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By Edwin F. Becker
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2011 Edwin F. Becker
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Chapter OneA Naïve Purchase
It was July 25th, 1970, when I saw the real estate advertisement for a two-flat apartment building on the near-north side of Chicago. A "two-flat" is an apartment building with two separate residences. It was offered as an heir estate, which (to me) meant that they were liquidating the property and would be more flexible on the price and terms. It was also my 24th birthday and a Sunday, but I would skip any celebration and I would soon be on my way to appraise this property, for my wife and I were desperate to find a new place to call home.
The reason for my desperation was my wife, Marsha, was seven months pregnant, and we had been given an ultimatum to move by our landlady, the kindly Mrs. Newaski, who was a wonderful old woman that owned our apartment building. She was not so kind, however, when she coldly informed me that she didn't want kids in her apartments. This was a common attitude of landlords during this period of history. It was a time when landlords could dictate most anything and be within their rights. I will never forget driving to her home in a near suburb to pay the rent for the month of June. It was at that time that I happily announced the fact that I was about to become a new father. Instead of the expected congratulations, Mrs. Newaski, the dear old Polish lady, stared at me and flatly stated, "So you'll be moving out soon?" I understood perfectly what she meant. In her own way, she was stating that no children were allowed. My drive home was not very pleasant.
Looking for a new apartment was difficult and near impossible. As I scanned the classified section week after week, the best apartments clearly advertised for no children. This was absolutely legal in its day. We had been married three years, but had saved very little money, so purchasing a house would be near impossible, as a conventional mortgage required a 20% down payment. I was earning a meager salary as a computer programmer in the second year of my career. Computers were new at that time, and few companies could afford one. So I was fortunate to even have a job in my chosen field. Automation was not the lucrative field that it would become in a just a few more years with the explosion of new technology.
Yes, these were the "old" days, when a fax machine was the latest ground-breaking office tool, and people were beginning to talk about a new device called "calculators". We still had typewriters, comptometers, and cash registers that had numbered levers as keys. Secretaries still had to know short hand, because there were no hand held tape recorders-only bulky dictating machines. We used lots of carbon paper for copies, and record keeping was mostly done manually in various handwritten methods.
"Heir estate" clearly meant that someone had died, and the building was being liquidated by their heirs. I would proceed to go and take a look on my own, as Marsha didn't feel well and was suffering from symptoms of her pregnancy. She was barely five feet tall and already was as big as beach ball, with two more months yet to go. She was also still working as a keypunch operator. Keypunching was an early form of data entry. She typed data- little holes-into cards that were then fed to giant accounting machines, or to the original huge computers. This was long before video monitors, or "CRT's," became common in the workplace. Marsha was working 50 hours a week and was trying to continue right up to the last weeks of her pregnancy. She certainly was entitled to rest on this day. I had no qualms about making a commitment on my own, should the opportunity develop.
I called the real estate company and was told the building was having an open house and that I could proceed directly to the address. I kissed my wife goodbye and was off on my adventure. We lived on the far northwest side of Chicago, which meant that I had a 20 minute drive to the inner-city. I was somewhat familiar with the area, for at one time in my childhood, my family lived a half mile from the Campbell Street address. I knew it was within a short distance of the Catholic Church.
This neighborhood was just southeast of Logan Square, which was (then) primarily a Polish area of the city. As I drove through Logan Square, it brought back the memories of the trips I had taken with my Grandmother, who would shop at the various ethnic stores on Milwaukee Avenue. These were some of my fondest early-childhood memories.
The drive also brought back other childhood memories not so pleasant. I had grown up in Chicago, primarily in the inner-city. My mother and father were separated for most of their marriage; thus, I was shuttled between the two of them, living here and there throughout the city. Yes, I knew exactly where I was going. My destination was once a German/Polish neighborhood, and was now changing over to a racial mixing pot. This didn't bother me, but I worried about how Marsha would accept it. Marsha had grown up in Tulsa, Oklahoma; a clean, spacious modern City-quite different from Chicago, and this big city frightened her. As I drove, I knew that if I could acquire this building for a very small down payment, I would make it viable, one way or another.
I viewed it as a mere stepping stone. We could live there for five or six years and then move up to a better neighborhood or a nicer suburb. My plan was that if we could rent out one apartment, it would help pay the mortgage and we could live a much easier life, financially. In five or six years we would develop equity, and possibly the building would appreciate in value. Then we could add to our savings and allow the property to take us to the next level. This was the optimism I was armed with as I drove. I was prepared for anything. If the building needed work, I could fix it up. As I drove past the old Church, I soon made the turn onto Campbell Street.
Just a short distance from the Church was the Campbell Street apartment building. It was just down from the corner. On the corner was a frame two story building with a store front. Years before, it was common for every neighborhood to have a corner store where you could get a gallon of milk, morning paper, and a loaf of bread, plus the kids could buy candy. Those years had clearly passed. Quick and convenient stores had put the little mom & pop shops out of business. This one was deserted and boarded up.
A few doors down was a three story apartment building. Expensive in its day, it was a large, well kept brown brick structure. Wedged between these two buildings was the Campbell Street two-flat. Even on this sunny July day, the building looked gloomy. I attributed that to its dirty gray color, combined with the fact that it sat in the shade of a huge Elm tree that was positioned between the sidewalk and the street. It was also dwarfed by the larger brick three story.
It was a dirty, plain, old building. The architecture resembled something simple; it was as if it had been designed by a child. A tall rectangular box; functional, but not fancy. Had I known the term in that day, I would have described it as "Amish" in design. It was straight up and down, a few windows on each floor, and certainly nothing to brag about. It sat on cinder blocks, with a seven-step walk up to the first floor porch, which was a small, 5x6 ft area. Sitting on the steps was the real estate agent. He appeared as though he had lost the lottery, and earned this dismal field duty. Red faced and overweight, he sat, sweating on the front steps. As I approached, he spotted his potential victim, and greeted me in a friendly manner. "Hi, I'm Art. How are you?" We shook hands. I had never tried to purchase any real estate, and at age 24, I was inexperienced and fumbling for words.
"Could I see-er, look at the building?" I was clearly uncomfortable.
He sensed my inexperience and took command. I believe I was just the victim he had been waiting for; young, naïve, and desperate. "Sure! Let's start on the second floor, because a member of the family still lives on the first floor. She's as crazy as a loon, so don't pay any attention to her," he stated in a matter-of-fact manner.
We entered the hallway, and to the right was the door that led to the first floor apartment. It was a short jog to the left, and I was led to an enclosed stairway that took us to the second floor. As we started up the stairs, the door on the first floor flew open. Out pounced a dirty old woman that looked as if she hadn't bathed or washed her clothes in months. Her hair was a filthy, matted gray. The only thing dirtier in sight was the tiny poodle she cradled against her shoulder, like a baby. She appeared the perfect image of an evil, old witch, with the poodle as her familiar. She immediately started screaming. "Sons-a Bitches, you sons-a-bitches! Get out! What are you doing here? Sons-a-bitches, get out!"
I watched, dumbfounded, as she glared at us, also noticing the tiny poodle nipping at her filthy hair, as if biting at fleas.
Art was quick to respond with disrespect and authority. "Myra, get your ass back in there and shut up. You hear me? Get back in your apartment right now!"
As she slammed the door, I could still hear her muttering. "Sons-a-bitches! You sons-a-bitches ..."
"Don't pay any attention to her. If you buy this place, she'll be gone anyway." Art assured me. By his quick and deliberate reaction, it gave me the feeling that he had been through this routine with Myra more than a just few times. It also seemed by the tone of his voice that he was tiring of this familiar routine. I stayed quiet in a bit of shock, because I was brought up to never speak to a woman in that manner, much less an elder.
The staircase going to the second floor was steep, dimly lit, and looked ominous, for it appeared dead ended, but turned sharply to the right nearing the top, leading to a landing and the entrance to the second floor apartment. The entrance opened to the dining room. Once inside, I recognized what was a complete disaster. Still partially furnished, everything was torn apart as if having undergone some type of vandalism. There was debris strewn everywhere. The floor plan was as simple and straight forward as the design of the building. From front to back, there were three main rooms; a living room, dining room, and kitchen. Off to the side of each main room was a doorway leading to three tiny bedrooms. Right next to the entrance was a door that led to the closet. Additionally, there was a single bathroom off the dining room, and a small pantry off the kitchen.
All the plumbing fixtures were ancient. The bathtub was a free standing type, with clawed feet. Today it might be considered trendy, but in 1970 it was just plain old. The sinks in the bathroom and kitchen were porcelain and iron, and supported by legs. Today, they might be considered "chic", but in 1970 (again) just old fashioned. Other than a homemade cupboard that served as a counter and an all purpose cabinet, the kitchen was bare. There was not much to see. As I looked around, my optimism told me that it was nothing that paint, wallpaper, and carpeting couldn't solve. We exited to the enclosed back porch. As we walked out, I looked up to a trap door on the ceiling that led to the attic. I was assured there was nothing up there to see and of course, I believed.
We proceeded down the back stairs and out the back door to the outside basement entrance. We were met by a musty odor. I could tell by the concrete work that the basement was built sometime after the house. The house was originally set on cinder blocks, then the crawl space under the house was dug out and concrete poured to create the basement. It only had a 6 foot height, so being near 6'3", I hunched over a bit as we toured. I could smell the residue of coal. It was a familiar smell, as years ago many buildings were heated with coal, which was normally stored in the basement.
Besides a laundry tub sink, there were three rooms partitioned at the side. These were called sheds. They were made up of nothing more than boards nailed together as partitioned areas. One was padlocked, one was empty and clean, and the third was the one used for coal storage years ago, and was filled with soot. At the front of the basement was a finished room, containing a large pot belly stove stamped U.S. ARMY. The smell of burning wood filled the room. The odor was so strong that I opened the stove, checking for something smoldering. Examining it, I could see it hadn't been used for years. 'Curious ...' I thought. I took notice of the fact that it was very cool in the basement, but this was not all that unusual. Unfortunately, I didn't pay much attention to my goose bumps. Art seemed nervous and didn't talk much, which was a change. He allowed me to wander around, freely inspecting everything. I did notice his nervous feet always moving, as if ready to leave. I had the distinct impression that I was keeping him from something. I never noticed his nervousness was only apparent when inside the building.
We climbed the inside stairway leading directly up and into the dining room of the first floor apartment. Myra greeted us in the same manner as before. "Sons-a-bitches!" she yelled. Art yelled right back at her, and it seemed he had hit his limit of tolerance.
"Shut the fuck up, will you?" As they yelled back and forth at each other, I quietly continued my tour. Actually, I found the exchange to be almost humorous, as I went about examining her apartment. With the exception of the location of the front entrance door, which entered into the living room, the apartments were very much the same. I only took the time to peek into every room. I noticed that one bedroom was noticeably cooler than the rest. Again, I got a bad case of goose bumps, but it was dark in the room and I didn't think the temperature difference was significant at the time. In fact, given this hot July afternoon and in this un-air conditioned building, the cool air seemed a treat, if not a benefit.
We exited the back door of the apartment to the enclosed porch, and then we headed across the back yard and into the garage. It was completely filled with junk. "Needs work, but it could be a decent building." Art was now trying his best to sell me. What Art didn't know, was that he didn't need to expend the effort, for I was already sold. All I cared about was whether I could buy the building with practically nothing for a down payment. I didn't see anything that hard work couldn't solve.
The standard down payment for a conventional mortgage at $16,500.00 was a minimum of 20% down payment; so the odds of coming up with $3300.00 were zero. I wondered if the owners would sell it to me on a private contract, but Art explained getting all the heirs to agree was a definite impossibility. For an instant, I thought I was out of luck. Then Art began talking about a government mortgage program.
Within minutes, we were talking about an FHA loan for 5% down on a purchase price of 16,500.00. $825 for a down payment sure sounded more like reality. The only drawback, according to Art, was that FHA took four months or more to approve loans. I saw that as my advantage, not a drawback. I needed more money to close, for I only had about $200 to my name, aside from the money reserved to pay the hospital and doctor bills for our expected child, as we also had no insurance. If I could put the $200 down, I would have four months to get the balance by closing time. [FYI, I was earning $82 a week after taxes and deductions] I explained my situation, and Art felt it was not a problem. He told me the building had been for sale for a while now, and everyone would be flexible in putting a deal together. Even for the time, the building was priced right, but the question of why it was for sale for such a long period of time never entered my naïve mind. We quickly left for his office.
Excerpted from True Haunting by Edwin F. Becker Copyright © 2011 by Edwin F. Becker. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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