’s trademark spicy ramyeon? Or perhaps the perpetrator simply poured the ramen directly into the toilet, because it was too repulsive to eat?
On December 5th, we entered the restroom with great anticipation. The Ramen Blowout in stall number 3 had been cleaned during the previous night. In stall number 2, we were greeted with what appeared to be the entire stomach contents of a grown man. Long term residents of Korea will immediately spot something amiss in this photo, as the tell-tale pink or red tint of spicy local fare is missing entirely from this particular pile of vomit. The vomit is a grainy beige with pieces of rice and some darker wedges that could be some type of vegetable or fish, but are not easily identifiable. The only clue in the used-toilet-paper basket is a newspaper, which appears unrelated to the pile of vomit. As the previous day’s ‘ramen blowout’ was likely cleaned around 11pm, one can only assume that the pile of vomit in stall number 2 appeared at some point in the night after 11pm. The fact that the individual managed to make his way into a restroom at all hints that the owner of this pile of vomit possesses at least some modicum of shame, as many people simply choose to vomit directly onto the street/sidewalk or in public places as opposed to locating the nearest restroom.
We are however puzzled by the fact that the individual in question failed to lift the toilet seat. Perhaps he did not want to get his hands dirty? Perhaps he was overcome with emotion? Perhaps this was an act of revenge perpetrated against the 80 year old grandmother tasked with cleaning the restrooms in this building? It’s all speculation at this point. If you had the option to vomit (1) in the toilet bowl, (2) in the used-toilet-paper bucket, (3) on the floor or (4) directly onto the closed lid of the toilet, which would you choose? What would Jesus do? Note the angle of the pipe and flusher, the use of fiberglass resin to seal the stainless steel piping to the porcelain bowl, and the looks-like-it-was-made-with-a-sledgehammer hole in the wall.
December 6th brings us back to stall number 2 where the vomit has now been cleaned and the age-old question of “If you dropped something in the toilet, would you fish it out?” has been answered for us. At first, this scene had us scratching our heads, but we quickly deduced the events leading up to the scene portrayed in the above picture. From what we gather, the owner of the slippers defecated in the toilet of stall number 2, and then, not wanting to touch the flush lever with their hands, attempted to perform the flushing operation with their foot. Unfortunately things did not go as planned and the slipper ‘slipped’ off and landed in the toilet. The only thing more awkward than a man with no slippers is a man with a single slipper, limping back to the office. Hence, the second slipper was left abandoned in its place and the owner returned to the office minus both slippers. The 80 year old woman who cleans the restroom will at least have some type of usable souvenir left over from today’s activities.
December 7th has my colleague and I reporting back to stall number 2, where most of the action has been occurring in this three-stall restroom in Seoul. Today, all hell appears to have broken loose and my colleague and I jump back after swinging open the stall door. Could this actually be happening? There are so many things going on that determining the chronological order of events is nearly impossible. First of all, though hardly visible in the pictures, there are shoe/slipper prints on the toilet seat facing outwards towards the door at a 45 degree angle. The perpetrator of today’s display chose to perch on the toilet seat and squat as opposed to sitting on it, which considering the previous days findings, might have actually been the best thing to do. The perpetrator’s trajectory, however, was all wrong and it looks as though they hit the lid with some light liquid fecal spray before readjusting their footing and hitting the seat with some more solid fecal spray. No attempt was made to clean the resulting spray, and uniquely, the perpetrator has abandoned Korean tradition and has discarded the toilet tissue directly into the toilet bowl, again failing to flush. The red fluid is either ramen blowback, or blood from a ripped intestinal wall. It appears that the offender did try to clean some of the red liquid from the right side of the toilet, but whatever effort was applied towards that endeavor was minimal, leaving us with the chaotic scene above. Sweet Mary Mother of Joesph, my colleague and I are not religious men, but after December 7th, we both burned our clothes and bathed in holy water at a local church.
December 8th catches my colleague and I off guard as we had prepared for the worst, the events of December 7th still fresh in our minds. Surprisingly, the disaster from December 7th has been completely cleaned up and we are pleasantly surprised to find the water in the toilet bowl to be clear. On December 8th, we are greeted with another familiar Korean tradition; dribble spitting. Dribble spitting is something that Korean males seem to learn in either middle school grade 3, or high school grade 1. Dribble spitting often goes hand in hand with smoking cigarettes. The culprit will typically squat close to the ground and smoke. Between drags, they will dribble spit from their mouths and onto the floor until they’ve created a pool of spit. Our dribble spitting friend, perhaps due to the cold weather, has violated the building’s ‘No Smoking’ policy and partaken in this favorite past time in stall number 2 of this building’s restroom. My colleague and I are mystified at the two large puddles of spittle, with but a single cigarette butt in the toilet (again, no flush). Two large puddles of spittle would usually require about 10-15 minutes of smoke-spitting, however we were only able to locate a single cigarette butt in the entire stall. Perhaps the perpetrator prefers spitting to smoking as opposed to giving each of his hobbies equal time. My colleague postulates that the offender was engaged in a phone call while smoke-spitting, and thus he had more time for spitting and less time for smoking.
December 8th, and we are back in stall number 2 which has become somewhat of a reliable old favorite for us. Today we have what appears to be a backed up toilet. Legend has it that the low water pressure and relatively narrow nature of Korean sewer pipes means that Korean toilets are incapable of dispensing with soggy toilet tissue. This is why you will typically find a used toilet tissue waste basket next to most Korean public toilet bowls. The mystery, however, is how toilets inside 20 year old apartments somehow seem to have the flushing power to dispense with toilet paper, as do toilets in nearly every single hotel and motel, while toilets in relatively new office buildings do not seem to have this same flushing ‘power’. Good examples would be the Grand Hyatt, JW Marriott, Sheraton Hotel, Ritz Carlton, Best Western, W Hotel, 7 Luck Casino etc, none of which have used toilet tissue waste baskets in any of their restrooms. The only logical assumption is that these places must have their own individual water treatment and sewage systems, built to international standards. But what of the people living in 20 year old apartments? Do they also pile used toilet tissue into buckets, and then dispose of it with the rest of the household garbage? Speaking of which, today we also find a small bag of trash that has been discarded in the used toilet tissue bucket. This is a big no-no in Korea, and is the primary reason you do not see any public trash cans anywhere outside of subway stations. Back when Korea had public trash cans, residents would take the trash from their apartments and dispose of it in the public trash cans at night time. They did this to avoid paying for the color-coded trash bags required by the government. The next day, you’d find overflowing trash cans lining the streets and subsequently piles of trash would form on sidewalks, creating a perfect place for rats to burrow and multiply. Hence, no more public trash cans in Korea.
December 10th, and we’ve completed our entire week of observations in this particular restroom. Today’s findings are another empty ramen bowl in the used toilet tissue bin, and a bag of potato chips discarded directly into the toilet bowl. Again, the lack of public trash cans in Korea results in trash being secreted in various creative places. The fact that this individual chose to discard the chips directly into the toilet instead of the used toilet paper bin is perhaps a form of social protest. One of my Korean friends once told me that middle aged men in Korea often act rudely in public as a way of expressing their frustration with being socially ostracized. Their children dislike them, their wives only need them initially for sperm, and later for money, and once they hit 50 years old, they can look forward to being laid off from their jobs early and desperately searching for employment at any number of low-paying, degrading jobs. Perhaps littering is kind of symbolic. Or perhaps, this person was simply eating a bag of chips as they defecated, and once they finished and flushed, they deposited the empty bag into the toilet bowl. Eating in the restroom is strangely common and puzzling at the same time.
December 11th was an interesting bonus, as we encountered some vomit in the lobby waiting area of the building. This vomit contains the trademark spicy red coloring of local food, and someone has been kind enough to try to wipe some of it up with a newspaper. We found more piles of vomit outside. Outside of this building is a Shinhan bank, where every morning, approximately 5-7 piles of fresh vomit can be found. Every morning at around 7am, an old man, probably the building manager, comes out with a large bag of light colored sand, and deposits sand on top of the fresh vomit piles. I assume he does this because bank customers have complained. Or perhaps he does it to keep the pigeons away, as pigeons are attracted to the vomit piles and Koreans are generally scared of pigeons. It occurs to me that there is no natural source of light brown sand anywhere near this building, and thus, the building manager probably has to go out and buy this sand or collect it from somewhere. Perhaps there is an entire industry built around the covering up of vomit piles in Seoul. Perhaps there is a kind of warehouse where they sell shovels, and fresh sand, and burlap bags to building managers all over the city to manage the near ceaseless piles of vomit that would otherwise cover every sidewalk and street of the city. I’ve also seen the Shinhan building manager use the sand to cover up the area on the outer wall of the bank where taxi drivers urinate day and night. I assume that this is to get rid of the smell, which no doubt offends early morning customers. Seoul is a city of a million stories. The people who battle to keep the city clean are fighting a fierce battle, and are outnumbered greatly by people whose sole quest in life seems to be to bury the city in as much human waste and trash as possible.
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