Year Zero


By Nicholas Ward

Prologue
         We came from Ohio in a caravan. Matt’s old pick-up fish-tailed on the highway, Will navigated the U-Haul, my cat howled in terror in the passenger seat of my ’99 Saturn, Betsy lumbered along in her minivan with her own (tranquilized) feline. We unloaded the cars in the blistering August heat, cursing as we coaxed Betsy’s inflexible wood-framed couches around the stairwell of our new walk-up. Stefanie—the South Suburb native—showed up late and lifted nothing. In her defense, she organized painting the apartment before we all arrived. We searched for dinner up and down Milwaukee Avenue, five fresh-faced suburban-raised white kids in a Latino neighborhood, searching for the perfect meal to start our new lives.
          Later, we’d rhapsodize about this night, our first day in Chicago achieving a sort of grandiosity that didn’t match the actual evening.
          We settled on Abril, the Mexican joint that gazed into the heart of our new neighborhood. It wouldn’t survive the gentrification lurking along Logan Square’s edges but we didn’t know that then.           
          We were sweaty and tired and irritable with each other. The drive had taken longer than expected because Will went straight through Indianapolis when I told him to take the highway around the outskirts of the city and Betsy cried every five minutes, it seemed, Stef was pissed at her for putting the gas bill in her name but since she had no credit the company made us wait two weeks so we had zero hot water and I had less than a hundred dollars to my name and really shouldn’t have been splurging on bad Mexican food and Matt was all bummed out we picked a shitty restaurant for our first meal. To cap it off, our new apartment on the second floor of a two-flat was filled floor-to-ceiling with all the crap we’d packed from an idyllic house four times that size.
          Lost in our menus and our silent frustration, we didn’t notice an old drunk stagger over from the bar. Tufts of hair stuck out from his ears, the lines of his face weathered like grooves in a slab of rock, eyebrows bushy. To this day, my friends swear he wasn’t older than thirty but I recall him as ancient. He bent over and fixed his gaze on Will. Everyone stopped talking.
          The man pulled out a driver’s license and held it up to my friend’s face, saying something in Spanish.
          “Hello,” Will said in English. He tried his best to seem polite but his eyes were uneasy. Betsy bowed her head to stare at the floor, tears streaming silently down her cheeks. She grabbed Will’s hand and buried her face in his shoulder.
          Frozen to my chair, I watched the man point to the picture on his own ID and then slide closer to my friend.
          “You,” he said in English, pointing a crooked index finger at Will like he was an enemy tracked down for a long-awaited standoff. “You are going to die in five years.”
          Commotion ensued. Betsy burst into fresh tears, Matt shot up but realized he couldn’t do anything and sat back down.  The man pushed his ID closer to Will’s stone face as a waitress barreled out of the kitchen to snap at him and forced him away from us.
          We finished our meal in silence. No one wanted to admit how scared we all were, how sheltered we’d been as kids, the ease with which we’d lived our lives. After dinner, we smoked cigarettes on the sidewalk outside the restaurant. Betsy clung to Will, tears rolling down her cheeks. In front of us, a traffic circle spun around a small green park. A car stopped at the light, two dudes blaring music. The guy on the passenger side tapped the driver and pointed at Betsy, laughing as they sped off up Milwaukee Avenue. Sobs again. I wanted to sneer at my friends, at their sadness and anxiety. Were they really so unprepared for the harsh realities of adulthood? Of the city?

Summer
          My second week, I waltzed across Kedzie Boulevard for an interview as an assistant manager at Lula Cafe, a cramped and funky restaurant of mismatched tables and local art. Lula was half the size it is now and rather than facing competition from craft cocktail bars, fusion restaurants, and locavore imitators, Logan Square in 2004 was all family-owned Mexican and Afro-Caribbean joints, dive bars, and greasy spoons. To my naive eyes, the restaurant looked a step down from Oxford, Ohio’s finest white tablecloth establishment, The Alexander House, where I’d served for two years in college. I’d no idea that Lula Cafe was serious-minded, that it shifted expertly between simple cafe food and refined farm-to-table fare, that it would eventually become a flagship destination for the neighborhood and the city. I figured I could stroll right in and be offered a job on the spot.
          “Theatre major, huh?” the co-owner asked when we sat down. “That going to interfere with your ability to work the floor? We can’t have you ditching out for a last minute audition.”
          “No, sir, I don’t even plan on pursuing theatre anytime soon.” I wanted to cut my teeth in restaurants and figure out the city that way. He would’ve been right to ask why I put theatre on my resume in the first place.
          “How’s your Spanish?” he continued casually.
          “I understand better than I speak,” I lied. With no high school or college language requirement, I’d not bothered with it.
          “Okay.” He adjusted his glasses. “What’s kohlrabi?”
         “I’m sorry?”
          “Kohlrabi. Explain kohlrabi to me. Do you know it?”
          I racked my brain. Had we served it at the Alexander House? Had I eaten it before? Was it food?
          “Uh. . .it’s, like, uh, similar to a pomegranate.”
          “Actually,” he said, “it’s a perennial vegetable more closely related to cabbage. And it’s delicious. But don’t worry, you can be taught.”
          I didn’t get the job.
          I didn’t get hired at Lucca on Southport and Diversey.
          Or Joe’s Stone Crab on Grand Avenue, just north of the river.
          “I keep hearing how hard it is for graduates to find employment,” my dad said, referring to the first whispers of the recession that would take hold four years later.
          “How do you explain that all of my friends have jobs already?” I asked.
          Like so:
          Stefanie transferred from the Starbucks in Evergreen Park to the one by our house.
          Betsy’s fancy talent agency out in Schaumburg hired a wave of recent grads.
          Will’s boss at the Wicker Park cafe, Half’n’Half, thought he was attractive.
          Matt’s homegrown cooking chops secured him a spot on the line at Spring, a three-star restaurant.
          It was a crapshoot.
          “Do you need us to send you any money?” my mom asked.
          I didn’t want them to. I couldn’t assert my independence, make my own way, if I borrowed money from my mom and dad. Nevertheless, one hundred dollars wasn’t going to last until the end of my second week.
          “Let’s see how it goes,” I said.
          I scoured Chicago, discovering a city I’d only known in my dreams, but one that merely encompassed a few square miles of the Near North Side. I traversed from the Loop, where the buildings loomed tall as giants, north to Wrigley Field where the Cubs were in the process of blowing away a promising season, just one year after an epic collapse. I took elevated trains that snaked through Lincoln Park and Old Town, buses straight along the city’s grid system, walked for blocks along Damen and Milwaukee and North Avenues in Wicker Park and Bucktown, the hipster mecca. I fell in love with the city day by day, moment by moment, returning home each afternoon elated but defeated.
          I couldn’t find work: not with French haute cuisine nor inspired tasting menus; not in traditional fine-dining nor upscale burger joints; neighborhood staples, downtown seafood and steak, Asian fusion, restaurants that would close within the year, long-standing establishments, places I love to this day, and some I flat out despise. Not a single one required my services. With each rejection, each unreturned phone call, I felt waves of shame roll over me. Could I really not find a fucking job as a waiter? All I wanted was to begin adulthood, free of the rigidity of adolescence, no class schedules or homework or anybody dictating how to structure my life, just me and the unknowable void in front of me. But at every turn, Chicago slammed the door on all I envisioned for myself.
          I did not apply to gas stations, liquor stores, coffee shops, all-night diners, bookstores, retail chains, franchise restaurants, temp agencies. I didn’t apply to tend bar at a theatre, pouring crap wine and restocking coffee. I didn’t apply as a busser or a runner in any of the restaurants I desired work as a server, and a few of them asked. I sought entrance into a world I didn’t understand and expected immediate ascendancy into its upper reaches. Probably I felt like I’d earned it–with my one job at the one fine-dining place in my college town. Definitely I felt I deserved it–I’d spent my entire life cloistered inside the middle class and refused to relinquish that status any time soon. Maybe in the back of my mind somewhere I understood the net that would catch me, that would never let me fall too hard.
          Football season started and I still didn’t have a job. The Bush vs. Kerry election inched closer but I was unengaged. What did a presidential election matter when I couldn’t find work? I possessed all the privilege and access the world had to offer and I completely took it for granted. I borrowed money eventually from my affluent upper-middle class parents, money that paid the rent, that bought me groceries, that kept me going in my quest.
          At least I had our apartment and my friends. The five of us, plus two cats and a hamster, were stuffed into a four-bedroom on the top floor of a two-flat in Logan Square. It was everything I’d envisioned from city living. We’d sit out on the front stoop and smoke cigarettes, or drink wine in the backyard; we’d chat amicably with our neighbors when we saw them, with our landlords who lived across the street. Sometimes we’d stroll the boulevards, where the city had preserved remnants of the historic linking of parks, and marvel at the Gothics and Tudors now broken-into apartments, mansions compared to the bungalows that lined our street. Weekends that summer and early fall were filled with picnics and cookouts, children laughing and playing, music from all corners of the earth. A saxophonist practiced on hot sunny days when we’d open the windows and let the sounds of the city waft into our apartment.

Fall
          On October 4th, almost two months to the day from our arrival, I applied for a serving job at Cy’s Crabhouse on Ashland Avenue in Wrigleyville. A hulking structure framed by high windows and corporate beer signs, I’d driven past Cy’s a few times and avoided it on general principle. Its kitschy aura was the furthest place I wanted to land. But I was desperate and lacked any job prospects.
          A woman seated at the bar, pouring over stacks of papers, greeted me. “Good afternoon. Here for lunch?” She was in her late thirties, glasses perched on her nose, long flowing black hair, trace of a lilting British accent. The restaurant was otherwise empty.
          “No,” I said, “I’m here about the serving job.”
          “Fill this out, please,” she said, smiling and handing me an application. 
          I took a seat at the bar and absorbed the seafaring motif: gang planks, ship’s wheels, hanging ropes, and stuffed sharks next to Cubs’ banners, flat-screen TVs, and the specials board written in faded chalk. For a brief moment, I thought about fleeing: my parents could support me for a little while longer and, eventually, someone “appropriate” was bound to hire me. But no, that wouldn’t do. It was time to grow up.
          “I’m Sahar, one of the managers,” the woman said when I returned the completed application. “Can you start tomorrow?”
          “Tomorrow?” I repeated. Was I getting a job? “Yeah. Yes. Of course.”
          “Ten a.m., please. Black pants, black shoes, black shirt. See you tomorrow.”
          On the way home, I called my parents, my roommates, anyone who’d been following my saga, screaming the good news into the phone. Tempering myself, I wondered if I got lucky on that particular day, catching Sahar in a moment of obvious weakness.
          It was a strange restaurant. Up front, with the pirate-y decorations, the dining room was crammed with tables, barely occupied but impossible to pass through when they were. The back-half was carpeted and austere but kept dark and closed most of the time. Servers wrote and processed all checks by hand and the kitchen operated at the very conclusion of the building, so the entire enterprise—ringing in food, retrieving an extra condiment, filling coffee—stole a full minute and a half off the floor. The staff was bitter about getting too few shifts for too little money and spent most of the time smoking in the side break station. I soon resented taking two buses to get there, being forced to dress up for Halloween, and the cruel owners, who sat and read the paper and stuffed their faces with food that we served them for no gratuity.
          But I was grateful for Sahar. Over-worked and assaulted on all sides by the servers and managers, she remained calm, never losing her patience with anyone. I’ll always appreciate what she did for me, even though it may have meant nothing for her. She helped me get a foothold in this city, ensuring I didn’t have to move home, that I didn’t have to give up.
          Once I got my first job, I pulled my head out of the sand to discover that the first two months had been hell on my friends, too.
          Will woke up five days a week at five a.m. to serve coffee to commuters; he took a short afternoon nap, spent a few hours each night with Betsy, before he slept and repeated. He was miserable, in hate with everything—Logan Square, the CTA, the Bears, the traffic—the whole city that I was growing to love.
          Betsy had an even rougher time. Almost a month to the day after we moved here, her cousin died in a car accident. A few days after returning to Chicago from the funeral, even eating was difficult for her. Around that time, she discovered that the fancy job she’d gotten her first week–as a talent agent at John Robert Powers–was entirely commission-based and cloaked cold-calling. We spent our “fun-employment” together watching Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. I didn’t know it at the time, but she was terrified. Feeling comfortable, navigating, making new friends, the simple act of living here scared the crap out of her.
          Matt, who so easily weaseled his way onto the line at a three-star restaurant, quickly went down in flames. After one particularly stressful shift (I never got the full story from him so I’m not totally sure how accurate this is) his boss told him he was fucking up and that he needed to step up. He packed his knives and never looked back. Shortly thereafter he ended up working in some capacity for the archdiocese and his future father-in-law, Stefanie’s dad. We joked about this infiltration, a lapsed Catholic working for the overlords while he lived in sin with his girlfriend. They maintained separate rooms in the apartment, dressing down Matt’s un-used bedroom to appear lived in whenever relatives visited, even though they spent every night together.
          Only Stefanie seemed above the fray somehow. She worked at the Starbucks down the street, took classes at Second City, never struggled with paying rent or bills or finding her way in the city, one that she already knew from growing up along its outskirts.
          It was a tense situation. Our big beautiful four-bedroom quickly turned small once we inhabited it. Thin walls meant that any mildly verbal fighting or fucking resonated throughout the apartment. Zeta, Betsy’s cat, routinely terrorized Amadeus, my cat, by chasing him throughout the apartment, howling and hissing while we all tried to sleep. Matt hated that Betsy made her cat wear a bell, Will hated that Matt wanted to get a dog, I hated that Will bitched about the city so much, everybody hated how loudly I played my music, Stefanie seemed to always pick fights with Matt, Will and Betsy seemed on the verge of breaking up, and I felt like the repository for all my friends’ personal relationship squabbles.
          We survived it somehow. Over a decade after we moved to Chicago together, we are family. I’ve been in their weddings and broken bread at christenings and I feel more connected to them than members of my actual life-blood. That first year, when none of us knew what the fuck we were doing, a missed utility bill or one huge fight could have ruptured the fault lines of our friendship permanently. In the end, nothing came between us. I’m still not entirely sure how that happened.

Winter
          One afternoon in February, I slumped on the clean couch, Will standing over me after his morning shift.
          “You have to tell Betsy,” he said.
          “She’s gonna be really pissed.”
         He nodded. “Probably.” He glanced at the stained couch across the living room and removed his scarf. “Dude, just call her.”
          I dialed Betsy at work, where she’d found employment as a receptionist for an insurance company.
          “Betsy...I pissed on your couch last night.”
          It had started in December. I’d been hired as a server at Nacional 27, a three-star Nuevo Latino restaurant in River North, a neighborhood of eateries and art galleries. I’d been admiring the place for months, its sleek and swanky interior, exciting food and massive wine menu.
          To celebrate my first night on the floor, Matt met me out at Nick’s Beer Garden in Wicker Park. It was a Thursday. Matt, too, had moved jobs again, from the archdiocese to waiting tables at a bar and grill in Old Town.
          We got so drunk that night. The kind of outlandish-statement drunk, our-futures-crystallizing-in-front-of-our-eyes drunk. We got so drunk we were separated on the way home. Matt, never one for directions, somehow didn’t follow me onto the train back to Logan Square, but instead got on the one for downtown and then back off and, instead of just going home, kept circling the streets of Wicker Park looking for me, calling my name, calling my cell phone, which I had conveniently left at home.
          When he finally came home, he told me he’d been going up to people on the street and asking them if they’d seen me. “‘He’s worth a quarter of a million dollars!’ I screamed,” he slurred later.
          Betsy laughed, sitting near us on the couch. “That’s not a lot of money actually,” she said ruefully, because, while true, it was a fortune to us.
          In the middle of the night, I stumbled out of my room and over to the coffee table; I lifted the front cover of the nearest book like the lid of a toilet seat and pissed all over it.
          “What are you doing?” Matt asked from the hallway, in the midst of his own sojourn to the bathroom.
          “I’m peeing.” Like it was the most obvious thing in the world.
          The next morning, in the crusty glow of my hangover, Matt burst out from his room to gleefully recount my escapades. When Will came home at noon, he told the story again. And again when Stefanie returned at two p.m. And once more when Betsy arrived at six p.m. We all had a good healthy laugh about it, me included, while Betsy and Stefanie re-enacted the story until it reached vaudevillian proportions.
          The next week I went out for a few beers with my new co-workers and urinated in the hallway by the bathroom. The week after that I piddled in my cat’s litter box.
          All that winter, through the holidays and New Year’s, whether two beers or ten, at least once a week, when my bladder called, I couldn’t control my feet. Each morning produced zero recollections of the incident. I was only conscious for the aftermath, when I discovered the location of the stain. In my shoes. In my sweater drawer. On Betsy’s couch.
          “It’s not funny anymore, Nick.”
          “I know.”
          “I’ll try to find the company that made the couch,” she said. “But you need to get help.”
          “I will,” I said.
          At the health center in our neighborhood, the doctor suggested I set an alarm for the middle of each night, to wake myself up and use the bathroom.
          I wonder now if my body was trying to tell me something. If my body was trying to wake me up, to teach me a lesson. To betray me until I was forced to listen.

Spring
          Will and Betsy moved out on a sunny and bright afternoon in April. They were only moving a little bit west and a little bit north but it felt like worlds apart. We hadn’t been but a few steps away from each other for a whole year.
          When I asked Will why they were moving, he said with a shrug, “We wanna be able to have sex with the door open.” Which meant: “We’re ready to start our lives together.”
          Will and Betsy had spoken lovingly about their new apartment, a backyard with a fire pit, landlords just a few years older who lived above them. They invited us over as soon as they got everything set up. None of us still had a clue where our lives were going but we knew we’d be there together. All we had to do was show up.
          We milled around on the front stoop saying our goodbyes.
          “I’ll miss you,” Stefanie said.
          “We’re right over there,” Betsy said with a nod of her head.
          “I know,” Stefanie said, “but still.”
          Will and Matt and I spoke in hushed subversive tones, smoking cigarettes on the stoop. It was exactly how we’d met almost five years prior, on the first day of our freshmen year at Miami University.
          “You’ll text us when it’s done?” I asked Will.
          “Of course,” he said, looking over his shoulder at Betsy.
          “It’ll be great,” Matt said. Will was planning to propose to Betsy that night, with a ring he brought at Target. In the absence of any saved income, it was an offering, a symbol for their future.
          We said our final goodbyes and exchanged hugs.
          A pop-pop-pop echoed from down the block. We watched as a car wheeled down our street and gunned past us. For a second, no one spoke.
          “Was that a drive-by?” I asked.
          “I think so,” Matt said.
          “Anyone get a look?” Will asked.
          No one had. No one remembered the car or the driver. No one called the police.
          It wasn’t first gunfire we’d heard. A few days prior, during a two a.m. stillness, I sat in bed reading, Matt in the backyard smoking, similar noises ruptured our quietude. Later, we heard rumors that people had died on both occasions, that the violence stemmed from a meth lab operating on our corner. However close this was to our doorstep, we never felt unsafe. We knew the violence in our neighborhood lived in a different world than we did, that we could always move away if it got too close. We were gentrifiers, co-opting the living space for our own needs without investing in the actual community. None of us bought homes there, none of us put down roots, none of us live there anymore.

Coda
          Will and Betsy lived in Logan Square the longest, their time stretched over four apartments. Once they dreamed of owning a home there but they’ve been forced north, to a duplex in Lincoln Square, following in the footsteps of many an office worker/theatre artist. Matt and Stefanie became Chicago school teachers, bought a house in Beverly in 2010, gave birth to Greta a year later, moved to Cleveland for a spell and then back to Beverly again, baby Eleanor in tow. Abril is now a restaurant called Reno, all bagel sandwiches and Stumptown coffee. It’s the perfect spot to write on a weekday morning, looking out on all that Logan Square has wrought, the community garden and commissioned street art and bustling white faces, and remember how it used to be.
          I moved to Roscoe Village for a half decade and then back to Logan for two years, living in a wonderful three-bedroom on Francisco Avenue, a few houses up from the boulevard. My last apartment in Chicago, for the time being, was in Pilsen, the first time I’d lived in the southern half of the city. I followed in my own footsteps, my white face once again taking root as gentrification began to blossom. I’ve seen this movie before. A record store opened the week I moved here. A new coffee shop got tagged with anti-gentrification graffiti. There’s even a hip mixed-use space, one parts Michelin-star restaurant/cocktail bar/concert venue: Thalia Hall, owned by the same entrepreneurs who run Longman and Eagle. Once again, I both benefited from and contributed to the shifting demographics of a neighborhood in transition. I’m not sure how much my awareness means. This started long before I arrived and will continue after I’m gone. And if I’m not the culprit then it will be others like me: artists and bartenders and graphic designers; young parents demanding better schools; new graduates of Midwest universities, those fresh-faced white kids just trying to get a foothold in the city of their dreams. A city they don’t understand at all.
 

Nicholas Ward‘s writing has appeared in Catapult, Midwestern Gothic, Hobart, Vol 1. Brooklyn, and Great Lakes Review; been featured on stages and in bars around Chicago; and can be heard on the 2nd Story podcast, where he is a longtime company member. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with Amadeus, the cat. But he can't stay away from Chicago for long.

Photo Credit: Fatimah Asghar

Photo Credit: Fatimah Asghar