By Rennie Sparks
The courtyard—that’s what sold me on the first apartment I rented in Chicago. It was May, and my future landlord led me across the beginnings of green grass to show me the place. I imagined barbecues and building parties, idle Sundays spent playing checkers out in sun-splashed greenery. Heck, maybe I’d even grow tomatoes.
Of course, I didn’t know that only a month earlier there’d been a body bag left leaking blood on the grass of this same courtyard, while the firemen who’d been called to the scene of the suicide were puking in the bushes. I didn’t know that in this same courtyard skinheads had once emptied an entire apartment through a front window, and that every summer at least one person went insane in that courtyard.
When you step outside of a building that doesn’t have a courtyard, you step onto the street, to public life. A courtyard is a patch of green: half private, half public. Enough privacy to encourage personality, and enough anonymity to encourage impulsive acts. In the summer, when the windows fly open, it becomes a stage.
Courtyard buildings, or “garden apartments” as they were once called, came about after World War I, when city planners began to improve on low-income housing. The earliest apartment buildings were built on narrow lots and designed to use up every inch of land, thus squeezing in as many people as possible. Most apartments had only one or two tiny windows. As the city built up around them, the lower floors of such buildings sometimes got little or no light or air trickling down.
But, after the war, the middle class expanded and there was money to be made in offering nicer places to rent. The courtyard building’s appeal was its inset front yard, which guaranteed all units had windows on at least two sides (courtyard and street), thus creating a crosscurrent of air and light. But, the courtyard, I believe, taps into some primordial memory of the fire at the mouth of the cave. It’s the village green, the acropolis, and the wishing well. The obligatory iron gate keeps out Indians and Vikings and the ghost of Christmas past, but it also closes the inhabitants in on themselves, creating an intimacy among strangers not unlike a bomb shelter or a lifeboat. People start to crack.
My new landlord planted sunflowers a week after I moved in. They shot up 10, 12 feet—seemingly overnight. One morning, the stems snapped. The sunflowers slowly blackened like the broken antennae of giant insects trapped just beneath the ground.
It was my first summer in Chicago. The cicadas were breeding like mad. Every window had a face in it as I ran through the courtyard. We brushed closer and closer.
At first it was just snippets of conversation overheard through a cracked window or a whispered accusation floating up from the dark grass. But day by day the volume rose, until it felt like we were all screaming at the top of our lungs.
The couple below me was a car salesman and a secretary. He beat her up for burning chicken. She moved out and her sister took her place. He beat up the sister. Above me lived a secretary and a carpenter. He built her tables and bookshelves and velvet-lined boxes, dragging them through the courtyard and up the stairs. Nothing was good enough. She screamed at him, pacing back and forth across my ceiling, her cats galloping in frantic circles. Late at night, they’d get stoned and make up. They’d order pizza and cannoli. I could hear her screaming near the open window. “Three cannolis. Tell them three!”
Then there was Irene, a slender woman in a white fur coat who put glue in her upstairs neighbors’ locks and spied on them from the fire escape. She had three dogs that required walking morning and night. Around and around the courtyard they dragged her. One morning the dogs lunged in different directions on their separate leashes and broke both Irene’s wrists.
The people across the hall from me had a pit bull that tried to leap through the door each time I ventured out into the hall. They liked to let the dog run loose in the hall when they went down for the mail. If I came home and heard him pawing and snorting down the steps, I’d have to run back out into the courtyard and wait. Sometimes I’d notice my mail out there, envelopes scattered across the grass. By July, the windows in all 24 units were open day and night.
My neighbor John went first, maybe because his windows were actually level with the courtyard. One night he ran around slamming doors, then took center stage on the green, alternating between reciting prose poetry about Chicago and reading names off mail slots, threatening to kill us all.
“Goddamn city,” he screamed. “Goddamn beautiful city and you, Rennie Sparks, I’m gonna blow your head off, you Mexican Jew homosexual!”
Debbie was next, locked out in the courtyard just about every Saturday night. A plump, fiftysomething woman in stringy hair and stretch pants, she had the swollen red face and body of a giant infant in perpetual tantrum. Every Saturday night around midnight it began. First the tap, tap, tap on the glass, then the whispers, “Rudy. Rudy, please.” Finally the screams: “Rudy, goddamn it! Let me in!” The cops would come and Rudy, a tiny man who wore a ratty sweater even in the August heat, would shuffle out and let her in. But one night, the cops were slow getting there and Debbie snapped. Started spinning in circles with her little black poodle yapping at her feet. She kicked a hole in the laundry room window, then tore off her shirt, spinning around and around in her bra, screaming, “Rudy!”
A few weeks later, Irene appeared in the courtyard dragging a new pet at the end of her leash: a stuffed toy dog with a red-felt tongue.
That was it. I took to the back fire escape, drinking cheap wine and staring down the alley, watching rats pull rotten hamburger meat from the dumpster. Anything was better than that courtyard.
Thank god for Chicago winter. With the first cold night, things died down again. Windows shut, people retreated into darkness. The heat was bad in our building. We were forced to staple plastic bags over our windows and keep the shades down to conserve warmth. We shivered and forgot each other.
Late one January night, I played a drunken game of croquet down in the courtyard. Snow and wind threatened to freeze my eyelids shut, but the courtyard was mine, all mine.