Over the weekend, we got an email from our landlord in Chicago. He wrote, “We’re having a few companies stop by to give quotes to replace the sidewalk that leads up to the front door. Don’t be surprised if you look out and there are strange men wandering around the yard.”
We live on the second floor of a coach house on Humboldt Boulevard. If you’ve never been to Chicago, you might not be aware of these glorious neighborhoods throughout the city. Think of it as a symmetric burger. The bun is mansions, brown or gray stones, or apartments. The lettuce is a one-way street to access housing. The Rouille is green space dappled with trees where you’ll find any number of people sitting on blankets, reading a book, enjoying the sun, watching the day go by, walking their dogs or playing catch. The meat is the four-laned thoroughfare. Cars at all hours.
Living on this kind of street buffers the inhabitants from the speeding traffic. It allows for greenspace in an otherwise cement jungle.
In a coach house, you feel even more distanced from city life. We have a gigantic front yard, something unheard of in the city. Usually you get four or five steps and then you’re at the front door. For us, it’s 30 or more yards from our gate to our front door. There’s a wall of green shrubs that tower midway between the street and our windows. If you wanted to, you’d think you were in a suburb.
On the second floor, our apartment has a sunporch where we work facing the boulevard. We can see passersby in the green spaces and on the sidewalk.
During the pandemic, our yard was the Melrose Place of Chicago. Lots of our neighbors would descend there to chill over a glass of wine, a grilled meal, a fire in a fire pit, a projected movie or sitting around telling stories. It was our yard people were in when we could hear chants of Black Lives Matters, booms from the riots, and any number of police sirens. It was our yard everyone was in when Biden was announced as the 46th president of the United States.
With the wall of shrubs, it feels private and safe.
We have all kinds of seating, a grill that’s not locked down, bikes in a nook unlocked as well. There are garden tools and a shelf of nicknacks.
It’s a yard where you might see birds, squirrels and the most unwelcome of all neighbors, rats.
One time I fell asleep outside in the middle of the pandemic. When I stirred, it was around 2 a.m. I looked around, stretched, rubbed my eyes and I got up. I went to throw something away before heading upstairs. When I opened the trash, no less than six rats stared right back at me like, “the fuck you doin?”
And that, dear reader, is why our landlord sent that email about the path. There are rats so entrenched in the areas under the path, that removing the existing path, dropping Vietnam-level napalm missiles before rapidly covering it back up is the only answer to the infestation.
Into the back of my mind, I repeated the message from our landlord, “Don’t be surprised if you see strange men wandering around the yard.”
The driveway to our house is where we park. On the street, though, there’s parallel parking. It’s where we get a lot of delivery trucks to slip into for a quick box drop off to let cars slip by on our one-way. Or the occasional Uber pickup with their lights blinking. Or it’s a space that creates a desert-level mirage for weary drivers searching for parking late at night.
This past Sunday morning was particularly stressful as it was the day we were going to celebrate the life of a dear family member who passed away recently. We were a large part of the celebration, and we needed to arrive a couple hours early to help with flowers and a photo montage we created.
It was also a day when someone decided to park in our drive and block us from being able to get out. We have a “Do not Park” sign on the gate. It says, You will be towed. But weary drivers seeing the mirage of a parking spot without a fire hydrant don’t care about signs. All they care about is getting their weary heads on their weary pillows to shut their drunk eyes. Ha.
On Sunday morning, I came out with a yoga mat to meet our neighbor who has been giving us free, private yoga lessons. I saw the car and rolled my eyes. I went out, took a picture of it, but thought, “Surely, this person knows they parked in our drive and they will come out first a.m. and move their car.”
That didn’t happen.
When a spot opened behind the car, I noticed that I could slip out behind the vehicle if I was careful. So I got my keys, maneuvered off the curb and parallel parked. If we were late to the funeral, my wife would have to plan my life celebration, if you know what I mean.
By around 11, the car was still there, so I called 911 and got them ticketed. In the middle of the day, my neighbor sent a picture of the car getting towed.
It was the first time since we hung the Towing sign that it actually worked. We danced the Tow Truck Shuffle.
There’s this reoccurring feeling, though, a guilt let’s call it, about getting someone towed. I wrote their story in my mind. The driver desperately wanted to get home for the night. They spotted the openin and parked. Perhaps they were down on their luck. The pandemic hit them hard, and not only were they ticketed $75, their car was impounded. Perhaps they didn’t realize to look for their car on Sunday or Monday, but finally on Tuesday. That’s the price of the tow and two nights impounding, which is easily over $500. So for the simple mistake of a late Saturday night with a $100 price tag, this poor schmo was taxed another $600 or more bucks.
So much for a night out.
Our week itself was a lot of photo editing, some errands and exercise. We share the same gate as the apartments to the north of our place. The time I was at my desk, I didn’t notice any strange men in the yard. I saw my neighbors to the north come and go. I saw the downstairs neighbors leave for work and come home. I noticed other neighbors to the south with their dogs or leaving with their bikes.
On Monday while out with our two dogs, I noticed my bike, which was not locked down, was not leaning against the tree where I left it. It was lying down on the ground. I thought little of it. But I did know it wouldn’t arrive at that spot by wind or something natural.
Then, on Tuesday, I saw a strange man walk into the yard. My back straightened in my chair. Then I stood up. He was wandering toward the front door. His left arm crossed over his stomach, kind of like cerebral palsy, stiffened and the thumb tucked as if he was in a perpetual state of making a bird-shaped shadow on a wall. He wasn’t looking at the sidewalk, taking notes … he was examining my unlocked bike leaning against a tree.
I raced down the stairs, burst from the door and yelled, “GET. THE FUCK. OUT OF MY YARD!!!”
The man turned. He wore a dirty thrift store suit over a faded red sweater. The suit hung on his frame like he rapidly lost 50 pounds. He looked toward me, but not at me, stunned by my shouting. “Uh, uh .. oh oh oh kay” he managed to get out.
“I’m going to call the cops! … I called the cops … GET THE FUCK OUT!”
He wandered down the sidewalk muttering something or another. My brain was in full adrenaline mode. There was a voice yelling at myself that that was the dumbest thing ever. What if the guy were violent, had a gun or a knife? Then there was guilt and shame for using the word fuck as many times as I did. Or then it was, “Why didn’t I wait for him at the gate as he rolled my bike toward me with my phone raised recording him. Then I blocked him in, called 911, and watched his dumbass stuck in the back of a cop car.
But my response was my response. And it raised the blood pressure of a neighbor on the second floor who came out and asked, “Everything okay?”
I shook from the adrenaline and told her some random dude waltzed in the yard and was handling my bike ready to ride off when I stopped him. I ended up locking up my bike, moving some garden clippers inside that might be used to break into our house and went back inside to settle down.
That night, I dreamed about the trespasser. There were meandering thoughts of “forgiving my trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
And then my eyes opened wide and I thought, “My cart is gone.”
My cart was a rock-and roller cart that lots of photographers and musicians use to transport their gear. It folds up. You can attach parts to make it a portable desk. It’s been in the yard a lot as we’ve been busy with shoots. And it’s a pain in the ass to store inside. Like I said, we feel too comfortable leaving valuables in the yard.
I knew, without getting up to look, that this trespasser was returning to the yard. This wasn’t his first time in our yard. He had come in for the bike on Monday. Started taking it, but then saw the cart. He dropped the bike where he was, and grabbed the other valuable object on wheels, because, I imagine, his gnarly hand wasn’t going help him escape as easily with a bike. He needed both hands to maneuver it. But the cart! The cart was a one-handed theft.
So off he went. On Tuesday morning, he woke up, checked his to-do list, and at the top was, “Go back to the cart yard and take that bike.”
I woke up Wednesday morning, went out to check for the cart, and I was right.
Trespasser 1. Jeremy 1. Cart O.
On Friday, we needed that cart for a full day job. I opened my laptop to see if I could get a replacement delivered by Thursday, but that wasn’t an option. I remembered we live around the corner from a camera store, which is a near-extinct species of retailer in the world. I walked up there, and recalled that they also rent gear. So I rented a cart from them. Crisis avoided.
I called my homie Jaime on the way back to tell him what happened. And he immediately pointed at the homeless guy who lives under the viaduct an 1/8th of a mile south of our house. “He may not have taken it, but you know he’s been getting a lot of ‘friends’ who wander up and down our street. They probably saw your bike from the road.”
I hung up with him and I walked down to that homeless guy’s camping spot. He wasn’t home, so I felt free to move about the cabin. I grabbed the image above while there.
I’ve talked to the guy a couple times. His name is Juan. I can’t remember his nickname. But he has one. This one time I stopped, he was very friendly. “What church are you from?” he asked me.
“I’m not from a church.” I said.
“Oh, usually people from churches stop and bring me food, some canned, and I can heat it on that.” He pointed toward a little area with a grill. He uses stuff he finds to fuel it.
“People aren’t that nice to me, otherwise,” he started to say. “I haven’t done anything to anybody.”
“People are mean,” I said.
He’s been living there about a year. He’s got a bed, shelves, seating area for entertaining with rugs to warm up the ambiance, a cooking area, and a few piles of metal and objects. Recently, he acquired a large, battery powered boom box and the guy and his friends blast it on Fridays over a can of bubbly or two.
I didn’t see my cart.
But while I was standing there, I heard cars on Humboldt Boulevard slamming on their breaks and intermittent sounds of something hitting the pavement. I looked up and watched little white balls floating over from on top of the viaduct. Gravity pulled them down to the street where they were splatting on the concrete.
My brain finally put it together. Up on the viaduct is a 5 mile stretch of walking path. Kids bought eggs and were lobbing them at cars during rush hour.
I dialed 911 for the second time in a week. “911. What’s your emergency?”
“I’m standing at the 606 on Humboldt Boulevard, and I’m watching three or four kids toss eggs at cars.”
The man told me the police were on their way. I went home. And finished my day.
On Friday morning, my first alarm went off at 4:20 a.m. I groggily shuffled to the coffee maker, pre-loaded with ground beans and water, pushed the button to on. I woke Tina at 4:31, because her alarm didn’t go off. I brought her coffee. We dressed, fed the dogs and headed to our photo shoot to get sunrise shots around the Tribune Tower building.
We finished the job, were home by 3:30. We let the dogs out. Tina dropped me at the camera store to return the rented cart. And I walked home while she ran to the grocery store for dinner.
On my way back to our apartment, I passed a homeless looking dude on a bike. I spotted a rat cross over the curb and dart into someone’s yard. And a delivery truck pulled out from the space in front of our driveway.
“I love living in Chicago,” I whispered to myself.