The Squatters

Olivia Anderson had recently returned to Bridgeport, Illinois after a year of living in Budapest, and she needed a place to live. She was tired of tugging at the end of her parents’ leash and wanted to choose her own path in life, at least for a while, to include paying for her own apartment. Her best friend Emma Chase had been earning her own way since her junior year in high school, and her lease on a $300-a-month hotel room apartment was up at the end of the month. They both worked at the same deli, so during one lunch shift, Olivia said to Emma, “Let’s just look for a place to rent together. We work in the same place, we’re 21, we like to party, and we’re both broke.” Emma laughed and said, “Yup, let’s do it.”

On the last Friday night of the month, they decided to go to a party being thrown by their skater friends in a big Victorian house that was split right down the middle by one massive wall. No one seemed to know much about the history of the home. At that point, it had degenerated into a run-down party spot, a crash house. There were always at least five different people living there, mostly guys, but couples would crash on one side of the wall now and then.

Everyone in this tight little community lived to skate. Most of them had tattoos, and they loved punk rock, the Beastie Boys, Black Sabbath, and so on. They even threw small concerts in the back yard every few months. The house always smelled of cigarette smoke, pot smoke, and beer, but Olivia and Emma didn’t care because they thought the skaters were more creative, fun, and intelligent than most of the other guys they knew.

As the night progressed, the girls learned that the owners of the Victorian had decided to sell the place, which meant that everyone would have to move out or be evicted in a few days. The owners lived in another state, and given that the house was in a mildly distressed condition, it probably wouldn’t sell too soon. Olivia and Emma desperately needed somewhere to live, and they had no money for a deposit, much less first and last month’s rent, so it just made sense to them to go ahead and move in there. Sure, what they were about to do would be illegal, but it seemed like a low-risk / high-reward plan, and there was no point in letting the house sit empty for any extended period of time when people could make good use of it.

On the second day of the following month, they broke open a window in the back yard and crawled into the basement. After cleaning themselves up a little bit, they unlocked all the doors and called a locksmith to come and change the locks. One arrived within hours and changed the locks immediately when Emma and Olivia told him they didn’t want to be hassled by dangerous ex-boyfriends under any circumstances. Then they called the utilities department to turn on the water and electricity. A utilities worker came over and wondered why the main line had a lock box on it. He promptly dismantled the lock box, turned on the juice, and left.

Now that Emma and Olivia were safely ensconced in the house for at least a little while, they began fixing it up. It was a turn-of-the-century home that was once a decorative residence, maybe one of the first in the neighborhood, so they felt an obligation to restore it to a state of respectability as best they could. They started by repairing the broken window. Then they polished the off-white porcelain walls in the bathroom, which had beautiful aging hairline cracks and a brilliant blue row about ¾ of the way up each wall. They tore up the carpet and found gorgeous wood floors underneath, which they polished to an elegant sheen. They scrubbed the kitchen and its gigantic, old-fashioned farm sink that took up half a wall.

The stove was a noble old gas burner that featured intricate scrolls made out of heavy metal scripted along the back of a broad iron shelf. They liked the stove so much that although they didn’t cook much because they could eat at the deli for free, they always made it a point to cook something on the stove once or twice a week. They threw away most of the furniture and pictures that were left there and redecorated with whatever they could cobble together from friends, family, thrift stores, garage sales, and their own accumulated furniture, kitchen supplies, and artwork, to include a number of first-rate photos Olivia had shot in Hungary and recently framed. They also raked, fertilized, and mowed the front and back yards and even arranged planters on the back porch and grew beans, lettuce, tomatoes, and chili peppers. Emma and Olivia even spoke of painting the house a clean shade of off-white although they never got around to it.

For the first few weeks, the girls lived quietly and usually kept the lights out at night. The houses in the neighborhood were fairly close to each other, and even though some of the neighbors must have known the girls were squatting, no one said anything, or at least they didn’t seem to care. The girls started having guys over. Emma spent time with a few guys. She felt safe with Darren, who was a private school rich kid rebelling against his parents. It didn’t hurt that he was strikingly handsome, always up for any new adventure, generous with his money, and able to play a mean harmonica. Tim was a different story. He had exquisite tattoos, but he was also addicted to coke and street fights. Emma loved Tim’s dangerous side, but only to a point, and she was privately happy when he moved to California. Then there was Joel, who could skate a half pipe as if performing an intricate ballet, but he was still living with his mother.

Olivia was more monogamous, hanging out mostly with Anton, a very resourceful guy who had arrived in the States from Ukraine as a young orphan and was now one of the most popular bartenders in Downtown Chicago. Anton’s company seemed to please Olivia most of the time. She told Emma, “When we’re done playing, I wanna be able to keep one of the toys.”

After a few months, Emma and Olivia decided to have a party. They hired a live band, stocked the kitchen with a few kegs and plenty of deli meat, bread, and chips, and opened the doors for as long as anyone wanted to stay. Around one hundred people showed up over the course of the day, and things got so lively that one of the neighbors decided to call the police in the late afternoon. Two officers arrived, told the girls to tone things down, and left without issuing anyone so much as a citation.

Later in the night, the real estate agent who was trying to sell the property drove by and saw everything. He came back the next day and told the girls they had to leave. He didn’t report them because he felt sorry for them and respected the work they had done on the place, and he even gave them five days to vacate. The girls felt like they belonged in that area, though, and through the assistance of a kind woman across the street who also happened to be a realtor, they found a place two houses away and simply carried over everything they wanted to keep.

The neighbors loved having Emma and Olivia around, and the girls equally enjoyed the year they ended up spending in the neighborhood, but eventually, Olivia moved in with Anton and then a few years later got accepted into the University of Chicago’s Slavic Languages and Literatures program. Emma married Joel, and they started up and ran a skate shop that gained some respect and notoriety in the area.

Unfortunately, the big Victorian that had once sheltered Emma and Olivia didn’t fare so well. It went through several owners who only wanted to rent the place, and each subsequent owner did additional damage to the home without contributing any renovations. Finally, the house stood alone and neglected for two years, becoming an eyesore and financial liability to the community. In the end, it was demolished by the city for accumulated code violations. Emma and Olivia remained in constant contact with each other over the years, and they sometimes reminisced about the old Victorian, discussing it as if it was a good friend who, like many others they had known from those days, was no longer there to share in the conversation.