I drove north on Clybourn recently, from Fullerton to Diversey, and saw that my old apartment was empty and for rent. Every time I've driven by it these past few years, it's been empty and for rent. Perhaps it's because of the steel factory next door, whose punch press jolted me out of bed every morning at seven o'clock sharp. Maybe it's the smell of the nearby tannery, or the proximity of the Lathrop Homes housing project at Clybourn, Diversey, and Damen. Or maybe something of Sid and Maiden lingers in the air, acting as a trip wire for urban despair, driving people away from this cheaply rehabbed building.
* * *
He had a cross on one skinny arm, "Sid" on the other, and "Diane" on his underdeveloped chest. Nice, homemade tattoos. Charles something was his name, but he went by Sid. And at midnight, eloquent, artistic, third-floor Sid had invited himself in to call his social worker and ask us to sit for his puppy. "Maiden." He had blurted out her name when I first met him on the front porch. "Ya know, like Iron Maiden. They're my favorite band."
Actually, he didn't invite himself in. In my most authoritative voice, I had ordered Sid inside my apartment so that he and the gang bangers and druggies who had thrown him out of his own third-floor apartment wouldn't kill each other on my landing.
It seems that Sid had been in Tennessee for a few weeks, visiting his brother (one of nine siblings) who'd been shot with a thirty-thirty. "Went right through his shoulder, man, right in the lung and out the other way," he told us many times that sweltering summer night. Returning to his apartment two floors above mine, Sid had discovered a motley bunch of neighborhood pals holed up, swilling beer, and marking the walls and ceiling with gang insignia. Naturally, he got a little pissed, especially after he failed to score the coke they'd already paid him for and they started bashing away at him and each other on the third floor and down the front stairs. After 30 minutes of mayhem, I called 911. "Domestic violence!" I spat into the phone when the operator asked what my problem was.
Two plainclothesmen strolled in the building's front door ten minutes later and bought the punks' line that they lived there and Sid was trespassing. It didn't help that Sid, completely wasted on something, babbled incoherently about his brother, his dog, his gun, and his plan to enter a drug rehab program. So the cops beat him up some more and tossed him down the stairs to the first floor. He landed with a thunk in front of our door. That's how we wound up baby-sitting a boy and his puppy; a man and his dog; a pathetic 20-year-old junkie, really, and his underfed canine pal.
* * *
We hadn't expected this kind of chaos in our own building. Admittedly, gentrification hadn't quite reached our stretch of Clybourn Avenue yet. The treeless, potholed street was lined with listing two-story frame houses that would have been greatly improved by a wrecking ball. The curbs were littered with smashed beer bottles and crunched beer cans, courtesy of the bikers who hung out at the country-western bar down the block. People on the street stared at us like we were aliens; they knew we didn't belong.
But we thought we were tending the flames of civilization within the confines of our own little three-flat. True, the Medill garbage incinerator a few blocks away perfumed the atmosphere with the aroma of wet refuse. And true, the punch press next door drew spiderweb cracks on our walls and ceilings. Rats scurried through our backyard and across the dirt floor of our basement. The water heater gave out every time it rained. Our neighbors behind us, who maintained that they lived in a coach house, held daily garage sales to make the rent. And the local chapter of the Latin Kings treated us to Toyota Raceway every Friday and Saturday night.
But literate, witty people lived on the second floor. Our second-floor neighbors, who I'll call Marianne and Paul, were an "art" couple: Marianne worked in oils on huge canvases and her husband was a writer and graduate student. Together we discussed the vicissitudes of minimalist fiction and the merits of German Expressionism. We knew what PoMo was before New Yorkers did. High Culture was our pursuit and we were upholding standards. Our largess to the locals was magnificent--we occasionally said hi to them and covertly scrutinized them to see if they too were guardians of civilization.
Needless to say, they weren't. They were just trying to figure out how to put bread on the table and clothes on their kids' backs. Wondering if they could get their beater cars started in the morning to go to their McJobs--you know, the kind created during the Reagan revolution: minimum wage, part-time, no bennies. Nevertheless we pursued our interests and awaited the day when the neighborhood would go upscale and we would be hailed as pioneers.
* * *
He sat hunched over, all six feet and 165 lanky pounds of him, bellowing into the phone at his social worker. "They threw me outta my apartment, goddammit! Waddya mean who? The law, man! . . . They said I didn' live there! . . . How do I know, man?"
"Uh, Sid," began my boyfriend.
"Jesus Christ, man, I toldja, the law, man!!"
"Uh, Sid, why don't you let me talk to her."
"Here! You talk to her. She don't make no sense to me." Sid thrust the phone at Dave.
"Uh, hello?" Dave said. "Uh, hi, we have a slight problem here . . . No, I'm Sid's first-floor neighbor . . Uh, huh, well . . . " Dave, who'd been a social worker himself, calmly explained the situation into the phone while I surveyed our neighbor. What did we have here? A frazzled, self-confessed junkie with dilated pupils. His sweat dripped on the floor and every so often a harsh cough rattled his chest. His right forearm was in a cast and his muscle T-shirt exposed his tattoos.
Dave hung up the phone. "Your social worker says she'll call the police and explain what happened. They'll send some cops over again who will try to get you back into your apartment tonight."
Sid calmed down a bit. "Fine. Thanks. I really appreciate this. Goddamn mutherfuckers threw me outta my own apartment. Man, nobody messes with me like this. I'm gonna get my gun and kill those mutherfuckers. Gotta be in court tomorrow mornin'. How'm I supposed to be in court when I don' get no sleep, man? Can't even sleep in my own apartment."
"Well," I said after some minutes of awkward silence, "would you like some Coke . . . a-Cola?"
"Yeah, that'd be great. Look, I can pay you for it. I got some money."
"No, no, that's OK. You don't need to."