Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Still Hanging in There


“Isn’t that the guy who tried to pee in our closet?”

My husband and I were sitting outside Wrigley Field waiting for Bruce Springsteen to take the stage.

“Who?” I asked. Herbie had been dead for a decade—or at least I thought.

We had been married maybe a month and were living in an old house divided up into six apartments—some with shared bath. It was the early 80s in Chicago in a neighborhood coming back from blight. The remnants were everywhere. In the vacant lots, in the abandoned cars littering the vacant lots, in the boarded-up buildings bordering the vacant lots. It was nothing to see punks walking the sidewalks with tally-rags up to their mouths. At night the gangs came out with baseball bats to beat the tar out of each other, the sky lit up with fires set by landlords burning down those old buildings, the buildings subdivided, with bathrooms down the hall.

Every morning I awoke to some new crisis, the ashes of the night before. And the occasional body left in playlots long forsaken by kids.

We were in Chicago doing the abstract work of community development, which sometimes just came down to shoveling the sidewalks, grilling out with belligerent neighbors, calling the police or firehouse when trouble broke out. We invited kids to play inside our yard because the playlots were scary, filled with teens huffing tally, swinging on swings and then knotting them by wrapping them over the top bar.

After being raised in the suburbs, the inner city of Chicago sometimes felt medieval.

And my husband and I lived outside the castle walls. It was summer and our bedroom window was wide open. We tried to suck as much circulation into the room as possible by creating a wind tunnel: one fan pulling hot air in and another fan pointing out, as if to exhale. If we lay perfectly still we might feel a breeze cooling the damp rags pressed against our forehead. The only hope was in a tomorrow less hot.

While waiting for the heat to break we fell asleep.

I thought he had locked the door and he thought I had locked the door. Apparently neither of us had because sometime in the middle of the night, dense with the sound of whirring fans, Herbie sneaked in. To be fair—he didn’t know where he was.

I awoke to a rustling. As I lay still I figured it was a mouse, then I speculated something bigger, perhaps a cat had gotten in through the open window—about nine feet off the ground. The sound was intermittent. Right when I thought I’d imagined the whole thing, it would come again. I got up to investigate.

As a child watching “The Mummy” or classic “Dracula” or some other Saturday afternoon black- and white-TV movie I’d always chide the naïve woman for opening her bedroom door or descending the castle steps in search of who knew what. NO! I’d scream. Get back inside! Years later as a die-hard feminist, I’d still scream—Go get a guy!

Yet there I was checking the screen in the window, prodding the corners of our studio apartment. There weren’t too many places for the sound to be coming from. So I returned to bed. A half hour later I heard it again: a distinct groan.

This time I woke my husband up. “I’m hearing something.”

“A mouse?”

“No, bigger than that.”

“A rat?”

I pushed him out of the bed. “Go see.”

He did something I’d avoided doing; he turned on a small desk lamp. There was a shuffling from the direction of the closet. I stayed in the middle of the bed as if it were a life raft, in case a flood of Pied Piper rats, cats, or mice tumbled out. My husband pushed the curtain to the closet aside. He looked up. It’s a man, he stated as a matter of fact.

Oh. My. God. We had no cell phone. This was before cell phones. I had no idea of how or where to get help. If I could I would have run out of the room—except I’d have to cross to the other side to the door, past the closet.

The man, who I could first tell had been sprawled on the closet floor, was now standing upright, but leaning. I dove under a pile of pillows. Visions of pillage and rape seized me. What if the man had a gun? A knife! This was no black- and white-movie, but real life. I had no idea how this story would end.

I heard my husband shout No! Don’t! and peeked. It looked as if the intruder, obviously drunk, was trying to relieve himself in our closet! My husband steered him out of the tight space, which in the dark might have appeared to be the bathroom, and guided him to the door of our apartment, and out into the hallway. He pointed the stranger to the bathroom down the hall.

Later we learned his name was Herbie. He’d been visiting one of the other residents and gotten turned around. Much later than that the word on the street was that he’d died in a violent fight—probably one of the nightly scuffles that took place in front of our house. Either way, after that terror-filled night we never saw him again.

Until the night of the Springsteen concert at Wrigley last week, when we thought we saw him stumble drunkenly across the street, going from garbage can to garbage can looking for beer cans to drain.

Not much had seemed to change in his life. For us—we were in fact that evening celebrating 26 years of marriage, and that studio we’d first lived in in the subdivided house had been torn down to make way for a condo development. The whole neighborhood had undergone a make-over. Instead of chain-link fences were landscaped hedges. Gone were the bars on the windows, replaced with flower boxes. Even the playlot kitty-corner from our old house had new play equipment enjoyed by toddlers and their caregivers. The swings now move freely back and forth without the trauma of truant teenagers.

My husband reached for my hand, grasped it while we sat in lawn chairs, waiting for the lights to go out and the band to come on and play for the people inside the stadium, for the sounds of Bruce to float over the walls to us and the other peasants sitting outside. “Happy anniversary,” my husband whispered.








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