I’m writing this in our small Chicago apartment. The day outside is chilly and flat, passers-by wrapped up well against the cold lake air. The blistering, steam-filled radiators in the apartment hiss and wheeze. There’s coffee brewing on the stove. I’m wearing a polo-neck. Give me a pipe to smoke and a Remington typewriter and Central Casting really should be on the phone quicker than you can say “B movie”.
So, we now own a Chicago apartment.
It’s not in Downtown where all the skyscrapers live, but a few miles north in Edgewater. Not as far as Evanston. Still urban but with a feeling of neighbourhood. A mix of apartment buildings and archetypal American wooden houses. And Downtown is only a 30 minute ride away on the Red Line “El” (elevated railway) with a stop just three minutes’ walk from the apartment. So it’s a bit like living in Queen’s Park if you’re a Londoner.
And what a bargain we got. It sounds very swanky to drop that we’ve bought an apartment but when you realise it cost us less than what people are prepared to spend on a new kitchen, it seems like a very reasonable thing to do. Especially as it’s, well, so lovely – particularly if you, like us, are into the whole “vintage” thing. (“Oh darling, we simply adooooore vintage.”)
Regular readers will have twigged by now that if there’s a bargain to be hunted, a-hunting I will go. When in early December we got the word that we would close (that’s “complete” for Brits) on the day after Boxing Day, we went into overdrive to find all the stuff that turns an empty flat into a home. We had some stuff from Lucy’s parents in store in Arizona that was to be shipped up but we needed a lot of basics like chairs of all descriptions, and a table. So I started scouring Ebay and Craigslist to see what was on offer. Let me tell you straight away that Craigslist came up trumps every time.
So it was that I found myself ringing a guy called Ron in La Porte, Indiana, about 70 miles from our new place, to the east of downtown Chicago. He had a 50s diner set – a formica-topped table with two extra leaves and four chairs, the whole lot with chrome legs – for $140, abut £90. Bargain. Ron could not get over the fact that I was ringing from England. “England? Wow! I don’t think I ever had someone ring from England before. That’s amazin’!”
I get this a lot. Not so much the ringing from England thing, but my lack of an American accent. I speak to someone, in a hardware store for instance, and for the first fifteen seconds or so I can tell they’re not hearing me. They’re thinking “He’s not from round these parts! Is he Australian? Oh shit, what did he just ask me?” That and the fact that, in the area of DIY (or Home Improvement as they call it here), the amount of common terms for quite normal things are very few and far between. It’s the tomato-tomato thing. Almost.
They call emulsion paint latex paint. A skirting board is a base board. A blind is a shade, but not always. Curtains, drapes. Varnish is polyurethane. Ask for a radiator valve and you’ll get a funny-looking gizmo that sits on the side of the radiator and lets out steam. (The central heating in this place is still a novelty to me. A massive furnace sits in the basement and heats all ten apartments in the building. We have no control over when it comes on, but the apartment is warm all day, which feels like something of a wild extravagance to someone of Scottish blood who grew up in a house without central heating.) Visiting the hardware store, albeit one as fantastic as our local Clark-Devon Hardware, is simultaneously fascinating and petrifying. Yesterday I went in search of some simple lighting cable and a bog-standard lightbulb holder – the type you hang from the ceiling and which takes a lampshade. I was met with utter bemusement, as if I’d asked for a device for nailing a small pudding to my head. Pendant lamps are something of a novelty here – most people having “fixtures” or, as we have in three rooms, ceiling fans. I had to travel a couple of miles to get what I was looking for. One store, where I’d already bought a lampshade, wanted $20 for a length of wire and a lightbulb holder. Needless to say I gave them the heave-ho. Only days before I’d seen a new vacuum cleaner (albeit a small and probably useless one) for sale for $19. How on earth can a length of wire and plastic lamp-holder cost more than a hoover?!
Ron, in Indiana, despite my English accent and me ringing from England ‘n’ all, was happy to set aside the table and chairs until we could get to him just after Christmas. He was eager to tell me he is a man of his word. He told me so many times, which was slightly worrying. So while everyone back in Britain was eating turkey sandwiches, slumped for the umpteenth time in front of “Where Eagles Dare”, we were headed out of town in a massive Toyota Sienna to pick up our bargain dining set. The car, or “mini-van” (or moderately-sized bus, as it felt) was a Zipcar. Zipcar is an international car-share scheme that is extraordinarily brilliant if, like us, your need of a car is rare and intermittent. It’s all very high-tech (you can see how it works at zipcar.com) but thanks to an introductory coupon, the entire cost of renting the Toyota behemoth, including petrol etc, for the entire day was $8. So we not only had our road-trip to Indiana (not recommended for its scenery by the way – Gary for instance is a city that, with all due respect to people called Gary, is all you might expect it to be) where Ron lived with his son and dogs in a somewhat dreary corner of marshland, but we also took the opportunity to stock up with a lot of basics at Walmart (oh the shame!) as well as buy a couple of vintage chairs and a 50s step-stool, all of which fit in the in the back of the car with room to spare.
The hardware store has just rung, not to cast me as Pretentious-looking Would-be Writer in a movie, but to tell me that some storm windows I ordered (a process of unimaginable complication due mainly to the guy taking the order understanding about three out of every four words I said, compared to the one-in-three of his I got – so a win for England!) are ready. So excuse me while I wander off and stand outside the local pub to pick up their wifi, go online, book a Zipcar for half an hour, and then pick up the new windows.