The staircase leading up to our neighbor's front porch is crumbling. The paint is flaking off and splinters of wood, sometimes whole boards, are falling onto a patch of garden alongside our house. This has been happening since Mrs. Lederer's death three months ago, almost as if her life force, even away in a nursing home, were the only thing holding her house together.
Mrs. Lederer was a landlady in the classic mold: crabby, penny-pinching, and suspicious. You couldn't get a smile from her even on a fine sunny May morning. But strangely enough her tenants seemed to like her. They didn't appear to mind the rats in the basement or the thin damaged walls partitioning off the apartments or the creaking floorboards.
Maybe they appreciated rather than liked her: Mrs. Lederer was an accommodating landlady in one very important respect. While others raised their rents with the changing seasons, Mrs. Lederer stayed with the status quo. Let the toilets crack, let the pipes rust, but Mrs. Lederer was not going to disappoint her tenants in the simple contract she established with them: if you want cheap rent in Old Town, don't complain about minor inconveniences.
Mrs. L. was descended from the solid old German stock that has inhabited Chicago since before the Fire. But for her, appearances were really only skin-deep: she maintained only the outside of the building, and as cheaply as possible. A man came every spring and painted the front steps with gray paint, the trim with green. Piled up over the decades, this dried-out stuff was full of bubbles and bumps but disguised any flaws that might attract a city inspector. And when the bricks on the side of the house were on the point of falling out, Mrs. L. called some illegal immigrants and had the place tuck-pointed cheap.
The front of the yard was kept free of leaves and litter through the efforts of Anna, a grossly underpaid and overworked servant who remained mysteriously loyal to Mrs. L. It was through Anna that we got most of the dirt about our neighbor. Anna had only to appear on the front stoop for those of us with nothing better to do than collect gossip to surround her. And Anna was only too happy to spill the beans.
"She don't trust me. In all the 30 years I worked for her she never gave me a key. She don't trust nobody. Not even the banks." Here Anna would lower her voice and look around. "She keeps her money in a trunk. It's true! How do I know? Because now she don't feel so good I'm the one collects the rent. Every month I collect the rent and bring it up to her. I hand over every penny--I wouldn't touch a cent of it. But she shouts at me, 'You're stealing my money! You're a thief!'
"Sometimes she makes me go in to clean out her closet, and all the time I'm in there breathing her dust she's screaming, 'What are you doing going through my things? Stealing?'"
"Why do you stay?" we yell.
Anna looks surprised. "Because she needs me. She's old and sick."
"But if she's so horrible, why do you care?"
"I couldn't never leave her. Sometimes I get so mad I say, 'The way you treat me I should leave.' She pulls at my sleeve and says, 'Please don't do that. I would die without you.' She couldn't do nothing without me."
News of the breakdown of Mrs. Lederer's health reached us through one of her tenants, a sturdy young man who occupied the basement apartment and spent his weekends repairing cars. He found her in the alley one morning, lying on some ice. She was so thin, he said, that at first he took her for a pile of old clothes. Coming closer, he discovered his landlady and saw that she was breathing; he scooped her up and carried her around to the front entrance. Anna was standing there, pressing the doorbell and wondering if the old lady were dead inside. They found a key in Mrs. Lederer's battered handbag and carried her up to bed. When she regained consciousness, the young man reported, she said she'd slipped on the ice and lain in the alley since the afternoon of the day before. He shook his head: "She's a tough old bird."
An ambulance came and took Mrs. L. to the hospital, where the doctors found not only broken bones but other, more serious ailments. From that time on she needed a wheelchair, which Anna pushed, for trips outside her house. First Anna would appear at the front door, then carry the heavy, old-fashioned contraption (lightweight ones are expensive) down the steps. You could see the old lady following slowly, clinging with both hands to the railing of the steep staircase, forcing her bony frame to descend one agonizing step after the other. Pasty white in an old green coat and hat with a feather in it, she would sit rigid in the wheelchair or loll off looking like death while Anna pushed. Once when I stopped to say good afternoon she surprised me with a ghastly leer that might have been a smile. In her German accent, she actually spoke. "Nice weather. So nice. I'm not well. Not so good. So bad, this government. If I let them they would take everything. So bad."
Through the invalid years Mrs. Lederer kept a tight hold on her affairs; tenants changed from time to time, but the apartments (there were five) never stayed empty for more than a few days. Her business was thriving even though she wasn't.
The old house next to hers, which had a big garden on a second lot, was torn down, and a billboard went up picturing an impressive edifice: the Cleveland Street Mansion. This building was to fill the two properties right up to their borders. A variance was needed, and a paper arrived for Mrs. L. by special messenger. Anna reported that Mrs. Lederer gave orders not to accept the letter: she was against signatures of any type, Anna said, and against the intrusion of strange documents into her house. There followed a period of frantic phone calls from the developer, calls the lady hung up on. When the calls persisted, Mrs. L. refused to answer the phone at all. One day the developer came in person to her door and rang the bell. Anna was instructed to go down and tell him to go away. After that the developer used every device to get through to Mrs. L.--the mail, Western Union, Federal Express, leaflets promising increased property values for neighbors of the Cleveland Street Mansion--but nothing worked. What was the reason for this adamant resistance? we asked. Was Mrs. L. prejudiced against ostentation? Was she secretly an environmentalist, demonstrating against wall-to-wall buildings? None of these, Anna told us. "She just don't like to sign her name to nothing. And she doesn't want me doing it for her neither."
In time the calls and visits ceased. The billboard disappeared, and there was no further action in the empty lots next to Mrs. Lederer, which grew over with weeds and wildflowers and were inhabited by peaceful birds until Mrs. Lederer's demise. Only in death would the old lady cease to be an obstacle to progress.
When Mrs. L. became bedridden, Anna performed the duties of a nurse. "I do such terrible things I don't even want to tell you. Everything I do. I mean everything. And she don't pay me hardly nothing."
"Demand to be paid properly!" one neighbor said.
"Every time I say something, she tells me I'm in her will and I'll get some good money when she's gone." Anna sighed miserably. "I don't know if I'll last. I'm not well myself anymore."
Indeed Anna had become quite gray, not only her hair but her skin. Yet nothing stopped her from reporting daily to Mrs. Lederer, ringing the bell like a supplicant. She was never given a key.
A family began to appear. A daughter on crutches almost as feeble as her mother, walking painfully up the steps, and her husband, an Oklahoma farmer. The man was tall, bald, and heavy and drove an enormous white mobile home that took up three or four parking spaces. He stopped me at my gate one day to announce with a triumphant air that Mrs. L. was to be moved to a nursing home. He gave the impression he'd been waiting a long time for this, and asked my opinion of how much I thought Mrs. Lederer's house would sell for.
After they left, Anna told us that Mrs. L. was not about to give up her rights, and nothing was going to change. Both Mrs. L. and the son-in-law had reminded Anna that if she stayed on and kept the place clean she would be handsomely remembered in the will.
In another six months Mrs. L. was dead, and not long afterward the tenants began to pack out. The tall, blond young woman in the front apartment filled her car with bicycles, athletic equipment, and a Chihuahua. The young man in the basement loaded black bags and cartons full of automobile-repair equipment into a big old Chevy. People in the back apartments took their toilets with them, saying Mrs. L. had refused to get the old ones replaced so they had done it themselves and the toilets were now their property.
More members of Mrs. Lederer's family appeared: two younger Oklahomans and a few women who might have been their wives or sisters. The men were even taller and heavier than their father, with thick black beards, the women spry and skinny; all of them dressed in T-shirts and jeans. Their van was even bigger than their father's, and they backed it up across the sidewalk to the bottom of the front steps. They thundered up and down to the second floor, bearing furniture, dishes, small electric appliances, and Mrs. Lederer's trunk. The junk they deposited in the alley: a sizable amount of carpeting, green with yellow flecks, and heaps of drab clothing. I noticed that even the scavengers rifling through our garbage cans took a pass on Mrs. Lederer's throwaways.
After a few weeks we saw Anna again, looking feeble and pained, scraping at a mess of autumn leaves. She was more bent than she used to be, and as she worked she shook her head from time to time as though in sorrow. The gossip freaks gathered as usual for whatever scraps they could pick up.
"The house is sold," she said. "Cheap because it's rotten inside. They gonna do it all over from top to bottom. He's an architect."
She shook her head and sighed deeply. "Those people are no good. Stingy, just like she was. Last week they took me out--that son-in-law and his son. You know what they did? They gave me lunch, then they wrote out a check. Five thousand dollars. After all those years and what I done for that woman."
"So why are you here, raking this place up?" I asked.
"You can't leave all these leaves like this. The snow will come, then they'll never get them up."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.