Hi! Remember me? I’ve been busy, so I’ve not posted in a while. Specifically: my novel ‘Last Rights’ was published in November, as was my novella, ‘The Battery Man’. I also re-edited my first work, ‘Terminal Beginning‘, from stem to stern. Earlier this year, a second novella, ‘Deeper’ was published, as well as my contribution to Michael Kleen’s ‘Secret Rockford’ project. During that time, I also finalized my latest novel, ‘Photographic Memory’, which is about to go into publication in late June. Then there was my day job, my marriage, my cat, and a trip to Arizona thrown in, for good measure.
I’ve been saving this installment for a time when I felt I could give it the time and attention that it deserves. Mostly, because there’s so much to tell, and I knew that it would take some time to do it right. Today, I woke up, hunkered down, and figured I’d give it a shot. So, here goes…
I didn’t always live on Pauline Avenue. By the time my Mother presciently threw me out of the house (because she knew what was best for me – and she was spot-on), I needed to find a place to live, and fast. For the first week or so, I stayed with some friends. I slept on their sofa, more specifically, in a communal apartment that they were about to leave in the coming weeks. It was better than sleeping in my car, and a kindness that they certainly did not have to bestow upon me. I still consider Mandy and Christine to be some of my closest friends, to this day, and we still keep in regular contact.
Before I could nail down a more permanent place to reside, I lucked into a unique opportunity with my then employer. Specifically, he had a rental home to sell. Said home needed some work, and so I was permitted to moonlight, working on the home, in trade for being permitted to stay there until the sale of the property happened. Let it not be said that we were not both opportunistic negotiators. Still, I’m pretty sure that I got the better end of that deal. The strange part? The home was – believe it or not – on Pauline Avenue. The world is a weird, weird place.
As the home was being renovated, I had some major issues to overcome. Specifically, I had no furniture. I had a 486 Gateway PC, and a Mitsubishi Television that was a graduation present. I had clothes, so no worries there. But that, sadly, was where my makings of a home began and ended.
At this time, Wanda and I were dating on a regular basis, and I think having to go through this with her by my side made it not only far more bearable, but also assisted in cementing our lives together in a new way. She brought her VCR to the space, and let me know that her sister had mentioned something about a particleboard entertainment center that had appeared in the communal hallway of her apartment building. It had a sign on it that said something to the effect of ‘free to a good home’. It turned out to be a small one, but it was the perfect size for my needs. And the price was right.
Joining my ‘first piece of furniture’ was a $99 futon. The frame was cheap wood, and was pretty much shot right out of the box. The mattress was all of 1 ½” in thickness, and scarcely comfortable. Still, it was better than the floor.
I bought – predictably – what every broke teen on his or her own buys from the store: Ramen, soda, and high-energy, high-calorie snack foods. I think I spent all of $20 on groceries, and I fed myself for a couple of weeks.
My dear friends, Norm and Lori, allowed me to use their washing machine and dryer, so I didn’t need to visit a Laundromat – a place that I still hold an inexplicable aversion to, even to this day (and, for the record, no – it’s not because I feel as though I’m ‘too good for them’ – it’s something else). Why they all but scare me makes no sense. I should probably consult a therapist, one of these days, on the matter.
What they also did for me – and for Wanda, who was hanging out more and more at Chez Heath – was permit the two of use to borrow any of the unsold VHS movies they had left over from their recent closure of Grant Avenue Foods & Video. These consisted of the worst of the worst films ever made (the good ones had long ago been cherry-picked by friends, family, and – finally – garage sale patrons.) Still, free was free. Suffice it to say that if there’s a terrible movie out there that makes you consider eye surgery as a pleasant alternative to watching them, we’ve probably seen it. I’m looking at you, ‘Cyclone’. Top-secret motorcycle my… well, you get the point.
As the home was nearing a closing date, buyer now found, I needed a new place to live, and fast. By then I had saved up enough money for a deposit on a real apartment. The problem was I had zero experience in finding one. And I also soon learned that, clearly, I didn’t entirely comprehend the amount of money that I should have had ready to get myself into one. I was – to put it mildly – in trouble.
It was just at the darkest point that life threw me yet another lifeline (I swear, I should have played the Lottery in those days). My friend Joe had just moved into an apartment, and mentioned that the other unit next door was available for immediate rent. The price was right. The neighborhood? Uh, not so much. At least, that was my first thought. It turned out to be wrong, and made for some memorable stories. Hang on – I’m getting to those.
The apartment turned out to be 2/3 of the second floor of a building. It was a 3-story affair, built in 1908. The second floor had been completely gutted, and renovated into two massive apartments. Joe lived in the left 1/3. The right 2/3 had three bedrooms – one of which was absolutely huge, a sizeable kitchen, and a living area where a game of pick-up football wasn’t entirely out of the question. It was way more space than we would ever need, but it was also cheaper than anything else we had found. And by ‘we’, I’m speaking of Wanda and I. We had decided, much to the consternation of a lot of folks and family, to move in together, officially. We took it.
The apartment was on the corner of Broadway and 7th Street. For as long as I could recall, this precise area had been the butt of hooker jokes in Rockford. So it was a scary place, from an anecdotal standpoint. I secretly envisioned crazed killers, coke whores, thugs, miscreants, and possibly even the occasional rabid dog. My ignorant teen imagination knew no bounds.
Below our side, on the first floor, was the Cubs Tap – a Rockford staple for a number of years, and home to a die-hard group of older gentlemen who came to enjoy some beer and company. We soon got to know the night bartender, John. The daytime folks we saw little of, as we were working. Even so, they went out of their way to look out for us, and always made sure that no one parked in our rightful – and coveted – parking spot, behind the building. If one of their patrons was caught doing so, the owners made them move it, while giving them the stink eye. Slowly, it stopped happening. Apparently, the owner’s stink eye was a potent force of nature.
John was a unique character. He and I had little in common, but – like most bartenders – he was malleable to the social interactions of his patrons. I went down to the bar only two or three times when we lived there (mostly with Mike – more on him in a moment). John was a prominent collector of vintage beer cans, and was well-known on a nation-wide basis for this. His knowledge of beer, breweries, and their histories was too deep to fathom. And the guy knew his beer. I’ll forever be in his debt for explaining to me that, while Blatz was a beer often poo-pooed as being ‘cheap’, it was also a great beer for the money. I was skeptical. Now, decades later, after having tried more than 500 beers, I’d say that he’s still right on. I’d drink a Blatz over a lot of ‘craft’ beers that I’ve had.
There were only two real downsides that we could cite about living above this uncharacteristically quiet bar. First, every Sunday, someone played ‘Elvira’ by The Oak Ridge Boys at first open. This tended to be our cue to wake up, as the baseline in the song is… substantial. Second, some of the patrons would ‘go out back’ to relieve themselves at all hours. These tended to be younger patrons, who weren’t ‘the regulars’ (the older gents were polite to a fault, and from another time entirely). Even so, they were polite. When they saw us, seeing them, they would apologize, or engage us in friendly conversation as they peed. The world is a strange place.
Next door to them, on Joe’s side of the building, was The Planet Mars salon. This was a short-lived business, run by a nice woman named Melinda. Melinda, it turned out, was also Joe’s girlfriend du jour, and our new neighbor. She was a quirky and kind-hearted person, and the only other individual that has ever, to this day, cut my hair – outside of my regular barber – since I was eight.
The third floor was… frightening. I remember Joe telling us that a band had been living up there, on the whole floor, and had Satan-ized the whole space prior to their eviction (when the new, renovating owners bought the place.) “Want to see it?” he said, wicked gleam in his eye. Of course I did. The way he made it sound, he had to be embellishing.
Nope. In fact, he was way under-selling it. The entire place – floor, ceilings, walls – were all graffiti-painted with words, pictures, symbols, and anything else creepy, demonic, Satanic, and eerie. It was not the sort of place one wanted to have dinner with the family in. There were inexplicable holes in the walls, black wax remnants, and I wouldn’t doubt that, should some Luminol be brought to the party, blood and semen might well be found. It was one of the single creepiest things that I’ve ever seen in my life. The sort of mind – or, in this case, group of minds (the band all lived there) – that could paint, and then live in, that surreal, dark place was inexplicable to me. Suffice it to say, we pretty much avoided the third floor.
Behind us, was a pawn shop. Again, I gave the place an immediate bad rap. It was bred of nothing more than ignorance, fear, and hearsay. Here’s what the reality was: they were amazing people. The owners, and their staff, were kind, considerate, and became friendly acquaintances. Like the bar folks, the pawn shop dudes (they were all guys) would also chastise their customers if they parked in our spot. I should probably clarify: there was a parking barrier that we had to move, and replace, to get to our spot. It said something to effect of, “Parking for Apartments Only”.
I once found that I had a flat tire, one morning. One of the pawn shop fellows saw my plight, and not only helped me fix the flat, but ran into the store, and brought out an extension cord, and a portable air compressor for tires from his stock. I was so moved by this, that I bought the compressor for the asking price of $20.00. I still have it, and use it, to this day.
The pawn shop also served as a local neighborhood watch force. They were kind but tough, and it seemed as though miscreants must have known that they had two eyes peeled at all times, because even the scariest of folks seemed friendly within a 50’ radius of the place.
As we got to know them better, Pat (Pat is the only name that I can recall now, in fact), who I believe was one of the owners, hooked us up with a neat deal: he had VHS tapes for sale. He would let us buy in bulk, for a discount. And, anything we didn’t like, or want to keep, we could bring back and swap. It was like having the world’s cheapest video store behind you, as his stock was always changing. And, at about $1 a tape, it was a steal in those days. Cheap entertainment was, once again, on the table.
Just down the block was B&H Office Furniture And Supply. This, it just so happened, was a business owned by my semi-affluent great uncle and great aunt, the Irwins. Wanda and I needed a conference table to use as a desk, so we decided we’d pop down there, and see if the family had a scratch and dent one we could take off their hands. My Great Aunt was present, and was gracious as always (she’s one of those folks that everyone should know, because she’s just an amazing person.) The sales guy, however, was just barely tolerant of my having interrupted his day, and making real sales. I found a table with a broken corner that they were having a hard time moving, got it for a steal, and walked my purchase home. I now had a desk.
After a few weeks of getting settled, we had the opportunity to take on a roommate. It was a mutual friend of ours named Mike, who was moving out of Stillman Valley, into Rockford. The apartment was laid out in such a way that one of the bedrooms was at the entrance, just off of the kitchen. The living area and bathroom were adjacent, while the master bedroom was in the front of the apartment. This sort of led to having two distinguishable zones of living, and afforded a bit more privacy for a renter. Mike stayed with us for a number of months, and we had some funny and weird times. It was strange, but it was fun, too, living with someone else.
The neighborhood, on the whole, wasn’t as scary – or awful – as folks made it out to be. The worst thing that happened on a consistent basis was the fire station disgorging emergency vehicles at all hours. These would, typically, head right in front of our building, sirens wailing and lights flashing, at all hours. Even so, we somehow got used to it.
We were still, for months on end, sleeping on the futon mattress on the floor. A few months before moving out, however, we had enough money to buy our first real bed. It was one of the most magical days Wanda and I ever experienced together. We bought out first piece of real furniture. The day it came, we just laid on it, for hours, not missing the uncomfortable futon in the slightest, and feeling like millionaires.
As for other furniture? Well, that’s another unique story. First of all, I have to make an admission: my Mother and I were estranged for about two years. I treated her awfully, mostly because I didn’t understand her motives and actions in throwing me out without any notice. Honestly, it was one of the single most important things anyone has ever done for me. It was ‘tough love’ in action. I was drifting, aimless, and had no real clue about how life worked. I’d not be as successful, humble, respectful, or the sort of human being I aspire to be each day without that kick in the ass to jump-start my flagging life. We’ve long since said our individual peace, and we’re a close-knit unit once more – complete with the welcome addition of Wanda.
So: furniture. I managed to finagle a desk that was my father’s from my old home. My Mom and Dad had divorced, years ago, and this was a remnant that never seemed to find a permanent home. My dear friend Gary (who was once my boss at K-Mart, was later in my wedding, and is – today – working with me again) was preparing to move. A lot of his furniture in his basement was – well – basement-esque furniture. He offered up a chair, and a couple of end tables. They were, frankly, hideous (sorry, Gary!) but the kindness shown during my time of need was a blessing. Likewise, his brother, Rick, supplied us with a dining table that was functional – and that was about where descriptors need to begin and end. Wanda brought a near-death dresser from home, and I brought mine as well. Our sofa came from Mike’s sister. It had a broken spine, but it was free, and we made it work. We also bought a chair and sofa from one of Wanda’s friends for the then-princely sum of $125. Melinda (our neighbor in the apartment) left behind a chair when she moved, and we inherited it into our home. It stayed with us, until it became an un-salvagable addition, and was dismantled.
What’s funny about a lot of this, is that the furniture we received out of the kindness of friends then, in turn, went on to new homes later on down the road. We gave a lot of Gary’s old things to our friend Paul, who was just starting out. Mike’s sister’s sofa, sadly, was beyond salvage, and was thrown away. The chair (of the sofa and chair set) went to our friend, Abbey, when she was starting out. The sofa of the set was slip-covered (it was good quality, but ugly as hell) by my talented wife, and is still in our home today. It will, however, be replaced in less than two month’s time, as we’ve finally broken down and purchased a pair of chairs and ottomans. We’ve long since had the means to replace the sofa, but never saw the point – it did its job admirably, and it was paid for. The dining table was re-purposed into a project that now resides in the home of Wanda’s sister, Dena. My dresser went to my brother. Hers, sadly, was also a casualty.
The neighborhood was an organism and, soon, we were a functioning part of it. This organism, however, included one peculiar resident. We all knew him only as ‘Crazy Dave’. To this day, that’s still all I know about him. As near as we could figure, Dave lived in a room or small apartment, perhaps, in the back of what was then Forest City Furniture. Dave was harmless. Even so, if you didn’t know him, he was scary. Why? An excellent question! Probably because – no matter what the weather – Dave was, more often than not, garbed in open-strapped galoshes and a trench coat. He also carried a snow shovel over his shoulder, wherever he went. And here’s where it becomes weird: he would shout to individuals either walking or in cars (and sometimes, to no one at all) that they were going to Hell. It was random, it was funny, and it was sad. Clearly there was some sort of mental illness happening. But he seemed well-fed, and had a place to stay. Often, we even said hello to Dave. Sometimes he would ignore us, sometimes he would smile, and say hello, and sometimes, he would walk on by, only to blurt that someone (presumably us) were going to Hell. I actually miss that guy.
In the winter, Dave would shovel sidewalks, driveways, the street – whatever he felt needed it. I’m pretty sure a lot of the locals made sure that Dave was ‘tipped’ for his efforts, either in money, or food.
I think the funniest moment, for us, came one breezy summer night. We were watching television, and the sun had just gone down. We heard yelling coming from behind our building (which wasn’t a unique event, and was usually no cause for alarm.) Often, the yelling was someone passing through on foot – and not a member of the actual neighborhood. Still, it continued on for longer than we were accustomed to. Finally, we got up to investigate. What we first saw, was a scantily-dressed woman attempting to elude a normal looking man. They were young, and hollering at one another. I grabbed the phone to call 911, but the man didn’t seem to want to harm the woman – just talk to her. I opened the window. This is what I heard:
“How could you lie to me like that? We’ve been dating all this time, and now this!?”
“I never lied to you!”
“But you’re a hooker!”
Here’s what we puzzled together, in the next minute or so. The specifics of the conversation are lost to me (save for the above – that stuck.) The man was happily dating a pretty girl. He thought she went to work in the evenings. She was – in fact – prostituting. He drives by the area, unbeknownst to her, and for unknown reasons. He sees her plying her trade. He gets out of his car, and confronts her. And that’s where we inserted ourselves. I felt so bad for the dude. She seemed to really care about him – and he about her – but she also seemed stalwartly insistent upon not giving up her ‘night job’ for her boyfriend. It takes all kinds of kinds.
Living those tough months taught me a lot of unique lessons: about myself, about stereotypes and stories versus the truths of matters, about Wanda, about our budding relationship, and about what it means to be a good neighbor, and an ever better human being. While I was never technically homeless, it was touch and go for a while. I learned who my true friends were. I learned that even when you think you have nothing, you still have yourself – and your wits – as an asset. I learned how to make something out of nothing, how to make my dollar go farther than it ever should, and – most of all – I learned to be humble. Those strange months shaped a great deal of who I am today. And for that, I am truly thankful.
Heath D. Alberts – Co-Founder & Marketing Director
Contributor To: “Secret Rockford” (2014)
Categories: Community & Events