Campus sits west of the Chicago river, at the circle interchange of the Kennedy and Eisenhower expressways.  In the 60s UIC wedged its way into and consumed Chicago’s Little Italy, grew tentacles into the near west and south sides.  At one time called Circle Campus after the knot of concrete ramps where the two arteries bisect, it was built similarly of concrete in a style called Brutalism, emulating Soviet public housing, “riot proof,” with double-layer covered walkways akin to parking garages, an open-air amphitheater and massive concrete wheelchair ramps to 2nd floor entries reiterating the circle motif.  A miniature replica of an Eastern Bloc city, and likewise now with crumbling concrete, permanent scaffolding erected to protect students and faculty milling on (and off) grass lined footpaths under trees that replaced the severe web of covered walkways in the 90s.  The circular quad in front of 24-story University Hall underwent a decade-long project (that should’ve taken about a year) to add grassy knolls, flowered borders, and (perhaps a reminder of Brutalism) tile-lined fountains that rarely run because they’re broken.  But I walk campus without envy for Northwestern, University of Chicago, DePaul, or Loyola.  They have tradition, bigger trees, a vine-covered brick building probably called “Old Main.”  We have Brutalism.  It’s where part of me –  a native Californian – lives, has lived for almost 20 years.

The last time I drove past the apartments on North 5th, their efficient practicality had been scrubbed up a bit. A nice little fence marked the front entrance. The sidewalk that led into the U-shaped courtyard had healthy plants on both sides. The casement windows had been replaced. Someone had finally taken pride in the boxy old place, built in 1948 to provide post-war housing.

My neighbor loves his chain saw. Every day during the summer and fall months at precisely 1:40, he fires it up and goes to town on his acre lot filled with trees. It’s like the rising and setting of the sun – you can set your watch to it. For the next couple of hours, he works his forest with short, sporadic, Turrets-like bursts.

Damn you, tree.

Damn you to hell, branch.

Eat shit and die, oh siskin of the lofty pine.

The fact that there are any trees left at all on his lot is a miracle in and of itself. I don’t know if it speaks more to the persistence of the forest or a sacrifice of function over form, but he has a ways to go. I have seen him at work, though, smoothly following through with his undercuts and back cuts. His technique is impressive. The remaining forest will not last long.

If the zombie apocalypse comes, he will be well equipped to deal with the impending doom. Zombies move slowly so he can afford to take his time with the short, sporadic burst method he has perfected so well. Also, if he slips up with his timing and accidentally gets bitten or infected by one and becomes a zombie himself, he has a chainsaw. With his well-honed plunge cut skills, he could quickly advance in the zombie ranks. He could be a zombie king.

But I’ll have trees.

 

Deena entered our lives at 11 p.m. on a Tuesday our first fall in Manhattan. We were a bit distracted when she rang because our bedroom ceiling was leaking water, and not a small amount of it. My husband had muscled the mattress out into our living room, along with my childhood dresser, and tipped our IKEA bed frame up one side. We had only moved in a week earlier, had just unpacked our final box yesterday morning.

“I’m Deena,” she said, when I opened the door. She wore a red terry cloth bathrobe and faded slippers. Her wiry auburn hair rested on bony shoulders. “What’s happening in there?”

“We have a leak,” I explained.

“Well, I’m not surprised. The renovations they’ve been doing are shoddy and frankly” – she leaned in conspiratorially – “some of them are illegal.”

As she spoke, I tried not to stare at the thin film of saliva coating her yellow teeth, evidence that seemed to suggest she and her toothbrush had had a disagreement many years ago and been unable to resolve it since. Although I hadn’t been in NY long enough to recognize it then, Deena was an example of a particular type of elderly woman living in the city. They aren’t the aged dowagers able to maintain impeccable residences in the fancy parts of the UES. They aren’t the active ones in track suits who glow with vitality or those who project a contented aura of being well-cared for by family members. No, these weathered broads are women on their own. They board the bus with bulging plastic shopping bags and wild hair that looks like it has been styled by the nearest electrical socket. They seem to have overstayed their welcome in this hard city.

“Can I come in?” Deena asked, one foot already over the doorstep.

“Oh, well, sure,” I said, exercising my never-ending inability to say no to people, even when I desperately want to. Deena shimmied over to the bedroom to assess the damage, noting that, funnily enough, the source of the water was her apartment. Appearing pleased with herself for contributing this information, she settled in on our new beige couch, whose bland color I was already starting to resent. Tyler, our fat Beagle, launched his considerable heft up beside her. She stroked his floppy ears. “Your ears are so soft,” she whispered to him. He leaned into her robe. Tyler, you traitor, I thought.

She stayed until midnight, when Martyn announced there was nothing more to be done until the morning and we should get some sleep.

“Sleep where?” Deena said. “I’m afraid that bedroom of yours is a no-go.”

“We have a pull-out,” I told her wearily.

This seemed to satisfy her, and she waded back through our personal belongings and out the door.

In the morning, a team of repair men arrived. Some faulty pipes needed to be attended to

and the job required access to both Deena’s and our apartment. That evening, she rang our bell again. “I can tell you this much,” she said, now fully dressed, sporting a cream sweater with a small brown stain on one breast. “They are only doing the work when I’m home. I don’t want them snooping around. I’m pretty put out, to be honest, because I’ve been living here for twenty years and they haven’t done a stitch of work on my place in over a decade.” They’ve been trying to drive me out of this building for years. We tenants need to stick together.”

I didn’t want to stick with Deena. My husband and I were paying $600 more in rent that we had in Hoboken, NJ, where we had just moved from. Our new apartment was renovated. It had a dishwasher and, miracle of all miracles, a washing machine and dryer. It had an exposed brick wall, something I had coveted ever since discovering it was possible to get brick inside one’s apartment. It was perfect, a symbol that we were moving up in the world, and I didn’t want Deena spoiling it with her talk of the big bad management company. Although I considered myself a hippie at heart, power to the people and all that, when it came to our apartment, I simply didn’t want to hear it.

Because of Deena’s obstinacy, the repairs, which should have taken three days, took ten, and our backs creaked angrily from too many nights on the pull-out. By then, Deena had started complaining about other things: strong cooking smells coming from our place, the inappropriate volume of our television. Soon enough her missives began indicating issues we had nothing to do with, like the front door to the building being left wide open so that any person off the street could just wander in. She grumbled that our music woke her up at 5 a.m. No matter how many times I calmly explained that we weren’t guilty of these particular offenses, the notes kept coming, like she hadn’t heard me at all.

“I’m afraid the outfit you wore the other day quite upset me,” I mocked her in a high-pitched voice to Martyn. “I’m afraid the heels you wore made an awful clacking on the staircase as you came and left the building. I’m afraid you and Martyn might one day have a child who will cry.” I tore up one of her notes for dramatic effect. “That woman is a nutjob.”

“She’s just an old lady,” he reasoned. “She’s got nothing better to do.” It should be noted that my husband is a far nicer person than I am. “Just let it go,” he said. Oh, I hated when he said this because, honestly, if you have to tell someone to let something go she is probably precisely the kind of person who doesn’t know how to do that.

One day, Deena filed a complaint on our behalf to the city of NY, claiming our apartment violated building codes because the window near the fire escape was partially obstructed by the oven. Our super called to reassure me.

“I’m going to look into this fire-escape situation right away,” he said, sounding a bit frantic.

“What fire escape situation?” I asked.

“Your complaint that the fire escape is blocked.”
I knew instantly. Deena.

I’m not entirely sure why the note we received a few days later was the one that sent me over the edge. It was no more or less infuriating than the others, this time requesting: “kindly stop using chemicals in your apartment because I’m afraid they are affecting my asthma.” After five months, it had become painfully obvious that our shiny, new apartment was more like an old woman with a taut face lift, fairly pleasing on the surface, but still housing a decrepit eighty-year old body inside. After the ceiling leak, we discovered that the pipes hadn’t been properly insulated so once winter hit and the heating got turned on, they clanged all night long. The renovations the management company continued in the building as they slowly kicked out every old tenant except Deena unleashed a torrent of dust mites into our living space that destroyed the flesh of both my legs while I slept. These major inconveniences were supplemented by a list of smaller appliance breakages that seemed never to end.

So maybe it was the apartment itself that wore me down, or maybe it was the fact that the only neighbor who actually acknowledged our existence was a raving loon, but the chemical note finally forced me to act. I tore it off the wall and marched upstairs. I banged on Deena’s door, using my fist instead of the knuckles, like I’d seen angry men do in the movies.

“We are NOT using chemicals,” I said, when she appeared. “We are NOT playing loud music. And we are NOT leaving the door open.” Inside her apartment, I glimpsed stacks and stacks of plastic bags, filled with who knew what, occupying every corner of the tiny space. It was where plastic bags went to die, in that apartment. I could see that Deena did not have exposed brick and, I admit, this pleased me. I was willing to bet there was no washing machine tucked away in the corner of the bathroom, either.

“Well, my asthma really gets aggravated by chemicals,” she said. I was used to this by now, her ignoring what I said and simply circling back to her own argument.

“We are NOT using chemicals,” I repeated. “Do? You? Understand?”

“Well, I can smell them.”

“Well, well done, you!” I shouted. “But the fact remains it isn’t us. Here’s the deal, crazy lady. Don’t ring my bell. Don’t leave notes. Don’t call the city. Just get a life and stay the hell out of mine.” With that I stormed back down the stairs and slammed the door. Even though I never play loud music, I turned some on, just this once, just to make my point.

I told Martyn what happened later that night.

“Whoa,” he said, looking at me a little sideways, like he didn’t quite recognize me, his wife who wasn’t even able to return the wrong coffee to a Starbucks barista for fear she might have to argue with him.
“I really lost it,” I said, feeling strangely giddy.

On my way downstairs the next morning, I paused outside the 2nd floor apartment directly below ours, the one that had actually been playing thumping dance music until 5 a.m., using asthma-inducing inhalants, and having who knows what other mysterious and fun-filled adventures behind their closed door.

Stuck to their door was a note on the same flowery paper that Deena used to upbraid us. I tell myself I made a snap decision to read this note not addressed to me, but in reality I took a careful look around the building to make sure no one was present before delicately peeling back the tape, trying not to make a sound as I unfolded the paper: “I’m afraid your music is still too loud and it is keeping me awake. Kindly turn it down or off in the evenings. Deena.”

I should have felt triumphant. Yes, I had gone overboard with the yelling and the stomping and the telling Deena she needed to “get a life” but it had worked. She had found someone else to annoy. But instead sadness welled up in me. Deena had moved on. I had thought we were her reason for getting up in the morning, little old us in apartment #3B who in her mind were waking up each and every morning with some new plan to upset her. But, no, the couple in #2B would do well enough. When they left, which they would, and so would we, eventually, she would make her presence known to the people who took their place, and so on and so on, until she expired, because her apartment was rent-controlled and she was never, ever, ever, ever going to leave. But us, we were replaceable; her outrage could successfully be directed at any interlopers who passed this way. I didn’t like feeling expendable, and there was nowhere to more clearly learn that lesson than in a city like NY, with a neighbor who once felt she knew you well enough to wander into your home at 11 p.m. in nothing more than a bathrobe, but who no longer even meets your eye when you pass her on the stairs.

 


Rear Window

By Tina Traster

Humor

Lately, I’ve been feeling like Jimmy Stewart in “Rear Window” — but in the suburbs.

Why haven’t I seen the school bus stop next door? Why is there only one car going in and out of the driveway? What’s happened to the wife and teenage daughters?

On a typical suburban street, such a mystery easily would be solved by popping by or picking up the phone. At the very least, I could call another neighbor and ask what’s going on at so-and-so’s house.

But not on this road. I live on an undulating mountain pass — the kind you might drive along if you were apple-picking upstate. Traffic moves fast. There are no sidewalks. At least one other person besides me raises chickens. I wouldn’t be surprised if some folks tote shotguns.

It’s the kind of road for people who live in a bedroom community but who’d rather not.

Dwellers include a small-press publisher, two sculptors, a moviemaker, a yoga teacher and holistic healers. I’ve met some of these people briefly, but most of us prefer a reclusive lifestyle. That’s why we live on a road where there’s never a block party or a communal effort to get a fallow townhouse development knocked down.

I think back to the Brooklyn house I grew up in. It was on a tree-lined street with small lawns and tidy back yards. Houses were in spitting distance of one another. We could see directly into our neighbor’s kitchen.

I remember gazing through the window while we cleared dishes after dinner. The husband and wife next door would become quite animated sometimes, moving in circles around one another, arms gesticulating. Were they quarreling or cavorting? It was an intriguing mime act to decipher.

When I ask my husband what he thinks happened to the wife and girls from next door, he says, “Has anyone looked in the wood chipper?”

He doesn’t care. He doesn’t wonder about strangers who live 200 feet from us. I’m not sure why I do.

After weeks of concluding I hadn’t seen the family, I made an intentional effort to see if the school bus was still stopping at their house. It wasn’t. During the long, snowy winter, I’d only seen the husband outside, shoveling — and only occasionally.

Then I remembered something: A few months ago, I’d noticed a U-Haul in their driveway. I assumed one of the girls was off to college.

Like Stewart’s character, I am overcome with curiosity — and theories. Is the couple going through a divorce? Did something terrible happen? Is it temporary or permanent?

My antenna is up.

Meanwhile, another mystery is dividing my detective time.

Several weeks back, I saw my elderly neighbor from across the street brought home in an ambulance, on a stretcher. From my window, he looked very withered and old. He is, by now, at least in his early 90s.

When we moved in nearly six years ago, he tottered across the dangerous road and introduced himself while we were doing a fall cleanup outside.

He’d been living on this road for a half-century. He told us stories about knowing people up here who used to trap minks. He was here before the New York State Thruway cut through Rockland County and brought a stream of traffic to our road. He was amused by the recent installation of sewers. He complimented us on rescuing the dilapidated farmhouse we bought and bringing it back to life.

What I remember most keenly about him was how much he loved living on this mountain road; he treasured the wildlife at his doorstep.

That was the longest conversation we ever had. After that, he occasionally waved while he was picking up his mail. Over time, I noticed he stopped driving. He no longer ambled down his long driveway to collect the mail. His son who lives in a neighboring house does that now.

The other day, I saw an ambulance with flashing lights return to his driveway. I think this time it was taking him away.

As the tires crunched down the gravel, my eyes welled up, over someone I never knew. Perhaps that’s what made me sad.

Read more about Tina Traster’s move from the city to a rural suburb in “Burb Appeal: The Collection,” now available on Amazon.com.

E-mail: [email protected]

Smoke Point

By Keith Dixon

Essay

My wife and I are talking about making the ultimate financial gamble: that of buying an apartment in New York City during a recession. Over and above the fears I harbor about committing more money than I can fathom to a place I’ve spent maybe fifteen or twenty minutes in, I’m also having some genuine anxieties about giving up something I’ve deeply cherished about our current apartment: the window in our kitchen.

A couple of weeks ago, I was enjoying a mango margarita at a party down the street, when I was approached from the side by a friendly, neighborhood hippy.

“You know, somewhere on your property, there is an uncut four karat diamond buried by a tree,” she said.

I blinked at Tanya, a woman I know who lives down the road from me. She was dressed warmly in multiple layers of hippy attire for the cool June evening. A pair of purple pants stuck out under a floral patterned skirt and slouched over a pair of Elven-styled shoes fastened by leather straps. A loose knit brown sweater hugged her shoulders.

I smiled. I like Tanya. She is in her early 40s and has long, sandy hair and blue eyes. She stands close to 5’2”, but would probably be closer to 5’4” if she stood a little straighter. Several years ago, she was in a car accident, which left her with a somewhat debilitating head injury. Once she told my husband over a couple of beers that her husband was cheating on her and that he and his girlfriend were plotting to kill her.

“A four karat diamond?” I repeated in a tone not unlike one I use with my children when they tell me they just saw a giraffe in the forest or that a monster named Brian drank all of the maple syrup in the pantry.

“Well,” she hesitated, “it’s either the four karat diamond or a crystal. I can’t remember if I buried the diamond with the iguana.”

“The iguana,” I repeated, taking a long draw from my cup and angling off from the group of neighbors with whom I had been discussing the housing market only moments before. “There’s an iguana buried next to my house?” At 9000 feet in the Rocky Mountains, I was somewhat amused by this thought.

“No, the iguana is buried at my old apartment down in Boulder. I just can’t remember if I put the diamond in the box with the iguana, or if it was the crystal. Whichever one it’s not is buried on your property. It will also be in a wooden box.”

I nodded as if everything was perfectly clear now. A few moments of silence passed between us. Finally, I couldn’t stand it anymore.

“I’m sorry…why?”

“Because he was miserable in his cage – it was so obvious – so I used to let him roam freely around my apartment. It was the middle of winter and I accidentally left the window open and he got out. It was horrible. I found him frozen solid, huddled up against the building.”

I squinted at her.

“The iguana?”

She nodded somberly and pushed a strand of hair out of her eyes.

“No, I meant why did you bury a diamond—or a crystal—on my property?”

“I don’t know,” she began shaking her head. “Maybe it was a ‘put your money with your love’ thing? Derek and I wanted to buy that house and camped out there on the property border several times. We ended up not qualifying for the loan.”

“Oh.”

A few more moments of silence passed between us, but I couldn’t leave it alone.

“So, I gotta know. How did you get this diamond?” And what did it do to you to merit burial?, I completed in my head.

“Oh, this guy I knew gave it to me. He was part of the Rainbow People and we’d had a fling…he had several of these diamonds. He gave them out to a bunch of us. I wasn’t the only one.”

I nodded, imagining vividly the scene in which the Rainbow Man handed out diamonds to all of his hippy lovers. In my mind, they surrounded him in a forest glen with only the moon to light their faces.

I like hippies. That is to say, I don’t dislike them. Living where I do outside of Boulder, I have ample opportunity to comingle with the pagan unwashed. I even know a few by name: Marley. Moonbeam. Dharma. I don’t really know a Dharma, but I know of one. She and her life partner, Greg, live in an eclectically decorated apartment and have unusual friends. They are very funny.

In the small town just down the mountain pass from where I live, there are numerous hippies. It is a virtual hippy haven. When they are not crowded around a trashcan bonfire or on sofas on another hippy’s front porch, they congregate outside of a small diner called The Mercantile. “The Merc”, as it is known by locals, serves up home style vittles to the locals, as well as to a multitude of cyclists who make their way up the canyon trying to get away from the bustling metro-center of Boulder. The Merc offers things on its menu like burgers and jicama fajitas to their equally sweat-caked clientele and smells chronically of coffee and syrup no matter the time of day. It’s lovely. Truly. When Simon Smithson and Zara Potts came to visit recently, this is where we met. They called it “charming”.

I’m relatively content in my current lifestyle, but I imagine that if I wanted to reinvent myself and I had no ties, becoming a hippy would be reasonably attractive:

Certainly, I wouldn’t have to negotiate as much laundry as I currently do.

I could wear organically grown flowers in my hair without pretense.

I’ve never observed a hippy at the gym or jogging down the sidewalk, so I assume I could give up on the guilt I feel for not having a regular exercise program. This is not to say that hippies don’t exercise. As a matter of fact, hippies love kung fu. I love that hippies love kung fu.

I could be unabashedly and unapologetically polyamorous.

I could wear loose-fitting floral print cotton fabric paired with…other loose-fitting floral print cotton fabric.

I could throw myself full-time into causes I believe in and acquire a deep tan.

I could drink mate tea judiciously, eat hummus copiously and fart freely.

I could stop buying diapers for my one-year-old and let him just work it out naturally.

I could trade in my laptop for computer time at the public library where I would write free-style prose in between letters to my local members of Congress.

I could nurse my children openly and uncovered in public, as well as the children of my friends.

But there would be a darker side, too. I would have to force myself to like Reggae, which unlike Slade Ham’s recent experience with a world-class flag waver, might permanently bum me out. I once went to a reggae show in the back of a dirty restaurant in the heart of Boulder and aside from getting secondhand blitz-krieged by the bud cloud in there, I was cooked. Not only could I barely keep my eyes open after awhile from the repetitive rhythm, my knees were shot from repeatedly lifting them in the only reggae dance I know, which involves a sort of funky step not unlike an asynchronous military march. I spent the next 12 hours on somebody’s fully furnished porch waving away flies and some guy named Reefer who kept trying to gnaw on my arm.

I’m also not ready to give up Starbucks. While I’m not a regular there and will naturally gravitate toward the locally owned shop, I do occasionally find myself without a choice and before I know it I’m siphoning that brown mega-corp nectar through a straw like a half-crazed, sleep deprived mosquito. And everybody knows that if I were a hippy – a real hippy – that just couldn’t happen. Real hippies don’t go to Starbucks. They just don’t.

And then there is the body hair issue. It’s one thing to allow one’s leg and underarm hair to grow to the point of resembling a Silverback gorilla, but my face? I have eyebrows. I mean, I have eyebrows. And those little strays that sometimes pop out on my chin. Let’s just say that I am no stranger to tweezers and if I let my eyebrows unfurl across my face like a barbarian nautical flag, I’m just not sure I would be…OK…anymore. As a hippy, I assume that hypocrisy is carefully monitored by the clan, and if they caught me tweezing away at the mirror in the doorless, unisex bathroom – regardless of the fact that I could donate 6-inches of pit hair to Locks of Love – I would be done. Voted off the island. Washed away in a recycled rainwater sea.

In short, being a hippy looks easy to the outsider, but I’m not so sure it really is. People call hippies “slackers” or “lazy”, but I am beginning to suspect that the opposite is true. Modern culture blocks any effort that is less than heartfelt and the modern hippy often finds him or herself bracing against the waves that a counterculture life seems to attract, thus making life harder in the end.

In fact, every aspect of modern life is a blockade to the hippy. Certainly most restaurants don’t fit the dietary requirements. Transportation is limited to automobiles that rhyme with Schmolkswagen and that require regular maintenance and parts replacement due to an unspoken “circa 1965” clause. Hippy parents can find good, holistic education at certain institutions such as Waldorf, but places like Waldorf require money – money which, unless said hippy is a trust fund recipient, is entirely unattainable given the lack of top shelf jobs for people who refuse to shave or wear sleek, black pantsuits. Even entertainment is somewhat limited. Movie theaters are out as there are no hippy-approved snacks at the movie theater snack bar. Plus, they’re air-conditioned, which just seems, well, wrong as I don’t believe hippies mesh well with climate control. Simply put, a life decision to be a hippy is fundamentally a decision against being part of popular culture. This may be an obvious observation, but those who pull it off with any measure of success have my respect and fascination.

Tanya has managed it brilliantly in spite of a partially debilitating head injury.

Realizing that she has a special gift and that the trauma to her brain could very well at some point render further information gathering difficult, I pressed ahead with my interrogation.

“So, where did you bury it?” I asked, quickly adding that I would return it to her should it be found. A little too quickly, perhaps.

“I don’t remember exactly. It was a big tree.”

I nodded. There are hundreds of trees on my property.

“I think it was by the cabin,” she told me. “On the south side. Or maybe the west.”

“Was the tree to the south – or the west – of the cabin, or is that the position of the diamond – or crystal – in relation to the tree?”

“Both. Neither. I don’t really know.”

I nodded, crossing my arms and thinking about what it would take to dig a ring around every tree that fit that description. Surely there were at least a dozen. Or fifty. Clearly, she didn’t care. It was obvious she didn’t recognize or even want the value this could bring, having no doubt decided during her stint with the Rainbow People that American currency holds no power over her. But me, I would know just what to do with that money. Er, diamond. Or crystal. But I bet it was the diamond. Why else would she have said anything? I began making plans about how I would methodically start digging the next day at first light. Better yet, I could tell my 6-year-old that we were going on a treasure hunt and that there was actual treasure beneath one of the trees and that it was her goal to find it. I could bribe her with chocolate. Nilla Wafers. Or even just a non-scheduled private showing of Shrek. When she found it, I would take it straight to an appraiser. I might even stop at Starbucks along the way and wear a sleek, black pantsuit.

Man, I love hippies.

I had not been a good king. The people were gathering to throw me from the castle and perhaps kill me. I was doomed.

Fortunately for me, this was only a dream. Unfortunately, when I woke up from the dream, I didn’t really wake up all the way from the dream.

I had such an incredible fever that I didn’t know my dream from reality. This sort of thing is tough when you look out your window and hallucinate a massive mob of angry citizens marching through your backyard to get you. I took it upon myself to freak out.

When I open the door to my house, a shirtless guy welcomes me. Some dude I don’t even know, who’s petting my dog. There are bottles of beer and vodka everywhere in the living room, on the coffee table, atop the television screen. I can smell Tostitos and salsa. The A.C. is on but the glass doors leading to the back porch are open, and three shirtless guys are having a heated conversation outside, their voices competing with the music, their torsos coated with thick sweat, their eyes red with alcohol. They have an audience of three or four people, giggling like Kindergarteners.