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.”
“Uh, Sid,” began Dave, “What time do you have to be in court?”
“Uh, nine . . . nine-thirty. I gotta be there at nine-thirty.”
Nine-thirty! Christ! I might have to be Sid-sitting until nine-thirty in the morning? God, I thought, I hope the cops get him back into his apartment.
“Well, you can always sleep here,” Dave suggested. My mouth dropped open. There goes the stereo, my jewelry, my wallet! I stared daggers into Dave’s back.
“Naw, man, that’s OK. I’m gonna kill those assholes up there.”
Great. First Dave suggests he sleep here. Then Sid decides that murder is the solution. I clutched the counter, turned, and faced Sid.
“We-e-e-ll”–I drawled out the word to fill up the silence–“that’s not such a good idea. The cops will get you back in. They–”
He cut me off. “Cops done threw me out, man! See? They busted my nose, man. Now I got a busted nose and hand. Goddamn law, man!”
More silence. I didn’t know what to say. What do you say to a junkie who drops in out of nowhere, has a minor case of the d.t.’s, and keeps talking about killing people two flights above you? Dave decided to change the subject. “How long have you been doing drugs?”
“‘Bout since I was nine. See that right there?” He pointed to his arm. “I shot up ’bout five, six times there. Can’t shoot there no more ’cause the vein collapsed . . . ” His voice trailed off and his eyes glazed over.
“Do you share your needles?” Dave asked, trying to keep Sid talking.
“No, man!” Sid yelled himself awake. “I don’t share nothing with nobody. Except Maiden here–Hey! C’mere! Gimme a kiss!” The puppy I’d coveted for two months jumped onto his lap and slobbered affectionately all over his face. “Maiden loves me. She’s my buddy. An’ I love her.” He buried his face in her neck and stroked her.
* * *
The third-floor apartment was our capitalist landlord’s one attempt to salve his profiteer’s conscience. He leased it to a social-service agency that he told us tried to introduce “orphans” into a community setting, sort of a halfway house for the sane. I’d met the previous tenant several times–he regularly showed up for football and softball games we organized, and he was quite an asset. He was the biggest guy I’ve ever seen, complete with a size 17 shoe. His hours were pretty irregular (he worked part-time at a Popeye’s), but he was a nice, easygoing guy. There was only one problem. His girlfriends came around at four or five o’clock in the morning and called for him from the street, since he had no doorbell and the street door was locked. “Gerald! . . . Gerald! . . . Gerald! . . . Gerald!!,” they’d finish off with a scream.
The other thing about Gerald was that we could never get a straight story from him. He was an orphan, right? That’s why he was living upstairs, right? Well, on various occasions he would mention his mother–who lived in Detroit, on the south side, in Toronto, in the suburbs. She was a teacher, a psychologist, had a PhD, was in education. She was single, divorced, living with a man, widowed. I finally concluded that she had multiple personalities.
We never did find out if she existed, or what Gerald’s story was. But we didn’t worry. He was a nice guy, played chess, had a good throwing arm, and smoked weed once in a while.
One day we realized we hadn’t seen Gerald around for a few days. And just as suddenly we had a new tenant about whom the landlord had said nothing. I was a little anxious and slightly pissed. “I mean, what is the deal here?” I complained to Marianne one day. “Who is this heavy-metal freak and why didn’t our landlord say anything to us?” We agreed that he looked like he’d just stepped out of the Audy Home, and I made a mental note to be as hostile and disagreeable as possible–in a nonthreatening kind of way.
And I was–until I saw Maiden. She was one of the ugliest mongrel puppies I’ve ever seen: a mottled brown with ears so large they looked like radar cups. Her body was so out of proportion to her legs that she looked like a sausage perched on four toothpicks. She was so extraordinarily hideous that I took an instant shine to her, ugly mongrels being my weak spot. I secretly hoped that Sid would accidentally leave her out in the backyard so I could whisk her into my apartment and claim her as my own.
But he never did. Sid was a good owner to her, except when he was high, and then he tended to neglect her. He often took her for walks and seemed to really value her–as if she was the only thing he could claim for himself. The few times I ran into him on the stairs, he bragged about Maiden, how smart she was, what a good watchdog she was. He boasted of her pedigree (“She’s a pit bull, ya know”) and displayed her repertoire: “sit,” “stay,” “talk,” “come.” Sid, who had the gamy look of a small-time ex-offender and, Dave and I concluded, had probably spent some time in jail, did have this one redeeming feature. I decided that for Maiden’s sake, I would be polite to him.
* * *
Maiden was asleep in the dining room when the two uniformed officers arrived at one in the morning. Rain drenched the street, steaming up off the hot asphalt and inching the humidity up to 1,000 percent while the cops stood on the front porch with me, Dave, and Sid. They would not throw the third-floor druggies out. The people had said they’d paid rent for the apartment, paid it to Sid, and the cops had no authority over them unless we could prove they were trespassing.
I explained the situation again, in monosyllables, figuring the cops might get it this time: Our landlord rents the apartment to a social-service agency. Sid is their client. You’ve seen his ID card. He’s supposed to be living up there. No, I don’t know the people presently upstairs. Yes, I do know what they’ve been doing since they arrived last week. Fighting, arguing, partying all night, throwing beer bottles out the window, tossing garbage into the backyard. Hassling me. And yes, officers, I’d rather have one junkie up there than five. If you don’t believe Sid, an admitted thief and substance abuser, and you don’t believe me or Dave, two perfectly respectable, literate, well-educated, white-collar types, then call Sid’s caseworker. We’ve talked to her, she’ll vouch for him. She’s why you’re here anyway.
Their reply was succinct: “We don’t make no calls to no social agencies, missy. That’s not our job.”
Missy? I was about to become icily polite and ask them what exactly was their job, but Sid beat me to it. “But that’s my home!” he yelled indignantly. “I live there and they threw me out!”
Sure, kid, sure. Where’s your lease? Your proof? No proof? Well, you can spend the night in the station.
Sid started to cry. “Look, officers,” he blubbered, “I live there. That’s my home. I live there with Maiden. I just wanna go home.”
The cops took me aside as Sid slouched onto the sidewalk crying. “Look, Missy. He’s a junkie. A junkie and a thief and a punk with no copy of the lease and a rap sheet. We can’t do nothing about it.” And turning to Sid, “Sorry, you can sleep on a bench in the station.”
“Fine!” I snarled and stormed back into my apartment. Typical “Chicago’s finest” attitude! Screw things up in the first place and then do nothing to correct the screwup. I stomped into the kitchen and threw chairs around. Goddammit! I didn’t want this kid overnight. He was a lousy junkie. And it was pouring outside. He couldn’t stay on the street. See where intervention gets you, I thought.
Dave walked in the kitchen. “Cops left.”
“I don’t know,” he replied. “He ran off crying–just took off saying he wasn’t going to stay at the police station.” He slumped into a chair and lit a cigarette.
“You know, I can’t believe this is happening. This is really insane. I mean, this is really insane. I feel like I’m hallucinating. Why is this happening?”
Dave looked at me and smiled wryly. “Because you had eyes for Maiden.”
“Oh, right! Blame the victim! Where is she anyway? Maiden!”
She trotted into the room and laid down at my feet. Her little sigh was audible.
* * *
I felt it was only fair that Sid’s caseworker should suffer too, so I called her at two in the morning. Joyce was very sympathetic and very unhelpful. The lease was locked up in the office, which wouldn’t open until 8:30. The program administrator was the person I should call in the morning. She’d already called the police once that morning and she was very sorry about the whole situation. She offered no suggestions about what to do if Sid returned.
I hung up in time to see Maiden pissing on my fake Oriental rug. There was no use yelling at her. You can’t yell at dogs when they don’t know the difference between right and wrong. I dabbed at the rug and laid old newspapers all over the floor. She followed me back into the kitchen and jumped on my lap. She was getting a little big to be a lap dog, but she seemed accustomed to it. I stroked her and she curled up and closed her eyes.
It was very hot in the kitchen. I sat and smoked with one hand and petted Maiden with the other.
* * *
“Sid’s back,” Dave announced, peering out the living room window. He stepped out the front door for a few minutes, then popped back in. “We’re going for cigarettes. We’ll be back soon.”
Wonderful, I thought. I can’t wait for the third-floor creeps to find out I’m alone. I chain-smoked for 20 minutes and mentally noted the meat cleaver’s location in the knife drawer. They finally came back around 2:45. Dave looked grim. Sid dropped into a chair.
“Man, I’m really sorry. I can pay you for the Coke and the cigarettes. I got some money.” He reached into his pockets and fished out 50 cents.
“No Sid. That’s all right. You really don’t need to.” I swallowed my next sentence: We’re just being neighborly.
“No, man. My mother, she always says to pay as you go. She always said that. I can get some money later tonight and pay you back.”
“Forget it, Sid,” Dave said with finality. “It’s nothing. We’re just helping you out a little. You don’t owe us anything. If you want to crash here, we’ve got an extra bed for you.”
“Naw, man. I can just go over to my girlfriend’s.” He smiled slyly. “Her dad said he’d beat me if he saw me again. But I can climb through the back window right in her room and her dad don’t know nothin’.”
But he didn’t just go. He stayed until 4:30 in the morning and talked. He talked about his family back in Tennessee and his sole relative in Chicago–an aunt who lived “somewhere south, in the suburbs.” He talked about Maiden and proudly stated that he’d already started her on heartworm pills (“Ya know, that can kill a dog”). He talked about his band, Surgical Steel, and said they’d played at the Metro. When I admired the name, he said he’d chosen it. Dave mentioned that he’d written a couple articles on music and musicians. Sid was impressed. “Hey, maybe you’ll write about my band. Man, it’d be great! I’d be in the papers!”
I asked to see his social-agency ID card and turned it over. “Sid, you were a blond!”
“Yeah, I had a Mohawk too. You think I look OK with my hair like this?” he asked. “Is that picture good? I tried to look like Billy Idol. He’s great. I think I look a little like him in that picture. I’m tryin’ to grow a beard too. You know, a goat–a goatee. It’s hard to shave ’cause my hand’s busted, but I try to do a good job. See where I shaved my sides?” He turned his face so we could see his sideburns. “It ain’t too good ’cause I busted my hand smashing a guy’s head.”
I couldn’t help smiling. “Sid, there’s nothing on your face to shave.”
“Yeah there is,” he insisted. He fingered the fuzz above his lip. “I ain’t never shaved there. Just the sides.”
“Say, how’d you get to be called Sid,” Dave asked, “if your real name is Charles?”
“It’s Sid like Sid Vicious. He’s a great guitarist. You know, with the Sex Pistols. Like in Sid and Nancy? See? I look like him.” He whipped off his T-shirt, revealing the “Diane” tattoo on his skinny chest. “Hey, you heard–you seen that movie, Sid and Nancy?”
“Sure,” Dave replied. “Good movie. We saw it twice. You want to hear the sound track?”
“Could I?” Sid’s eyes nearly popped out of his head with enthusiasm. “Man, that’d be great!”
Dave popped a tape into his tiny boom box, and Sid jammed away on air guitar, grimacing and screwing up his face with all the fervor of a lead guitarist on a stage.
After his performance, Sid continued talking. He offered again and again to pay for the Coke and cigarettes but we turned him down. He called up a hospital to enter its substance-abuse program (“Look, man, I’m a junkie”), but they told him to call later in the morning. He told us about his artistic aspirations (“I wanna make album covers”) and, with his smashed right hand, drew a grim reaper and a horse for me.
And he told us about his girlfriend, whose house he left for at 4:30.”Yeah, we’re gonna have a kid. In about three months. That’s why her dad hates me.”
“Are you going to marry her?” I asked.
“Yeah, but . . . ” He flushed and smiled shyly. “Well, I wanna wait ’til it’s born. Make sure it’s normal, ya know.”
“Sid!” I started laughing. “You can’t do that!”
“I know.” He looked abashed but kept smiling. “But I wanna make sure it’s normal. You know, we’re tested for AIDS and all that. We’re clean, man. And she, she’s makin’ all these plans to get married. You know, I don’ say nothin’, just nod my head when she talks about a church weddin’. She’s saved a lot of money for it. She’s real good to me. Ya know, she’s tryin’ to keep me off drugs. She tells me it’s bad for me. That’s why I wanna get in a program, ya know.”
“Is ‘Diane’ your girlfriend?” Dave asked.
“Naw. That’s my mother.”
He left, finally, thanking us again for doing what we could for him. He thought he’d be more comfortable over at his girlfriend’s place. But could we please watch Maiden for him? He couldn’t bring her over to his girlfriend’s house. Then her dad really would kill him. He said he’d be back in the morning for her, after his court appointment.
* * *
Sid never came back. Supposedly he went to the agency office and then to his court appointment. After that, we presume, he dropped out of sight and out of his slim margin of society. He certainly didn’t return to the neighborhood–the druggies who finally left the third-floor apartment that Monday morning wanted him. They commented loudly about the money he owed them, making sure we could hear them from behind our front door.
Later that day, some 14 hours after our first call to the cops, our capitalist landlord (residence: Northbrook) posted “No Trespassing” signs, changed door locks, and, with Dave and me, went to the third-floor apartment. Nothing was up there–nothing but squalor and stench and things that made our skin crawl.
Garbage and clothes were strewn from one end of the apartment to the other. Graffiti and gang insignia covered the walls and ceiling. Burnt matches, scorched spoons, empty vials of rubbing alcohol, porn snapshots, stolen checks, and credit cards littered the floors. And needles, everywhere. Forty or 50 hypodermics lay all over the place, most in the kitchen. A mattress had been thrown into a crawl space, and more needles were there. White powder in the front room had been used for cutting cocaine, the cops said after they responded to our frantic phone call. Six plainclothes cops went over the room and confiscated some of the material. The apartment, they told us (as if we hadn’t figured it out by then), had been used for freebasing coke and shooting up heroin.
Late that Monday night, while Maiden ran around our living room, Dave told me what had happened during his walk with Sid. As they walked down the street to buy smokes, Sid stopped and turned to Dave. He reached for Dave’s hand and put it on the waistband of his jeans. “Feel that?” Sid whispered. He squeezed Dave’s hand over the butt of a .38 hidden under his T-shirt. “I’m gonna kill those mutherfuckers.”
He let go and Dave slowly withdrew his hand. They walked in silence to a gas station. Sid stood outside while Dave bought cigarettes. They turned to come back. As they walked down Clybourn, Dave slowed the pace and finally halted. He looked at Sid. In an even tone, he said, “You know, I can’t let you go back there with that gun. You know that. Bullets don’t stop at walls and floors. There are people in that building I care about. Marianne and Paul and Janet. I’m sorry, Sid, but I won’t let you come back with that. You just can’t.”
Sid walked a few paces further and then turned around quickly. He stared silently at Dave. He reached for his gun, withdrew it from his pants, and fingered the trigger. Then he said softly, “Yeah.” He looked up at Dave. “I guess I’ll go throw it in the river.”
“OK. I’ll wait here for you.”
Sid stuck the gun back in his pants and loped off. A few minutes later he returned. He lifted up his shirt, smiled, and spun around. “No gun! I threw it in the river.”
They walked back to the apartment.
* * *
My contact lenses were misting up. It was almost a week later, and Maiden sat on my lap, sleeping. I stroked her idly. Dave was napping in the other room. He had put the matter plainly. “As long as we have that dog, Sid might come back. If those druggies spot him when he comes here looking for her, we’ll be in deep shit. Besides, your allergies are acting up with her around.”
All my life I’d wanted a dog. Just a little puppy–something to pet and play with. But the damn allergies.
One morning earlier in the week, Dave had brought Maiden down from Paul and Marianne’s apartment (we were sharing dog-sitting duties). I had called to her from the bedroom way in the back of our apartment, and she’d made a beeline for the room, jumped on the bed, and curled up beside me.
But this day someone was coming to pick her up. After four or five phone calls, Sid’s social-service agency had finally agreed to take her, try to find Sid, and give her back to him. Damned agency, I thought. They hadn’t given Sid any furniture, hadn’t ever sent anyone over to check on him, as they claimed when we called them, hadn’t done shit for him.
I moved my legs and Maiden woke up. She jumped off my lap. I walked to the living room window and stared out. A car pulled up and double-parked in front of our building. “Maiden,” I called softly. She trotted over and looked up at me. “Time to go. You’re going to live with Sid again.” I got the generic dog food from the kitchen. Sid had told us he gave her only Alpo, nothing but the best. Someone knocked at the door. “Just a minute,” I said, and slipped the leash onto Maiden’s collar. I opened the door to a youngish woman with blond hair. “Are you Janet?” she asked.
“Yeah. This is Maiden. I hope you can find Sid. I’m sure he wants her back very much.”
“Well, we’re looking for him.”
“What will you do if you can’t find him?”
“Well, I can keep the dog for a couple days,” the woman explained, “but if we don’t find Sid by then, I guess we’ll just send her to the city pound.”
“Oh. Well, I really hope you find him.”
“Thanks for taking care of her.”
She took the leash, got into her car with Maiden, and drove away. I put my head in my arms and cried.
* * *
Within a year, Dave and I left for the suburbs and then for our separate ways. After a few marital rifts, Paul and Marianne returned to the east coast, sans graduate degree or “famous new artist” credentials. Toyota Raceway moved to Elston Avenue. And rehabbers moved into the neighborhood. Our landlord sold the building and its alleged coach house for almost $200,000. Last time I saw an ad for my old apartment it was going for $850 a month, more than twice what Dave and I had paid for it. Gentrification.
But two-bit drug lords still make deals up at the Lathrop Homes. You can see them leaning into white people’s car windows on weekend nights. And working girls still walk the streets around Ashland and Fullerton. Perhaps the yuppies get a thrill from feeling like they’re living in a cutting-edge neighborhood.
Real estate operators created strip malls in the area and turned the terra-cotta factory into condos. Rehabbers gussied up the building fronts on Clybourn and made sure the street was paved over. Sid never came back. The city gassed Maiden. The smells, dirt, and grime remain, at least until some smart young entrepreneur decides to loft-o-ize the tannery. And my old apartment always seems to be vacant.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/John Zielinski.