Chicago Portrait no. 29: The Guy Could Get in Anywhere

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He used to break into the University’s choral practice room to play piano. There were music practice rooms, small rooms with smaller upright pianos, which he’d cajoled his way into getting permission to use. But those weren’t good enough for him. He said they were of tune. So he broke into the choral room.

He wasn’t a music student. He could barely play. It didn’t matter. He found a way in, and stayed there, plinking and plunking late into the evening, sending me distracting gchats from a Macbook propped on a music stand.

He was supposed to be working. But he never seemed to have to work. It seemed like nobody at his job ever checked up on him. He made as much as I did but was forever forgetting his wallet, so I’d have to pay. He always had a book or two in his hand, and a faraway look that beckoned and froze. People liked him, or wanted to like him, but knew in some animal part of themselves that they could not trust him. So they just let him be. He made a life out of slinking around, barely being noticed, leaving mild discomfort but never being taken to task for it.

He stayed late in the choral room, until all the buildings were being locked up and the lights went out. Security would come and kick him out, but not before listening to his protests and rationalizations. Even when it was done, when he’d finished ranting and they‘d told him he really had to go, they didn’t walk him all the way out. Didn’t follow him. Didn’t force him. They let him stomp down the stairs by himself, book in hand, small eyes squinting even smaller, radiating pissed energy. There were rules even he had to answer to, and he resented that to his core.

He stole donuts from the grocery store nearly every time we went shopping together. He’d eat them in two big conspicuous bites, standing right next to the bakery case. He would linger in the hallway of his apartment building, knocking on doors and asking neighbors to give him their Wi-Fi passwords. They never did; the looks he got were harrowed, wary. Hands pinched door frames and eyes peered uneasily from dark rooms. He unsettled them. They said no and that made him pissed. He could not comprehend how scary he was. He couldn’t fathom why people wouldn’t make his life easier.

When his bike was stolen, he harassed his landlord into giving him the security footage. A small man in a pickup truck pulled around the alley, parked, hopped the fence, and then flung the hunk of junk over the fence and into the truck bed. The image was grainy, black and white. There was no way to identify who had stolen it.

Getting a bike stolen in Chicago is a common enough occurrence. You have a bike and you lock it outside, it will get stolen or crumpled. That’s life. It’s a tax you pay for a life that has the potential to be interesting. You buy another bike (probably also, at some point, stolen) for $50 on craigslist from some guy in a cheap 1970’s-looking suit. You ride it until it gets stolen too. You move on; it’s the circle of commerce, of life.

He could not move on. He was incensed. For weeks he trawled every resale shop and bike repair store on the north side, asking questions and furiously inspecting every blue-bodied road bike that remotely resembled his. He roamed alleyways and peered into garages, stared down the rusty red exteriors of scrap metal trucks and their amiable, typically Latino drivers. He fumed, he said racist things, he suspected everyone of having wronged him.

He called the cops a dozen times, and reported the off-campus theft to campus security. They knew his name and phone number by then. They had kicked him out of buildings many times before. Nobody could assuage his rage or bear witness to his victimization. The crime was not taken seriously enough. There was no reasoning with him. Everything seemed so unfair to him.

At night he laid beside me and threw his arms down on the mattress and made himself hoarse screaming about how badly he wanted to find and kill the thieves. He’d say it over and over again, that he wanted the person responsible to die. I rolled on my side and watched the electricity shoot out from the El tracks by his apartment. I tried to make empathic noises. I buried my face in a dusty book, trying to ignore him while he paced and yelled, recounting the theft in elaborate, fantastical detail, darkly describing exactly how he would murder the men responsible and how badly he wanted to do it.

If he hadn’t been white and attractive and reasonably smart, he never would have gotten away with anything. He gave many people a creepy feeling that they could not place. Superficially charming, he could get a job easily, but he could not hold onto it for more than two months. He got fired for his rage, or for threatening a customer, or fucking a business owner from down the street, or for not wearing a hairnet in front of the health inspectors, or for being unstable. He made fast friends and lost them just as quickly. He had no boundaries. When he got fired, he’d still show up at the shop, like he still belonged there.

He wandered around late at night, moaning and sad and pissed-off. He threw a metal trash can at a bus. He punched at my door until my whole apartment shook. He lurked at the edges of my life. He spent hours lingering outside my window shaking and crying and blocking traffic. He had zero shame. The world didn’t know how to make a man like him face consequences. He’d never learned how to accept consequences, either.

When he was young, he nearly killed a fellow camper by holding a poisonous rattlesnake and flinging it in another person’s direction. He said it was the antipsychotics that were to blame, they made him feel numb. He needed to encounter real danger in order to recognize that he was still living. But by the time that I met him, he was off the antipsychotics and he still did shit like that. But he was certain it still wasn’t his fault.

When he was a teen, he molested his sister. He revealed that info once, in a moment of passion. He thought it would earn him sympathy, can you believe it? He said his mother had sided with him, not her abused, mistreated daughter. The daughter had to run away. She got the reputation for being the family problem. The son, the eldest, the abuser, got to run free. He told me once that he knew he was the favorite. That was why.

If he’d been any other kind of person he would have wound up incarcerated or shot. He did get locked up eventually. But it was brief. Everybody in the jail called him Superman, because he resembled the actor. A few days after the arrest, he was comfortable at home with a device around his ankle, a little roughed up but otherwise fine. He was sad for a while, but soon it shifted to outrage. He was calling up newspapers and journalists, conferring with his lawyer father, trying to make the cops pay. For arresting him. For throwing a trash can at a moving bus. And then beating his arresting officers.

His record got expunged.

I’m barely outraged by any of that. Unhappy white man gets away with shit; big deal. It’s normal. His privilege and entitlement have conspired to make him a terrible person his entire life. So it’s not his horrible behavior or his good fortune that gets to me, at least not anymore. It’s my own behavior.

When his graduate adviser refused to read another long, incomprehensible draft of his thesis, he stormed out of the office and punched a hole in the wall. Fuming, with bleeding knuckles, he stood on the pavement outside the building and called me.

And when he called crying I stopped what I was doing. Solving his unhappiness immediately became my problem. I was dismayed, sure, disappointed, sure, frightened, of course — but I didn’t do anything about it. I could have reported him for damaging property. I could have told him it was all his fault. Or chastised him for that reaction, at least. I didn’t do any such thing.

I fled to him, to help him, and spent the next thirty-six hours at his side talking him down and bargaining and puffing him up. Same as with the bike, he was murderously furious, and I was sad in the depths of my soul, nauseated with sadness in fact, but all it did was make me an accomplice. I reasoned and followed and listened and cooed supportively, and withdrew and hid when necessary, but I never said a critical word. Not for months, not for years, not until he turned that rage directly at me, and pounded my door like he wanted to tear it down, and me apart.

It has been almost six years since I got away from him. Somewhere on the other side of the country, he crunches numbers and buys expensive cars. I could have ruined him and I didn’t. I hid and put my head down instead. I helped him graduate. I helped him write his thesis. I absorbed his emotional blows so that he didn’t wreck his life. On the floor above my office, there is still a massive, jagged crack that nobody else knows the origins of. I am here late, working in a room that is mine, in the dark. He is gone and rich and nothing is ever his fault. I did not crack that wall and still I blame myself.

Originally published at

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