Hank had already looked at two rental apartments today. Neither was even remotely promising. The first was in a five-story brick building on a crowded street on Chicago’s North Side with an abandoned warehouse for a neighbor. As he had approached the address in his car, all it had taken was one look at the building with its chipped paint and debris-strewn front entrance. He didn’t even bother to stop. He called the building manager on his cell phone from a block away, leaving a message that he had been held up and would have to cancel the appointment.
A short time later Hank had another appointment to look at a high-rise on busy Sheridan Avenue, near Lake Michigan in the Rogers Park neighborhood. The vacant unit was on the 12th floor and you had to take a dingy, slow-moving elevator that seemed to stop on almost every floor before arriving at its destination. On the ride up Joe, the building manager, had kept up a steady stream of chatter about the property’s various amenities. On the 4th floor a sleepy looking older man of unkempt beard, sweatpants, and faded T-shirt entered the elevator. He was carrying a garbage bag of laundry to the 5th floor. Apparently, the building had a laundry room every other floor. Joe said hello to the man, who managed a barely audible grunt in response. On the 7th floor two elderly women got on even though they were going down to the lobby. They wore scarves over their hair and thick wool coats and leather gloves and looked prepared to walk across artic tundra. It was mid-May in Chicago.
From the outside the high-rise looked as if it had once been designed to impress. There was a circular drive entryway where Hank imagined a doorman had once greeted the building’s patrons. The front lobby was ornate with fake marble walls and two large mirrors with more fakery in the mirror’s gold trim frames. Near the mirror on the lobby’s north side was a large, empty flower vase. Its unused status only reinforced the impression of the building’s faded luster.
Hank was only 29 years old, but had already moved so many times in his life that he knew to look for the telltale signs of trouble in a new building or neighborhood. He knew all too well the ’60s-era suburban neighborhoods that once broadcast the promise of up-and-coming suburban prosperity, but now were home to faded old ranch homes with Dodge vans that had seen better days and now sat more or less permanently in driveways with cracked cement and the grass sprouting through. These were the homes with the slightly unkempt lawns and old lawn mowers and gas snow blowers (were they still working?) that sat out front next to garage doors in need of new paint. But it was a tricky thing, because these were also neighborhoods of mostly pleasant homes and manicured front lawns that on first view made a good impression. Hank thought most people were inclined to see only what they wanted to see. The naïve homebuyer might notice the broken-down lawn mower sitting out front at the house next door, but would think it was only there temporarily. The homeowner must be just about to take it in for repair, he would say to himself. Or, maybe they’re just waiting for the trash hauler to dispose of it? Not Hank. He saw in such details revelations of encroaching squalor, of folks who were just getting by and who either lacked the money to keep everything sparkly and fine; or worse, no longer cared to keep things up. Hank was tuned into these whispers of subtle, weedy disarray in neighborhoods in slow decline. He had grown up in such a neighborhood.
Now Hank was riding an elevator up to the 12th floor of a building to inspect an apartment he already knew he wasn’t going to rent. When the door opened, he got off the elevator with the building manager. It was a short walk down the hall to 12G. The unit had just been painted, Joe cheerfully announced, and was “cable ready.” When he opened the door to 12G Hank could indeed smell the paint. Inside, a box of wires sat on the small kitchen counter, but otherwise the unit was empty. Hank looked around without much enthusiasm. “Is it quiet in this unit?” Hank asked. “I’m in school so that’s important to me.” Normally, Hank cared about the answer to this question, but now he was just making conversation. The question was also a way of telling landlords he was a desirable tenant. There would be no reggae music playing at all hours in Hank’s apartment, no stomping around late at night while he and his buddies watched Bruce Willis action movies with machine guns firing and explosions resounding on large flat screen TVs with mega-sound systems. No pizza deliveries at 11:30 p.m. No, that was not Hank. He was a serious young man, upstanding and responsible and who would cause no problems for anyone.
“Oh, this unit should really be very quiet, just great for you,” Joe responded in that overly sincere tone typical of mediocre salesmen. It bugged Hank. Joe then recited various details about the tenants below and above and next door that could leave no doubt that this was a very quiet building indeed. Hank listened without much interest. He had made up his mind about this place within 30 seconds of entering the front lobby, but he supposed it didn’t hurt to see what was being offered for the price.
Within five minutes, Hank was out the door, thanking Joe for his time and promising to call by early tomorrow if he wanted to sign the lease. He had another appointment in about 45 minutes on North Paulina. This was a three-story building with six apartments managed by a Mr. Rudnick. Hank had spoken to him on the phone yesterday, just long enough to schedule a 1:30 p.m. appointment to look at the place. Mr. Rudnick had a strong accent and when Hank started to ask him a few questions on the phone about the apartment, it was clear the man missed some of the nuances of what he was saying. He decided to save his queries for in-person.
With some time to spare, Hank stopped at a convenience store and bought a small coffee. He sat in the car in the parking lot for 15 minutes before driving to his next appointment. He was moving to Chicago from Lincoln, Nebraska, after completing his B.A. in sociology at the University of Nebraska. Unlike most of his friends, he had gone to work full-time after high school, working at a nursery and garden supply business in Omaha owned by an uncle. His Uncle Bob was his mother’s brother and paid him well and he had become assistant manager at the age of 21. College would only come later, motivated by the gradual realization that working in horticulture for the rest of his life was an exceedingly uninspiring vision. Next up was graduate work for his M.A. at DePaul. Growing up in Omaha, Hank wasn’t quite the total rube when it came to city living, but Chicago by comparison was another world. Crowded. Poor. Gruff. Expensive. Yes, it was all that. But it was also loud and lively and full of life and fun and there were restaurants and music and the lakefront. He had a full scholarship and would be working as a teaching assistant. He was excited to be here.
But he also had to find a place to live first. He had three more days in town before he had to leave. Eager, Hank arrived at his next appointment early. The residential street was less crowded than the last address he had visited. The cars parked on the street looked better, too. The building itself was small and undistinguished, but looked clean. At 1:30 there was no sign of Mr. Rudnick so Hank turned on the car radio and listened to a local sports talk show for a few minutes. He couldn’t quite follow the particulars of the conversation, but everyone seemed mad about something or other having to do with prospects for the Chicago Cubs this season.
Finally, ten minutes late, he saw a plain white van pull up near the front of the building. A short, unshaven middle-aged man in work overalls got out and began walking to the building’s front entrance. Hank knew it had to be Mr. Rudnick. He got out of the car and called over, offering a friendly wave. The man turned and stopped, not smiling. Hank introduced himself, but the man just nodded without offering to shake Hank’s hand, introducing himself only as Rudnick. Immediately, he began reciting a list of details about the unit.
As they walked toward the building, Rudnick told Hank the apartment was on the first floor and they would go in through the back door. “You go to school?” Rudnick asked.
“I’ll be working at DePaul starting in September, teaching,” Hank replied in the friendly, upbeat voice he had learned to use with customers at the nursery. “I’m in a graduate program at DePaul. Sociology. I’m taking one class this summer while getting settled. Just moving here from Nebraska.
Rudnick nodded again. “Nebraska. You get money from your family? Parents?”
What kind of a question is that, Hank thought, irritated by the man’s intrusiveness. By nature Hank was friendly and inclined to see the best in others. To trust them. But disillusionment about people also came quickly for Hank. That story began in childhood when Hank’s father one day just moved out and never came back. Hank was eight years old and after that his mom made ends meet working for J.C. Penney. It was her brother who after high school gave Hank his first full-time job. Hank never knew what became of his father; nor did he even really know what he had done for a living, beyond vague references to “the sales industry.” He was supposedly alive somewhere, but his name was never mentioned in the family. Hank had stopped caring about all that long ago. But now when disillusionment or distrust about people came, Hank’s normal rules of engagement could quickly turn more rebellious and sly. Rudnick’s rude question immediately put him in the category of one with whom Hank would have to watch his step. As they walked down the small walkway between buildings that led to the back alley, Hank decided to play Rudnick a little.
“Actually, my parents live in American Samoa,” Hank explained, assuming a tone of solemnity. “They’re missionaries. I usually only see them once a year or so, maybe at the holidays. I’ve been on my own since high school. Now I’ll be teaching at DePaul.” Hank paused. “Anyway, you’re definitely in my price range!” Hank smiled at that last comment, which he delivered cheerfully. Again, Rudnick nodded, apparently satisfied that Hank wasn’t a loser promising only future headaches.
When they reached the back of the building, they turned left and Rudnick opened a metal gate to the back porch. Hank followed him up the building’s short flight of stairs. For a moment, Rudnick fumbled in his coat pocket for the set of master keys, then found the key and stuck it in the lock. As he did so, he turned to Hank, suddenly angry. “I hate these people, I hate these people,” he blurted out, looking at Hank as if it was obvious what he was talking about. Hank was taken aback. What is this about? Were the tenants unusually noisy or rude? Did they have some ongoing dispute with the man over something or other? Were they drug addicts? More important, why was he telling him this? Hank didn’t take it as a good sign that the building manager felt compelled to openly vent his hatred for the current tenants.
Rudnick paused before turning the lock. “I hate them! You will see. I warn you. I hate these people. Not good people.” Rudnick looked over at Hank as if he must surely be with him on this, whatever this was. Hank was apparently no longer the dubious prospective tenant, but had somehow been given pass to this man’s version of the world of normal people. Nothing like The Other to bring some people together, Hank thought to himself. But who were The Other? He said nothing.
As he turned the key in the lock, Rudnick knocked loudly on the back door. Not waiting for an answer, he pushed the door open and walked in. “Manager!, Manager!” he yelled. If anyone was home, Rudnick was barely giving them time to respond. Nearby Hank noticed the used cereal bowls and small plates with crumbs of toast on a tiny kitchen table, obviously in recent use and not yet cleaned up. Rudnick didn’t seem at all interested whether anyone was home, instead pointing out the kitchen had a dishwasher and a ceiling fan.
“You won’t find too many buildings in this price range with a dishwasher,” he told Hank.
“Does the tenant pay for water?” Hank asked.
“Yes, you pay water,” Rudnick replied. “Not too bad, about $15 a month. Maybe $20. Tenant also pays electricity and gas. The building has radiator heat so no heat bill for you.”
Curious, Hank had a question. “Who owns the building, Mr. Rudnick? Is it yours?”
Rudnick hesitated at the question and Hank sensed he didn’t want to answer. “Stone Properties Management, my cousin is president,” he replied. “We have several properties.” He was telling Hank it was a family business, without quite clarifying his own position. Rudnick was a cagy character, Hank thought, one of those landlords who wants to know as much as he can about you, but for whom it was second nature to reveal as little about himself as he could get away with.
Rudnick was also in a hurry. He didn’t give Hank more than a few seconds in the kitchen before moving toward the living room and the rest of the apartment. The Venetian blinds in the living room front window were closed, giving the room a dim, uninspired look. In the center of the room sat a dark brown rattan couch, with a matching glass-topped coffee table and two chairs. The faded white cushions on the couch and chairs looked like they had seen better days. Hank noticed the pile of magazines spread loosely on the coffee table, mostly celebrity gossip magazines, but also copies of the Chicago Reader and Windy City Times. Hank had picked up copies of both for apartment listings and knew the latter was a newspaper for the gay community. Near the front door entryway sat a chaotic clump of running shoes, boots, and dress shoes. An expensive looking bicycle leaned against the wall. Rudnick breezed past all this uttering a single sentence: “This is the living room.”
Then it was down another short hallway. There was a small bathroom with a shower at the hallway’s end. Hank glanced inside without bothering to enter. A few feet further to the left was the apartment’s one bedroom. Just as Hank turned away from a brief glimpse inside the bathroom, Rudnick entered the bedroom. “The bedroom has lots of closet-space,” he announced matter-of-factly as Hank followed him into the room. As he did so, Hank froze. On the floor sat a large mattress and box spring, covered by blankets and a sheet, underneath which Hank saw what were obviously two human forms.
There were two people in the bed with the blankets pulled up over their heads!
Judging by the shape of things, Hank presumed the forms were both male and likely young. He looked around uncertainly, momentarily unsure of himself and the situation. The cluttered bedroom wasn’t much better looking than the living room. The open top drawer of one of the room’s two dressers was jammed with a mess of men’s socks, underwear, and T-shirts. A large, dusty mirror attached to the wall above one of the dresser drawers, next to which was a large poster of Marilyn Monroe in her famous white dress from “The Seven Year Itch.” The poster wasn’t framed, but stuck to the wall with tacks. Below, on the floor, and haphazardly arranged sat a bright red pair of women’s pumps. The mysterious figures in the bed did not move, but it was clear one of them was holding the blankets up tight from underneath to pull over their heads. And there they remained, poised no doubt in anticipation of Rudnick and Hank’s imminent departure. Ludicrously, Rudnick acted as if he did not notice their presence, impossible as that was. There was obviously some kind of long-standing war of nerves going on between these people, Hank thought, and he had walked right into the middle of it. He didn’t know whether to laugh or walk out in disgust.
“The room was painted last year,” Rudnick told Hank. “There’s also a cable hook-up over there, on the other side of the dresser,” he said, pointing to an outlet Hank could not see. Hank nodded, but said nothing. There was no way he was going to engage in conversation with this man about the room’s various features while two other men were hiding motionless under the bed covers. Standing there, listening to Rudnick talk mundanely about the room, Hank felt almost like a foreign invader, a 19th Century colonialist surveying some conquered landscape while the natives cowered, ghostlike, in their huts.
He had to get out. Now. Abruptly, Hank turned and saying nothing walked out of the room. Why had Rudnick brought him in here? What’s wrong with this guy? For that matter, what’s wrong with the undercover tenants? Why did they put up with Rudnick’s intrusion? He didn’t know what was worse: Rudnick, with his boorish ways and apparent homophobia, which, stupidly small-minded as these things tend to be, he assumed Hank would share in; or the unknown tenants and their disappearing act? Que está más loco?
Hank’s sympathies were definitely weighed on the side of the tenants. But why didn’t they answer the damn door, or at least get out of bed, when they heard Attila the Landlord on the march from the hinterlands of the kitchen? Did they find it hilarious to hide out under the covers, intentionally trying to freak out their landlord? Would they burst out laughing as soon as we left? Hank suspected that they would. Without saying more, Rudnick followed Hank back into the hallway. “Yea, well, it looks OK,” Hank said just to say something as he made his way back toward the kitchen. Rudnick nodded and began fiddling with his keys. They walked quickly through the kitchen and out the back door. As Rudnick locked the door, he repeated his earlier comments. “I tell you, I hate those people. I try to get rid of them.” He didn’t look at Hank as he spoke. Strangely, Rudnick offered no explanation for their behavior. Nor did he apologize for walking in on them.
Hank had seen enough. “OK, well, I’ll call you tonight or tomorrow if I want the apartment,” he lied. “Thanks, man.” (He didn’t want to call him Mr. Rudnick.) With that, he started down the back steps toward the side alley leading back to the street. “I almost forget, there is a laundry room with a storage space for each unit in the basement,” said Rudnick, catching up and walking along. “Two washers and driers for six units. I can show you, if you want?”
“That’s OK,” replied Hank. “I’ve got another appointment in a few minutes. Everything looks good. I can see it later if I have to, but I’m sure it’s good.”
As they reached the sidewalk in front of the building, Rudnick stopped for a moment to pull a business card out of his pocket. “I show this place to one other person tomorrow,” he said. “If you want it, you should call soon.” As he looked at Hank, his look softened for a moment. “I’ll rent to you.” Apparently, Rudnick approved of Hank. Of course, Hank thought, he at one time had also approved of the mystery tenants who currently occupied the apartment.
Hank took the card. “Thanks.”
For a second Hank thought about asking Rudnick why his tenants hid under covers when he showed up. But before he could finish that thought Rudnick was already walking away. Hank looked at the business card. The card read, “Stone Properties Management” and included a local phone number.
There was no name or address.
• Image from a lithograph by Jacqueline Lamba-Breton.