A Place to Stay
The Hickox: City life in a country capital
June 2, 1978
From 1970 until the summer of 1981, my partner and I lived on the top floor of a three-flat on South 4th Street in Springfield, a half block from the Illinois governor's mansion and on the other side of the block from the house of Springfield poet Vachel Lindsay. The building was the first to open of the five-building complex erected from 1917 to 1929 known as the Hickox apartments.
It was a beautifully appointed building in its time,. It catered to upper-middle-class tenants, and it was a bit of cosmopolitan New York or Chicago dropped into the capital. The Hickox remained a respected and desirable complex until, well, the time we moved in. I can imagine the older tenants peeking at us on move-in day through the curtains and releasing a worried sigh. They didn't know we were a couple of young fogeys who found the building well-suited to our taste and habits. It was good home to us, and the place where I began my writing career, and I recall it vividly and fondly.
When the first tenants moved in fifty-some years ago, the management issued little cards with each tenant's name engraved on them, one card to be placed above each of the doorbells, another to go on the brass mailbox downstairs. The building was brick and real wood with fifteen apartments on three floors, most of them tidy, small rooms for people with tidy, small lives. When it was new it was equipped with the latest in conveniences—there were even built-in ice boxes in the corridors, from which residents could draw ice as needed—but though still comfortable it can no longer make any claims to be modern.
Neither, for that matter, could most of its recent tenants. The place was home to mostly women of middle age, some retired professionals, most living alone on a pension or the investments of a dead husband, quiet women who moved in when they were young because the building offered comfort and unobtrusive class. Building and tenant were a perfect match, and for some of them the marriage had lasted as many as thirty-five years.
The tenants had shared the same address long enough to have evolved rituals by which their occasional contacts—usually in the carpeted halls or in the rear courtyard where some of the ladies raised flowers in plots assigned according to an informal but scrupulously observed seniority system—were controlled. Mail too big for the brass mailboxes was sorted on the stairs by whoever found it first, mail for the people who lived on the north side of the building arrayed on the north side of the stairs, one step per person, that for the southsiders the same. Though there were friendships among the residents (two widows on the second floor used to leave their doors open and ghat across the corridor) relations were cordial but polite, as if each, aware of the intimacy forced by close quarters, had resolved that the space of the others, already so small, should not be intruded upon without invitation.
Lately, age disrupted the social ecology of the building. Some of the long-timers died, others moved away: the University of Chicago graduate (she used to put her alumni magazines on the communal reading table in the first floor hallway, with the "Reader's Digests" and "Ford Times" where they lay unread for months) who moved to Arizona; the second-floor widow who moved to a nicer apartment with a dishwasher (though she came back once in a while to see her old friend across the hall, who now had no one to talk to and almost never came out any more); the spinster in the third floor efficiency who left to live in a nursing home; the prim single woman on three who married a man who owns a jewelry store.
Because the building was still an attractive place to live these wounds were quickly healed. But the newcomers were not like the old residents. The long-timers occasionally swept the walk and picked up litter from the yards when the landlord's men did not. They did this not from any excessive desire for neatness but simply because they considered the yards and the walks to be their walks and yards, part of their home. The fact that they also were the walks and yards of a dozen or so other people made no difference.
The newcomers rarely did those things. Many were young and unmarried, starting their lives, not ending them, people not looking for a home but just for a place to live for a while. The single woman on three, for instance, who left when she moved into a bigger place with a roommate, or another who got married, or a third who was transferred to another state job. She left her apartment to her younger brother who fancied himself a writer but who really was just a drunk with pretensions who, in a state of sodden confusion, periodically got into bloody fistfights with his friends. A medical student. A reporter. A woman who went to work very early in the morning and whom no one ever saw any other time, a hard-of-hearing black woman who read Gunnar Myrdal, kept her lights on twenty-four hours a day and turned the sound on her TV way up so she could hear the Today Show. Most of these comings and goings were unremarked except by the silent ritual of the long-timers checking the names on the mailboxes to see who their new neighbors were.
Living in the building became like traveling on a cross-country train and watching the local passengers troop on and off at each stop. So unsettled was the building's tiny population that one of the residents carrying a box of trash out the back door was met by one of the long-timers who resignedly asked, "You moving out, too?"
Before, one knew one's neighbors, and to the extent that each considered the building common territory each kept a protective eye out tor the welfare of everyone in it. Strangers were easy to spot and those who had no business in the building were sent on their way. But now one's neighbors were the strangers.
The new people came in and out so fast that one couldn't get to know them at all. They kept to themselves. You have to introduce yourself, some of the long-timers complained, and you could never be sure that when you did you wouldn't get a door slammed in your face. Some of the older women, vulnerable in their age, their imaginations grown nervous on a diet of television horrors, entertained dark fantasies about the halls being filled at night with burglars and dope addicts and worse—an extravagant fantasy that the younger people laughed at, because the building was as safe as a bank.
But then a strange young man moved onto the second floor. He dyed his hair and entertained violent friends until dawn and one night fought and left the white tiles at the foot of the stairs red with blood and broken glass, the sight of which froze the people who saw it next morning when they picked up their morning papers like a soundless scream. And a young woman—second floor, in town to help open a new department store—was attacked in her room by an intruder. In the space between her calls for help and the time the police came, those who had dismissed the old women's fears wondered whether they, not the women, were the ones who'd been silly.
Like a bad fever, those months passed. The strange young man moved out, the beer-loving writer was replaced by a nice young couple—he a student, she a teacher—from Chicago. Nice people, nice neighbors. But they won't stay there long. People rarely do any more. It's no longer that kind of building. ●