Anecdote for BrutalismBy Cris Mazza
April 17, 2012
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.
One uncharacteristically gentle evening in February, as I walked across the circle quad from University Hall toward the parking lot – where I could go through Behavioral Sciences and stay out of wind and snow – a rabbit came hurrying down the sidewalk beside the Behavioral Sciences, and continued scurrying down one of the angled paths through the circle. I’ve seen bunnies here before, usually lazily browsing on a lawn then hopping unconcerned to rest under the day lilies. I wasn’t too amazed to see a rabbit in a bigger hurry to a further destination (albeit sticking to a paved sidewalk), but a few beats after it had gone past, a coyote emerged from the same corridor, in obvious pursuit, ears erect, body driving forward, following the scent of the rabbit that had, by then, gone past out of sight. I wasn’t the only person outside. Students were on campus to study, evening classes were in session. The coyote didn’t flinch at the presence of people – I was 20 to 30 feet away when it passed. It could have been somebody’s dog, loosened from its leash to chase squirrels. But it wasn’t a dog. It wasn’t domestic. It was hunting its natural prey in what has become its habitat.
I wanted to begin with this image. (I didn’t know it would grow to two pages, but my school’s Brutalist architecture always joins every conversation about events that occur there. A photo of UIC is used on the Wikipedia entry for Brutalism.) I didn’t need to know, at the time, what the essay that began with this urban coyote would be about. But now I do know: this is about the place(s) the other part(s) of me live.
I’ve been shopping for a new house – assisted and aided closely by my soon-to-be ex-husband – to live in with a man who was the boy who haunted my youth.
The soon-to-be ex-husband is a man I have hurt. A man 10-years-older who – after he’d built then sold a wholesale tire business; after he’d contracted the designing and construction of his own custom-designed Corbusier-style house in San Diego County – guided and shaped me through my 40s. Anti-feminist to claim to be shaped, but I mean it in the way we all shape each other when working/living together in a partnership. And I call it working together not because we shared a profession, but because building a life is a form of working together. We did that: built a life from the ruins of two earlier divorces, a life that included a large 21st century Tudor revival with property adjoining some woods and a creek 50 miles from Chicago (whose interior design is now California contemporary); a wilderness house in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan; and the lifetimes of several dogs who were our partners at canine performance events and whose care and training fed our type-A personalities. Then I hurt him and destroyed that almost-completely idyllic life we’d built, by reconnecting with the other man: A man my age who needs me to help him forget his 30s and 40s and face his 50s and beyond. Help him through the aftermath of being used (and sometimes abused) by a spouse and her children to support them and continue supporting them (and their children) in adult lives of mooching, stealing, child-abandoning, drug-addiction, some jail time, and runaway credit-card debt (that fell to him). He’d put together this “substitute life,” he called it – a life to keep himself busy in every waking hour just fulfilling responsibilities of work and home – so that he wouldn’t have time to think about the reason he’d taken it on: the creeping lava flow of awareness that a life with me was not going to happen.
I’ve had to summarize both men’s situations, and not even touch on their characters, because the whole story would require books – plural – once I let myself follow the tangents and tentacles of other experiences and choices. Spousal abuse of a man – although no injury needing medical care, just soda cans crushed on his head, fry pans of oil flung in his direction, and like incidents – is a tempting subject for a novel. And a man who submitted to it in order to not give himself time to yearn for what he’d originally wanted is a tempting character. But this is real, and for now I can’t spare the words to go there.
There are my own emotions I’m consumed with at present. Guilt, regret, loss, the familiar ingredients of the pejoratively termed domestic novel. These are real too. As is the utter consideration, cooperation, care and even compassion shown by my ex-husband as we move closer and closer to moving me from a place and a space I love, so that I can start – decades belated – to build another life with the man I love.
Who he is and the nature of my feelings for him will have to go undeveloped, as he is 2000 miles away putting in his last few years as a public school band director, powerless (and at times anguished about it) to help with the daily dismantling of my current life: The house-hunting, the staggering extent of work and money each new prospect would take to let me feel comfortable there; and the melancholy – I’ve tried to restrain from him, from both of them – of returning home, still home for now, to look out my windows at my tree line, the cornfield beyond, the woods and creek beyond that, after having viewed houses (the realtor insists on calling them homes) whose square back yards are surrounded by five identical yards, usually with above-ground pools, colorful plastic playsets, huge trampolines, and – in some cases – dilapidated sheds or travel trailers covered in tattered tarps.
To list the features of the place – outside and in – that nurtures me, and the kind that do not, may unnecessarily offend those who live with fulfillment in houses I reject. Taste is not a hierarchy; I cater only to my own. I spend a vast amount of time at home engaged in this work I do. The hours at my keyboard, and the hours spent gathering the needle-drop from the white pines and spreading it to mulch infant trees. The hours I am hunched over a manuscript draft, and those I spend pruning spent flowers from bee balm and philox. The time I spend lying on the floor in a patch of winter sun visualizing the next scene to write, and the time I am lying on my bed reading my students’ dissertation manuscripts. Perhaps some – who bring their laptops everywhere, who write on the train or in coffee shops or writer-retreats – think me bourgeois to care so much about my place, my space, my home (used here to mean where I habituate, not a structure, as in real estate jargon). I know that all the pink, purple and Green-Bay-Packer-themed walls can be painted the absolute white and shades of grey I prefer; I know the fake wood trim and doors can be replaced with smooth plain white; I know the seizure-inducing speckled countertops can be replaced with midnight-sky black granite. But there’s no replacing ten-years of growth on my Austrian pines and White Fur, the curved rural road where houses can barely see each other, or the five-foot windows with no need for coverings providing changing shades of natural light throughout the days-on-end I don’t bother to leave the property.
I am not in a position to complain. My soon-to-be-ex is going to use his brokerage account to buy a house – the limit is 150K – and I will continue to pay the mortgage and property tax on this current house while he continues to live here, perhaps for a few years until he can sell it for close to what it used to be worth. At that time I will get a mortgage and pay him back for the new house, minus my share of the old house. The old house … this house, where I sit, writing this.
In January the agent called on a Sunday afternoon. I had just come inside from the winter-fallow cornfield where I’d taken the dogs to play in the snow. She said, “Can you and Jim come see a house right now, I mean you have to get there before dark.”
It was dusk when we arrived. Like most of the other houses I’d seen in my price-range, it was on a suburban street with a row of similar houses, all facing forward, backyards abutting yards of houses the next street over. The realtor explained it was an approved short sale, and there was a time limit for buyers who would live in the house to offer before the sale would be open to investors, and it was something only agents knew about so far. As though part of the mystique, the key in the lockbox didn’t work, the garage door only would open 2 feet, and the electricity was turned off in the bedrooms (the reason we had to get there before dark). The smallest of the three of us, I crawled under the garage door, went through the garage past a sofa that looked as though a bear had been eating it, then into the small living room to open the front door.
The living room was freshly painted but only open to the rest of the house – bedrooms and kitchen – via small doorways, and had only one undersized window looking out onto the street. The bedrooms were likewise modest with small windows and white wooden louvered blinds. In general the house looked like one with devoted owners trying to sell it, with a few conspicuous exceptions (like the halfway eaten sofa in the garage), not one on the brink of being lost to foreclosure. People losing their houses will sometimes wreak damage, and I can understand the impulse, although my fury might be aimed at the bank, not my lair. There were places where trim had been torn loose, window blinds snapped in half, a wall broken open and plumbing removed, a door hanging askew from the kitchen cabinets, a sink blood-stained with an unknown chemical. In all, it was a paradox: the color of the exterior caulking matched the siding, the 3 bedrooms (one almost closet-sized) and living room had new carpet and paint in acceptable (for me) shades, but the original builder-generic kitchen and bathroom showed the effects of 30 to 40 years of use, besides the random points of destruction.
“They’re approved at 113,” the agent said. “That’s firm.”
“You’d have a lot left in the budget to redo the kitchen and bathroom,” Jim said, “Everything else is small but in good shape.”
I said, “I don’t know.”
“It’s going to go fast,” the agent said.
“You could make this kitchen however you want,” Jim said.
I said, “I don’t know.”
I was moving steadily through bedrooms (growing darker), the living room, the kitchen, looking out each small window to the square yard with its one tall spruce, down to the basement, back up, my eyes looking out from above my hands which were unconsciously pressed over my nose, mouth and cheeks.
“It could be worth 200 in this neighborhood,” the agent said.
“The taxes are low,” Jim said.
I said, “I don’t know.”
“Is it big enough for you and Mark together?” Jim asked. “That’s the main thing. Where could he teach music lessons?”
“The basement has a bathroom and space for a music room,” the agent said.
I said, “I don’t know.”
“It’s already fenced, and there’s a patio,” Jim said.
“You could break out this wall between the kitchen and living room to make it more open,” the agent said.
I said, “I don’t know.”
While we were in the basement a third time, the agent said, “Someone’s at the door. Stay down here.” She had seen the car drive up and had already turned the lights off upstairs. “Not everybody is willing to crawl under the garage door. This is going to attract a lot of agents.”
I walked to the space under the stairway, big enough for a walk-in closet. There was a boxed toilet, obviously for the hole in the basement bathroom. The cardboard box showed watermarks as though it had suffered a shallow flood – perhaps the reason for (or result of) the wall to the bathroom being broken into and a segment of plumbing removed.
But I’d once lived, in some serenity, in a house no bigger than this basement.
“What are you thinking?’ Jim asked.
I said, “I don’t know.”
The agent returned. “I think they left. We have to decide tonight. I brought the paperwork.”
And so I started crying. I turned away to relieve the agent’s embarrassment. I stifled it as quickly as I could. Wiped my eyes and kept them closed. I was acutely aware of being hungry and dizzy. I said, “Okay.” Then signed the paperwork.
Later that night I told Mark the news that I had made an offer. To spare him worry, I summarized the good: lower taxes, high privacy fence, short-sale price allowing me budgetary latitude to design my own upgrades, closer to the tollway, not far from my favorite Mexican restaurant, finished basement with half-finished slate-floor bathroom. “If I was 30, it’d be perfect,” I finished.
Mark can read the nuances behind my every utterance. “Cris, were you pressured into this?”
I tried to reassure him, in order to bolster myself.
The following morning, I took my coffee into my study, as usual. I heard Jim’s bedroom door open and his footsteps in the hall. Then, instead thumping down the uncarpeted stairs, I heard the creak of the loose board just outside my study. He came in quietly, his face dark with distress. He said, “How are you doing?”
“I’m okay.” It seemed true. I felt wrung-out, subdued, but … okay. The unease on his face was a strange calmative.
“I didn’t sleep well,” he said. “I don’t know if we did the right thing yesterday.”
“It’s just having it thrust on me like that, having to decide so quickly.”
“You know, we can still get out of it.”
The next step in the short-sale process was for the seller to disclose how much of the prorated taxes and closing costs they would not be able to pay. These are costs normally absorbed by the seller but understood, in a short-sale, to be shifted to the buyer. When disclosed, if those costs are unacceptable to the buyer, the offer can be withdrawn.
Days before the closing costs were disclosed, Jim suggested we go walk around the outside of the house again, look into the windows, think about some new landscaping, then test the route to the tollway when I left from there to go to school. Like mine sweepers, we moved slowly around the outside walls, gazes moving from the ground, looking for junk trees squeezing out from beside the basement walls, up the siding to the windows – inspecting caulking, testing with a thumb for rot – then further up the wall to the soffits, looking for cracks, gaps, broken or leaking gutters. In the backyard we were checking the water spigot when, abruptly, the mid-morning hush was assaulted by barking dogs. Not one, not two, and not from different locations up and down the street, as though someone might be walking down the sidewalk. From the other side of the privacy fence, several thunderous deep canine voices and one strident, repetitious bay, accompanied by thumps and scratching of paws on the fence boards.
“Holy crap.” I’m not even sure which one of us said it. We moved around to the side of the house closest to that neighbor’s yard, where his chain link fence revealed the tangle of dogs, still barking, jostling for position to better view us. Three huskies and a beagle.
Normally, in the winter, dogs wouldn’t be outside if no one was at home. At least that’s my ‘normal.’ Sure enough, an irritated male voice shouted at them, repeated the shout, and as Jim and I moved further away toward the street side of the house, the dogs, one by one, left off barking and went into their house.
“Can you imagine those dogs out there, every time I walk into the yard, every time I let my dogs out—”
“Well, he called them in didn’t he?”
I went to my car, parked behind Jim’s on the driveway while he stayed on the snow-crusted front lawn for a moment, then turned and approached my car, my door still open as I was shedding my coat and settling in. “Since the neighbor’s home, maybe I should go talk to him.”
“What, to ask how often his dogs are in the yard?”
“No, just to ask about the neighborhood, stuff you might ask neighbors when you’re considering a house.”
“Okay, call and let me know what he says.” I turned my ignition. I still had to buckle the belt, fiddle with the stereo, and plug in my cell phone. By the time I’d just begun to back out, Jim was returning. I stopped and rolled down the window.
“Well,” he said, “that was weird.”
“You already talked to him?”
“No. I rang the bell, and nothing, so then I knocked, thinking he might not have heard the bell. The dogs are going nuts so how could he not know someone’s at the door? Then he came and looked out a window beside the door, mouthing something, shaking his head like really aggressive and waving one hand like get away, get away.”
“Wow. What does it mean?”
“I sure as hell don’t know, but you don’t want to get stuck next to a weird neighbor. The door had a sticker that said no soliciting by order of the Aurora police department.”
“We’re parked in the driveway of a house for sale next door, how could we be solicitors?”
“Maybe he’s paranoid of anyone knocking on his door, ever. He’s at home on a weekday.”
“People are out of work,” I offered.
“Look at his roof, it’s all curled and peeling away. Look at that rusted-out van in the driveway, the bushes overgrowing his house. These are things we didn’t see, coming over like that at night.”
Flashback to 1986, the house I bought in San Diego with my 1st husband. Escrow closed, we moved in, I began working in my yard. The neighbor’s dog put his front feet on the low cinderblock wall and a war of barking erupted between it and the 3 smaller dogs I had then. Another time the neighbor – toothless, holding a beer and smoking while spattering his dirt yard with a hose – tossed his cigarette butt into my yard. I picked it up asked him to please not throw his butts into my yard. He turned and sprayed me with the hose. Weeks later, after I’d erected a board fence against the cinderblocks to double the height, the neighbor, a bit more drunk than usual, broke down the fence and tossed the jagged pieces of cedar, together with empty beer bottles and dog shit, into my yard. Some weeks later, I was awoken in the night with a loud, telltale pop. Discovered the next day that the neighbor had shot his dog.
“I don’t know about this,” Jim said, as though my memory had been his.
“Yeah, I don’t know either.”
My drive to campus takes an hour. That day, the first half hour was during Mark’s prep-time between his junior high and the rounds he makes teaching elementary bands.
“No, Cris,” he said after my report. “Don’t do it, it might be dangerous, and you’d be there alone.”
“I don’t know if it’s that. There are more nasty people in the world than dangerous.”
“Trust your instincts, though. Just don’t do it if it feels wrong. What does Jim say?”
“He’s real dubious right now.”
“Okay, he’s not going to let you move next door to trouble.”
During the second half of my commute, Jim called. “What did Mark say?”
“He said I can’t risk moving in beside a creepy neighbor.”
“I know. We have to get out of this.”
So we did. The house-hunt moved on to the next set of snags I would encounter: The 55-year-old estate-sale ranch where the overwhelmed executor didn’t want to deal with ungrounded electrical outlets, unsafe fuse boxes, or an end-of-life roof. The house with no central air I was willing to upgrade but discovered the seller had already purchased “a resort in Minnesota” and couldn’t negotiate the price. The gorgeous former 3-bedroom that had its smallest bedroom converted into a huge luxury bath, so its value would always be lower than its current asking price. To where I’m heading: the generic architecturally-nameless (some hybrid of the American four-square crossed with gable-front and center-passage house) 2-story with developer cost-cutting practices like molding and doors made from a resin-and-wood-byproduct resembling the fake plastic of second-generation Lincoln logs. But it has closets and a basement big enough for my manuscript and photo archives, a dining room that can become a music studio, and a room with a fireplace whose windows view the yard which borders ‘common area’ and a pond, so, with blinders on, I can still imagine the water’s treeline might be habitat for deer, raccoon and turkey.
On the day Jim and I were to go to the real estate lawyer conducting our transaction, he came into the house from airing the dogs and reported, “There’s a deer out in the trees.” I went to get my binoculars from my desk and said, “This might be the last time I can look into my yard at a deer.”
A few hours later, we were driving from the lawyer to the county government buildings to file a quit-claim at the recorder’s office – for homeowner exception on property taxes, the taxpayer must live in a property with his/her name on the deed, so the new house would be in my name and I had to remove my name from ownership of the Tudor. Out my window, I watched the progression of houses lining the Fox River, and then started to cry. Quietly, I thought. Jim tapped my leg with two fingers.
“Everything’s going to be okay,” he said.
“Yeah,” I whispered.
“You’ll make the new house just how you want it. I’ll be helping. I’m still there, we still share the dogs, our dog shows. There’s the house in the U.P. Then Mark will move out here.”
“Yeah.” After a calming pause, I added, “He’ll be leaving everything and everyone he’s ever known. Except me.”
“You’ll show him all the stuff around here. He’s a social guy, he’ll make friends. And I hope … we can be friends too. He likes sports, he and I could be friends. Right?”
“You know,” Jim said a few moments later, “you shouldn’t tell Mark things like it’ll be the last time you see a deer in your yard.”
At night, the deer in this neighborhood slip between the backyards and walk down the street. And at the little house in the Upper Peninsula – another place, very different from here, where part of me thrives – there’ll always be deer in the yard; deer that startle, bolt and flee much quicker, with less stimulus than many deer here in Illinois. But everywhere they are, deer and rabbits will run from coyote; everywhere they live, coyote will hunt and kill what they need to eat, whether it’s a rabbit, house cat or a nest of Canada geese eggs – geese that used to fly south now living year-round on ponds and common areas surrounded with houses, like the one that will soon become my new habitat.
Fantastic piece, Cris…what a gripping read.