Two Latino guys in their early 20s, one heavyset, the other thin, are sitting on a stoop, staring at the two-story house across the street.
"The old man that lives there, kids used to come by and throw sticks at him," says the big guy. "At least that's what I heard. They said the house is haunted."
"How could it be haunted?" says the thin guy, who's eating nachos and has a spiderweb tattoed on his left arm.
"From the old man who died there, his spirit."
"Who told you that, man?"
"The woman who lives there."
"It's not true."
"I've been in this neighborhood for 19 years, and I'm telling you it's haunted."
"Whatever," the thin guy says. "Anyway, a lot of people be comin' to see this house. Buses stop by all the time. I saw a guy come out three years ago. He was wearing khaki green, like a one-piece work suit, and a hard hat. He put up some crosses. He hasn't come out since, I don't think."
"Nobody's gone in there that I know. Just the people that live there."
"You don't know anything."
"Shut up. I do too."
The house across the street is wooden and rickety. It sits 50 feet back from the street on a deep lot near the corner of Chestnut and Ashland, and it has a backyard and a run-down coach house. Virginia Zaraza and her brother Mitchell live there. Twenty-one years ago Mitchell set out to transform the house, and the gawking has never ceased.
Front, sides, and back, the house is covered with brightly colored wooden crosses, plaques, and coats of arms, all in shades of red, blue, and yellow. More crosses rise from the ground in front of the house. Some are topped with red wooden hearts. Others bear the names of old movie stars and characters from medieval legends or merely heroic adjectives: "Unique," "Supreme," "Marvelous."
The yard and house look impenetrable. Barbed wire covers the backyard fence, and its gates are nailed shut. A series of doors and gates, chained and padlocked, guard the front door, the steps to which bear the names of Mickey Rooney, Mark Anthony, Cleopatra, and Tim McCoy, one on each step. Others honored on walls and crosses, some more than once, include Tyrone Power, Zorro, Tarzan, Chicago Queen Jane M. Byrne, Sabu, Boots, Merlin, Galahad, Guinevere, Zygmund, Doris Day, and Anne Baxter. One plaque reads "Alligator Love." The crosses and plaques creep behind the house, into the yard, and onto the coach house, then dribble toward the back alley. On the front of the coach house, barely visible from the street, is the largest cross of all. It's red, with gold letters that read "EXCALIBUR."
Mitchell used to put up his crosses in broad daylight and even posed for pictures. But according to neighbors, his legs were amputated two years ago, and he hasn't left the house since. Virginia does the grocery shopping and runs errands around the neighborhood, but I figure it will be hard to get in touch with her. So I stop a girl who's walking down the street.
"The guy, he puts up every famous name when they die," the girl says. "Right now it's like he can't because he's paralyzed."
"Do you know Virginia?"
"Sure," she says. She walks up to the gate of the house and shouts, "Virginia! Virginia!"
An old woman wearing a T-shirt appears in an open window. She looks tired. "What?"
"There's a man who wants to write a newspaper story about your house!"
I don't know what to say.
Virginia rolls her eyes and says, "Whaddya want to know? It's eccentric art. People have certain crosses to bear, certain disappointments. We've lived here for 51 years. It expresses yourself. It's your freedom and your right to express yourself. It's not at all about religion. My brother's not that religious. It all grew out of our love of old movie stars. We used to go to the Chopin theater at Milwaukee and Division. We got in two for a nickel sometimes. We don't have stars like that anymore. Sammy Davis Jr.--there's nothing like him. All of the old stars aren't dead now, but they might as well be."
She turns her attention to the girl, who's still standing beside me. "Did you find Mishu?"
"Yeah, we found him."
"You know that the grocery store right here has a cat just like Mishu. Just a little bit smaller."
"What's the cat's name?"
"I don't know."
"Mishu's two months."
"It's just like Mishu, except it has one blue eye and one green eye. Mishu has two blue eyes." Virginia turns back to me. "Why don't you interview the girl? Why don't you ask her what her name is?"
I ask. Her name is Joylynne Dominguez, and she's ten years old. Virginia suggests other questions I could ask, but Joylynne skips off down the street. I ask Virginia if she wants to come down and talk.
"No, not me."
I can barely hear her over the traffic.
"They call it Mitch's House," she says. "Mitchell hasn't been feeling too well lately, so he can't talk. It all started when the pope came to Chicago 21 years ago." She points to a plaque decorated with a faded picture of the pontiff. "Mitchell was encouraged by people, and he did more and more. He was going to keep it up better, but then he got sick. He will though. He will. He'll be back." She points toward a 1950s black Lincoln Continental parked in front of the house, with the license plate King M. "That's his car there. He also has a giant cross in storage. King Kong is on it. It's Mitchell's masterpiece. He's going to bring it out some day. The hearts represent his love for everything."
She gestures toward some letters on the side of the house that read "FRANCHESKA." She says it's the last thing Mitchell put up. She's starting to look really bored. "That's from The Bridges of Madison County. That's even before the movie came out. It's like he was psychic."
"Why all the security?" I ask.
"Why?" she says. "Because people would just come in our yard. They wouldn't leave it alone."
I look down at my pad to take some notes. When I look up she's gone. "Hello?" I shout. "Virginia? Virginia?"
I sit down on a ratty ottoman that's just outside the fence and look up and down Chestnut Street. About half the houses are creaky relics with crumbling steps and yards strewn with garbage. The other half have new brick facades, wrought-iron gates, and security buzzers. I take some more notes. When I look back up at Mitch's House the window where Virginia was standing is closed.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.