A Profitable Slum

Mr. Fab Carves Out a Kingdom

As a man with a streak of the absolute monarch in him, Mr. Fab was willing to put the world on the rack if he could gain by it. But that was not necessary. He needed only sacrifice us, the unlucky inhabitants of a derelict building he had discovered in upmarket Munich.

The anomaly of a slum building in the thriving Bavarian city could mean only one thing: absentee landlords. That lame caboodle had clearly recouped its investment some time ago and hoped only to go on collecting rent from uncomplaining tenants until the building collapsed; or it had been hoodwinked by a criminal house management who had learned it could pocket hefty administration fees by merely withholding information about clogged furnaces, faulty wiring, leaky basements, missing fire extinguishers, and defunct garbage chutes. Whatever the cause of the building’s conspicuous dilapidation, it was exactly what Mr. Fab was looking for.

That Mr. Fab did not seek out honest competition should not surprise. There was no fun in that. There was also the chance he would not measure up; but give no credence to that thought since Mr. Fab awarded it none. His priority was in establishing sole sovereignty. If it was to be over a pot of slops, so be it. The single condition was that he be uncontested. But there we all were in that sty. What about us? Our presence he discounted. We were stupid enough to live there; we deserved whatever we got.

Mr. Fab’s first move was to acquire three leaky, long-vacant shop rooms facing the weedy overgrowth that enclosed the rear portion of the building’s courtyard. He then promptly violated the building code by renting those rooms out to a theater. The building code prescribed all commercial space be let to businesses that operated during lawful business hours and remained closed – inactive and quiet – evenings and weekends. The theater held well-attended performances that had theatergoers swarming through the courtyard long after the city’s 10 p.m. “Nachtruhe” went into effect.

As Mr. Fab hoped and expected, no one said a word. The tenants were of exactly the stuff he had counted on: ignorant of city ordinances, unaware of the building code, or too timid to lodge a complaint. Good. It meant his ridiculously profitable deal with the theater would go unchallenged, while the theater gained enormously as well. It was paying a lot less than any approved theater space in Munich would have cost. Offices had been thrown into the deal, rehearsal rooms, and – strict fire laws notwithstanding – a private parking lot. Yes, Mr. Fab had rented out the back of our courtyard to the theater for parking, worth gold in the middle of a crowded city, gold that slipped right into the entrepreneur’s pocket. Things were looking up. He had chosen his rotten log well.

It was the compromised parking rules that awakened the first glimmer of doubt in the minds of some tenants. Parking wasn’t allowed back there. Parking wasn’t allowed anywhere in the courtyard. Signs posted all over the property clearly said so. But cars were being driven in and parked back there all day long, every day, the same cars, cars that must belong to the theater people or the theater people would have put a stop to it, which they didn’t. This then was no occasional breach, but illicit appropriation of the courtyard for the theater parking at the expense of residents’ safety, seeing as those cars, in case of fire, would block passage of fire trucks.

The house management was informed of the violation. That august office responded with silence. The house management was notified again and yet again. License plate numbers were included in the correspondence. Cell phone photos of the vehicles were added as well. The house management did not answer. Other people started parking in the courtyard. Why not? It was free. No parking meters. No time limits. No parking spaces to fit into. No one cared. No nothing. Hefty protests went up. After a few years, a barrier was erected to keep cars out. Cars continued to park back by the theater. Apparently the theater people had keys to the barrier. Why would they have keys? The matter was reported to the house management. No response. Soon, theater staff found it too troublesome to lower the barrier after driving through. The courtyard now had a barrier that remained open for months at a time. Angry letters arrived at the house management’s office with photos of the raised barrier. The barrier went down and stayed down for about a day. On arriving the following morning, the theater people raised it and drove in. The barrier stayed up once again, for months.

Tenants chided themselves to be reasonable. They had their lives to live. They couldn’t spend Sunday afternoons leaning out their window to ascertain that, yes, the barrier was still up. How much did it bother them really? A lot. But they tried to ignore it.

Trivial as the violation was, it alerted tenants that something was not quite square about things in the building and that it involved the house management. After all, it was clearly its responsibility to see that rules, especially fire ordinances, were obeyed. But it didn’t. In fact, it turned a blind eye to an offense that would have been simplicity itself to resolve. Why? The question rankled in the minds of the tenants for as long as the affair of the open barrier persisted: years. But by then new things were happening to show just how insignificant a problem the open barrier really was.

All things come to an end. After over 20 years of noisy domination, the theater abruptly moved out November 2013, to be as promptly replaced by a theater school, which we all assumed was associated with the skedaddled theater. The noise in the courtyard increased as did the frequency of the disturbances. Rather than mass rallies for theater performances every month or so, the students gathered daily to practice screaming, singing, shouting, breathing, grunting, and combat. In good weather, they practiced their moves in the courtyard, which continued to serve as a parking lot, apparently for the school now. And after being shut for about a week during the transition of occupants, the barrier went back up and stayed up.

Evenings proved to be a special strain for tenants, as the tired thespians took to sitting outside until 2 a.m., voicing their fears and aspirations to fellow students while practicing the volume and range of their voices which they had learned that day. They may have considered it their homework. Sedate, long-silent tenants began shouting out their windows for quiet, police were called repeatedly, the house management was again notified. None of it had the slightest effect. Only one thing had changed: the tenants. They had reached their limit.

I must reveal at this point the reason why the tenants had become so changed. It was not because of that open barrier. Something momentous and awful had occurred. Just as the theater was moving out, the adjacent shop space, long vacant due to leaks and bad odors, became the focal point of intense activity. From October 2013 through April 2014, the courtyard served as a bustling supply depot and parking lot for trucks, vans, delivery vehicles, and workmen’s cars. Sensing something significant afoot, the residents tolerated the noise day in and day out for nearly eight months until catastrophe burst upon them. Over the course of a late May weekend, all vehicles and supplies were whisked away. Early the following Thursday, the new tenants began arriving in droves. During the course of that fatal morning, an ethnic club boasting over 1,000 ethnic members took possession of that single, modest room in a very ethnic way. They brought food, drinks, picnic tables, chairs, and children, and for three full days and nights, ate, drank, and reveled, as their children raced screaming through the courtyard. That courtyard was their greatest coup. The room held 50 people if they were squeezed in; members’ eyes were on that courtyard, which had cost nothing and was destined to see more action than the room ever would. As members spilled happily out onto its pavements, they gloried as well in seeing their children finally exert themselves to their heart’s content untrammeled by parental supervision; no need in that courtyard, and how much easier to get those kids into bed when they finally did get home. That location was a dream come true.

The tenants stood at their windows, horrorstruck. What had happened? When would it stop? Would it stop? Sunday, June 1, broke. The day waxed uneventful. Residents held their breath. The courtyard remained empty and quiet. The ethnic club members did not appear. Towards evening the residents realized they were not coming. Glory be. For the first time that day, they breathed real relief. The respite was short-lived. The club members returned the following weekend for another two days of clamorous festivities, and so the pattern continued every holiday and every weekend thereafter. Residents began writing letters in earnest now, the silly barrier forgotten.

To his unpleasant surprise, Mr. Fab found that his rent was suddenly too high for the theater school as well. It gave as abrupt notice as the theater had eight months before. But having witnessed the ethnic club’s onslaught of the courtyard, the feckless defense of the helpless tenants, and the house management’s deaf ear to all, Mr. Fab had a wonderful idea. Good riddance to the students; they couldn’t go soon enough; he had already found far richer pickings elsewhere.

Within a week of the school’s hasty evacuation, signs appeared in the darkened windows of the abandoned rooms that no one could read. They were in Arabic.

All hell broke loose. The tenants became militant. Organized action was initiated. Investigations were made, questions raised, a lawyer hired, tenant associations contacted, and angry demands advanced. As a result, the man behind all the turmoil, Mr. Fab, became known, along with many other disturbing facts, such as: Storage rooms owned by Mr. Fab had been transformed into dormitories, six refugees to a room. Other storage rooms housed families. Electricity and water had been illicitly tapped to deliver unmetered supplies to Mr. Fab’s migrant lodgers. Toilets had been installed and connected to downspouts. People were cooking in there. The air in the building’s hallways had become rank and fetid, utility costs exorbitant. We now knew why. But stopping Mr. Fab, though known, turned out to be a mysteriously difficult affair.

Although legal proceedings have been initiated, they crawl along when they stir at all, with the house management curiously throwing its weight Mr. Fab’s way whenever it does make a move. Legal paperwork sent its way drops out of existence for a season before reappearing to trigger the next step in the process. Official inspection of Mr. Fab’s properties was delayed for months, with excuses issued from the house management that Mr. Fab was ill, and ill again, and ill again. By the time the inspection took place, the commodes flushing into downspouts had been replaced with regulation chemical toilets. What a surprise.

Mr. Fab must still answer why he is using storage rooms as dormitories or instructing the refugee club to drill holes through the floor to satisfy environmental ordinances for kitchen drainage. But he falls ill regularly, with the house management making his excuses for him, while our legal costs mount and residents continue to writhe on his rack, the open-air nightclub, that is stretching their patience to limit. In the meantime, he calls us Nazis while emphasizing his virtue in hosting the wretched of the earth when no one else will. That he’s extracting thousands every month from those wretched for unsanitary, windowless, airless accommodations is skipped. But he knows his secret is safe; no one knows for sure how much he’s getting from those wretches. But I do know one thing: if they weren’t wretches, he’d be out of business.

We may lose this contest. Mr. Fab is a wily guy. We’ve lost one resident already, a Greek, gone right around the bend. He lives on the second floor directly over the ethnic arena. The children’s screaming, the incessant cell phone shouting, the hurly-burly of drunken bingo nights transmit directly into his single room, which faces the action like an unclapped stadium seat. I heard him complain last year long and bitterly about the daily disturbances he had suddenly become exposed to and had approached him to ask if he would help us by signing our petition. His refusal was as vehement as his complaints had been. He didn’t want his name to appear anywhere on anything. He didn’t want anyone to ever be able to say that he had ever said a word against children. Nor did he want to be associated with us or informed of our progress. So I left him, and didn’t see him again until one afternoon last week.

To my mild greeting of whether everything was all right for him back there now, he erupted: “The filth of the world lives here. Right here. In this building. There’s no cesspool on earth like this one. Right here. In this building. Everyone in this place is filth. The whole place is filth.” The single sentence I managed to get out was that we were suing, hoping to hearten him and gain his support now. His ranting only intensified. “I don’t care. I don’t care. Do you hear me? I don’t care. Fuck off.” The tart road apple wheeled and was gone.

His words didn’t alarm me so much as the aspect of his tense face, the white eyebrows that had a year before been so black, the furtive, frightened eyes. Yes, the Greek was lost to us. But we still had our main man, our eyes and ears, our fount of wisdom, our janitor, Mr. Death – as his name translates from the Hungarian – who never leaves the cluttered furnace room, where he enriches the stale, oxygen-poor intake of air by filtering it assiduously through cigarette after cigarette. This rock is the single impartial witness to the fact that those chemical toilets indeed stand where makeshift toilets had for months been flushing raw sewage into downspouts (something the house management saw but, scrupling to appear “partial,” won’t say).

“He won’t get away with it,” Mr. Death reassured me. “I’m still here. The Hungarian Nazi.” “And I’m here,” I rallied. “The American Nazi.”

But Mr. Death was wrong on both counts. First, he’s no longer here. Laid low with a lung infection, our loyal janitor was finally coerced into going to the hospital Friday. They pumped 1.7 liters of fluid out of his lungs. He is out of commission now, yes; but will he ever be back in commission? His health has not been so good. How will our legal process fare without our Hungarian Nazi, the one man who might have testified against Mr. Fab about those toilets and thrown a wrench in the machinery of this minor mafia? Because without that testimony, Mr. Fab might indeed get away. In fact, the sum of what Mr. Death told me that afternoon brought into focus a picture that had been fuzzy for a long, long time, not a nice picture, indeed one in which Mr. Fab rides away victor.

Waxing loquacious, Mr. Death had divulged that no one would ever report Mr. Fab for any violation whatsoever, certainly not the house management. No one dared stop him, he expatiated, because if environmental agents were called in, they’d find so many violations that the landlords wouldn’t get away with a fine of less than a million euros. Those walls hid violations at every turn and in every cranny, breaches that had been accumulating ever since 1980, when the apartments had been sold off as condominiums to greedy landlords who had been paying a house management ever since to do nothing, owners who certainly had no intention of getting caught out now. Mr. Fab had divined that from the very beginning, banked on it, conscientiously informed his peers of the situation at every opportunity. He had also taken care to mention to the house management that it would be square in the landlords’ sights for hefty lawsuits – if as nothing else than as scapegoat –should anything turn up as having gone wrong during their 25-year watch, and of course that’s when it had all gone wrong. Yes, Mr. Fab would get off scot-free if for no other reason than to protect all the others. That’s how one half of a fortune is made.

No, we will probably not prevail against Mr. Fab. And how silly of us to have considered him the cause of so huge and multifaceted a tangle. His offenses were simply the most flagrant ones, springing from virulent contempt for us. That shows bad judgment on his part, but he’s only served as unbidden catalyst, accelerating the ruin of a building the landlords have long been bracing themselves for by stashing away the cash we residents pay out every month for our ride in this trash heap. That’s the other half of the fortune. Do we accept?

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