Episode 4 – Big or Old?

Within three months of taking that trip to Jackson we moved into our house on Milwaukee’s northside. For some reason our lease in the first apartment we rented was only seven months long, which meant that even though we moved in to the place in January we were able to move near the start of summer. When I think back about this time I keep feeling the need to explain that we were just dumb kids and really had no idea what we were doing. The fact that we only looked at three houses before deciding on buying ours is proof of that. 2006 was one of the worst times in the last 75 years to buy a house, which we should have easily seen coming had we known about trends in housing prices in the areas we were looking at. Within two years our home’s value was cut by a third and, even now, several years after the housing bubble burst, having spent tens of thousands of dollars on home improvements, I am not sure it is worth what we paid for it. In fact the last rental property we bought is larger and nicer than our place was to start and we paid less than half of what we paid for our current house. 

Maybe I want to dispel any notion that we had some grand plan that we are just now living out. Besides creating a lifestyle for ourselves that systematically forced us to interact with the world differently than most people get to or have to, there really has never been intentions to do much more than just that. 

The first house we looked at was owned by a friend of a friend of ours. It was a dump. It still is a dump and I drive past it every once in a while. It had almost nothing going for it. I wonder if we settled on our house because of how bad the first three were. The second house made both me and my wife car sick when we walked around inside of it. Old houses settle and aren’t square or level any more, but this was way beyond that. I don’t remember the reason why, but I had a golf ball or a ping pong ball or something like that in my pocket and I set it on the floor and it immediately started rolling toward the center of the house. 

I think the third house was literally a whore house. Red velvet covered the windows. When you walked in the first thing you saw was a bar with pictures of women wearing very little holding on to men that didn’t look like they would be there boyfriends or husbands. 

Although the floors in our house aren’t perfect, they didn’t make us nauseous and even though there was a sleeping giant in one of the bedrooms and too many dogs for us to go in and look in another, it wasn’t a whore house. 

For better or worse, I see potential and I am usually looking at a project through the lens of what it could become rather than what it is. I think that might be why we have stayed here so long. I can see the potential for the neighborhood rather than focus on what it’s like right now. 

We shouldn’t have bought a fixer upper, since we were poor and working for the church at the time. I also didn’t have any home remodeling skills. I had no tools. We did have cable so I knew enough from watching HGTV that I really had no idea what I was doing. If we were going to buy a fixer upper then we should have bought one that just needed to be painted or had the floors refinished. We had no business buying something that required a total renovation. The place needed a new roof. It used to have a garage but it was torn down before we bought it. Our house used to be a duplex, which worked for us for a couple of years, but then wasn’t really appropriate for a small but growing family so we ended up converting it to a single family house.

In the summer of 2006, we moved into the upstairs unit. The downstairs unit was rented by a father and son. They were getting ready to move down the street and only lived with us for about two months. 

They were both named Robert. The old one we called Old Robert and his son we called Big Robert. Old Robert was retired from a job working for the city of Milwaukee. Big Robert was mentally delayed and didn’t work. Well, that is sort of true. Sometimes Big Robert would work, or at least that is what he called it. He would take the bus about two miles to the Walmart. His “job” was bringing carts from the parking lot back up to the store. I put job in quotes because he actually wasn’t a paid employee of Walmart. I think Old Robert just told him to go and do that so he didn’t sit around playing video games all day. Big Robert loved video games. He also loved Spiderman. The downstairs apartment was really only two bedrooms but did have a third space to the right of the entrance that Old Robert used as a bedroom. Big Robert had the larger of the two actual bedrooms. The smaller bedroom was where they kept the dogs. 

When I started renovating the first floor of our house years later there were very clear marks on the floor where he would sit and play video games. The wood floors were distinctly worn with two football sized areas of discoloration in front of four smaller spots arranged in a square. This was where he sat at what looked like an old kitchen table chair and played video games. The four marks were from the chair and the two larger ones from his feet. I know this, because during the home inspection we had to walk around him as the inspector showed me what could potentially be wrong with the electrical in that part of the house. 

Above the worn out spots on the floor was a thick, dark nicotine stain so concentrated that every once in awhile it would drip. It took an obscene amount of Kilz Primer to cover it up the first time we painted that bedroom. Even then it bled through the primer and paint. In the end we dropped the ceiling an inch and a half to cover it up. Big Robert was kind of like a black version of Lennie from Of Mice and Men. In fact that is how he was introduced to me by his father. The first time I met him, Old Robert told me that his son was “not all there” but he is strong as hell and means well. Big Robert would rip the filters off of his cigarettes before he smoked them. I never understood why someone would want to do that. Maybe it tastes better. The two Roberts only lived with us for two months. Even though they were separate apartments, they were essentially our roommates. I wonder what our families really thought about that. I was 22 or 23 and my wife is two years older than me. Working at the church, our incomes put us below the poverty line, we live in the inner city and now have two roommates that are about as different from us as you can possibly get – a 40 year old slow black giant and his dad. 

I have always hesitated to tell stories like this. I never wanted to give off the impression I am thinking we have done anything special by living here. Maybe instead of us doing anything special, we just get to experience life in a special way. If Big Robert was “working” at Walmart and came up to you and asked to put your cart away for you, before he could get a chance to speak, most people would judge him or, more likely, fear him. He was a big, odd, and physically intimidating.  

They moved down the street to a house where Old Robert’s daughter lived. Of course, at that point Big Robert already assumed we were best friends. Maybe it was because had lived together, but he wasn’t very good with boundaries, especially when it came to video games. Big Robert knew what the internet was at the time; he even had internet at his house. He just didn’t know how to use it. Apparently it was easier for him to walk half a block to our house when he wanted a cheat code for the video game he was playing. About once a week, he would more or less break into our yard and start yelling my name as loud as he could. Many times after we were already in bed we would hear him yelling. 

After midnight one night my wife shook me awake to tell me that it smelled like smoke and she was worried that our house or our neighbors house might be on fire. As I am walking over to the back of the house, the smell gets stronger and I start to worry. Peering out the back window, I see that a fire had been lit in our fire pit. Standing next to it, huddled over and rubbing his hands together is Big Robert. I get dressed, go downstairs and ask him what the hell he is doing and he tells me he was cold, so he lit a fire. Apparently he had come over for cheat codes and we didn’t hear him knocking. He had gotten cold and instead of walking back home he thought the best option was to light himself a fire. 

Most people have things like prep the nursery or find a daycare on their list of things to do before having a baby. Tell Big Robert he can’t come over to get cheat codes after dark was on ours.

Big Robert had no economic value. He didn’t work. He smoked heavily. I am sure he was on disability, which he should have been. He was odd and physically imposing. Unless you knew him, you would probably not think to like him. Even his death was about as unglamourous as you can get. 

Big Robert died because he didn’t poop. 

That is what our neighbor told us about his passing. I guess something went wrong with his digestive system and he never told anyone until it was too late. He didn’t realize he hadn’t pooped in way too long and died because of it. I don’t think the two Roberts would have considered themselves poor. Old Robert had a pension from the city and I never got the impression that they were going hungry. Neither one had a car, but got around to wherever they were trying to go. I can’t help but feel, though, that if they had been white and living in a better neighborhood, Big Robert would have been exposed to enough education to help him know that something was wrong with him and then have at least some tools or access to information that could have helped him. We had another neighbor die recently and his family suspected he was really sick, like had cancer or something, and he never went to a doctor to figure out what was wrong with him. He just progressively deteriorated and died in his sleep at age 65. I went to his funeral, and couldn’t stop thinking about how his life would have been different if he was white. He had just retired from a decent job and rented the downstairs of the duplex his mom owns. People die all of the time, but I think these two would have died later on, had their families been generationally leveling up for longer. 

Old Robert lived for another six or seven years. Maybe I was overly nice to him at first because I felt bad that we bought the house he was renting, which made him want to move, but I actually really just liked the guy. In some ways I expected living in the inner city to feel different. Maybe we have been here too long to really know anything different. For a long time I expected the people I befriended here to be different than they actually are. I think I thought it was going to be like a Disney movie. Like I would magically find out all of the ways that I am similar to my neighbors and we would be best friends and live happily ever after in the neighborhood together. Or maybe I would be a hero or something stupid like that. I have never felt that way. Both Old and Big Robert were my friends. They actually mean a lot to my family too. My dad memorized the poem on the back of Big Robert’s memorial pamphlet and recites it every now and then while we are working on at one of the rental houses. My oldest, younger brother lived with us for about a year after he graduated from high school, which was just after we bought our house. Those were the prime Big Robert asking for cheat code years. We used to get my brother Christmas presents with Big Robert’s picture on them. Even though they meant a lot to me, their friendships looked drastically different than what I would have expected.

Old Robert didn’t really have a lot going on and was very slowly succumbing to Altheimers. Although, looking back, maybe he was just naturally forgetful. He told me about one hundred times before we built our garage that we needed a fence in the back to keep thieves from stealing our cars. I guess it’s possible that he just really wanted us to get a nice fence and was encouraging us to do so. His house had a nice fence and maybe he wanted that for us. 

One of the first times I saw him walking down the alley after he moved to the house down the block owned by his daughter, he showed me the small pistol he carried with him for protection. A lot of the people I meet that live in our neighborhood think it is dangerous or that it is overrun by gangs or something like that. I have heard of some bad things happening but we have had almost nothing bad happen to us living here and I still don’t think I have ever seen any gang activity. Still, all of them want something better for the block and for themselves. They are taking a stand to protect what they have and what is theirs. 

There is an undercurrent of disgust mixed with hope. If you don’t count the houses rented by transient residents, people rarely move out of here without dying or losing control of their minds or bodies. There was a time when we lived here that I could name you a dozen families that had been here more than 50 years. Disgust and hope is an accurate description of how I feel about living here too. I am embarrassed about the way some of the properties are falling down and there are whole yards filled with trash. When we have people over, I am always worried that something stupid is going to happen and I’ll have to apologize for where I live. But then I am hopeful that if enough people can see the beauty here and start putting resources back into the area that it will reach its full potential – a normal, nice place to live and raise a family.

Why would an old man with a pension from the city that felt the need to carry a pistol while he made his daily walks to the gas station never move to somewhere he considered safer? 

I think about that a lot. None of the answers are satisfying though. Did he work his entire life and really not have enough financial stability to allow him to move. Our neighborhood is or was filled with people like him before they started dying off. I’m guessing he had enough money so it can’t be that. So if he had enough money, did he not know there were “safer” places to live. Maybe he didn’t feel like they were for him. Maybe this was his best option, but not necessarily from a financial perspective. I guess if I had lived in the same neighborhood for 30 years and it started falling apart around me I would do the same thing. I would push forward even if I had to carry a pistol on my walk to the gas station. Even though I was disgusted by some of the things I saw, I would be hopeful. I would see the potential.

Every single time I saw Old Robert he would tell me to say hi to my dad for him. And every single time I would say hi to him for my dad. For years, I would see him four or five times a week walking up the street or down the alley. I would purposely drive the long way out of the alley to drive by his house and say hi to him. When my dad would come up from Illinois to work on a house project, he would tell me to keep an eye out for Robert so he could say hi in person. Eventually, I would only see him once a week. Then once a month. Then, I never saw him again. It was really hard to call my dad and tell him that Old Robert died. 

That’s what I mean about the friendships being different than I would have expected. I only went into Old Robert’s house once. Big Robert needed help hooking up a Playstation or something like that. I guess I didn’t really know how to be a friend to an 80 year old black man whose son is a mentally delayed giant that constantly wanted cheat codes and loved Spiderman. He probably had no idea how to be friends with a 30 year old white teacher that lives in an all black neighborhood. Maybe us saying hi to and from my dad hundreds of times was our way of saying we cared about each other and we were happy to have each other around. I guess that is what both he and I were really looking for in a neighborhood. Despite of the all the other bullshit going on around us, we still got to look forward to saying hi to and from my dad to one another. 

My dad and I still talk about Old Robert. I still find myself looking for him when I cross the alley to one of the rentals. My wife and I still laugh about how ridiculous Big Robert was. Even though buying the whore house would have been a good story, I feel really lucky to have bought our home because it meant that I got to be friends with Big and Old Robert.