Above: My store-front apartment in Chicago as it appears today, housing a restaurant called West End. In 1989, there were no windows, no second story, the front door on the corner was where prostitutes hung out, my car was often the only one parked on the entire block and our entry-way was along the side, where there’s now an awning. (Photo courtesy of Google Earth.)
Here was the situation as it stood in the Fall of 1989: I emerged late morning from my store-front living space (calling it an apartment is a stretch) to find the trunk of my Honda Accord wide open. I’d came home the night before around 2 a.m. after a long day shooting a short fiction narrative on ¾ inch video as part of the graduate film program I was in at the time. I calculated the damage: a buck knife in a leather sheath that actually belonged to my father, a beat-up corduroy blazer, a straw fedora I was using as a prop were all gone. They hadn’t taken the spare or the jack and left a box of road supplies including a fancy Streamlight flashlight untouched, all in all not bad in the realm of loss.
Then I remembered – all my video footage was in there! All of it. Eight tape boxes, hours of footage. The night before, I’d dragged the camera and a light kit inside, but figured everything in the trunk would be safe enough over night. I was exhausted and not thinking straight. This was beyond catastrophic. A reshoot was impossible. I’d hired actors and crew and set up locations that involved driving many miles and coordinating travel for everyone. I’d spent a fair amount of money paying for gas, renting a shielded generator for lighting an outdoor scene, feeding the cast and crew. Hollow sparks danced along the edges of my vision, then descended, turning my stomach and forcing me inside where I had to lie down.
A little bit about our living space: it was a store-front on the near west side of Chicago, a few blocks east of Chicago Stadium, in an area that burned in 1968 after King was killed and had never recovered. The place was massive, stretching 100 feet front to back, 5000 square feet with 15 foot high ceilings, beautiful ornate tiles on the front half of the apartment, rough plywood paneling on the back. A friend from grad school had found this and I needed a place to live and having lived in New York City for much of the 80s, was excited about the sheer amount of space. I was going to set up a basketball rim in the back, I told everyone, only half-joking.
There were some disadvantages. Rats for one. We spent the first day furiously shoving steel wool in every hole we could find and while we were seemingly successful keeping them out of the main space, we could hear the patter of their feet on the ornate tin ceiling as they scurried around, a definite buzz-kill when guests were over. Nothing quite like explaining to the woman friend in your bed that yes, those actually are the sound of rat’s feet overhead. The only windows were up front and 12 feet off the ground and streetwalkers were permanently camped just outside our front door (which we kept locked, entering on the side), talking and yelling and laughing at all hours. Four or five times a week, there was some sort of flare-up with screaming and threats and general street scene chaos. A couple of times there were gunshots.
And when it started getting cold, my roommate and I realized it was going to cost a fortune to heat the place and we constructed a wallboard floor to ceiling wall, complete with working door, sectioning off the front half where our bedrooms were, which was an effective if inelegant solution because the walls were rickety constructions of drywall and two by fours and our bathroom and shower were stranded in the cold part of the apartment. Using the toilet was a two-step process: run in, turn on the space heater and retreat to the warm part until the bathroom heated up.
I wasn’t ready to give up on my film. It wasn’t like these were VHS tapes, they were useless to anyone outside of film school and I’d even broken the tabs on them to make sure I didn’t record over one by accident. My only idea involved the hookers on the corner. Someone was out there all night long and surely they saw something. Maybe with a few bucks aimed in their direction might kick something loose. I approached a tall woman in tight short shorts and a sleeveless fur vest as casually and gingerly as possible but still there was a very cinematic moment of cross-purposes confusion where she reacted first with a bland, absent smile, then a flicked switch change to surly suspicion until I could explain myself fully. I stressed the money – a $20 for whoever saw what happened and $50 for whoever had the tapes – and the useless nature of the tapes. Keep the knife and blazer and whatever else was in the trunk, I only care about the tapes.
The next night, there was a knock on the door and a different woman was standing there with news. She was clearly also a working girl by how she was dressed, but softer, livelier around the eyes, even alluring in her way, though so seemingly young, it raised all kinds of troubling issues, none of which in the end had anything to do with me (though it did strike me at the time that even if I was the sort who went to prostitutes, I’d have to tamp down a whole world of moral quandaries to go to this girl). She showed no interest in coming inside, she seemed skittish, even scared. Her name was something-lene. Darlene, Charlene, one of the other women shouted out to her at one point. She told me the man who had my tapes was named Samuel, that he lived in the projects around Chicago Stadium and that he was not a thief, that my trunk was wide open for all the world to see (I later came to believe I’d left it slightly ajar) and that anyone stupid enough to leave their trunk that way deserved whatever they got, something I agreed with. The money was fine, she said, but she’d be handling the pass-off because Samuel had seen me and was frightened of me. The idea that Charlene and Samuel both seemed scared of me was from my point of view an absurd joke since I was pretty sure the toughness it took to have sex with strangers for money (or live in the rough looking projects west of here) was beyond me, though it’s true on the surface I am a rather large man.
And that was pretty much it. Charlene brought the tapes, I gave her the money, she offered to give me his address for another $10, the implication being I might want to seek revenge. I said thanks but no thanks and just like that, I had my film back. I’d love to say I edited it into a wonderfully lyrical rumination on love and life and that it changed my life, but the best thing to come out of the whole experience was the story itself. The final cut tape sits buried in a box in a storage unit on East 10th in Manhattan, yet one more bit of evidence that in the end as a filmmaker, about the best that can be said is I was an okay writer.