I had fallen out of love with my roomy one-bedroom Ravenswood apartment. Though nestled on a quiet street, the surrounding area was a wasteland whose epicenter of culture was a 24-hour Dunkin Donuts.
Also, my kitchen had become a haven for fruit flies. There were literally hundreds, perhaps thousands, of them. Despite my attempts to commit genocide, they managed to reproduce and avenge their dead by flying into my nostrils.
Tired of subsisting off of donut holes and flies, I set my sights on Andersonville, that sleepy little neighborhood on the far North Side that sports a Swedish heritage, furniture stores on every block and throngs of homosexuals, making it the IKEA of Chicago.
The problem was this suburb in the city came at Gold Coast prices, and I was a freelance writer who subsidized his income by being a market research guinea pig, a job that required the ability to answer such Zen-like questions as “If the new raspberry flavor of Mike’s Hard Lemonade were a jam band, which jam band would it be?”
But then I happened upon a diamond in the rough, a one bedroom in a quaint three-flat with a cute little concrete porch in my price range. Sure, it was down the street from a Subway, a McDonald’s and a Jiffy Lube, but those three dumps beat the hell out of ONE shitty donut shop. I put a call in immediately and coordinated a showing with the current tenant.
The baby blue den was flooded with sunlight. The kitchen was big enough for a full-size dining room table. And, if that wasn’t enough to make an HGTV fanboy hard as a piece of repurposed mahogany, the tub was a clawfoot.
“This will be mine,” I whispered to myself just loud enough to creep out the current tenant.
The tenant informed me I’d have to talk to the owner, Lucian, who happened to occupy the unit below on the first floor.
A man who rents out his own home. How urban. How Tales of the City. Perhaps Lucian is a bohemian, a personal friend of Nelson Algren and Del Close, who is Chicago’s most overlooked artistic master. Perhaps he would teach me the ways of his world, force me to peer into the reality of my soul and find the courage to embody my own greatness as he battled his own inner demons of addiction and depression, both manifestations of his sense of personal failure.
Or maybe he was a hot gay dude who’d let me give him a handy in lieu of rent. The possibilities were endless! So I set an appointment for a week later to close the deal with Lucian.
As I arrived, a muscular bearded man with an ultra-tight tank top walked out onto the porch.
“Thank you,” I whispered to myself just loud enough to creep out the guy. “You must be Lucian.” I said as I extended my hand.
The man scrunched his face as if my hand were slathered in dog shit. “Um. No,” he said as he jogged out of sight.
The door swung open again and out emerged a frantic looking man with bulging eyes and random quaffs of black hair that surrounded his football-shaped dome. He wore ladies house slippers and a black silk kimono with a floral print that called to mind a tablecloth at a Chinese restaurant.
“Hello,” he said with a mouth full of hotdog bun. “You must be the man who is here to rent the apartment.”
As I agreed that, yes, I must be, I noticed that Lucian refused to meet my gaze, opting instead to focus his protruding eyes outward, as if captivated by something unseen. The form of Jesus perhaps.
“The building is my mothers. She is ill. I take care of her.”
Then, in owl-like fashion, Lucian then slowly rotated his head toward me. “Do you want the apartment?”
“Don’t you want me to fill out an application first?”
Lucian waved his hand as if disgusted by the very idea of protocol. “I do not deal with those things. I have your word. You rent apartment. We shake. We are good.”
Sure, Lucian looked like Quasimodo after a bar fight, and yeah, this was totally the opening scene of a horror movie, but, as any long-time Chicagoan can tell you, good real estate is hard to find.
“I’ll take it,” I said as I clasped Lucian’s clammy paw.
“Good,” he said. “Good.”
It was 2 a.m. After spending the day unpacking, I lied down in my new bedroom to spend my first night in my new apartment. Within fifteen minutes, the unmistakable screechy ferret-like sound of Justin Bieber blasted through my window.
It was coming from the building next door. I could see from my vantage point that there were people in the kitchen, co-eds, college co-eds. And there were red cups, which might as well have been warning flares denoting danger.
My feeble and irate old man attempts to alert the kids that their Britney Spears was too loud were unfortunately met with more Britney Spears. So I got dressed and wrestled up the nerve to confront my neighbors directly.
I walked onto my front porch to find Lucian smoking a cigarette and sitting in a children’s wooden chair. His back was perfectly perpendicular, his head stared onto the dimly lit street and that same black kimono flapped with the breeze.
“Yes,” he responded, his head unmoved.
“Are the neighbors always this loud?”
“Oh, those guys?” Lucian said, pointing upward toward his scattered tufts of hair. “Those guys are party animals.”
“Well, I’m going over there to tell them to cut it out, or else I’ll call the police.”
Lucian’s eyes seemed to pulsate as he slowly turned his head toward me. “This is the city, Keith. There are noises here. We do not call police.”
I slowly walked backward into the building and up the stairs to my apartment, where I tucked my head under a pillow and tried to suffocate my regret.
Over the next two weeks, I filed at least half a dozen police reports against my neighbors. Meanwhile, Lucian had begun to believe that we were best friends.
It started with a phone call I received late on a Sunday night.
“Hello, Keith. This is Lucian. I was wondering if you could make some copies of keys for me?”
While I thought his request that I do his job to be both lazy and strange, I figured this was an outgrowth of his Eastern European socialist roots. So I agreed and added, “Oh, and Lucian? Can you only call me this late if it’s an emergency?”
“Oh, sure, sure,” he said and hung up.
But the calls continued. A Wednesday night here. A Friday evening there. Bring down a ladder, salt the walk, and, most befuddling of all, help me with my Spanish homework. I was beginning to feel like a servant in my own home.
Other problems arose. Lucian would occupy the front porch and chain smoke with the front door open, filling the building with thick gray clouds. Naturally the smoke alarms would go off, that is, if the building had any smoke alarms.
Other things the building lacked: Multiple exits. Locks on the front door. Any discernable light in the stairwell. Suffice to say, every late-night return had all the excitement of a slasher film.
And then the hammering began.
Lucian had decided to rehab his unit, which to remind you, was right below mine. The noise would begin as early as 7 a.m. and often wouldn’t stop until after 7 p.m. While I was already apprehensive to complain on account of all the signs that pointed to secret murderer, I was further deterred after I heard Lucian fly off the handle at one of his day laborers.
“What the fuck did you do!!! You ruined my house! What the fuck! I will kill you!”
It certainly was the kind of primal scream you might hear right before an axe comes down and splits open a skull.
Speaking of which, I had yet to meet Lucian’s elderly mother, the woman who I made my rent checks out to, and if my suspicions were correct, was merely a shriveled corpse crammed under the house’s foundation.
In other words, time to move.
Lucian took the news of my departure about as well as one could imagine.
“Don’t play games with me, Keith. I don’t like people playing games,” Lucian said on the front porch from his baby chair, his head cocked straight ahead, his eyes protruding with anger, a detail made more eerie by the calmness with which he smoked his cigarette. And oh how that black kimono did wave.
“I’m sorry, but I am moving and that’s final.”
Lucian chuckled to himself. “You find me another tenant, then we can talk.” The chuckling stopped and Lucian slowly rotated his head. “But don’t play these games, Keith.”
Lucian had proven that he was capable of turning my torso into a credenza, granted I fetch the tools first, yet no veiled threat could convince me to stay.
I became a prisoner planning his escape under the watchful eye of the warden. During the day, I’d sneak out of my own home and scurry through the alleyway for cardboard boxes. At night, I piled an assortment of my heaviest belonging in front of my door to prevent Lucian from slipping in under cover of night and hammering my face into my pillow.
Within a couple weeks, I found an apartment, scheduled movers on a day when I knew Lucian would be out and tearfully rejoiced upon entering my sociopath-free home.
Today that building sits vacant. On the door is a sign from the city telling trespassers to keep out. The wooden chair is still there; beneath it grows a pile of errant wrappers and paper scraps. And somewhere, perhaps right on your very block, is a man with the visage of an enraged owl smoking cigarette after cigarette as his black kimono flaps like the wing of a bat.
Keith Ecker is one of the creators behind Essay Fiesta and Guts & Glory, two of Chicago’s most popular storytelling series. He is also an executive producer of PleasureTown, a serial fictional podcast hosted by WBEZ. You can find out more about PleasureTown at www.pleasuretownshow.com.