After 11 years of living on Milwaukee’s East Side, John and I decided to call it quits. We moved at the tail end of May, a few weeks after I last published here.
John actually lived there a year longer than I—twelve years—and he’d lived there once or twice before, in his younger years. When we met in 2003, I was living out in the country in a brand-new “luxury” apartment with its own washer and dryer, private garage and entrance, and the first walk-in closet and master bath I’d ever had. A stone’s throw away from a pretty little pond under high-tension power lines, the complex was still under construction in parts.
John was living in a historic Art Deco building on Prospect Avenue on the East Side. It was a regular stop on an architectural walking tour and had a view of The Big Pond: Lake Michigan. The first time I visited him there we sat among dozens of unpacked boxes, and made out on the only piece of living room furniture he had at the time: an overstuffed black leather chair.
I moved in with John in April 2004, four months before our wedding. I brought as many clothes and shoes as I could jam into one tiny closet in the old one-bedroom apartment; my grandmother’s old jadeite dishes; my most beloved books and CDs; and a few small pieces of furniture. We stuffed the rest into a rented storage space with a bright orange door.
There were two coin-operated washers and dryers in the basement, which we competed for with about 50 other tenants. There was a small courtyard out back. In order to park on the street day or night, we had to buy stickers for our cars. Finding a parking spot was as difficult as finding the washer and dryer not being used when you needed it.
The noise outside was almost constant: buses, drunk college students, FedEx trucks, ambulances, car alarms, all-night frat parties, firecrackers. Crews pulling all-nighters on ruptured sewers, crews hanging off buildings for weeks tuckpointing old bricks. Somebody hollering, somebody getting robbed, a woman screaming, loud pops. It was quietest in the very early morning around 5 a.m., and during the holidays, when three-quarters of all East Siders left town. They were heavenly, these times, these days.
We lived within walking distance of Milwaukee’s best restaurants, clubs, taverns, shops, boutiques, galleries, museums, and parks. We walked so much that we sold one of our cars, and began renting an off-street parking space for the one we kept. We rented garage spaces for our two motorcycles. I sorted through my storage space with the orange door and gave away some of my belongings. We moved the rest to a storage space in an old warehouse four blocks away, next to the Laundromat and the sushi place.
There were old people, young people. Professional people, working-class people. Some, not many, with strollers. Some well dressed, some you could smell as you walked by. There was a Mercedes parked outside our building and a rusty old SUV parked across the street. The police came on a regular basis to apprehend the neighborhood pervert, who exposed himself to women who passed by his front window; his car was a brown Ford Taurus held together with gray duct tape. There was the corner store where all the alternative kids worked, the Mob joint two doors up, the import shop torn down to make way for a Whole Foods.
There were the elderly you see before winter sets in, who aren’t there in the spring, whom you never ever see again.
And there was this—the view of Lake Michigan from our dining room.
I started taking pictures of things I found on the sidewalks everywhere I walked: graffiti, fall leaves, a magazine rack, angry notes to people who parked badly.
There were the tenants in our building: the 65-year-old bleach-blonde, overly tan chain smoker who lit up in the elevator and wore leopard-print leggings. Shortly after she moved out, she died of cancer. There were artists, musicians, ex-punk rockers. The owner of a legendary record store in town, a retired Navy officer. Lawyers. Professors. The woman who watched our cats when we vacationed. One tenant gave cello lessons in her apartment and played her baby grand piano in the middle of the night drunk. Another played French horn for the symphony and seemed to wait until I was on conference calls with clients to practice.
There was the French Canadian who stole the wreath on our door. The two chain smokers below whose smoke filled our apartment. The loud talker who lived there before the smokers. The unemployed carpenter who moved next door who ran saws and drills all day and night. His fiancé, who started playing her music and movies loud the day they moved in, who looked at us crazy when we told her we could hear it, who is still officially one of the biggest bitches I have ever known. The tenants who moved heavy furniture across bare parquet floors at 3 a.m. Who had parties after bar-close at 3 a.m. Who left the gas on the stove on when they moved out.
Our formerly spacious one-bedroom apartment grew unbearably cramped. Our two cats had nowhere to go; every once in a while we’d open up the door and they’d half-heartedly walk up and down the hallway, then come back in and crash on the bed. We had too many books. Too much furniture. So many dishes that we used our dishwasher for storage. Everything was coated with dust from the cat litter and dirt from the city. Every time I wiped the TV screen clean, it came back black.
The company that owned the building did not respect the building. Repairs were designed around getting the job done as quickly and as cheaply as possible, without regard for the integrity of the beautiful old place. When roofers accidentally cut into the wire that supplied our electricity, maintenance ran conduit all up and down and around the dining room to patch everything together, rather than hire an electrician. One of the tenants in our building was screamed at by a passer-by because none of the glass on the sides of the front and service doors matched.
“I know what you mean, lady, but I have nothing to do with it,” said the tenant.
Our building manager was wonderful. Then she got married, and her husband became manager by proxy. He was not so wonderful. We started smelling liquor on them in the elevator.
We had four different sets of next-door neighbors the last six years we lived there. The last was a short, bald forty-something guy who was around all the time. There was an out-of-town girlfriend who visited every other weekend, and a different woman every weekend she was not around. When the girlfriend visited, there was almost always some tearful exchange through our neighbor’s locked and closed door, during which she would pound on the door and wail over and over, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, let me in, let me in.”
Then it was fall for about two minutes—typical Milwaukee—then winter set in. That’s when we noticed the cigarette smoke.
Our building was not a non-smoking building. New tenants were encouraged by management to smoke outside as a courtesy to their neighbors, but our neighbor did not—would not. Because he was around all the time, our apartment reeked of smoke almost all the time.
We duct-taped where the old baseboards met the old floor. The smoke found other holes and cracks to come in. By the time we moved out, there was duct tape everywhere. The owner didn’t appreciate our complaining. “We can’t make him stop smoking,” they said.
Winter lasted a full seven months. At the end of it we said, “We’re outta here.”
Moving was a bitch. Packing up a severely cramped apartment and a severely cramped storage space was more than exhausting: it was insane. We decided we didn’t want to stay on the East Side and rented a small house with a big garage in a suburb by the ballpark.
It took us hours and hours to clean the apartment. Everything had to be wiped clean before it was packed. Water buckets instantly became dirty. The ancient wooden window frames, with their dried and cracked paint, were impossible to get clean. The walls were peeling in all the places where the rain got through the brick. The ceiling plaster was beginning to bubble again. We cleaned that which hadn’t been cleaned in years.
Before we left, I took one last picture of the lake. It was in what I referred to as its neutral state: solid dark blue, no waves, no clouds.
As if to say, “Nothing to see here. It’s OK to go now.”
We took one last look back at the apartment we had lived in twelve and eleven years before closing the front door for the last time. It looked grey and saggy.