Friday, May 18, 2012

The Irish carnival ride at Apartment 21

As a kid, I loved to cut crap out of colored construction paper and write short stories with naughty words in them.  My father thought advertising would be a perfect blend of my glitter-gluing and story-telling powers. I had no other ideas, so advertising it was.

My mom and dad met on a blind fraternity/sorority date at the University of Illinois in Champaign/Urbana.  There was never much of a question of where I’d attend college. Just to pretend I had a choice, I also applied to University of Missouri, because I was dating a guy from Missouri named Brad Wentzel.  Wendy Wentzel?  I went to U of I.

The torture of sorority “rush” occurs when freshmen are herded around from sorority house to house so that mean girls can mentally weigh you and approximate the value of your clothing while singing.  This process turns out well for some people.  For me, it was a repeat of my humiliating cheerleading tryouts.  Other than my mother’s bookish alma mater, only one sorority invited me to join.  I happily pledged before realizing that the perky blonde girls who’d rushed me were not typical of the rest of the serious, studious, devout JEWISH girls in the house.  I wasn’t serious or devout about anything and despite the fact that I looked the part, I didn’t feel like I belonged. 

So I was stuck in the dorms with horrible roommates in the only all girls dorm on campus.  If it weren’t for my glorious neighbor, Kari, my freshman year with an obese townie roommate would have been a complete loss.  My sophomore year was spent fake-crying, which is a story for another day.  I lived with a Swedish girl and a Japanese girl in a triple room.  Both chattered on the phone incessantly in their respective languages with occasional angry whispers while glaring at my messy side of the room.  The Japanese one made her boring, white boyfriend tell me to be neater and quieter.  I told the Japanese one’s boyfriend several things, loudly, while looking directly at my roommate, who looked at her feet. 

"She's a crybaby and a total pig."
Hey ABBA, you don’t have to whisper.  I don’t speak Swedish.
Across the hall was a room full of alcoholic Catholic girls who appeared to be reenacting an ongoing sequel to Porky’s.  They were FUN and I wanted in.  I barged into their party landscape as often as they’d allow.  When the year was ending and I’d finally stopped crying, they didn’t want to include me in their search for apartments.  Helpfully, they avoided telling me until the last minute. 

“I’m sorry, Wendy,” said the nicest, most sober one, “But you are such a drag.”

To make matters worse, I had a campus job at the University of Illinois Foundation calling alumni for donations.  Perhaps you heard from me between 1986 and 1990?  If you've never randomly called people to ask them for money, it is exactly like you'd think it would be.  I called for four hours a night, four nights a week.  It was one of the higher paying jobs on campus because it was miserable.  Here is how most of my conversations went:

Ring ring

Alumni: Hello?

Me:  Hi, This is Wendy from the University of Illinois Foundation calling to….

Alumni: Click!  Dial tone.

Me:  What’s that?  You want to donate $100,000 because you think I sound professional and super hot?  Okay!

My manager:  Way to go!

It was godawful.  They must have it much easier now with caller ID because nobody probably answers.  I know I don't!  All those hours of getting hung up on or cussed out really helped me later in business, but not personally, because I still can’t stand rejection.  Somehow I was promoted to supervisor and I got to listen in on everyone else’s donation calls.  This was excellent, as I am very nosy and super critical. 

One of the student callers I was supervising had red hair and a deep, south side Chicago voice, not unlike our biker friend Diane.  Colette seemed tough and I was scared of her.  I was scared of everyone then, especially south side redheads.  I’m a born complainer as you know, and I was whining to another caller about how nobody wanted to live with me.  I was doomed to live in the dorms as a junior.  I cannot think of a single thing that could have been more embarrassing at the time, and there were plenty of other embarrassing things that I was doing to choose from.   

Overhearing, Colette interrupted, “Hey, did you say you needed a place to live?”

I was about to fall in love with my very first portrait subjects.

Colette and her two friends were desperately seeking a fourth for their magnificent apartment.  They picked me up from my dorm in a big old dad type car to check it out.  Kimi had a disturbing pony tail coming out of the side of her head and her sister, Karen, was wearing a tie died shirt and mini skirt get up.  She had the skirt knotted on one side, about mid hip.  They were an Irish Catholic carnival ride and I hopped in because I had no other options.  I have a wealthy aunt who enjoys making me tell the story of what I wore to sorority rush at family gatherings.  She finds it hilarious and doesn’t seem to notice my shame spiral when I recount it.  I had NO business questioning anyone’s fashion sense.  But those three were a mess.  As it turned out, who cared?  That apartment was to die for. 

Apartment 21 was on the top floor at 1006 S. 3rd Street.  It had a long, shared balcony that faced south.  This meant all day sun.  To a college girl with large thighs, this private tanning bonanza alone was worth weird roommates.  It was a tri-level apartment with exposed brick walls and a kitchen that overlooked the living room.  Plus we could throw stuff on the roof of the sorority next door. It was fabulous.

I decided that I liked these three Orland Park girls and the bizarre assortment of men who came with them… brothers and friends and roommates of brothers.  The guys had briefly formed a freshman band called Leprosy, later christening their rented campus home, “Leper House.”  A few of them helped the girls move into Apt 21.  They talked weird, they looked weird, and they wouldn’t leave.  Most of them were named Tom.  I was concerned. 

Then they all became some of the greatest loves of my life.  

Colette wasn’t tough after all.  She’s a softy.  When she was happy, we were all happy.  When she was down, we were all bummed.  She became a barometer for whether we were having a great time or not.  I once tried to hit on her future husband, but he immediately threw up, which I like to think was just bad timing on my part.  In any case, it worked out just fine for Colette and their future three children.  Colette sends birthday, anniversary and holiday cards, on time, to every human being she knows, even my husband.  I just got a Mother’s Day card from her in the mail.  She’s insane.

Karen loved to laugh, especially at our expense.  Although she is Kimi’s older sister, she's happy letting Kimi call the shots.  Karen and I danced and sang while standing unsteadily on the arms of our living room chairs.  We ate food so fattening, I am still digesting it today.  I once walked with Karen to class, joyous to have some one-on-one time with her. I wondered aloud why we didn’t always walk together, until Karen helpfully pointed out I didn’t even have a class in that direction.  Or on that day. 

After a year together, Karen graduated first, a full year before Kimi and me, followed by Colette a semester later.  When Karen came back from the real world for college visits, we decorated and rejoiced.  She was furious we were having fun without her. 

Kimi and I attempted to replace Karen and then Colette with creepy roommates who don’t deserve much comment.   One slept constantly and hung out with a slew of flamboyant gay men at night until she forgot to go to class so many times that she got kicked out of school. Another one had an enormous, loud bird.  Enough said. 

For two years, Kimi and I lived together in that magic place between being a kid and a grown up.  She deserves her own story for having such a complicated, unexpected life.  She mothered me and managed me, harshly reprimanding me for driving her big dad car, partly because I didn’t ask, but mostly because I was drunk.  I babied her when her heart was broken and told her to stop bossing everyone around.  I knew she’d be a magnificent manager one day, which she was.

Before marriage, kids or jobs, we were stressed out and having the time of our lives.  It would be years before I’d be diagnosed with ADD, and I panicked over my consistently late projects. They still tease me about my American Express group project which I viewed as a slightly worse challenge than the AIDS epidemic.

I took one elective art class that taught me to use a grid when drawing a subject.  That would turn out to be the most lucrative half hour I spent during my four years at U of I, as I use the grid system for every single portrait I draw in my current life as a full time pencil portrait artist.  Nothing else really stuck.   

When Karen graduated, I decided to draw the whole Leper House group as her graduation present.  I thought it was a brilliant idea because I had no money and it provided a lengthy excuse to procrastinate in studying for finals. 

My first portrait.  Yikes.  At least Frewbud's not in it.

Kimi supervised my progress, peeking over my shoulder regularly to tell me to make her thinner until her legs looked like Q-tips.  I drew myself sitting in the lower left corner with my misshapen hand awkwardly positioned on my knee.  If you look closely, it appears that I’ve been punched in the face, twice.  This portrait is not good.  You can at least recognize Karen, because she has a graduation hat on.  I had a long way to go before anyone would commission me to draw a portrait.  But Karen loved her gift and I was encouraged.  Drawing thirteen people as my first real portrait attempt was pretty ambitious.

As graduation for Kimi and me approached, I couldn’t keep drawing pictures.  I had to find a job.  I had stellar grades and lots of work experience with my dad so I applied for credit cards left and right, knowing they’d be paid off in no time when I chose a great job from my many offers.


Rejection letters lined our Apartment 21 entryway from good companies who wanted nothing to do with us.  Most of them were for me, from Chicago ad agencies.  Advertising seemed like a great idea except that you couldn’t get an actual job in advertising without experience or a master’s.  I was horrified.  While my brother and I had been piling up tuition, rent, book and bar bills, my father’s business was struggling. I have no clue how my parents were able to put both of us through college when things were so tight.  I graduated in the top 1% of my class with an $1,800 student loan to repay.  I had no idea what a gift I was given.  When I think of the looming college expense for my boys, I want to turn to a life of crime and/or open several bottles of wine that I pour into one glass.

Karen, Kimi and Colette each have three children and they all have at least one daughter.  They still live on the south side of Chicago with their families.  I’m over an hour away, in the far north suburbs, near Wisconsin with my boys… no little girl for me.  Over twenty years later, we meet halfway and eat pizza and drink beer like we’re still one step away from the real world.  We laugh so loud and tell such obscene stories that everyone gives us dirty looks and one time we were even asked to leave. Every year there’s a Leper House Christmas party. Sometimes we have a slumber party at Kimi’s. 

Every time I'm with those wonderful, hilarious girls, it’s a carnival ride back to Apt 21, where we remind each other along the way of every last embarrassing thing we’ve ever done.  If I drew their portraits now, I don’t know how I could ever capture how very much they mean to me.  But I'd still draw a side-pony on Kimi.


  1. Love this story about Apt 21 and all the adventures you had there. Hilarious and sweet. Another great story told.

    1. Can I write a chapter about you? I'd have to send it to you first for approval of how far I'm allowed to go. 8-) Can't wait for you to be home, sister-friend.

    2. That would be fun....and funny and scary; so I would have to approve it first. Can't wait to be home too.

    3. Hey! It only took me five months to write about you, Vic!

  2. That IS a pretty bad portrait. Now I don't feel so bad about being dissed.

    1. Where the hell were you anyway? Were you even around? I drew that portrait from an actual photograph that was taken, so if you'd been there, you'd be in it. I've never even met Judd that I can remember, so I can erase him and put you in the band uniform if you want.

    2. No, I don't even want to be in the stupid portrait. And certainly not in a band uniform.

      I have no clue where I was through most of the 80's and 90's... sorry.

    3. Hey, WAIT a minute. STUPID portrait? On second thought I deliberately banned you from being poorly immortalized.

  3. You had me at "At least Frewbud's not in it."

    1. My memory is not very good, but I think you were one of the few that I did not have back then. Wink, wink.

  4. Hey you didn't mention my matching colored socks and little white gym shoes with my tie dye outfit. By the way, I also recall you borrowing a few times yourself and I think it is high time you returned it!

    1. I never borrowed the tie dye get up! I know I borrowed some stuff, especially Kimi's lucky sweater. If you're missing anything, you should probably check Michelle's closet. 8-)

  5. Sounds like some good times!!! :)
    I like the drawing too, even if it's quite rough compared to what you do today. ~Melissa H.

    1. At the time, it was fine art. Now, not so much. I didn't have a scanner, so we took it to an architect and got blueprint copies made of it. I sort of lied, because my real first portrait was a drawing of Mel Gibson's head that we made into a Santa Claus for our wall. This was back when Mel wasn't batshit crazy.


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