After some painful, really dramatic life events, I decided I wanted to reside where my childhood buddy Joey lived, in a somewhat of a distant region of the city for me, straddling an ambiguous border of Ukrainian Village and Humboldt Park. At the time my rent budget needed to be relatively low, with a stark contrast of not being roach-infested, yet also in a decent neighborhood. A highly improbable intersection of the choosey person’s Venn diagram. I did a scrap-grasping Craigslist search on anything in the area roughly within range.
The first place I looked at was some version of a disaster on Rockwell where the main selling point seemed to be, “look…if you crane your neck at this angle and peer out this tiny bathroom window, you can see the Sears Tower!”
The second unit in my queue, located on North Maplewood, included no pictures on Craigslist so I was incredibly unmotivated to even go look at it. Even when I texted the owner for a picture, not filling me with much hope, he shot back a blurry photo of the floor definitely taken from an antiquated flip phone. I almost didn’t bother to go see it. Since it was so close to Joey’s place next to Archie’s Iowa-Rockwell Tavern, I figured I’d just stop by. I walked over to the apartment on Maplewood expecting the worst.
I was stunned. As I took in the shockingly wonderful atmosphere of the Maplewood place, with hardwood flooring, high ceilings, fresh paint, a back deck, in-unit central heat and AC, a combination of things began to shift, unlocking a real-time epiphany:
A) The reason there were no pictures of this apartment uploaded to the Craigslist ad was because Jim, the old saintly landlord, simply didn’t know how to upload them.
B) The reason this apartment was still on the market was because people saw a place in Ukrainian Village on Craigslist at that price point, with no pictures attached, and they automatically assumed it was a steaming trash heap. They didn’t bother to visit. I mean, I almost didn’t myself.
C) The reason Jim didn’t know how to use Craigslist was because he never had to learn. He had owned the twelve-unit building since 1974 and anyone who moved out, typically handed the Glengarry leads off to someone they knew and trusted.
No credit checks, no background checks. Some tenants had been renting from Jim for fifteen years. Others had been living there since the neighborhood was swarming with Latin Kings. If you looked closely, some of the woodwork was still inscribed with traces inverted pitchforks and broken six-pointed stars.
D) I knew I was in the magical midst of a remarkable arbitrage event that was far too good to pass up. It was WELL under market for the area. I came to find that people in neighboring buildings were paying upward toward $500 more for the same sized units. $700 more, if they were remodeled.
The rare, elongated middle-apartment with windows facing both front and back, had a tree painted on the living room wall. Jim said he was going to paint over it, but I asked him to leave it. I loved every inch of the place and I really felt like I had blindly stumbled on to something great. The best part, as I came to find, was that there really was no catch.
In the coming weeks of my occupation of the unit, I discovered one of my favorite songwriters of all time lived in the building. Initially I noticed his name on the buzzer right above mine and it didn’t even register that it was actually him. I just took a picture of it and thought to myself, “That guy has the same name as one of my favorite songwriters of all time.” I remember walking right by him, passing each other on the back stairwell, while I was moving in. I didn’t even notice because, who would ever think they’d be sharing a building with one of their idols? I had been following his music since I was eighteen years old and I literally own all of his records.
As if that weren’t a surreal enough situation on its own (and will always continue to be), an artist whose murals exist literally all over the city, including every single Dark Matter location, used to crash in the basement. Jim gave him his start down there honing his craft on the basement walls. The relics are still intact. (To check out the basement studio, watch this video at about the 30 second mark).
Dark Matter, located less than a block away, used to throw its Fourth of July party on my street directly in front of my apartment on the block between Iowa and Chicago Ave. It was called MaplewoodStock. Music and free beer from all types of local brewers.
I didn’t know what MaplewoodStock was until early in the morning the day of, but the event created a buzz in me that I will never shake. I saw a guy setting up his beer-serving table in front of a giant Penrose Brewing banner. I noticed him walking in and back out of my building. I went out to talk to him and found out he lived in my building. I can’t recall the Penrose guy’s position, but he had worked for them from its inception. He was really surprised I had even heard of Penrose at the time, let alone the fact that I had been out to the brewery taproom in Geneva on multiple occasions. I was and still am a huge fan of their beer, so I was incredibly stoked to have him in my building as well.
One night I randomly met the Penrose guy’s wife in the laundry room; a lusterless chamber in which you had no idea what to expect. I kept my bike chained to the wall down there like Sloth. There was a community bookshelf and a dusty weight bench for you to use if you decided you wanted to hang out for the laundering duration.
If you were not alone, then either awkward encounters with vague strangers who clearly cared not to converse took place, or you formed temporal friendships while waiting the final ninety seconds for your laundry to finish drying. While I was folding my socks, the Penrose guy’s wife told me they were planning to move out of the building soon and head to Denver. That bummed me out. But when they moved I found at my back door, a box full of Penrose beer, stickers, and glassware. A true beeracle in my book.
I met another new face in the laundry room a few weeks later. He was a hulking man who worked for Oskar Blues Brewery in some sort of corporate capacity in Chicago. The Oskar Blues man had been recommended to Jim by the Penrose guy to move in to his unit. As I was waiting for him to get his giant man shirts out of the washing machine we quickly bonded over the idea that our landlord Jim was, indeed, a saint.
My friend Dan, who, at the time lived near Nobel Square was thinking of moving out of his place. We went to Half Acre on Lincoln for a few beers and a burrito and conversed about how great it would be for him to somehow move in to my building. The conversation with the girl who was waiting our table started out general but ended up pivotal, altering the course of things to come.
She mentioned she lived in Humboldt Park. I responded with, “Oh, so do I. Which intersection?”
She said she lived at Chicago and Western. I was like, “Oh, so do I. Which actual intersection?”
She told us she lived at Maplewood and Iowa. I again replied, “So do I. What’s your address?”
This person working on the other side of the city, not only lived in the same building that I did, but she was married to the burley Oskar Blues man who I had met in the laundry room.
On top of that, she said they were already moving away, also to Colorado. She gave me her number so that I could get Dan in to the apartment as soon as I knew they were giving Jim a notice.
The day they moved out I found at my back door, yet again and stacked to the sky, cans of Oskar Blues beer. Though, I will say that husky fellow must’ve left those cans setting on his heat register for a really long time. I drank a Death by Coconuts and ended up vomiting syrup of midnight black coconut death in to my kitchen sink. I checked the dates on the cans and using judgment, gave half of them away, pitching the rest. I wouldn’t touch an Oskar Blues beer for years after that.
The day I helped Dan move in to my apartment building was the very day we used the U-Haul to pick up a fifty-five gallon wooden oak barrel from Revolution Brewery on Kedzie. End-over-end we reverse-slinky’d it, rolling it up the back stairwell like Donkey Kong, in order for it to adorn my living room. Once used for Woodford Reserve bourbon, then utilized to age 2015 Deth’s Tar for a year, it’s final purpose would be to bring cheer and warmth to all upon entering my home.
Dan eventually got our friend Jeff moved in to the building as well. Including the fifty-something-year old psychopath named Ken who lived directly above me who I regularly would hear screaming bloody murder at his cat (and whom I’m also not convinced wasn’t having a non-consensual sex affair with a male ghost), and this other guy who lead a really well-known Chicago-based jam band, (not the same songwriter alluded to above) the Maplewood apartment was shaping up in to an all-around Sad Men’s Commune in the very best way possible.
Tabbs-Nevada/Nevada-Tabbs liquor store was just one alley-walk away. I had a secret smoke nook nearby where I would sit on an abandoned stairwell and smoke my cigars, hidden away from rain and people who like to do that dramatic, pretend cough thing when they see someone smoking. During my Commune tenure there I got to become one of the first patrons of both EZ Inn and Split Rail. I was bummed when Haywood closed down. California Clipper, Archie’s and The Beetle became regular haunts of mine, merely due to sheer geography.
Many regretful nights ended at either Village or Bacci’s Pizza. Planted directly across Chicago Ave from one another, those two competing pizza joints had some sort of perpetual mystery feud going on. They hated each other. I skewed more toward Bacci’s, but regardless – countless mornings I would wake up in utter disgust after noticing the pizza bag from Village in my garbage can, or a cardboard Bacci’s box in my recycling bin.
If I wanted to meet Joey at Sportsmans Club by 7 pm, I left my house at 6:55. That place will forever grip real estate in my heart. Many conversations with many strangers, under the reel-to-reel tape machine and taxidermy. Many nights ending in hugs. I learned a few good lessons and gained a lot of new perspective there. One night I met Adrian Younge. I noticed a guy who looked to be my age, but he had a walking cane. A cane? I knew this was no mortal man. Sure enough, I got to enjoy Baller Manhattans with an artist whose work spreads over Twelve Reasons to Die, and Untitled, Unmastered.
My friend Popcorn learned how to tattoo during his seven-year stint in various Illinois DOC maximum security prisons. Using a makeshift tattoo gun fashioned together from an electric razor and a straightened out ballpoint click pen spring as a needle, he would trade his talent for money, cigarettes and protection in the clink. Since Joey, my friend Michael and I all grew up with Popcorn, we paid his way out to Chicago from Omaha and we all got tattoos from him in my apartment living room.
Many bottle shares took place in my apartment, and many a party was manifested. I liked to invite everyone I knew from every planet of my life to my birthday gatherings. Making all the worlds collide as a social galaxy experiment, I put everyone, twenty-five or thirty people in the same room to see what happened. There were a couple fights, make no mistake. But mainly friendships were facilitated and ceremoniously, amazing beers were always opened. I would give Ken, the crazy man who lived above me, a full month’s notice. This way he could plan to be out of his place or take some drugs in preparation. Anything to avoid him showing up and murdering everyone with a blunt object.
Blunts: ok; Blunt objects: not ok.
Charles Manson Revisited
On a few random weeknights at the Devil’s hour, I would see out my back window, the aforementioned madman pull a baseball bat on vehicles that were idling in the alley, honking their horns. Actually I witnessed this auteur of back-alley violence do his thing on multiple vengeful occasions. In fairness, I never understood why the drivers of these cars would sit out back and honk. Cell phones exist. Did they not realize people were sleeping? Honestly the honking was mind-numbingly irritating. Every time I heard that witch’s hymn play in the alley, I’d hear Ken begin to stir from his slumber above and I knew I would surely see him barrel down the back steps an instant later. Brandishing his Louisville Slugger with no questions asked, just swinging for the fences like a roided-up Conseco, a lone bash-brother, smashing these cars until they drove away terrified. During these short rage episodes I felt a bit of relief. For those few moments in that vile window of time…that twisted crusader was my MVP.
One night he pulled his bat on the wrong vehicle.
This particular car, honking in the foggy dusk, contained at least four full grown men who were no doubt in the midst of a black market sales arrangement. Maybe even five guys. But at least four. I heard the predictable overture of rustling and muffled swearing, and the traditional fishing out of the bat. Rumbling feet down the wooden back stairwell, gate flying open with a whirlwind of expletives bum-rushing the alley. He wound up and straight Kirby Pucketed that car, shattering the headlight. The back alley dwellers, flummoxed for a second, jumped out of the car. That feeble, sad old man, realized the crescendo of his legendary vigilantism was now behind him, but basically just to say “I tried”, he took a final, useless whiff with his bat directly at the most meat-headed looking goon of the lot. He may as well have been a four-year-old blindly wagging a reed at a piñata. He was instantly pummeled to the pavement. One street tough really rained down some brutal blows and seriously repackaged my neighbor’s ass before handing it right back to him. It was painful to watch and I assumed that was it for old psycho-man Johnson. Frankly I was surprised he stood back up ever again. It was harsh, but you know, witnessing this was just one facet of the many-sided di that constituted living in the Maplewood Men’s Commune.
As the years moved by, scales and measures shifted clockwise, naturally toward priority. It was finally time to document the Commune as a monumental segment of my life, and slip the keys to a fresh, starry-eyed member.
Lockdown closed its doors at the exact time I decided the transition out of the Sad Men’s Commune was imminent. I had to take it as literal closure – a stoic and solemn sign that it was officially time to move on. The final week of my residing at Maplewood, I was able to get Dovetail Lagers and Old Fashions with my rock star pal at Sportsman’s Club. Under candlelight and a stuffed deer head, I proposed having him sign one of his records I owned.
It was finally warm enough that week for me to do one last run in my West Town sanctuary of industrial strips, homeless-man-under-bridge dwellings, and a brewery-roastery-bakery gauntlet.
As I ran, the familiar aromas of Metric, Passion House, Goose Island, Finch and Rhine Hall – all hit me at their respective blocks, taunting me and reminded me of countless days trying to get in to shape back there in that abandoned, shameless land of no vehicles. The true judgment-free zone.
During my run, I saw Dan walking home from the Metra train and we slapped high-five. Dodging foliage and leaping over a prostrate transient I jogged through that vacant maze for an hour in my swim trunks that I’ve owned for what is now approaching twenty years. Nearing the end, as I ran westward with the sunset splashing my eyes and washing out everything in my view, the final symphonic seconds of the Frengers record by Mew blazing in my ears, I sensed the countdown for the life-altering time I spent at Maplewood winding out just like the last minute of that endorphinic final run. As the smoke cleared from the Intelligentsia roastery, I took an alleyway where I saw my upstairs neighbor Ken aimlessly walking around. I’d recognize that terror-inspiring calf tattoo anywhere. Spotting him in some sort of deranged game of Where’s Waldo for a final time, this culmination tied up the final bow on the gift that was Maplewood Commune life.