I moved back to Chicago early in the fall of 2008 for graduate school. I was 25 at the time and had never lived further from home than my parents' basement, but for whatever reason, moving 1400 miles away to take those first steps didn't feel like flying without a net. My first apartment came via the University of Chicago's graduate housing office, and was given to me sight-unseen. The kitchen was small and ripped from the 1970s, and the floor was an ugly, damaged laminate tile, but the apartment was enormous, and had the sort of detailed moulding that you never see in new construction. I was pretty sure that I could be happy there, and for the duration of my year-long program, I was.
Graduate students are shut-ins, living in their books, tapping away at their computers well into the morning hours. I spent more time in that apartment than I have in any subsequent dwelling, but by-and-large, it was a good experience. Sure, there was that week when my upstairs neighbors inexplicably played two songs on repeat for hours at a time (Flashdance: What a Feeling, and the Theme From Top Gun), and yeah, I could hear the discreet beeping of late-night clients summoning car-side service from the dealers across the street, but aside from those minor annoyances, I had more peace in that apartment than any apartment since.
I spent a few months after graduation living in the apartment attached to my Aunt's house in DeKalb, but as soon as I found a job back in Chicago, I rescued my belongings from storage and moved back into the city. I limited my apartment search to the neighborhood where my sole remaining grad school friends lived, and I immediately (impulsively) jumped on a sunny, south-facing studio apartment. It was only the third unit I had seen, but I felt confident in my choice. Seeing my future place of residence before moving day already felt like a luxury, so taking my time seemed silly. The apartment was charming, fairly roomy for a studio, and had pretty hardwood floors and a curved wall with three slender windows. I was meticulous about hanging shelves in nooks, tucking lamps into corners, and finding a rug to tie it all together. I wish I still possessed this sort of enthusiasm for unpacking, but two (nearly three) moves later, my boxes have started to collect dust.
As charming as it was, the annoyances started to pile up - the shallow, counter-to-celing, glass-front cabinets were beautiful but impractical, and the broad, old-fashioned sink that had seemed so charming was an absolute menace to wash dishes in. The front door was impossible to lock or unlock from the outside, and calls to the landlord had produced no help, so I spent the first two months of my tenancy going up the poorly-lit rear-stairs. I taped my own name to the mailbox, and my friends and I never knew which door-buzzer was mine because the repeatedly promised label never materialized. Eventually, a friend solved the stuck tumbler in the front door, but future problems with the unit would prove far more difficult to rectify.
My hot water had been slow the day I moved in, but over time, the pressure decreased to a mere trickle. Showers were tepid, then cold, and finally freezing. Repeated calls to management produced promises of repair, but it wasn't until I uttered magical words to their emergency answering service that I was able to procure real assistance. These words? "Chicago Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance." Quickly, I discovered that these were words that produced results. Reports of a completely (and I mean completely) clogged drain? No urgency. Threat of securing an alternate place of residence at my landlord's expense? Immediate repairs. These were not frivolous threats; the hot water had been so far below code that it had been laughable, and I'd tolerated stepping into inches of freezing, dirty water in the shower until the build-up forced me to wash my hair in the sink or flood the entire bathroom.
Of course, the worst indignities that building had to offer all involved shit.
Human fecal matter.