I live on a Chicago street where the grumble of bulldozers is as common as the tweeting of birds, so when I spotted a stranger snapping photos of my building, I figured I knew what he wanted.
He must be a developer in pursuit of another teardown opportunity. Opportunity is a favorite word of the developers who constantly post signs in front of the old buildings in my neighborhood, signs that promise new homes with space, elegance and a shocking number of bathrooms, luxuries not available in the small units of my old brick six-flat.
"May I help you?" I asked the stranger. Because I consider the building my home, not a teardown opportunity, my tone was not quite hospitable.
"I used to live here," he said. "When I was growing up."
City life trains a person to be wary. I looked him up and down. White hair. Friendly face. Phone in hand.
"Which unit?" I said. He pointed to the top, and I said, "That's where I live."
I was sure the man wanted to ask if he could come up, and I was weighing whether it was wise to let him when he said, "Are the pipes for the gas lights still there?"
With that question, he passed my security check. If he knew there were gas pipes in the ceiling — hidden, leaky ones that had almost poisoned me before I figured out the problem — he was welcome to come see his childhood home.
Going back to visit a childhood home is a rite of passage for many people. I've done it. Knocked on the door of a house I haven't seen in decades and asked the stranger who answered if I might come in.
It's a form of time travel, a way of touching ghosts. We glimpse the people with whom we once ate and slept and brushed our teeth and, glimpsing them, see our own small selves. We measure what's changed against what hasn't, stake out our territory by telling the current occupants about mysteries they may not have thought to contemplate, like why there's that weird nook in the living room.
The former occupant of my current home was named Adolf. He climbed the three flights of narrow stairs slowly — leg trouble, he said — and then he was standing in a room he hadn't seen since the 1950s. The building, built in the first decade of the 1900s, was already old by then.
"It's smaller than I remember," he said.
Sure it is. Your childhood home is always smaller than you remember — just as celebrities are always shorter than you imagine — and yet this 1,150 square feet once was considered ample for a family of six.
"There used to be a stove here," he said, pointing to a space occupied by my piano. The old oak window frames were the same. He was happy to see the familiar inset bookcase. He peeked into a little bedroom he once shared with one of his three brothers. The bathroom was still tiny, but the old, deep tub was gone. I'd moved the kitchen sink.
He kept shaking his head, as if he couldn't quite believe he was here, and asking if it was OK to take another photo.
When Adolf's parents rented the apartment, the neighborhood belonged to Germans, so many of them, he said, that there was a German language movie theater nearby. It was long gone, and so were most of the humble houses he remembered, replaced by mansions that cost $5 million, $8 million, more.
I led him up to the roof, where he'd never been. In his day, there was no rooftop deck. He admired the skyline, then peered over the railing and pointed to one of the few old houses that remained.
It used to be a dairy, he said, and every day someone in his family walked over there and bought a couple of bottles of milk. He gestured up the street. There used to be an FBI agent who sat on his stoop and sometimes showed the neighborhood kids his gun. As late as the 1950s, horse-drawn carts sometimes clopped along the street.
As he talked, the old neighborhood came back to life, not just for him but for me. I could see a vanished world of milk bottles, gas lights, crowded stoops, kids everywhere. The new houses don't have stoops and no one sits out front anymore.
Adolf lives in a Southern California desert town, where for less than the price of a small Chicago condo, he can own a four-bedroom home, but he remembered how nice it felt to live in close quarters with his childhood family.
He snapped a few more photos, and said how excited his brothers would be to see the old place, then carefully walked back down the stairs he'd probably never climb again.
Before he left, he thanked me several times, and I thanked him, glad that he had come now, before the inevitable occurs, and our shared home becomes another developer's opportunity.
Mary Schmich is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow her on twitter.com/maryschmich or contact her on facebook.com/maryschmich.
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