We thought we knew all about living in Chicago. We’d visited our friends there for years. And, with a few exceptions, most of them had lived in reasonably nice places—friendly neighborhoods like Lakeview and Wrigleyville. We were familiar with the shotgun layout, the two-flat, the neighborhoods. So when we picked out the N.S. Avenue apartment, we thought we were all set. It was, the mendacious rental agent assured us, in the last stages of renovation, but the landlord would have that finished by the time we moved in. For whatever reason, we believed him.
It was never finished, but we lived there anyway for three years.
Our landlord, Squirrelly John, was an apparently overwhelmed man who lived in the 847 area code. He never got around to finishing the molding, covering the holes cut in the hallway wall for ventilation, and so on. He never offered an explanation for his bizarre renovation choices, such as the odd narrow passage behind the bedroom that was to pass for a closet, or the two lights stuck awkwardly to the wall in the bedroom, uncomfortably high above the bed. But the place had many nice features. It had three bedrooms and was located on a tree-lined street in a quiet neighborhood. E. and I could both have our own offices and there was room to spare for friends to stay. There was even a back yard (uncultivated, alas) where we could cook outside.
The building was a two-flat and we had, over the years, an array of downstairs neighbors. A week or so after we moved in, I was sitting on the front porch when two young men appeared. They were S. and A. and it turned out they were from Bloomington and knew some of our friends; this helped us all feel more at home. They had NeXT computers and the Smiths wailed from behind their door when we would come home at night; one night they had a party and we caught them and their guests doing the bunny hop.
After a while S. and A. moved out and an older single guy moved in; he seemed friendly enough, but I was kept awake nights by the throbbing bass that reverberated upstairs from his apartment. After a while he was replaced by two hooting frat boys and their foosball table. We disliked them at first, but eventually we all developed a survivors’ camaraderie.
In that apartment I learned the nature of living in Chicago. We arrived in the summer of 1995, when hundreds of people in the city died in a heat wave. As a result, I made E. buy our first air conditioner, a window unit that we wheeled over on a dolly borrowed from the appliance store across the street. One autumn night winter blew in with a vengeance and I lay awake listening to the rattly green fiberglass that held the porch together bang against the wall. In the morning, the friendly voice of the radio surprised me; I had expected the house to blow down. And in the winter, long cold dark nights forced me, finally, to learn how to cook.
It wasn’t all bad, though; we learned how to have parties. Our first party was a housewarming in November 1995, centered on E.’s famous chili. The success of this event inspired us to birthday parties, Christmas parties, and so on. We started hosting the family Christmas and that year my mother came to visit me for the first time in four years.
Because of the light, the roominess, the location, and the price, we swallowed our misgivings and stayed there longer than we should have. Over the years we learned to grow accustomed to the wrong things. We learned to live with lines of dripping brown goo that oozed down the chimney and down the wall by one of the air ducts, staining the walls and leaving a perpetual small puddle in the hallway.
We coped with the way the dampness wreaked havoc on the bathroom wall and made the paint there peel away in strange, bubbling patterns. The dripping was worst in the winter, when snow melted on the roof. In the summer there was mold. Scrubbing the walls, we called Squirrelly John often. He often promised the leak had been fixed, but it never was.
But still we were reluctant to leave. And so it came as a rude shock one Friday morning in 1998 when the carbon monoxide detector started to beep almost inaudibly. The manual said “call the fire department,” so we did, and within minutes there were five or six firemen in our apartment, throwing windows open and running downstairs to bang on the neighbors’ door. (S. and A. were long gone and the foosball guys had moved in.) “Lucky we woke him,” said one fireman with grim good humor. “That guy coulda woke up dead!”
We learned that the water heater in the basement had exploded, and a rag stuffed in (to “fix”) a gap in a duct in the basement had gotten wet and had caused exhaust to reroute through the house. We had been about to leave for the weekend, so if we hadn’t noticed the detector beeping, the neighbor and our cats might have been gassed. It was a chilling scenario.
So we decided to leave in the spring. And then came the sucker punch: A month later, on Valentine’s Day, we came home one night to find our door kicked in and our apartment ransacked.
Next: Woke up this morning, got myself a broom.