You Throw Your Life in My Face

An excerpt from Ben’s forthcoming essay collection Lost in Space (Curbside Splendor).

Debbie and I lived in New York City together and never talked about having children. Then we decided to move to Chicago and still didn’t talk about it. We didn’t know Chicago: we had never been there. We went to Burton Place on Burton and Wells because we saw they were showing that night’s Knicks-Bulls play-off game.

We drank with some guys we did not know, and Scottie Pippen refused to enter the game as a decoy. We asked the guys where ex-New Yorkers who didn’t have a car should live and they sketched out the corner of Goethe and Dearborn on a used cocktail napkin.

“There is a coffee shop right there,” they said, “the Red Line and Jewel are around the corner. There are buses. It’s perfect.”

“Okay,” we said.

The next day we went to Relcon, an apartment finding service, and we showed the young woman there our cocktail napkin.

“We want to live here,” we said.

“Okay,” she said.

And after that we got an apartment above The 3rd Coast Coffee Shop.

Sometimes you pick a place, and sometimes it picks you. I used to be embarrassed to live in a neighborhood known as the Gold Coast. I was even embarrassed that our apartment was clean and spacious and big and somehow cheaper than the seedy studio we lived-in in New York City.

But there we were, and we still didn’t talk about children, or how we might someday raise them in a neighborhood we grew to love. And here we are so many years later, raising children in the Gold Coast having only moved once and only across the street at that.

We may leave the neighborhood eventually, but it will always be the kids’ first neighborhood no matter how where we end-up or how much it continues to change while we are still here.

I suppose this is a love letter to a neighborhood that seems so different to me than when we first moved here. Or it may just be a series of memories about a neighborhood in transition that I want to be sure that I share with my children. It may even be both. Either way, here we go.

It’s 6:00am. It’s still dark, and the sun is just coming up, its long purple tendrils beginning to spread across the neighborhood. I’m heading out for a run and Debbie is still asleep. I walk out of the apartment and then, realizing I left my keys behind head back in. As I rummage around for the keys on the telephone table I sense someone standing behind me in our apartment and I turn around.

It’s one of our neighbors, someone we rarely ever see. He looks disoriented. Pale. I’ve never really looked at him up close before. His skin is mottled and pockmarked, his hair thin and wispy. This scene is definitely odd, but he doesn’t seem especially threatening, just out of it in some way.

“Hey man, what’s up?” I say.

He purses his lips, trying to form words that get lost somewhere in his mouth before they can emerge. I stare at him wondering what my next move should be.

“Your—your, door was open,” he says stammering. “I came in to close it, because that’s not safe.”

“No, no, it’s not.” I say, “Thank you so much. I’m here though, and I’m going back out, so it’s cool, ok?”

“Yeah sure,” he says, before turning around and wandering off into the morning.

We have now lived in the neighborhood for nearly twenty years, and while my sense of the neighborhood may exist mostly in my head, the slow death of any neighborhood deserves to be recognized, especially when that death arguably represents not only something larger going on in this city we all love, loathe, celebrate, and care about so much, but something the boys will never quite be able to experience.

To begin, a less-than-scientific look at some of the places the neighborhood has lost including both The Esquire and Village movie theaters. For years The Village employed a hulking, bearded, red-haired, near-mute Viking ticket taker whom I prayed would never sit next to me when I had the theater to myself. And he never did. On the other hand, it was at The Village where we watched a guy jerk off during Leaving Las Vegas. It was kind of untoward certainly, but as no one ever seems to jerk off at the AMC 21 East, I am left with a certain sense of nostalgia.

The Hotsy-Totsy is also gone. And while I recognize that according to the blog What White People Like, I am supposed to like dive bars, it was the last great dive bar in the neighborhood, and we had many late night drinks at its moist, crusty tables. It is now a CVS, one of two in the neighborhood, and it’s not just that we can’t drink there anymore on the nights we occasionally still stumble home, but the kids will never have the chance to do so either.

Not that I’m encouraging them to drink, but if they happen to, the Hotsy-Totsy was certainly a far better option than the Hangge-Uppe or Mother’s will ever be.

The pizza joint Ranalli’s is gone as well, pushed out of its old, decrepit brownstone at the corner of Dearborn and Elm. My bachelor party was held in the private room upstairs and it was there that we had the opportunity to make the acquaintance of one Melanie Melons. She did not join us to talk neighborhoods or children, but she did school us on the proper proportion of whipped cream to bare breast.

Late one morning, Debbie and I are walking north up Dearborn. It is several years after my first encounter with the neighbor. It turns that he is a musician. He plays at night, and the morning I first met him he was just getting home from a gig. He’s also an alcoholic. We see him in front of Edwardo’s, sitting in the gutter, trying to regain his balance, one hand on the curb, one reaching for heights far beyond his limited range of motion. He can’t get up and he’s staring at us, or through us, pleading with someone, maybe us, maybe the voices in his head, to help him. He falls down one more time, now lying in the street, no chance of getting up. We walk by him, eyes straight ahead, the least caring thing we’ve ever done.

Later, of course, we will have to explain things like why people drunkenly sit in gutters to Myles and Noah, but we didn’t have to yet, it was still just the two of us then.

Millionaire Lee Migilin was murdered over on Astor by serial killer Andrew Cunanan, who stopped to shave before heading off to Miami to kill Gianni Versace. On Schiller, a super murdered his whole family in a townhouse where he worked and then neatly lined them up in the basement so they could rest peacefully.

There haven’t been too many killings lately, nothing like these anyway, murders that spoke somehow to an older, more romantic and grizzled Chicago which doesn’t seem to exist anymore. Now it’s guns and beefs and neighborhood guys settling fights with bullets.

Still before all that, or at least before there seemed to be so many more guns and shootings, we did once kind of witness a murder on the northeast corner of Goethe and Dearborn.

At the time we still lived up above The 3rd Coast, the home of the greatest coronation chicken salad you’ve ever had. The apartment faced north and overlooked the courtyard of the now long-closed Three Arts Club. During the summer we watched the weddings being held there from our window and then danced along with the guests during the receptions.

With a little work we could also look east out of those windows and initially like many apartments in the neighborhood we could see a sliver of lake if we looked at just the right angle. Our view was unimpeded, because we faced a parking lot, but this changed over time as the first of what was to become one of many new high rises in the neighborhood was being built. We watched it go up floor by floor as we simultaneously watched our view disappear.

One hot summer night we lay in bed, the windows wide-open following a brownout. It was quiet, except for the occasional passing car or person returning home from the bars on Division. As we tried to stay cool, the screams started, emanating from the new building still being constructed across the street. It was a woman and she was in great distress.

“Stop, no, stop, you’re going to kill me!” she screamed.

Debbie and I looked at each other silently, frozen in place. Someone else would deal with this, right? Someone else would make the call. The screaming continued.


We stared out the window, not seeing a thing.

“Call the police,” Debbie said. “Please, call.”

It was the right thing to do, but I was scared. I dialed 9-1-1.

“Someone is being attacked, a woman, at the northeast corner of Goethe and Dearborn,” I said. “It’s coming from the new building. Please hurry.”

We sat by the window waiting, listening to the endless screams, and within ninety seconds, two, three, four, then five police cars pulled up to the building. A police officer got out carrying a bullhorn.

“Come out with your hands above your head or we’re coming in,” he shouted.

The screaming stopped. It was silent. Then people started moving around. There was some commotion. We couldn’t tell who was who or what was happening. The cop picked up the bull horn again.

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me!” he said, exasperated. “You’re filming a fucking movie? All of you get the fuck out here now.”

Myles and Noah love this story. It’s scary, but safe, and kids like that, the sense that they can control their fears. What they cannot control any more than we can is the incessant change overtaking the neighborhood, and so we keep reminding them of what the neighborhood looked like when they were little, or before they were born, somehow hoping they will absorb all the things that were so appealing to us.

There was a time when there wasn’t an upscale, fully appointed, studio, one, two, or three-bedroom, three and a half bathroom, concierge services available, duplex, 24-hour doorman, high-end appliances, great view, gold-plated, marble countertops, luxurious, world-class views, central air, exercise room, exclusive, magnificent, spectacular, the sky is bluer, people friendlier, grass greener, girls prettier, sex is better, can’t be beat, private, and unique, fully ubiquitous high rise on every corner.

Back then, for example, there was Gold Coast Video at Dearborn and Division, a great video store specializing in independent movies and gay porn. It was swallowed up along with the Ranalli’s to make room for another of the not-to-be-missed new buildings.

Don and Chad managed Gold Coast Video. Don was short, aged, bespectacled, hoodie-wearing, and bald, though not by choice. And Chad was young, buff, bespectacled, hoodie-wearing, and bald, as a fashion statement. Don and Chad loved movies, all movies, they held an Oscar night contest, had two-for-one rental Wednesdays, and endlessly recommended obscure movies they thought we would love.

Debbie and I regularly stopped by the store just to argue about new movies, who had seen them first, what we liked, didn’t like, and what other movies they reminded us of.

After Debbie and I saw the glorious wreck Eyes Wide Shut, a movie we had all been talking about for at least a year, we went to the store to see what Don thought.

“What do I think?” he said. “I think I don’t care who my partner sleeps with as long as he loves me the best.”

Myles and Noah will never meet Don or Chad, which seems impossible to us. We never saw them outside of the store, and yet there was a time where they felt like family. That was a long time ago though, when we were still young. There were no children, and everything in the neighborhood still felt so new.

There was also a Barbara’s Bookstore in the neighborhood then over on Wells that had a children’s section they would have loved. It’s a bank now.

I saw Art Spiegelman there and sat in awe the whole time he spoke. When I saw Scott Heim the author of Mysterious Skin read, he made me want to do readings myself one day because of his absolute sense of calm and mastery. Hearing Don DeGrazia read American Skin at Barbara’s convinced me I should try and be a novelist because it seemed like the kind of book I might be able to write if the novel gods ever decided to smile on me.

And then there was Lynda Barry, known best for her comics, but also the author of Cruddy, one of my favorite novels of that year or any year. I almost never ask writers questions at readings, but she was an exception. I had just really started writing when I saw her, but I had the sense that she could provide me with some insights about how to improve what I was trying to do.

“How do you write such funny comics one day,” I asked, “and then write something so dark like Cruddy the next? Do you plan something like that?”

“No,” she said, “I just write what I’m feeling that day.”

And now so do I. The boys don’t know me in any other way. It doesn’t matter to them that I couldn’t get started once, and that I only began writing when I moved into the neighborhood. But it matters to me. The neighborhood has always possessed a sort of magic, and I can only hope that some of that magic rubs off on them.

I’m walking north up State Street towards Division with Myles, then three and a half, and we have just left the neighborhood Barnes & Noble. They don’t host readings, or have “staff recommended” books with little descriptions like Barbara’s did, but they have books, and Myles loves books, and it’s walking distance so we do what we can.

It’s Myles’ neighborhood now as well, and soon enough Noah will be born and it will become his too. And no, they will never go to Gold Coast Video to rent porn with us or Ranalli’s for pizza. Nor will they have breakfast at Monday’s, the greasy diner we once frequented at State and Division, or stumble some day in to the Hotsy-Totsy. But they have Five Faces for hot dogs and Gouty playground. They love The Third Coast and they don’t really know what’s been lost, despite how much we talk about it.

But at this point, there is no Noah yet, just Myles, and we’re focused on lunch and maybe watching Barney. The sun is out, and it’s been a good day. As we start to cross Elm, the people in front of us merge and unmerge and the neighbor suddenly appears, standing in the middle of the sidewalk, facing south, facing us. I haven’t seen him since Debbie and I saw him collapse in the gutter now several years before. He’s unsteady on his feet and wildly flailing his arms. I take Myles’ hand and see whether we can cross the street. The neighbor looks right at us and then he points his finger at me and starts to shout.

“You mock me like this!” he shouts. “You throw your life in my face!”

He looks stricken. Can he possibly remember who I am? And if he does, does he resent me for becoming a parent, deserting him, and changing with the neighborhood, even as he remains stuck in the neighborhood as it once was? Have I betrayed him in some way?

I pull on Myles’ wrist and drag him east across the street.

As I look back, the neighbor is flailing his arms again, no longer talking. People pass by him, eyes down, horrified, and saddened. The sun is slicing between the buildings, where it can, enveloping him in a soft, hazy, afternoon glow. He’s illuminated now, and fixed in time, his arms raised high above him. The neighbor is silently raging at the heavens, and looking for answers that no one down here can provide him with.