CHICAGO STORIES: WEST OF WESTERN
By Eileen Robertson Hamer
“Damn it, Ellie, I thought I explained,” Seraphy said, shoving her short hair into a thatch of damp black spikes. The real estate agent had dragged her from one loft to another all afternoon and she was stewing in her slim jeans and long-sleeved shirt. She wiped her forehead with her sleeve and turned to face the Realtor hovering at her side.
“I couldn’t live like this,” she said, waving a handful of listing sheets. “NO MORE yuppified lofts. Period.” Seraphy watched the agent nod, watched the words slide off without penetrating her Realtor mind.
“But you’ll like this one,” Ellie pleaded, ignoring the signs of impending mutiny. “Just give it a chance.” Ellie had dressed for success that morning, but by late afternoon, her silk blouse clung to her chubby body like pink Saran Wrap and perspiration darkened her careful makeup. Clutching a brochure and a wad of keys in her right hand, her Blackberry in her left, she shifted from one aching foot to the other. Preparing to gush still more Realtor-speak, she glanced up from the listing sheet, caught her client’s expression, and her face dropped. “Look, just give it a chance, will you?” she pleaded.
“I’m done.” Seraphy shook her head and spoke slowly and clearly in the tone she used to explain to her nephews why they couldn’t put the cats in the clothes dryer. “No more, Ellie.”
“Get in the car,” said Ellie, temporarily defeated. “It’s too damned hot out here to talk.”
Once in Ellie’s Mercedes, Seraphy shuffled the remaining listing sheets, wondering why real estate agents couldn’t understand basic English. Were ‘no yuppie rehabs’ a foreign language? Was there some special Realtor gene that blocked anything she didn’t wish to hear? Was ‘Realtorcide’ a word?
The agent took out her frustration on the car’s air conditioning controls until frigid air spewed into their faces, then yanked her hair off her neck and imprisoned the limp yellow strands in a butterfly clip. While she checked her messages, Seraphy slumped in the passenger seat, skimming the remaining listing sheets with half-closed eyes, more to keep from snarling at Ellie than in any real hope of finding anything interesting.
Maybe she should give up. She couldn’t understand why this was so hard. All she wanted was a place for a home and studio. Something basic with room for her drafting board and flat files, maybe with a workshop where she could construct models, a loft with a kitchen and a place to sleep. But real estate agent after agent had shown her yuppie specials, overpriced one-time commercial properties gussied up with acres of granite. Basic didn’t bring high commissions. After chewing through nine agents, Seraphy had found it difficult to find anyone willing to take her on.
“What’s this?” Seraphy jerked herself upright, peeling a wrinkled sheet from the back of the last full listing in the pile. “Wait, don’t say anything. Give me a minute.” Smoothing the crumpled paper, she squinted at blurred print and a grainy black and white photo. Printed on cheap newspaper stock, and someone had taken a red marker to X out the small industrial building.
“Why didn’t you tell me about this one?” she said. “Hmm.” Maybe? The building might be a little tired, but at least it didn’t look savaged by developers.
“What? Let me see that.” Idling at the curb, Ellie pulled her face out of the air conditioner vent, resuscitated by a sign of actual interest from her difficult client. When she realized which listing Seraphy was asking about, her nose wrinkled. “Give me that!” She snatched at the photo. “That’s a piece of crap, that’s why. I thought I threw it out. Besides, it’s west of Western, out of our area.”
“Wait.” Seraphy held the paper out of Ellie’s reach. “Wait a minute—out of who’s area? I never said anything about Western.” She frowned, trying to make out details of the façade. “You say it’s a wreck? That mean it hasn’t been wrecked yet? For God’s sake, I can handle a little rehab, I’m an architect.”
Her back against the door, she held the photo at arm’s length and stared at the fuzzy image. Not bad, hard to tell from the blurred photo. Okay, so she had to admit, right now anything Ellie hated would look interesting, and Ellie’s resistance only spurred her on. But actually—she chewed her lip and gazed at the image—nice facade, that shallow barrel-vaulted entry had to be—what—1909, 1910?
“Do you have keys? Can I see it? Now?”
“No!” Ellie gave up reaching for the listing sheet and shook her head. “Don’t even think it! There’s no way you could live over there. Gangs, filthy streets, run-down buildings. Rats the size of dachshunds. Disgusting.” She swiped her hand across her cheek and scowled at the orange smear left on her palm. “Shit! I hate summer! There’s a packet of baby wipes in the glove compartment. Grab me one, will you?”
Seraphy tossed her the packet of wipes and tried to remember if she’d ever been on the other side of Western south of Division Street, then wondered why she hadn’t. She shrugged and turned back to the photo. Her curiosity bloomed as she gazed at the grainy image. Better and better.
“I’m not worried about the neighborhood.”A yuppie-free zone, and knowing Ellie, the area was probably just unfashionable and the buildings cheap. After ten years in the Middle East, a little shabbiness didn’t bother her.
“Well, I am. We’re both hot and tired and I’m not dragging you off into a slum.” Ellie’s eyes narrowed and she brought out her ultimate weapon. “Besides, it’s a waste of time, the building’s not mortgageable. Industrial building in an R3 zone. No bank would touch it. You’d have to pay cash.” Groping for the pages her client had tossed on the floor, she failed to see Seraphy shrug. “Forget it. We’ve still got three real lofts to see this afternoon. Where do you want to go next?”
“You don’t listen well, do you?” The small industrial building was beginning to smack of forbidden fruit, and Seraphy was a true daughter of Eve. With her skin itching from the heat and her eyes tired from looking at the wrong buildings, she was in no mood to look at another Sub-Zero refrigerator, eight-burner commercial range, or Grohe faucet. “This one or nothing.”
When the agent took a breath to argue, Seraphy held up her hand, palm out to stop her. “Ellie, listen: do we go now or do I call another Realtor?”
* * *
Maybe Ellie had a point. Crossing Western Avenue from Ukrainian Village, where sidewalks were scrubbed every day at dawn, they found themselves on Rockwell Street, where nothing was ever cleaned. Eighty year old red brick two-flats and a tired walk-up apartment building lined the east side of the street, a feast of crumbling mortar, peeling paint and taped-together windows. On the west side, a litter-filled vacant lot, a decrepit two-flat and a small industrial building. Broken sidewalks, dirt where there should be grass. Gutters full of fast-food trash, broken glass, leaves and other debris lined the pot-holed street. Scraggly silver maple trees drooped in the August heat.
But once Seraphy’s eyes fell on the building on the northwest corner of Rockwell and the alley, she didn’t give a rat’s ass. Gazing at the facade, forgetting to breathe, she lowered her window for a closer look. She waited for the familiar feeling of rejection, the knowledge that she could never live in this place, and was surprised when it failed to arrive. Instead, invisible fingers tugged at her, pulling her to come inside.
“Well, Seraphy, you happy now? I told you the place was a dump. Shut the damned window and let’s get out of this shithole.” Ellie hadn’t bothered to pull into the curb and park. Even idling in the car with air-conditioning blasting, she was steaming. Pulling her silk blouse away from her sticky chest, she fanned herself with her left hand, her foot on the brake. Seraphy ignored her and slid out of the Mercedes without looking at the pavement, her eyes locked on the building.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Ellie screeched behind her, unhappy in the marginal neighborhood. “Get back in here! Shut the door, you’re letting all my cool out!” She rolled the window half way up as she spoke. “I told you, crappy building, crappy neighborhood. Can we go now?” But her client wasn’t listening.
“I think . . . I want to see the inside.” Seraphy slammed the door and tapped on the glass. Impossible for her to even think of leaving without seeing the whole building. When Ellie lowered the window another spare inch Seraphy said “Give me the keys and wait in the car if you want. Better turn off the engine before it overheats. I’ll be a while.”
“Get real, you can tell from here it’s a dump and it’s on the wrong side of Western. Get. In. The. Damned. Car. Please. We need to get out of here before rush hour.”
“Just hold on—I think . . .” Seraphy shook her head, her words tapering off as she scanned the abbreviated listing sheet, looking from the text to the building and back, a tiny flame of excitement growing as she took in more detail. Ellie made little ‘let’s go’ noises, shifted in her seat and played with the radio, released the brakes slightly to let the car edge forward. Her hints were ignored.
“Yeah,” Seraphy said, decisive now, stashing the listing in a shirt pocket. “Okay, you might as well stop bitching and pull over. I’m taking a look inside.”
“Give me a break!” If her client wanted to see a listed building, a Realtor was legally bound to show it. Lines sprouted around Ellie’s lips as she yanked on the steering wheel. Her pristine tires scraped the curb and a bottle hidden under leaves and junk food debris exploded under the left front wheel. “Shit! Okay, I’ll show you the damned building!” Ellie hissed through the crack, her eyes shooting sparks. “One look and you’ll see I’m right. And we’re not hanging around, so make it fast. It’s getting late and I’m not getting caught over here—” Seraphy wasn’t listening when Ellie punched the button and the window slid up, cutting off her words.
In front of the shabby apartment building across the street, three obese old ladies perched on rickety kitchen chairs and stared at Ellie’s slim legs and strappy red high-heeled sandals as she slid out of the air-conditioned car.
Seraphy had no attention to spare for Ellie’s stream of complaints about the heat, the smell, the neighborhood, the lateness of the hour. Leaning her jean-clad butt back against the car for balance, she ran her architect’s eye over the façade from cornice to footing.
“Um-hmm.” Delighting in limestone and bricks and tin cornice, her mind paused, absorbed in the old workshop, and tension melted from her face. Good bones, this one. She nodded, her thoughts tumbling over each other like puppies. Tuck-pointing, demo, wiring, roof. She forgot to be tired and hot and miserable, forgot scars irritated by the heat. Her tongue flicked over her teeth as she envisioned the building stripped and cleaned. Beautiful. Her breath caught. This one could be the one.
“I’m sorry, did you say something?” Seraphy turned to Ellie, vaguely aware of the Realtor, now beside her on the sidewalk, overheated, impatient, shifting from foot to foot, , tugging at her arm.“Do you know who built her?”
“Yeah. Come on, let’s get this over with.” As Ellie headed for the door, she threw words over her shoulder like machine gun bullets, fast and hard, keeping time with the click-clack of her red heels. “Built as a drapery shop in 1906. Closed in 1973, used as a warehouse, still in the same family. Old guy died, no will, greedy relatives, all that. Empty eight years. Estate problems. I’ll get the door.”
Stumbling on a bit of broken pavement, she teetered, then lunged to regain her balance. “Jesus H. Christ!” Ellie shook her foot, her sandal now gray with blowing grit and encrusted with dog poop. “Shit!”
“Well, yeah, that looks about right,” Seraphy replied absently, still leaning against the car, her eye drawn by the rows of windows, the glass grimy and cracked behind rusted iron bars, feeling the building with her eyes. She had little thought left for Ellie. “I can see what you’re saying,” she nodded and ran her tongue around her teeth again, holding back a faint smile. “She’s a little run down.”
“A little run down, hell.” At the door, Ellie poked at the corroded lock and grunted. “I can’t get the damned key to work.” Turning, she flashed a triumphant smile. “Okay, that’s it. We can’t get in. Let’s go.”
“Hold on, Ellie. I’m going inside.” Seraphy pulled herself off the car and strolled over to the door, her Nikes automatically avoiding the holes and debris on the pavement. “We’ll get in. You have any WD40 in that briefcase?” Realtors always had WD40. Ellie sighed, dug out a can and tossed it to her client. Seraphy sprayed the lock. Waiting for the solvent to work, her eyes focused on nothing, her head began to fill with hope. Maybe? A place to start a new life? Two stories, three short lots wide, so that’s about, what, seventy-five by, say, fifty feet deep? Lot line to lot line, no yard to keep up. Great space.
The sweet odor of WD40 blanked out the urine reek of the doorway. The key turned and the door opened a few inches, then stuck. Seraphy joined Ellie to force an opening wide enough to sidle through, the Realtor in the lead.
“Eeeww. Get back, let me out!” she backpedalled, shoving Seraphy back into the bricks, and stumbled out onto the sidewalk. Spitting and wiping her mouth on the back of her hand, she backed away from the building. “Ugh! Disgusting.”
“Ellie, you’re such a wuss,” Seraphy grinned. “You’ve been in abandoned buildings before. It’s just a little dirty.”
“Dirty, hell! It’s a stinking pit. I can’t go back in there, Seraphy,” Ellie shuddered, shaking her hands as if to fling the odors away. “It’s hot as hell and smells like filth. I can’t. Don’t ask me.”
“No problem. Stay here, I’ll be out in a minute. Better yet, get in the car and stay cool.” Seraphy slipped through the narrow opening, took a breath, and coughed. Jesus, what a stench. Years of rat droppings, urine, feces and, apparently, a dead critter or two? Ellie was right about the heat, too, must be at least 115° in here. She turned and forced the door open wide for some air. Okay. Breathe through the mouth. Filthy, too. Good thing she’d worn jeans and her old Nikes. Careful to step over the long-dead rats and drifts of droppings that filled space not occupied by piles of abandoned office furniture, discarded appliances and years of junk, she began to survey the first floor.
Less than ten minutes later, she’d maneuvered through years of debris and checked out the sixteen-foot ceilings, overhead door and concrete floor on the warehouse side of the foyer and industrial maple floors and bank of tall ten-foot windows on the workshop side. The structure looked surprisingly sound, the ground floor would make a great garage and workshop.
Upstairs she found four offices quartered on one side of the building, a large showroom on the other. Dividing walls between the offices were glass on top, fine oak paneling underneath. Stained, smelly mattresses littered with cigarette ashes and discarded food told her someone had been using the rooms, and recently. She could see the appeal. Even filthy, the littered offices glowed as dust motes caught late afternoon sun streaming through banks of west-facing windows. Bedrooms, an office? Put a kitchen on the west end and use the showroom for a living area? Across the landing from her future kitchen, a large bathroom with its original subway tiles, oval pedestal sink, shower, and green-painted lockers, was grubby but looked workable. Seraphy hesitated at the top of the iron stairs, letting her senses feel the building around her.
She nodded, lifting one corner of her mouth in a half-smile, remembering what was it Vitruvius had said: a good building is comprises commodity, firmness and delight. Ignore the stink and under the debris and bad 1960s remuddling, this one had them all. Good space, sound structure, beautiful lines. Her eyes crinkled, the faint smile still on her lips. She could be happy here. Half-way down the stairs, her thoughts deep in plans for the work ahead, she remembered Ellie, now leaning on the horn outside. Damn. She checked her watch. Seventeen minutes, not bad.
“What the hell took you so long?” Hiding in the car with the windows rolled up and air conditioning on high, Ellie started talking as soon as Seraphy opened the door. “Those guys down there by that wreck were watching us.” She pointed. “Drug dealers. This place creeps me out. No, don’t look at them, they’ll see you.” Her cell phone in hand with 911 on speed dial, she stared as Seraphy lifted her foot to get in the car.“Stop right there. You can’t get in my car like that, you’re filthy.” Nose scrunched in disgust, she tossed Seraphy a clothes brush and the package of wipes and waited, her mouth working, her acrylic nails tap-tapping the steering wheel. “You took long enough. I was about to call 911,” she said once her client had reached an acceptable level of hygiene and slipped into the leather seat. “What the hell were you doing in there?” She relaxed against the seat as the big Mercedes rolled up the street to Division, where she could turn east and escape back across Western Avenue.
“Looking. Planning. Ellie, calm down. You’re imagining things. Those guys are just working on the car.” Seraphy didn’t want to talk now, she had too many things to think about.
“No, they’re not. They’re dealing drugs. That’s how they do it, pretend to be working on a car so the cops can’t get them for loitering. Okay.” Ellie failed to notice the change in her client. She needed this commission. A deep breath and she forced professional cheer into her voice. “So . . . while you were in there I was thinking. Tomorrow I’ll look over the new listings and give you a call. This time we’ll stay on the good side of Western, okay?” She smiled, monitoring her reflection in the windshield. The time her client was in the dump she’d spent repairing her makeup and fluffing her hair. “You saw what I was talking about, so we can start again and stay east of Western. We’re both tired, but tomorrow is another day.”
Seraphy didn’t answer, wondering how to scrape up enough cash, how soon she could close and which contractors she could talk into starting ASAP.
Hell. Ellie wasn’t going to like this.