Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters

Subway's no way for a good man to go down
Rich man can ride and the hobo he can drown
And I thank the Lord for the people I have found
I thank the Lord for the people I have found

--Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters
Elton John

A few weeks ago, I had to get up early on a Thursday morning (I normally got to sleep in a little on Thursdays, since my Tuesday-Thursday class didn't start until 11:00 a.m.) in order to drop Kim off at the el. She was leaving that day from work to go on a business trip, and didn't want to leave her car in a downtown garage for a couple of days. After I dropped her off, I swung back through Wrigleyville to snap a picture of an apartment I lived in back in the late eighties.

In early 1988, my friend Mark and I decided to get an apartment together. We decided that we wanted the apartment to be near our favorite hangout, the Gingerman tavern, which was a couple of doors down from another of our favorite hangouts, the Caberet Metro, where we would regularly see favorite bands like the Ramones, Galaxie 500, Naked Raygun and a couple of dozen others.

We looked at a few apartments, and then found a three-bedroom place at 3728 N. Magnolia, in a beautiful old greystone. The price was right-- $825 a month. We had a third guy going in with us, so that would work out to $275 each a month-- even back then, that was really inexpensive. We signed a lease a couple of days later, in April, 1988, now a little over 20 years ago.

A couple of days after that, the guy who was supposed to go in on the apartment with us had to cancel. No problem; our friend Dan, "The Elk," who was just out of school (we'd all graduated from Eastern Illinois University) and was looking to move out of his parents' house.

The first thing Mark and I did after getting the keys and moving a few things into the apartment-- notably the stereo and our records-- was to play the Velvet Underground's classic "Heroin" nice and loud. We wanted to make sure the neighbors knew what they were in for.

The apartment and my roommates turned out to be great. Years later, when Dan, Mark and I would get together, we'd recount the year we spent living together, and all of had the same thought-- was that really only a year? We packed five years of friendship and fun into a year.

We probably averaged about a party a month. Since we were three guys just out of college, trying to get started in life, we worked a lot of hours and crazy hours. Dan worked two and often three jobs-- one of those jobs was as a bill collector, giving him lots of great stories. Mark worked as a graphic designer, a newspaper layout editor and at a record store. I worked as a waiter.

Dan worked the most and craziest hours of the three of us. Mark and I would have a running joke about "Dan sightings." We'd find a dirty plate in the sink or dishwasher, or an empty macaroni and cheese box in the garbage, or just the rent check laying on top of the huge console television in our living room (actually the dining room-- but we used the living room or "front room," as it's called in Chicago, for the stereo and our three huge record collections). One of us would actually see Dan at some point and report a "Dan sighting."

We tried to include Dan in the plans for our parties, but at least once, we did not have a "Dan sighting" in which we could plan it with him-- so we planned it ourselves, with the intention of telling him, or at least leaving a note for him that we were having one. Somehow, we didn't manage to inform him we were having the party. Dan discovered it as he was walking to the door as he arrived home from work late that night. That also happened to be the moment the Chicago police, who were inevitably called on our parties, happened to arrive.

(Dan walks up to the door)
CPD: "Sorry, buddy-- party's over! Go home."
Dan: "Um, I live here."
CPD: "Then you're the guy we want to talk to!"

Mark and I found it hilarious that Dan got in trouble with the police for a party at his own home that he hadn't even yet been to. Dan found it a little less amusing.

There are a thousand memories from that year.

One time, I found, to my horror, a glass eye on top of the dryer, in the basement. Mark later confessed that it was one of his father's old glass eyes (his father had lost an eye in an accident when he was younger). He'd put it there to disturb us. He was that kind of guy.

During one of our parties, a friend of ours, who didn't hold his liquor too well, fell over the ten inch high fence our upstairs neighbor had around her tiny garden in the backyard. He was unable to get back up, and started thrashing around, forever earning, in our circle of friends, the nickname "The Garden Weasel."

A couple of months later, at another party, I went into the backyard to schmooze with people back there and discovered a guy thrashing around in the garden again. I walked over to Mark, who was laughing his ass off and pointed this out. Mark informed me that it was the same guy.

The nickname became forever at that point.

One time, Mark would recall, when he, Dan and I got together, at another party, he heard fireworks going off in the backyard. Mark, who spent a lifetime collecting friends, thought that it was a couple of his "jock" friends back there, acting like assholes, and worried that his roommates would be pissed off at him about it. He ran back there to find those very same roommates were the assholes, shooting bottle rockets off at one another, using garbage can lids as shields.

The summer of 1988 was a very hot summer, even by Chicago standards. It was also the summer that they finished installing the lights in Wrigley Field-- it had been the only major league stadium without lights up until then-- and started playing night games. Many mornings, I was awoken by the sound of the huge helicopter that was lifting the lights up to the roof of the stadium.

We were so close to Wrigley that you were able to hear the crowd cheering at the Cubs games-- I remember turning on the television when I heard the crowd cheering to see what was happening with the game.

During that extraordinarily hot summer, we got ahold of a window unit air conditioner-- I think it was Dan who did this, bless his heart-- and so we put it in our living room, and put a blanket on the doorway between the living room and the front room. This was a godsend as the summer rolled on-- particularly after I was stuck in the house for six weeks with a cast up to my right knee after the stupidest thing I've ever done.

I could not work as a waiter on crutches and soon my money ran short. Mark lent me the rent money for the nearly-two-months I wasn't able to work. He was that kind of guy.

Years later, people still talk about our parties. At Mark's funeral, nearly two years ago now, people talked about our New Year's Eve party of 1988/89. Despite there being a lot of snow on the ground, the party was packed. We found out that our friend Kathy (aka "Maxell"-- there's a story in her nickname), who lived in Beverly, on the far south end of Chicago, was spending the night alone at her parents' house. We quickly took up a collection and got the money together for the 20 mile cab ride to our apartment.

Since the weather sucked, we encouraged people to stay. the next morning, I walked around and counted-- there were 22 people sleeping in our apartment.

At another party, someone broke out cans of silly string. We discovered two things-- that silly string can be ground into linoleum and be impossible to get out. And that it's very difficult to get silly string out of chandeliers (like many apartments built in the twenties in Chicago, there was a small chandelier in the dining room/living room).

As I mentioned, the year the three of us lived together there seemed like five years. Whenever Dan and I get together, there are a half dozen stories that come up. One of them was the night I plugged a set of old Christmas lights I'd bought at a garage sale into the wall socket and blew the fuses for the whole apartment. Or the time Crazy Horse, a friend of ours from college, who was an officer in the US Army, showed up unexpectedly, and decided he wanted to talk to Dan-- who was, um, indisposed with the lady in his life. Dan still swears revenge for interrupting him.

There was also the night that Mark, Dan and I decided to have a contest-- who could play the worst song from their record collection. Dan probably remembers the song-- I can't remember if it was Vikki Lawrence's "The Night That The Lights Went Out In Georgia," Paper Lace's "The Night Chicago Died," Karl Douglas' "Kung Fu Fighting," Blue Swede's "Hooked On a Feeling ("Ooga chugga, ooga chugga!") or the Defranco Family's "The Heartbeat Is the Lovebeat," but at some point, a couple of the girls who lived upstairs came down and asked us to please stop-- that they couldn't take it anymore.

There were also good records in our collections. One time, we were all home-- a rarity-- and ended up talking about music (surprise), and started comparing record collections. We recalled that at Eastern, where we went to school and became lifelong friends, there was a house a group of friends of ours lived in. Someone had, in the past, painted the basement in zebra stripes. The house became The Zebra Lounge, and was that basement was the site of some infamous and marvelous "afterbars parties."

One of the things we recalled was that inevitably there would be people who somehow found out about the parties who really didn't belong there-- frat boys, etc. The Zebra Lounge guys had a simple solution for this-- they'd put Johnny Cash records on the turntable. This would drive out the uncool, and guys like Mark, Dan and I would be like Br'er Rabbit in the briar patch, digging the Johnny Cash tunes.

That day, as the three of us talked about our various music collections, we realized that as diverse as our collections were, all three of us had records that most people did not have in their collections. We realized that we all had the first Velvet Underground album (the one with the classics "Heroin," "Waiting For My Man" and "Venus In Furs" on it.). We also all had Johnny Cash's "Live at San Quentin" album, and all three of us had the Clash' "Sandinista" triple album set. And we mused that it was probably the only place in the world outside of a record store that had three copies of those three albums.

The last couple of days, I've felt a little pensive. I thought about it a lot, and realized that it wasn't just the fact that I'm working a ton and a little apprehensive about taking Microbiology this summer. It was the fact that in a week, the second anniversary of Mark's death will come up.

At my birthday party a week and a half ago, Dan, and Tim, who was also a friend I shared with Mark, were there. I was incredibly happy that they-- and Bubs, who never got to meet Mark, but would have loved talking to him, and has become one of my best friends, and, happily, got to meet these guys-- were there. At some point, Tim and I talked about Mark, and Tim said something that I'd been thinking a lot-- that recently, it would hit him at random times that Mark really wasn't coming back.

Nearly two years later, I'm able to smile again at memories of the year I spent rooming with Mark and Dan. My life has moved forward. I've left one career and am nearly a year into the school necessary for the next one. My kids are doing well. My marriage to a lovely woman is doing well. Nearly two years after getting knocked on my ass by the death of one of my closest friends, I think I'm okay. And, to quote the Elton John song, I thank the lord for the people that I have found.

But I do have one question, one I thought about when driving past 3728 N. Magnolia that morning, and one that I discovered Dan also has: I wonder if the silly string is still in the chandelier?


Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing, great memories well expressed!

Vicki Lawrence released "The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia" not Vikki Carr, who will be back on TV hosting a new music special airing in June, according to MTV and AOL.

Bubs said...

More examples of our parallel lives--I had a friend who lived a couple doors down from your building on Magnolia, used to hang out there all the time, before he moved in with me on Winnemac. Three sets of our other friends lived on Kenmore just north of Waveland. I think, though, this was about 4-5 years earlier.

Great post. Great parties. My best party memory was waking up on a couch in my living room (I didn't make it to my bedroom before falling asleep) and finding a really nice Seiko watch under the cushion when I came to. No one ever claimed the watch.

Erik Donald France said...

Sad to lose a friend. Eerily, I just found clippings from a friend of mine who died in 1980, to be posted at some point.

'88-'08 -- has it really been twenty years? Aye!


Mob said...

Great post, I loved the long winding nature of the recollections, it reminded me of listening to someone spin a yarn.

I'm glad that you have more peace about losing your friend. I've lost loved ones, relatives y'know, but I can't imagine what it'll be like to lose anyone from the 'family' I've chosen for myself.

Natalie said...

Wow, fast forward about 12 years and welcome to The Belmont Apartment that Monica and I shared with our friend Jamie. It's nice to see your continued reflections regarding Mark.

SkylersDad said...

This is a wonderful collection of memories, thanks for letting us share, once again, in your life.

And I bet there is still some silly string in that apartment someplace!

'Bubbles' said...

Great post, JY. Mark is with you, I think, and very glad that your life has moved forward and that you survived that very sad loss. You have some wonderful stories, ya know?