In the spring of my first year in Chicago, as a college freshman, I went with my friend Alicia to a zine reading hosted at someone’s live/work space in Rogers Park. It was in a storefront across from a fenced off, grassy incline and the CTA Red Line tracks. A pile of tube TVs were stacked in view of the street level windows. The inside space was long, with tall ceilings and exposed brick. There was a cat who took a liking to me and sat on my lap as my friend and her community of writers performed. After the reading, the event transitioned into a dance party, and a pair arrived in neon pink bunny costumes to dance the night away.
I forget the name of it now, but I had saved a business card given to me by one of the people who lived there. It was still in my wallet when I was a senior, and looking for a new apartment after graduation with the same friend mentioned above. When beginning the hunt, and spitballing our wish list, I expressed my desire to live in a storefront like those zine reading DJs we hung out with several years prior. I was the co-founder of an original works theatre company, so I was not only in need of a place to live, but a place for us to rehearse and perform, why not get a two-for-one with our rent money? Alicia was receptive to the idea, she was still doing zine readings, and would love a space like that too. I was on mission, found the address on that business card, and went to scope out Lunt and Glenwood. The place was vacant, some floorboards were missing, but that didn’t stop me from pursuing rental. There were other units bringing life to the strip: an art gallery, an art studio, a law office, an Italian language school if I remember right. I knocked on the art studio’s door, one unit over from the one I had my eyes on, met Sandy, and she gave me the number for the landlord. I called the landlord, set up a meeting, and in the middle of July we signed a lease for September 1st. He would commence on repairs to the floor and plumbing.
I received a call a few weeks before we were set to move in; the renovation wouldn’t be ready in time, probably not until October. The landlord only expressed an apology. We were crunched for time, had to be out of our apartment, who would we couch crash with for a month? There were studio apartments above the storefronts; I negotiated for us to stay in one until our place was ready. I had also, after the excitement of signing the lease, promised another friend she could crash with us for the month of September, since her new apartment lease was for October 1st. So there were three of us camped out in a tiny studio apartment. We watched VHS cassettes from my combo TV and tape player that sat on the floor, the likes of Jurassic Park, Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, Alice and Wonderland, and it wasn’t a bad time at all.
We were able to store our stuff in a corner of the storefront, under a blanket to protect it from dust. Occasionally during that month we would need to retrieve some things that were packed away, and on one trip down, Sandy, in the art studio next door, invited us in. Her place was painted a vibrant yellow and had a wall separating the front from the bathroom, kitchen, and closet in the back. Stairs led up to the top of a loft, where she slept. When we learned she was moving at the end of September, we immediately arranged to switch our lease to her unit. Ours would have had no partitions; we had vague plans of building a hut out of chicken wire and paper mache. The only thing we would be missing in the swap was a shower. Sandy, it turned out, only bathed once a week, in a plastic tub she filled up from the kitchen sink. We weren’t ready to be that bohemian and the landlord accommodated this by offering to build us one, with the cost broken down and added to the monthly rent. Sandy periodically invited us to events at her new space via text and would sign off on each text with the proclamation: Year of the Pig! The Year of the Pig, I had read, was supposed to be a prosperous one.
On our first night in the storefront, we duct-taped blankets and flattened cardboard over the big front windows to give us a little privacy. We didn’t realize there was a hole in one of the cardboard slabs until we noticed an eye looking in at us. Startled, we pointed, “Holy shit, I can see someone!” Whoever it was pointed back, as though letting us know “I can see you too!” We went to see who it was, the guy came to the door. He had long hair, was drinking a PBR tall boy and introduced himself as a Native American. We soon filled the window with sheets of blank newspaper we tore from reams, and wrote on one, in big block lettering, the name we picked for this establishment: The Manor. We made a Target run for several foam mattress toppers to layer in the window and cushion the exchange of noise between us and the street.
My theatre company, Three Leaves, mounted a play there called Magnets, composed of 6 short, intense plays. Our mission statement was: “to create a daring new American mythology.” In one of these plays, I raped my friend’s sister, after we attempted to burn her alive in the woods, while my character also suffered a schizophrenic breakdown. We were prepared to go to dark places for our art. I asked the director/playwright, Dan Mac Rae, to record a series of voices urging me to do terrible things, like taking hammers to skulls, punctuated by contagious cackling. I would turn out the lights, blindfold myself, strap on a pair of headphones, and walk around in the storefront, trying to exist in what I felt it might be like to experience the worst kinds of auditory hallucinations. Backstage, on show nights, I would dunk my head in a bucket of ice water, not only to help with the appearance of sweating profusely, but to get me to a point of shivering, to add a special physical frenzy to my breakdown. Our audience, it seemed, wasn’t prepared to go to these dark places with us. We set the stage at the front, near the door, which we had to lock so it would stay closed. At the end of one show, a former teacher of mine, in attendance, said “you think this is a good thing, locking everybody in with such horror?” It’s an amazing feat that Alicia was able to sleep up above in the loft while we ran late night rehearsals.
We also enjoyed some wild revelry. At the Magnets cast party, Dan sprayed beer everywhere, on himself. Another cast member, dropped to his boxers, and danced until something unexpected flopped out through the fly. I would often drink cheap port wine with my friend Ian. We’d fall asleep on the old stacked mattresses we used as couches. We’d wake as Alicia came home, popping up in the dark to startle her, and drink more port wine. On another occasion we hosted Alicia’s DJ friends to pack the place for a fundraiser for something. I don’t remember the cause but remember that it was a success.
Rogers Park was still a bit of a troubled neighborhood. While crafting a tree trunk out of paper mache as a set piece for Magnets, I heard pummeling and howling out front of our unit. I went outside to see what was going on, paste dripping from my arms. A man lay crying on the sidewalk. Two people were in the distance, sprinting. Could I call someone? An ambulance? Did he want some ice, a towel, some bandages? A drink? He told me to leave him alone. A police cruiser drifted by, they offered to take him to the hospital, but he told them to fuck off.
When summer rolled around, we mounted another show we called The Drowning Exercises. It was a series of 10 monologues. We performed some of them at spoken word open mics, in hopes to develop a new audience to bring back to The Manor. On opening night, we were shut down by two female officers from the Chicago Department of Revenue for not obtaining a performance license. We had been operating on the assumption that we didn’t need one if we were only asking for a suggested donation. We had 5 audience members there ready for the show, each paying $5. Did they really want a cut of this whopping $25? How about we just do a show, not ask for any money? “It doesn’t matter!” They barked. “If you’re performing, you need a license.” After demanding we cease or face steep fines, the audience was sent away. We were even ordered to take down the sign in the window that said “The Manor” as this would have required a separate permit from the city. So did our “Fire Exit” sign in the back. We wallowed in the crushing defeat of city regulation versus art, drank an entire jug of Carlo Rossi each, and woke to not only a killer hangover, but the harsh reality and embarrassment of spreading word The Drowning Exercises would be postponed until further notice. We suspected the lawyer who ran his practice a few doors down had ratted us out, he had always been standoffish. Possibly pissed he had jumped through the city’s hoops while some young punks did low-budget theatre without doing the same due diligence.
Not even a week later, our landlord knocked on our door to inform us he had changed insurance companies, and as the new company inspected the blueprints, it was pointed out that our storefronts didn’t meet city code for a live/work space. Effective at the end of our lease, we could no longer live there. But they “still wanted our business.” It would take a heavy amount of fundraising to not only pay for the licensing and permits, but to also keep up with the rent and utilities after losing our two-for-one.
Three Leaves once again became itinerant, and Alicia and I once again moved into an ordinary apartment. And in a way, I was ready to get back into a place where I could do some cozy unwinding. For all its exhilaration, The Manor felt like the wilderness. We had an infestation of house crickets. Possums often chortled through the night in the gangway behind the building. It was where we’d fall asleep watching The Shining and I’d wake in the middle of the night, and for a split second, hallucinate drops of blood on my arm while going to the bathroom. This was where I stirred my subconscious to explore a man’s downfall. I was rethinking my identity as a method actor.
Whenever I pass through Rogers Park, I make it a point to see if anything has set up shop in The Manor’s place. Each time I lay eyes on that storefront window I see vacant space. The loft has long since been torn down. I’m saddened other theatre troupes haven’t taken up residence; young dreamers, with deeper reserves of stamina than our ensemble, conjuring personal demons for show. I wonder if it’s haunted with imprints of our stage violence. I still see flickers of it in my dreams. Once again we’re in the Year of the Pig, and for that little spot, I hope it finally means prosperity.
Jeff Phillips is a washed up varsity cross country skier and storefront theatre method actor. For two years he was co-host of The Liquid Burning, an apocalypse themed reading series, and for just shy of three years, he co-hosted the Chicago reading series Pungent Parlour. His short fiction has appeared in Seeding Meat, This Zine Will Change Your Life, Metazen, Chicago Literati, and Literary Orphans. He is the co-founder of Zizobotchi Papers, a literary journal dedicated to the novella and a regular contributor of short stories and essays at the site Drinkers With Writing Problems. You can find him on Twitter as @TheIglooOven or at theotherauthorjeffphillips.com