I used to party in Chicago when I was 16 – 18 years old. I was attending college living at home, just before I went away.
My brother attended Loyola University and my friends and I would trek into the city to party.
We did almost everything kids shouldn’t do; everything you don’t want your kids to do.
There is a building on the campus of Loyola, right at the big S curve in Sheridan Road. It used to be Mundelein College. A private Catholic women’s college. Built in 1929 of the art deco style, the building hadn’t been changed since it’s construction. It was purchased by Loyola and was closed from the 4th floor to the top (14th) in the mid 90s, scheduled for renovation.
The exterior was surrounded by scaffolding.
Scaffolding was our open invitation, so we broke in and kept going back for about 6 months.
The elevators would not take you up past the 4th floor from the ground, but they could be called up. Security never knew and couldn’t follow: They would have to climb stairs, find keys and track us down. We could see and hear them coming if they ever did. There were only a few close calls.
We adopted it as our own 10-story private penthouse. Floors 5-14 were ours and ours alone.
We got in after hours and would hang out exploring the cloisters, abandoned closets and classrooms all the way up to the massive, black attic housing the elevator machinery. The best part was the all-glass greenhouse with a working fountain and some old ferns among the flaking paint and crumbling marble. There was a volleyball/badminton court on one of the roofs.
We invited friends, sometimes staying in the building all night on the top floor where we had windows on all four sides with 180-degree views North, East and West looking out over Lake Michigan all the way to the Wisconsin border. The plumbing still worked.
We looked out our private windows and laughed at people living normal lives. Down there.
We were urban hackers and we were in the mainframe.
Nowhere was off limits.
My brother mapped the building and we took unexpecting visitors on tours in the dark after hours, tiptoeing past the silent angels and religious statues guarding the doors and the chapel.
My brother’s roommate recruited his crew from Indianapolis and we’d tear the night up like teenagers do. Skinny dipping off the rocks, hanging out in our adopted building and living as closely to our literary heroes as possible: Thompson, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Cassady, etc. We glorified and emulated their disgusting lives out of aggravation and boredom. Alcohol was usually involved.
We wanted everything exaggerated, from our adventures to our relationships.
The Indy crew was convinced, and convinced me, that my soul mate was in Indianapolis.
The daughter of a doctor, a fiery redhead intellectual with an artist streak, living in a big house with a big red door.
We met and the spark burned.
I would drive to her in Indianapolis at 2am from the Chicago suburbs and climb her chimney to her bedroom window.
Nights were cold but we wandered around checking out stuff, talking until her parents woke up and the bells for homeroom rang.
I’d drive back to Chicago just in time for class, my mind still processing the first taste of true love.
I did this frequently. Sometimes I’d recruit friends for the long drive and make them sleep in my car while we hung out.
Usually I’d go alone.
One time an Indiana police officer questioned me at 3am because I was parked behind a butcher shop and “looked like an angry vegetarian”. I told him I loved Steak & Shake. He left me alone.
It was constantly romantic, exaggerated by our youth and the opening of our newly enabled hearts.
As summer approached we drifted apart, enjoying our last warm days with our local friends before again meeting at the University of Montana. We coincidentally chose to attend the same school.
As first loves go, it caught fire again in Montana, where things catch fire easily, and we spent nights living dreams around Missoula for a couple months. We found a tree fort in an alley, climbed a couple stories up and kissed in the glittery frost. Found a lookout point where the lights of the Missoula Valley looked like the outline of the United States of America. Slowly drifted apart as we pursued our separate passions, never losing respect nor nostalgia for the first young love we felt so strongly.
She was always a gifted artist and though we went out of touch awhile, remained friends. It was no surprise. She became one of Indiana’s, perhaps one of America’s, best modern artists.
Always connected by our days of exploration – within our minds, our hearts, and the cities, towns and beaches of the Midwest and forests of the Pacific Northwest. We remain ever connected in memories.
In 2011, 3 years after her wedding, she was diagnosed with Stage III colon cancer that spread to her lymph nodes. They induced her first labor to a healthy baby girl and undertook surgery followed by chemotherapy.
Being the strong woman she is, she powered through. Ever grateful for her friends, and the help they gave during her recovery, like the breast milk donations to feed her newborn.
When you are old enough that you’ve been through love more than once, seen split skulls, hugged dying loved ones, watched friends marry and divorce and marry again, welcomed children into the world and dealt with losses you are sure killed something inside you, the world becomes more real and sweet moments must be savored. You know the moments.
When I heard the cancer came back I was hit by memories. Memories of our visit to the old building together and remembering that we’re all vulnerable to life. It hurts to watch people we love go through fear and pain.
Workers spent a year in the Mundelein College renovating. They found hundreds of incoherent pages from Joe’s 36-hour-nonstop typewriter marathon taped to the walls. They found the 8-foot tall super-glued sculptures we made from found objects, framed by lights in the supply closets where they were erected. They would never know the whole story.
They tore out the carpets grimed by thousands of feet including ours, wiped the glass of our fingerprints, replaced old walls with fresh, white ones, relegating to our memories the happenings of that time. They got rid of the crap.
The past was gutted and the framework given new purpose for new people.
The building stands today on the US Register of Historic places, looking down on Sheridan Road where it watches history and where we watched cars and students like toys, moments lingering for minutes.
We’re all full of old crap. Psychologically, physically, emotionally; renovation is necessary to get it out of our bodies and start fresh. When the crap is gone and we are healthy again, the world is lighter and we are as meant to be.
In the next few weeks, when she goes into surgery, I’ll be remembering the past warmly and looking forward to seeing what she creates next, after her renovation is finished and she is again herself as she deserves.
The cancer will be cut out of her liver like the insides of the old building, making way for the new, shiny life beyond so she can share her gift with us, because fiery redheads don’t go down that easy.
She has always been a visionary converting the dirty experience of life into transcendent art.
And I know one thing for sure: Cancer picked the wrong fucking girl to mess with.
Please join me in saying…
…and get well soon, Susan.
p.s. I’m sorry I heisted your work; I couldn’t help it; they’re amazing; see more of her work here: www.susanhodgin.com