I told a friend of mine I’m moving into a nice apartment seven stories up on Sheridan avenue overlooking Lake Michigan. “Ooh-la-la” she said, mocking my materialism. “You don’t understand”, I said. “I’ve lived in Chicago for six years but in 12 different apartments, most of them sketch. Only once did I sign an actual lease. And the apartment I live in now is the most sketch yet.”
“Define sketch“, she said, glancing at me accusingly, implying that I was using the word to refer to not-white, poor.
“Bed bugs and Latin Kings”.
“OK” she conceded, “Go for it”.
The gang members who live in my building are disarmingly courteous. Often I’ll be coming home at night with my bike on my shoulder and they’ll go out of their way to open the door for me, saying ‘What’s up Bro’ or even ‘Hello Sir’. I respond cordially, addressing them as a group warmly, with encouragement and a hint of camaraderie. ‘How’s it going, guys?’ It’s a technique I picked up from my dad. Not that he uses it to talk to gang members, he uses it for teenagers in general. And not that he does it on purpose. I’ve just noticed it’s how he talks to teenagers who are probably used to being ignored by people, because they’re teenagers and mildly threatening or in an awkward phase where no one knows what to make of them. My dad makes a point of recognizing them in a natural, emphatic way. As do I, especially when they take a break from recounting violent exploits to wish me a fine evening.
Because that’s what the gangbangers are. Teenagers. When I was their age, I had the luxury to hang out in a creek bed behind my buddy Jim’s house where we’d shoot pellet guns and smoke our first tobacco. We blew up shit with fireworks and cussed and maybe planned some minor vandalizing. Granted, when we vandalized we didn’t scrawl symbols that staked out territory to other gangs, but we vandalized nonetheless. The teenagers in my building don’t have such a luxury as a creek to hang out in. They hang out in front of the building because they got nowhere else to go. I haven’t seen them do anything violent. The most I’ve seen is one them flash gang signs at a slowly moving car before the driver of the slowly moving car shouted, turning on a spot light, ‘Really!? You’re going to flash gang signs at an undercover cop?’ At which point the teenagers acted real contrite, unleashing a series of Yessirs and I’m Sorry Sirs. The police officer drove off.
I’ve lived in Chicago for six years but it’s not where I’m from. For most of that time, if you asked me where I was from, I’d say ‘Well I was born in Rockford, lived in Byron (a rural town in western Illinois) before moving to Will County, before moving here’. That long-winded explanation served two functions. One, I distracted you from the fact that I grew up in a plain white suburb with creek beds in which know-it-alls could pretend they were dangerous. And two, I’d play up the idea that I’m from rural Illinois. That I’m a country not a country club boy. During the past month, finally, when people ask where I’m from I just say I’m from Frankfort. It’s the truth, that’s where I ‘grew up’. Whether or not I currently call it home.
The bed bugs are a totally other story. Same apartment, different story. I told another friend recently about them. He leapt back from me. ‘Stay away!’ He said, eyeing me nervously.
I expected better from him. He’s HIV Positive. You’d figure him of all people would be more sympathetic. Not like people with AIDs are contagious; that’s the point, there’s an irrational stigma. I remember watching in my suburban high school health class a video about AIDs, and about how it’s actually OK to share a cup of water or a piece of pizza with somebody with AIDs. But even so, would I do it? Would I share a glass of water with my friend just to exhibit my noble transcendence of society’s stigma?
Plus, he has had bed bugs. A truly horrific case, much worse than mine (I had at most a couple dozen, which I caught early, before having an exterminator visit). He described to me waking up in the middle of the night in order to catch them in action and flipping the bed over to find thousands upon thousands, a veritable metropolis of bed bugs seething, breathing beneath his mattress. In a scare, he dragged the bed to the sliding glass patio door and, opening the door with one hand and dragging the mattress with the other, while simultaneously suffocating from pure revulsion, he hoisted the mattress onto the ledge, shouted ‘LOOK OUT!’ and threw the mattress over the balcony, seven stories down into the alley below. He turned back, and on the floor of his apartment, tracing the path from his box-spring to the patio, was a stream of smeared blood, the crushed remnants of bedbugs, like a scene out of Pyscho.
Given that experience, I can see how, despite his situation, he wouldn’t get near me. I don’t blame him. And I don’t blame me, also, for wanting to move out. I want to begin with a clean slate. I’m throwing most of my shit away, donating it if I’m sure it’s contagion free. Moving 12 different times to 12 different apartments and dragging along an ever growing mass of personal useless shit is getting old. It’s about time to leave it all behind and start fresh with a bona fide 18 month lease, in a building with a security guard who might, who knows (they’re paid) be just as friendly as the 15 year old Latin King outside my doorstep.