Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Book of Hope 3: Halloween in Hell House

Actually, Christina and Jo were not our first housemates in Chicago. The very first was named April, but she wasn't with us long. Just to give you an idea of what a total princess she was, the first week she moved into our apartment (the one in Hyde Park), she stopped up the toilet, I never even wanted to ask how. So she ran into the living room all like, "Omigod, the toilet's overflowing, and there's water everywhere!" Kerry just stared at her and said, "OK, so deal with it the way you would at home." So April went back into her bedroom, then came back out a few minutes later and left for class. That's when we noticed water flooding out under the bathroom door and onto the carpet. Great. We spent the afternoon fixing it and cleaning everything up. Then when April got home, we lectured her about what she had done, just leaving us with a big mess like that. And she was all surprised! "I thought you said to just act like I was at home," she told us. "Well, my parents take care of everything for me there!"

As Kerry put it afterwards, April was always like "Oops, I f--cked my uncle!" about everything.

After we finally got rid of her, we had the even more horrible job of interviewing replacements. You'd think in a college bedroom community that would be no big deal, right? Wrong. It was exactly like a TV sitcom. For example, in spite of the fact that we had specifically advertised for a woman, three guys showed up, including one who was "in sort of a transition stage about my sexual identity" (he was taking female hormones.) The women weren't much better (several of them needed female hormones, too, hee hee), but we finally settled on a Marketing grad student named Sharon, who seemed like she might be cool because she was also an artist. Big mistake. The first thing she asked was whether she could paint the room black, then it turned out that, in addition to being a total psycho-bitch, she was into some Satanic cult called 'Thelema', but not in any cute, harmless Goth way, in more like a robbing local graves sort of way. We kept finding things in the refrigerator that science just could not explain. When we finally got rid of her, she went postal, threatened us, etc etc, and afterwards, we discovered she'd stolen all sorts of things including clothes, jewelry and computer disks. So it was a big relief when Kerry met Jo at a party. The only problem with her moving in right away was that she had this friend (Chris) that she'd promised to find a place with. They ended up sharing the master bedroom, which had its own bathroom, but obviously that arrangement wasn't gonna work out forever. So. since we all four got along so well, we started looking for a new place together, a house, so we could all have our own space. It took us about a year to find one--and renting it turned out to be the biggest mistake any of us ever made in our lives, bigger even than letting Sharon in the front door.

Just so you know, the house in the pic above is not the right house. When we were allowed to break the lease, we had to sign a legal statement saying we would never mention its address or publish any photographs or descriptions of it, so I just used a pic of me walking down a street a few blocks away. But the row-houses all look pretty much the same in that neighborhood, so you get the picture. Bronzeville was originally a very Bavarian-style old neighborhood of stone-brick houses and department stores, and then was settled by African-Americans from the South in the 1920s, which is how it got its name I guess, and gradually turned into a total slum. Lots of the old blocks were torn down for projects, but a few years ago gays and yuppies moved back and started rehabbing the row-houses. So we rented one from a professor at UChi who was supposedly in Ireland on sabbatical (technically we rented it from a rental agency), but there's one thing I've learned the hard way about academics--they are probably the least honest people on earth, especially when it comes to money. Or just telling the truth in general, like whether they're really married or not. Or really out of the country.

At first everything was pretty cool, and it was awesome for each of us to have our own bedroom, even if they were a bit on the cramped side. We had a fun housewarming party, too, the only downer was that none of the neighbors, black or white, seemed to want to have anything to do with us. Oh yeah, and our cars kept getting broken into. But otherwise things were OK, really. That was in September. It was in October that things started to go wrong bigtime. One cold sunny morning I woke up to this incredible buzzing noise--it was a wall of flies next to the bed. Thousands of them covering like the inside of the window and the whole wall around it, not flying, just crawling around all over each other and buzzing. So naturally I totally freaked, and we spent the morning killing them with swatters and bug spray. I mean, I've lived in lots of houses on bases in places like Florida, and, growing up, my family suffered infestations of all kinds: ants, termites, hornets in attics, etc etc, but I'd never seen anything like this before. It was so sudden. And the flies were all adult, so they hadn't all just hatched. Where had they come from? I still have no idea. It was really gross and spooky, and I had a lot of trouble sleeping in that room again after that.

And I am so not making this up! Frankly, all of what I'm gonna tell you (and I haven't really spoken much about this, because the four of us made like a pact not to because no one would believe us), was such a bummer that I've mentally blocked it out kind of, so I'm having some trouble recalling exactly what happened when. But I think next was the fleas hatching. We didn't notice this at first so much, but after awhile we realized we were all scratching our ankles. Then we started getting bites in other places and, you know, dashing out of the shower to get dressed quickly and stuff. But then they seemed to go away again, because the heater furnace in the basement broke during a cold snap. So now the fleas were gone, but it was freezing, and the rental agency was taking forever to send a guy over to fix it. Days went by, then a week--and we were all camping out inside the house, wearing coats and gloves all the time, even to the bathroom, lighting a huge fire in the fireplace every night, leaving the kitchen oven on and open, filling up the house with space heaters, which kept blowing the fuses, etc etc. Not good. In the middle of all this came Halloween.

Now we had been warned by friends that the one thing you did not do in Bronzeville was ignore Halloween. Huge gangs of local kids from the projects roamed around, some of them in their late teens, and if they didn't get candy or money, they would vandalize the place. Cars and even houses had even been torched on 'Devil's Night' in the past. So we took this very seriously and bought enough candy to start our own 7-11 and even made a jack-o-lantern and wore little masks. So then we waited. And we waited. We could peek out the windows and see tons of kids passing by outside, but none of them even glanced at our front door. A couple of times younger kids (they were the only ones in costumes) would start to come up the front gate and steps, but someone would always yell at them or pull them back. Finally, I went across the street to talk to the only neighbor who would have anything to do with us, a white librarian at the university. Her house was as noisy as a gaming arcade, there were so many kids coming and going, so I asked her what was up with ours.

"Oh, I guess the local people don't like it very much," she said. She was all like super-vague when I asked why not. "I really couldn't say." What was she, a lawyer? I hate it when people talk like that. Just then, her partner ran out of candy at the front door and came running back looking for more.

"Oh shit!" she said, when she couldn't find any, "Now we'll have to hide." And she wasn't kidding. For the next few minutes there was like a constant roar outside and a loud pounding on the front door. I swear I actually saw it bending inward, just like the hall gates in the mines of Moria. Some of the kids out there must have been like basketball players! Finally I snuck out the kitchen door and brought them back a big bag of our unwanted candy. Then when I went back home again, I saw that somebody had spray-painted 'Amitevil' all over the wall under the front bay window.

Since the agency was useless, we decided to call a furnace repairman on our own and just deduct the expense from our rent. But we couldn't find anyone who would come to that part of town, even though it was being gentrified. Finally, we convinced one very old guy to show, so he came, took one look at the furnace, and was like, 'You're out of oil." But the oil truck had come the week we'd moved in! Where had it all gone? He couldn't find any leaks. So the truck came again (and wow, is oil heat expensive!), so now we had heat. But as soon as we did, we had the fleas back, too. After that, so many things happened that it's sort of like a blur. For one thing, the electricity was now totally whacked. Lights turned themselves on--sometimes you'd come downstairs in the morning and half the lights in the kitchen and living room would be on, like a burglar had snuck in just to turn them on. Or you'd leave them on in the bathroom and go back in to find it dark. Weirdest of all was what happened to me a couple of times when I was trying to study: suddenly my hair would all stand straight back on end like one of those electro-magnetized glass globes you see in school science fairs was being carried back and forth behind me. Both times this happened when I was like totally alone in the house, and there was no one else there to see it, but it felt incredibly spooky. Because I have a lot of hair! And of course, there were always the fleas, which were now like a grey swarming cloud in the air and bit us everywhere--our only defense against them was to wear long johns soaked in Deet.

So why did we stay there? That's always the 'doh!' question I want to scream at actors in slasher flicks, you know when they're being stalked and murdered one by one, but they still insist on staying at the hotel or sorority house or summer camp or whatever. And I don't really have an answer to that. I mean, part of it was that it was all sort of gradual, really, and we kept thinking things would get better. I mean, we thought they HAD to! How could they get any worse? And part of it was stubbornness, because you know, we had just moved in, and really it was the landlord or the agency's responsibility to fix things. But mostly we were just really busy with classes and schoolwork and stuff--the pressure academically was super intense, and we just didn't have time to focus on it. Plus Kerry (as usual) and Jo had boyfriends that semester, so they pretty much moved out at that point and slept over. Kerry's boyfriend was so afraid of the fleas that he made her strip down and 'de-tox' every time she'd been at the house. Chris and I spent most of our spare time at the library or the student union. Chris had an LDR with a guy back in Lund, Sweden, she was being faithful to, so that left me the only completely manless one because I was 'too picky', this in the immortal words of a guy who tried to hook up with me at a party who was the spitting image of 'Bottom' in some Kansas high school production of 'Midsummer Night's Dream', even to the hair on his nose and pointy ears. I swear to god, he even snuffled! So yeah, I was picky, but that's pretty much all I had to work with on that campus. At night, whenever the other two were gone, Chris and I bunked together in her attic room, where the fleas weren't so bad, out of mutual fear. But then a couple of new things happened. And these were way, way worse.

Continued here...


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