Anita Mechler: A Madman Building

I love living in old buildings; I could never imagine living in something that was younger than at least 50 years old. I live in a neighborhood in Chicago called West Town. My building sits on a major street across from a park and it is so large that it takes up about half of the block, but is only 4-stories high. It has one turreted corner and ornamentation reminiscent of days gone by. The floors creak and the walls are paper thin, but it has a certain charm that isn’t lost on most people who enter it.

One day, while having a conversation with an acquaintance, we discovered that she had once lived in my building and she called it “the madman building”. I got super excited because I thought she meant “Mad Men”, like the television series, but I was wrong. She said that the hallways reminded her of a maze, like someone could go mad wandering them, looking for the exit like a trapped ghost.

I began to see what she meant. A lot of visitors get confused when we are saying goodbye and they can’t remember how they came in. Even my cat, on her exploratory missions, would freak out once she had gone to the floor above and found the door that she thought was “home” locked and unfriendly. Sometimes, I’m embarrassed to have company over because I have to warn them about the rickety entry stairs and my stucco covered walls. Once they make it to the 1st landing, however, they are often enthralled by the air shaft, painted in black and with windows of other apartments exposed to this “square donut”, leading all the way up to the roof. There are not 1 but 2 of these in my building for the past purposes of ventilating the building; some people in the inner apartments use this as their only window for a/c units. Aside from this, it looks like the building hasn’t changed much since the 1920s. My guess is that it’s been around for even longer, at least at the turn of the 19th century, given the signs of gas lighting in the hallways.

My research on the building hasn’t gotten far, but I prefer in some ways to keep it a mystery. I imagine that perhaps it was a boarding house that has been cut up into studio apartments. I know that some of the apartments don’t have their own bathrooms and the tenants have to walk across the hall to access their own private bathroom. The apartments themselves have all kinds of different layouts. The reason I know this is because whenever I meet someone in my building, I always ask to see their apartment.

On one otherwise boring but temperate evening, I was curious to see if I had access to the roof. Instead, I discovered an unlocked door. I opened it to find an unattached bathroom that looked like it hadn’t been used in decades, full of abandoned paintings. I love learning things like this about my building. I am thrilled at the idea of unlocked doors and discovering what is behind them. Sometimes, it’s just a supply closet, but I always hope for something more interesting.

Old buildings showcase a solid grip on the past and they entertain my fantasies of finding hidden places in familiar surroundings. Ever since I was old enough to remember my dreams, I recall dreaming about finding a hidden trapdoor in my brother’s closet and finding an entirely new wing of the house or opening a side door I had never noticed and finding out that it lead to another hallway of doors within endless possibilities of even grander rooms behind them.

This not only helps me experience one of my favorite books of all time, but it also helps me live like an explorer of haiyko without having to leave my building. There’s something about the discovery of the unknown and the mere hints of a full history that ignites something inside me. I’d rather be living in a madman’s building, full of possibilities, than a sane man’s building of blazed trails.


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