At the age of 11, I was the editor, publisher, chief correspondent, and paperboy for a mimeographed sheet called the "Eagle," which reported all the news of my block in Lansing, Michigan. I believed this to be the most local publication of all time, until I saw 1544 West Grace, a seven-year-old zine that comes out two or three times a year and is devoted to life in and around a Lakeview two-flat.
The latest issue includes a gossip column, "The Tenants," which reveals that Barry, one of the two Irishmen living downstairs, just bought a new Ford Escape and "has been seeing a woman who lives around the block from 1544," while Peter from upstairs "is into mustards, micro-brews, the winter sport of curling, guns and Rheingold beer memorabilia." On the next page, there's a think piece, "The Case of the Top Floor Roommates," discussing which of the bachelors upstairs lives more like Oscar Madison, the slob from The Odd Couple.
It is true journalistic minimalism, cranked out by upstairs tenant-janitor Larry Roth, a man fascinated by the itty-bitty details of life. One of the zine's most popular features is "Money Count," an analysis of the quarters Roth empties from the washer and dryer every six months. It lists the total from each machine, plus the year each coin was minted. Roth has gone on assignment to his closet, coming back with the revelation that it contained 14 pairs of casual pants. 1544 West Grace was the first and only magazine to score an interview with Sonia LaBoy, the building's mail carrier; in the field of criticism, the zine's incisive review of the 1996 phone book uncovered six businesses with the name "Larry," proving that Roth's interests extend beyond the building to his own first name.
On a far more microscopic level than Seinfeld ever did, 1544 chronicles "all the other stuff that is mundane, stuff that people do every day," the skinny, excitable Roth says. In old photos he looks like Lyle Lovett, but now, 48 and graying, his sharp features make him resemble Samuel Beckett. "Like the next-door neighbor getting a lawn sprinkler--that's news."
Amazingly, Roth's fascination with the minutiae of his life has found a worldwide audience. Among his 175 subscribers are readers from Japan and England, as well as a Vermont psychiatrist who wrote him, "I am a fan of the obsessive/compulsive nature of the manner in which you organize, inventory and analyze items both real and conceptual....It is truly a reflection of your personality as much as it is a chronicle of the goings on in your environs."
Always a pack rat, Roth has decorated his apartment with hundreds of pieces of John F. Kennedy memorabilia and globes. He saves fortune cookie slips and take-out menus, for reprint in 1544. Whenever he walks the neighborhood--his "beat" is bordered by Irving Park on the north, Southport on the east, Addison on the south, and Ashland on the west--he carries a pocket diary to record neighborhood news. On August 16, he got this scoop: "9 a.m.--patch crew fill in pot hole across the street of 1544. No use of a steam shovel. 9:30 a.m.--that Streets & San crew are on 3700 Bosworth." That will make its way into the zine's year-end almanac. It's the sort of detail the dailies and weeklies miss, which is why Roth believes 1544 will provide anthropologists and historians with a more accurate account of life in turn-of-the-century Chicago. Over the last decade, Lakeview has been a dynamic neighborhood, and Roth has been diligent in keeping track of every frame house that's torn down and replaced with brick flats.
"The Booster would carry very little of it," he says, referring to the neighborhood paper. "I think I'm getting some real nitty-gritty stuff. A thousand years from now, this will be a way of seeing the commonplace."
Roth moved to 1544 W. Grace in 1991. At the time, he was renting the top floor of a friend's house, but he was "destitute," so he talked his mother, Sophie, into buying a two-flat and appointing him janitor in exchange for a break on the rent. He started the zine three years later, as a way to develop his skills as a freelance graphic designer and also to "put the best possible spin on living here. I felt I didn't really want to live here. I didn't like this side of Ashland."
Now he's as firmly associated with 1544 W. Grace as Herman Munster was with 1313 Mockingbird Lane. He's even sought out there by fans. Last fall, Bob, a reader from Minneapolis, stopped by the two-flat while visiting a college friend in Chicago. At 11:30 on a Saturday morning, Roth was sitting at home when the doorbell rang, and a man shouted "I'm a subscriber!" into the intercom. Roth photographed Bob in front of the building and ran the picture in the Summer 2001 issue.
Roth's housemates are all subjects in 1544, but their reaction to the paparazzo treatment varies. Barry gave Roth a photo of himself on vacation in the Canary Islands for the Spring 2000 issue, but his roommate, Carin, runs away whenever he sees Roth with a camera. Peter posed on the couch with his sock monkey, but got upset at a gossipy item about his relationship with his girlfriend. Recently the vacationing Peter sent Roth a postcard that warned, "You'd better be careful what you write about me."
"I don't know where he gets all his information, but he seems to know everything," says Barry, who recently told 1544 he suffers from gamophobia, the fear of marriage. "Usually, he writes about what kind of car we bought, the fact that we smoke, our travels. I think it's entertaining." His brother and a friend read some past issues on a recent visit. "They got a good laugh."
"You've got to be careful what you say around Larry, because whatever you say might end up in the magazine," says Peter, who nonetheless admires Roth's ability to be fascinated by house keys and compost piles. "He's a collector. Once he's got something in his head, he has this net: as he walks through the universe, he's always catching stuff in this net that other people ignore."
Right now, 1544 West Grace is available exclusively at Quimby's, and also by subscription for $7.50 a year. Roth signs every copy, stamps it with a picture of his face, and pastes a canceled postage stamp on the next-to-last page. You know the address. The zip code is 60613. Roth promises he's nowhere close to exhausting his topic.
"I can always find more minutiae," he says. "I haven't written about the garden yet."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.