It's New Year's Eve, the windchill in Chicago is near zero, and I'm home--alone--painting. They're expecting 10,000 people for a party at Navy Pier. At midnight, I'll be able to see the fireworks from my windows, but I'm spending the last few hours of the old year putting a coat of black enamel on the windowsill in my apartment: an apartment that will be gutted and remodeled and rented to strangers long before the next New Year's party begins. For that matter, in less than a month I have to be out of here.
My postwar high-rise building is being renovated, and I and my 70-some neighbors have been given notice to vacate by February 1. Lately, the Dumpsters have been overflowing every morning. My cousin Jim has already left for California. The Romanian couple across the hall with the handsome baby moved out before Christmas. Mrs. McCann, the friendly woman who lives below me and who's a waitress down on LaSalle Street, is looking at what she resignedly describes as "old folks' homes." So why in the world am I up here on the last night of the year, striving for a perfect finish on a chunk of wood that's headed for a landfill? That's what my friends want to know.
It's a reasonable question. And my answer for them--and for myself--is that I have to finish what I started. It doesn't matter what happens after I'm gone. What's important is that even if it's only for a few weeks, this apartment will finally be the place I saw in my mind the day I first looked at it, eighteen months ago.
It was a dump. But it was cheap, and it had potential, tons of it. Underneath the matted carpet, under the layers of cheap paint, I saw the apartment as it had once been, and as it could be again: Modern, clean lined, immaculate. But I saw more than that. Behind the grimy vinyl miniblinds sagging in the heat was a view to die for: eighteen feet of windows, with an unbroken vista of the lake, the park, and, six miles south, the towers of downtown, shimmering like a mirage in the August haze. It took five minutes to sign a lease.
It took another year to get the place cleaned up. The miniblinds were the first thing to go, ten minutes after I took possession. The carpet was next. In its place went gray rubber tile. I painted the walls a soft gray that matched the floor. It took a while to get all the crank mechanisms working again on the 1950s casement windows, but once I got them open for some fresh air, I started on the ugly job of stripping their metal frames. There were at least a dozen layers of latex paint, most of them brown or off-white. When I finally got down to what was left of the original factory finish, it turned out to be a startling aqua. That meant another week or so to weigh the question of historical accuracy versus the vision in my head. In the end, the vision won. Four coats of silver automotive paint did the trick, buffed down between coats. Now the frames and the panels between the windows gleam like mirrors.
So the gray on the walls matches the gray on the floor, and the window frames reflect the chrome of my 1930s furniture--what little there is. That there isn't very much is exactly the point. Two lounge chairs in gray leather, a desk chair, a side table with a black glass top. No sofa. No dresser. No bed. I sleep on the floor in a sleeping bag that gets tossed into the closet the moment I get up. On the long table in front of the window (a flush door I painted the same black as the window ledge) sit an aluminum lamp and two pieces by the industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss: a black "500" phone and a little Thermos carafe he designed in 1935. The carafe's gray enamel and brushed metal were the inspiration for the whole place. And that's it. No covering at the windows, no art on the walls. Best of all, no TV. With a view like this, why would I want one?
Not that I am some sort of ascetic: just the opposite, in fact. But then, this isn't my real home. I only live here during the week, while I work in the city. My real home, the upstairs of a big Victorian house, is three hours away down the Illinois River, on the Bluffs in Peoria. It's just a rented apartment, but I lived there for a decade, and I still spend most weekends there. It has four generations of my family's history squeezed into its seven rooms, and it's filled with antique furniture and paintings and books and rugs and, well, junk. And like all the places my family lived in when I was growing up, it has lots of potential.
My father worked for the local chambers of commerce in a series of midwestern towns, and we lived in a series of rented houses that could have been wonderful but weren't--at least not while we lived there. There was the center-hall Colonial with the dented flying-saucer chandelier hovering over the pagodas and willow trees on the dining room wallpaper, a huge Craftsman-style house made renter-friendly with bland pastels, a long, low ranch house with natural redwood paneling--and a big grape-juice stain dead center in the living room carpet.
In all these houses, we lived as what we were: short-term occupants. We seldom painted, and we never changed the curtains or stripped the paint off the carved woodwork. Why should we? They weren't our houses. That was my parents' view. Why should we put money into fixing up somebody else's property? So for years, we moved from one not-quite-right house to another. Those places all had potential, and some of them had a lot of it, but that's as far as it ever went. And I told myself that when I grew up and got a place of my own, I would never move again, and I would never live in a place I didn't love.
And so, I do love my place in Peoria, my weekend place. My friend Suzan calls it a museum, but it's friendly and comfortable, and it's the kind of place where if you take off your shoes and leave them in the middle of the floor, well, it's not a problem. Last Sunday's Chicago Tribune, still in its out-of-town wrapper? A friend's kid's empty juice box left balanced on the arm of a chair? Oh, well. That's the appeal of the cluttered look--it's very forgiving.
Somehow, though, even though I've had the place for 15 years, it's still just a place with potential. That is, it's still not the place I meant it to be. In fact, sometimes I think it's farther away from that than it was when I moved in. Because it not only still has the same ancient wallpaper--fading just a little more every year, coming a little more unglued from the wall all the time--but its seven rooms have, over time, become a huge magnet, drawing from vast distances not only the real treasures of my family's history, but also the sad evidence of my said family's short attention spans.
I have my great-uncle's half-finished portrait cameo of a man who seems to be President Taft. It's hard to say, since half his face is only roughed-out. My grandfather's partly completed oil paintings are in a closet. My mother's unfinished needlepoint lies in a basket in the book room. And somewhere there's a box of thank-you notes for her wedding presents, written almost 50 years ago and addressed to people who are now all dead. She stamped the envelopes, but she never got around to mailing them. Who knows why she kept them all those years--maybe as a reminder to herself to do better in the future? If so, it didn't work. But, really, I'm just as bad: my beautiful 20s sofa, with its fat down cushions and cheerful 30s fabric has to stand against the wall because I never finished the upholstery on the back. And the whole place is like that. No matter where I look, something I see whispers "Finish me!"
That's why my Chicago place means so much to me: it's a symbol. It represents the tantalizing possibility of actual completion, of something--anything--finally, fulfilling its early promise. On foggy mornings I wake up and it's like heaven. Luminous, absolutely calm, and utterly simple: from my vantage point on the floor, no buildings intrude on the sky. There are no plants on the windowsill crying out for water. No memos on the refrigerator reminding me of appointments I already missed. The walls match the floor and the floor matches the sky. On some December mornings, even Lake Michigan matches. Everything is silver. Everything is perfect. There's just one problem. On February 1, it's all over. I'm being cast into the street.
OK, I'm being melodramatic. I'm not really being cast out. In fact, the building's new owners say they want me to come back after they finish making the improvements. But in the end, the result is the same: I'm outta here. By "improvements" they mean scrapping the kitchen's streamlined steel cabinets (with their recessed handles shaped like crescent moons) and replacing them with brand-new oak. They're putting up oak picture moldings, and adding oak chair rails to the beautiful flat planes of my Eisenhower-era walls. They're going to add ceiling fans--and miniblinds. They assure me it will be a "major upgrade." I don't think so.
No new sliding-track windows, with their chunky metal frames and insulated glass, could ever make up for the loss of being able to crank open 90 square feet of window to a spring breeze. And their flimsy picture moldings will pop right off the wall the first time that anybody actually tries to hang a picture from them. These guys are going to ruin this place, and there's no stopping them. When they finish, this will be a building with gender-identity issues, an architectural changeling: a muscular, strapping 1950s high-rise gussied up in unconvincing Prairie-style drag.
Of course, we live in chaotic times, and nothing in this world is ever really permanent. The loss of people and places we love is just a sad fact of life, so it's not like I thought I'd be able to live here forever. I always knew I'd have to leave--someday. I just never imagined that someday would come so soon. I guess we never do.
But if, in the end, I'm left with nothing but memories, I can at least make sure those memories are good. That's why I'll be spending the next few days touching up the baseboards and replacing the plastic switch plates with brushed steel. In a few weeks, before locking the door behind me for the last time, I'll take a final look down the hall and out the living room windows toward the lights of Chicago sparkling in a January dusk. At least, that's the way I'll remember it. By June, my little gray thermos will be stuck at the back of a cabinet again. Who knows where I'll be a year from now? Nowhere like this, I'm sure. But in the long run, I guess it doesn't matter: at least I'm here today. And really, when you think about it, today is all we ever have.
I'm cleaning the paintbrush as a distant cluster of booms announces the new year. Six miles down the lakefront, the fireworks have begun. Twin bursts, perfect mirror images in reds and greens, light the horizon and fill my empty walls with colored shadows. I won't see the fireworks from this spot again, but wherever I find myself a year from now, I'll think back to this night--to this room--and remember that I spent it in a wonderful place: a place that was ordered and calm, and filled with shifting lights. And best of all--for the first time in my life--a place that was finished.
A version of this piece originally appeared in the Chicago Reader
Top photo courtesy Lynn Becker--ArchitectureChicago Plus