Monday, September 01, 2008

Ten Years

Ten years ago today, Adam and I moved into this place. We moved in with my then-girlfriend Cynthia, who I married the next year. (we divorced three years later).

When we moved in, Adam was four years old. He hadn't even been to Kindergarten yet. My landlord (and upstairs neighbor) had not yet remarried, so it was just he and his daughter in the other apartment in the building. He'd just bought the building, a two-flat that was built in 1908, a couple of years before. Both kids are in the picture, taken in 1999, I'm pretty sure.

I almost never moved in. Ten years ago, when we were looking for places, Cynthia would check the Chicago Reader online; they placed the online ads a day before they appeared in the printed edition. She would check the ads, call me and I would race to the apartment, to find, time and again, that the apartment was rented already; the neighborhood, where I'd lived before, was becoming a "hot" neighborhood. When she called with the address to this building, I raced over to see the it. I almost didn't ring the doorbell. The house was rough looking. The porch was well-worn, the windows ancient and the building was covered with that horrible tar-paper fake brick that a lot of buildings were covered with after the War.

However, we were running out of time. The school year was starting soon. She would have to return to her job as a teacher in a suburban Chicago school district, and I was, after years of working as a sub, going to start my first real teaching job, as a Social Studies teacher in a Chicago Public School in a rough West side neighborhood. We needed to find a place soon. I bit the bullet and rang the doorbell.

Once I got inside, my opinion of the place quickly changed. The beautiful hardwood floors were in good shape. It was spacious and had a backyard and a basement. I got to the kitchen and knew I wanted the place. It had gorgeous hardwood cabinets-- and a dishwasher. I hadn't had a dishwasher since I'd roomed with my old friends Dan and Mark in the late eighties in Wrigleyville.

We took a look at the basement. I had use of one half of it. There was a washer and dryer hookup, and even better, a washer and dryer that an old tenant had left behind. We could have them, he said.

In ten years, so much has happened. Not long after I moved in, my landlord met a nice lady over the internet and she moved here after a while. They had a fun wedding in Vegas one weekend. As I mentioned, Cynthia's and my marriage unravelled. She wanted a child and a house, not unreasonable things for a woman in her early thirties to want. My finances were in a shambles thanks to my custody fight with my son's mother. There was no way that we could get a mortgage with my name on it. This came to a head one weekend when we celebrated my nephew's first birthday party. He had almost died at birth; he had a hole in his heart and his aorta was malformed. He had open-heart surgery at a month old. His first birthday was, then, a joyous occasion. For Cynthia it was not. She was the only woman there that had no children. My father told me later that she'd cried about this to him. He also told me something that I'd already figured out-- that if I had a kid with her, there would be a constant conflict over my son. I knew that I had to end the marriage so that she could find the person who could provide those things for her. And she has. She lives now with her husband and their baby daughter in a house in the same suburb that she teaches in.

In the meantime, I took in a roommate so that I could afford the place. He turned out to be a nightmare. I've blogged about that already.

Fortunately at around the same time he got kicked out, I got a new teaching job in Cicero, a blue-collar, mostly latino suburb of Chicago. I had kept my job at a local restaurant, and by pinching pennies and picking up every extra shift I could at the restaurant, I was able to stay here. For about three years, it was just Adam and I.

Somewhere in there, my landlord had replaced the dilapidated front porch, put new siding on and put new energy-efficient windows in. He also installed central air conditioning in both units. For the same amount of electricity I was using to run a couple of window units in my son's bedroom and mine, we could keep the whole place cool.

About four years ago, I decided it was time to start dating again. I went online, using the Chicago Reader, the same way I'd found this apartment. After a few disasterous dates, I met someone wonderful. Three years ago this month, she and her daughter moved in and we've had our own little version of the Brady Bunch since then.

Two years ago, there was a big bump on the road. One piece of bad news I knew was coming. When my old principal, who loved me, retired, they brought in a new principal. She proceeded to become one of the most hated people on the planet. She targeted me and any other teacher she thought didn't suck up to her enough. After several years of great reviews, I suddenly started to get mediocre ones. Then, my fourth year, the year I was up for tenure, she brought in a new assistant principal who was her flunky. We all got double-teamed by the incompetent bureaucratic twins. It came as no surprise to discover that I was not getting tenure. As that school year wound down, I was nervously eyed my options. I didn't relish the prospect of being a guy in his middle forties looking for another job and gambling another four years on getting tenured in a job that didn't pay all that well to begin with. The last week of the school year was an emotional one.

Then I got another piece of bad news. My father had a huge tumor in his abdomen. It might be in the pancreas. If it was in the pancreas, that was it.

Several days later, the grapefruit-sized tumor was removed successfully. It had not gone into the pancreas.

And then a couple of days later, my old friend Mark was shot to death in an attempted robbery in front of his own home.

It was the bad news trifecta.

Since I was on year-round pay, I had the summer to get myself together. As the summer ended, an old teaching colleague, who I'd worked with at the rough West Side school, called and asked if I'd be interested in working at the alternative high school she was working at. It was a school to get dropouts back in school and get them a high school diploma. It was, in retrospect, just what I needed. I worked with kids who were of the age and background as the guys who killed my friend. It was very therapeutic. As the school year ended and I watched the kids I'd struggled with cross that stage and get their diplomas, I knew I'd done the right thing. And that it was time to move on to the next part of my life.

I'd discussed with Kim and with friends and family the idea of going to Pharmacy school. To be honest, the primary consideration was money. Looking ahead, I have two kids to put through college, and then I need to start putting a lot of money away for retirement. This was really hammered home around then when my parents asked me to be the executor of their will. I sat down and went through their property and finances and realized that as much as they'd been able to put away, it could be wiped out quickly by a serious illness.

I also realized that I am probably going to be who takes care of my parents as they get older. My brothers will probably not be able to, for various reasons.

So, a year ago, I started the long journey to my next career. There were some missteps. A good friend of ours had gotten me an interview at the fashionable restaurant she worked at downtown. I got the job, but the general manager and I did not get along very well (I am not the only one, from what I'm told, who didn't). I left that job and fortunately shifts opened up at the local restaurant I worked at part-time when I was a teacher. Between that and a job that my friends Lulu and TenS told me about, I've been able to make ends meet.

Back to the home. Last summer, my landlord and his wife embarked on the last phase of the renovations. We got a new kitchen and bathroom. And this spring, our beautiful backyard was created.

On Friday night, as my son and I sat by the firepit, enjoying a cool end-of-the-summer evening, I thought about all the changes. I remembered that I'd almost passed this place by. I thought about how the kids in the picture at the top of the post, my son and my landlord's daughter, who were five and nine when the picture was taken, are now in high school and college, respectively. How there's now another kid living here now. I realized that at ten years, I've lived in this place far longer than any I'd lived in before, even when I was a kid. I realized that despite his mother having bought a house after years of moving every year or two, that this is the place Adam will think of as having grown up in.

In all likelihood, we'll move out of here someday. God knows, maybe Kim and I will be able to afford to buy something someday. But for now, it's not only home, but a pretty nice one.

But I know that there'll be a day, many years from now, that I'll travel from wherever we're living and I'll come by and be an old guy standing in front and looking at this place and letting the memories we're creating now pour out; more than a decade of memories of raising a couple of kids, of starting a marriage and a new career and of the friendships and hardships and a million other things.


Mathman6293 said...

Being a sentimental person, I love stories like this one. It is very cool to see the changes.

I must admit that I forgot about the 4 year tenure issue in Illinois. We don't really have tenure since we don't have collective bargaining. I so don't miss teaching there. '

Congrats on ten years.

Anonymous said...

Were the kids ever that small? The backyard ever that wild?

Brian,What a long strange trip it has been ....

Mnmom said...

Lovely. Life is sweet.

Bubs said...

That was really lovely. What an amazing place, and a great story.

vikkitikkitavi said...

That was a helluva thing you did, letting your Cynthia go. Not many would be so brave.

Nice post, baby.

SamuraiFrog said...

You're doing great. Thanks for sharing all of that; it was a pleasure to read. You give me something to emulate, you know.

randomgal said...

Brian, I admire how you're able to share you're personal issues with the world. Your pretty brave

Mob said...

What an amazing story, I always enjoy your looks back into your past.

Thanks for taking us along for the ride.

Oh, and as a PS: I'm also amazed that your landlord is willing to fix up the house so much, you usually only find people willing to do that just to get someone into a place that's vacant.

GETkristiLOVE said...

It's so rewarding to read your posts like this one. I can't believe how much has changed - at least your lucky to have a landlord that keeps upgrading things. Nice backyard!

Johnny Yen said...


No collective bargaining? No union? I don't know if I'd be thrilled with that. My union was the only protection I had from the evil principal.

Can you believe it?

Indeed it is.

Thanks-- it was a ten year trip, but well worth it.

Yeah, but it was awful watching someone you love being miserable and unsatisfied every day.

Yeah, but I'd skip the two divorces and the motorcycle accident if I were you...



He's a stand-up guy. And he lives in the building, so he benefits from a lot of the renovations.

My life ten years ago seems like it was a hundred years ago.

SkylersDad said...

I somehow missed this post as it went by, but am lucky I just caught it. You are quite gifted you know. In one post you can manage to capture more of your life and more passion than I could ever attempt in describing my own life.

Here is to many more happy years together as a family.

Jess Wundrun said...

Who's this Brian guy?

Loved the story. It's nice to see that you keep winding up right side up. (in a lefty way, of course)

Bats in the Belfry said...

I wonder if I'll feel that way about the place I live in now. It is small and cramped but it's been my home with Ethan for the last 8 1/2 years. My boy will be out of the house in a few years (I hope he waits till after college) and those memories will be etched in my heart, like yours with Adam and your home.

It's awesome to see an old friend doing so well. Hope I can be at that point someday.

Mathman6293 said...

JY - I just wanted to clarify. The tenure thing was frustrating as you know. We do have unions here and they are helpful and I think it is important to be a member because they do still provide us some protection.

Johnny Yen said...

Skylers Dad-


As you might have guessed, I use a pseudonym.

I hope you get there too. My guess is that things will change when you get a new post.

Thanks for clarifying-- I wondered about that!

The whole tenure process is a real fraud, isn't it? It has the trappings of objectivity, but in the end it's completely subjective. It all depends on if a principal likes you or not.