Even though my friend and former roommate Matt Marsden lives around the corner, I rarely see him these days. We have both become workaholic hermits and rarely leave our apartments. Occasionally I make it over to his place about every six months and he bombards me with his latest record and book aquisitions as well as the new treasures he has pulled out of the trash. Matt is a lifelong garbage collector- not a mentally deranged packrat piling fecal encrusted newspapers to the ceiling but rather a junk aesthete. All of his garbage "bits", as he likes to call them, are meticulously arranged throughout his apartment...animal skulls, toys, rusty mechanical parts, old bottles, shriveled potatoes with attached wigs occupy every square inch of wall space. It's a wonderful claustrophobic museum packed into a typical Chicago apartment, although even the facade of the building is unique for the area's streetscape. Resembling a miniature castle, complete with turrets and balconies, the building was originally a fire house. I have been meaning to take pictures of Matt's apartment and write something about it for a couple months now but I was only able to get over to his place again on the 4th of July- his rooftop is one of the highest in Humboldt Park, making for a great 360 degree viewing of the city's fireworks.
I have moved Matt's museum of garbage a few times. I lived with Matt for six years in three different places. I met him through a mutual friend and we instantly bonded over a shared love of Lenny Dee records. We were both looking for a new place at the time so we moved into the garden apartment of a house in Wicker Park. As soon as Matt hauled his boxes in, he immediately went to work nailing his bits to the walls. I was still in school and living out of a few boxes of crap, a minimalist by necessity because I moved every six months, so I was amazed at the amount of stuff that soon filled the apartment. I was an occasional trash picker but I never truly had the patience for it and I certainly didn't have the obsessive mind that Matt had in approaching garbage. Every bit had a story, every bit was meticulously arranged in a shadow box like a Joseph Cornell piece. It was a scientific organization that resembled some sort of cellular chaos. It was inspiring.
The house and living situation was fantastic. A friend living upstairs, Mike, was also an avid junk collector and both he and Matt were expert dumpster divers. The food they hauled in was always fresher than the rotten shit at the corner market, we had a year's worth of frozen concentrated orange juice and due to a massive city-wide flood, we had thousands of dollars worth of fancy beer and wine that had been discarded because the labels were ruined. We had a garden and fire pit in the backyard and plenty of room for working on art. Life was good!
But then there was Byron. Our psychotic Christian landlord who bore an uncanny resemblance to Ed Gein. He only begrudgingly let us move in after we assured him we were not homosexuals. He already had the house blessed earlier in the week after he found that Mike had painted a giant pentagram and goat head on the floor of the attic. Byron lived down the street in an old brick building, the boards that barricaded the windows were monogrammed with his initials. He lived with his brother who we never saw...we imagined he was half-retarded, chained in the basement, fermenting in a piss soaked sailor suit. We saw plenty of Byron, though- as he was always snooping around, hoping to catch us in the middle of a satanic ritual.
Byron couldn't wait for our lease to be up and he immediately, on the eleventh month mark, handed us a letter stating he would not be leasing to us again. His ridiculous reason was that Matt's enormous book collection was crushing in the floors, ruining the foundation of the building. He had already tore up the garden Mike had planted in the backyard claiming that he had to plant some trees and he was frequently bringing by fresh-faced college girls to look at the place...we were gone, our little utopia crushed by a silly little xenophobic Christian. I was fine with it though...even though the place was great, I had moved around enough in the past three years that it was a usual routine by now. Matt, on the other hand, wasn't going to relinquish and often chased Byron off the property screaming obscenities. The last two weeks were spent packing Matt's enormous museum, leaving a majority of his collage materials strewn throughout the apartment soaked with piss.
Unfortunately, we slacked on looking for a new apartment and we had nowhere to go. We hid out upstairs at Mike's for a few days until we found a place. We watched with great joy as Byron's feeble little body pulled up a few garbage cans from the alley and started on the backbreaking task of cleaning the mess left for him. Ignoring the mountains of trash, the first thing Byron removed from the apartment was a dollar store portrait of the Virgin Mary that was scrawled with a mustache and devil horns that hung above the toilet. With blank eyes, Byron held it in both hands, walking very slowly towards the trash can. His suspicions were true, we were homosexual Satanists, and he was now going to finally exorcise us from the building...except we were upstairs giggling at him!
Out of dire desperation, we moved into the basement apartment of a four-flat on Division Ave. in Humboldt Park. It is the current building in which Matt now resides, except he is now on the third floor. We found the place through our friend Paulie who had just moved into the resplendant fourth floor apartment- large, plenty of sunshine and rooftop access. The basement, on the other hand, was a dismal dungeon...wood paneling, florescent lights in a low false ceiling, a small bathroom with black mold seeping through the drywall and a mysterious smell of death scrubbed over with bleach emanating through the entire place. The shithole was teeming with roaches and rats.
Before nailing his bits to the wall, Matt filled every crack and corner with piles of boric acid. The roaches coated the walls and flew around- certainly no place to hang a museum! Surprisingly the boric acid completely eliminated the roaches but glue traps proved no obstacle for the rats....except for that fat one we caught the first night. We were awoken by death shrieks and found the fucker stuck on the glue pad, his lower jaw was caught in the glue, his upper jaw and head completely detached in his efforts to free himself. We drowned it in a bucket of dirty mop water. We immediately got a cat for the rats and named her Flim Flam. She scared them enough that they stayed in the walls and didn't come into the open, although I'm sure the big ones would have been able to tear her apart. The rats let their presence be known though- they left their little pellet shit on the plastic covers of the florescents embedded in the ceiling. The piles grew over time, obscuring the light...removing a tile of the false ceiling to clean it was not something you wanted to do. But I suppose it didn't matter because half of the ceiling caved in a few months later, raining filth, shit and mold down on us. I was surprised when Matt started hanging his treasures...surely we would only be here for a couple months before we found a new place. Why bother going through the effort only to tear it down soon? But, yea, I knew...we were here for a while. Neither of us had the patience, fortitude or talent to hunt down a new cheap place. We were both in school, working and absolutely dead broke...at least with this place we didn't need to jump through credit check hoops or scrape up an exorbinant deposit.
To make our lives even worse, we let some fat chipmunk-faced douchebag move in...we desperately needed another roommate. Unfortunately, he didn't ease our financial woes as he lost his job within the first week. He was fond of downing two or three 40s of Old English a night, so we knew he would remain jobless and his rent wasn't going to be paid. But we were non-confrontational softies and we let him rip us off and fuck us in the ass. His presence was like a putrified asshole- he would occasionally pick his useless hulk off of his soiled mattress, shuffle out of his room and with his absurd bloated face he would survey what we were up to and try to make small talk. Often he would torment the cat by calling it "bitch" and "cunt" hoping to generate some laughs from us. The cat wasn't fixed and was in constant heat, mewling and rubbing its ass against everything. I once caught the guy holding its head down and poking its crotch with a pencil...his ridiculous chipmunk face scrunched up in anger as he repeated, "you like that, bitch?". A thoroughly repulsive human being that we let live there for a couple more months. Hey! He fit in with the dire scenery! We eventually found a friend to take his spot and things got a little better. I was just about to graduate from college so I didn't care about my living situation- I was too busy to notice the black mold covering every surface and the amount of "bits" and old bikes piling up, transforming our apartment into a narrow hallway.
That summer, Matt traveled through Europe with a friend. Before he left he found the entire life of a dead woman thrown in a dumpster. Of course he had to have it and soon the dead woman's belongings were in a giant pile in the middle of our apartment. The pile gave off a sinus-searing stench of old lady and took up the last remaining bit of free floor space. Without meticulously going through his findings, which is his pride and joy, Matt left for Europe...leaving me with the pile of a dead woman and mountains of unorganized crap. I refused to clean his mess out of principle...so I lived with it.
I spent the majority of my time making art that summer, trying to block out my miserable surroundings. The basement dungeon had no air circulation except for a couple small windows which were level with the building's gangway. Fast food wrappers, soda cans and condoms would blow into a pile against the window screens, dirt would whip into the apartment and accumulate in the corners. With the amount of stuff collected in the apartment, it was impossible to keep the place clean. One window looked out into the enclosed sunlight shaft that is common in Chicago apartments. These shafts are always populated with pigeons shitting, squaking and fucking. The entire ground of the shaft was a rocky quarry of ossified pigeon shit...directly level with our window. Their shit, airborn, would blow into the apartment. Often, late at night when I was painting, I would hear the baby on the third floor crying. A woman would attend to it, grumbling, presumably changing its diaper. A couple minutes later I would hear a SPLAT! in the pigeon hole. She was throwing the dirty diapers out the fucking window! By the end of the summer the shaft was mountainous with diapers bulging with crap. Why I didn't confront the woman, I don't know...I didn't want to deal with anything...I was living in a shithole and it was expected...nothing could get worse! But of course it can! Because with pigeons and filth, fleas always hop aboard. The cat was infested, jumping from one elevated surface to another, trying not to hit the floor lest a swarm of fleas envelop and gorge upon her. They instead had a feast on my legs which became a bloody mess. And then there was the constantly fighting couple that was subletting and the never-ending howls and barks of the pit bulls that freely roamed the back stairwell.
The summer was hellish but strangely comforting...an exercise in self-discipline- to see how low I could go and still maintain focus on my art. But in reality I knew I was lazy- confining myself in my pitiful little shithole, working on art to avoid the real world. No more college meant a lifetime of shitty jobs and an overwhelming school loan debt that I would never escape- making all sort of "adult" decisions futile and useless. It wasn't about self-discipline, it was about wallowing in shit. The dead woman pile stared at me night and day, its awful stink a reminder that life amounted to nothing, only something to be thrown in a dumpster. And here Matt was, collecting all of it...giving a pointless life some meaning. But soon he will be dead too and his collection will be thrown in a pit...forgotten...because nobody really gives a shit anymore.
The dirty diaper lady moved out at the end of the summer and we took her apartment. Matt's museum was packed up yet again and moved upstairs. We were moving up in the world! Coming from the dungeon, the new apartment was like moving into a mansion. We were definitely going to stay here for a while and we both went to work on how to best display our collections (my garbage harvesting had grown exponentially since living with Matt). With walls that were higher than seven feet there was plenty of room to display our treasures as well as ample storage space to squirrel away the surplus. We set up our art spaces and record collections and still had room for living- a far cry from the maze-like hallway the dungeon had become. Paulie lived upstairs, our rent was cheap, I only worked twenty hours a week and I stopped obsessing over unpaid student loans- it was a good year.
Our friends moved out of the upstairs apartment the next year and it was soon occupied by an enormous woman and her ham hock husband. The woman instantly disliked us and would get into screaming matches with Matt. He dubbed her Fatty Jubbo, a name I later stole for my own purposes. At the time, Matt was working on a puppet show and the set and puppets would often be stored in the stairwell. This caused much grief for Fatty Jubbo, whose blood pressure would rise every time she stomped down the stairs and had to look at the grotesque creations. Often we would hear her maniacally scrubbing the stairwell, I suppose trying to symbolically scour us from the building. She would spray entire cans of cheap flowery air fresheners into the stairwell, a pungent and artificial stench that would creep in under our door. It was a smell worse than death, a representation of false pretense and petty xenophobia, a reminder of Byron, a hark back to the small minded hellhole of St. Louis that Matt escaped from. On cue, a fight always ensued, with Fatty Jubbo's ham hock husband trundling down the stairs making half-hearted threats to beat Matt's ass. He obviously knew his wife was a repulsive monster and he was just going through the motions. It was a weekly comedy routine.
Aside from Fatty Jubbo, many annoying late night bar-closing parties and a third roommate who would lock himself in his room and strum on his guitar to Eric Clapton, life in the castle on Division Street eventually became tranquil. Matt got a job animating cereal commercials and I started to sell some paintings. Life didn't seem so desperate and chaotic. Even though I loved living in Matt's museum of wonders, I knew I had to move on. It was pushing me out, relegating me to a small corner to work in. I decided to move in with an extreme minimalist- our apartment had a couple of chairs, two desks and a stereo...and nothing on the walls. It was a welcome breather after six years of visual overload and clutter. When I moved my stuff out of Matt's, I barely made a dent but I made sure to leave behind little things that marked my time served- such as paintings that have been fully ensconsed in the installation for years. Matt's museum still grows and grows, it's an organic art installation that reveals its former occupants in layers. When I visit, I always admire the place but I never regret moving out.
So, here, finally, are the photos. Click to enlarge.
This is the living room and the the oldest part of the museum that Matt has been hauling around for years. There used to be a couch in this room but Matt threw it out because his roommates would sit for hours watching bad TV and playing video games. He moved his TV and video players into his room where he can watch his vast collection of animation, Twilight Zone and Dr. Who in privacy. The jars were part of an art show we did together years ago, they are full of fleshy dead things. The one on the left contains an enormous cow tongue that Matt repeatedly injected with alcohol in order to preserve it- it was a comical sight seeing the hypodermic needle being stuck into the grotesque mass of dead flesh.
This is the bathroom. The pile of toys sits across from the toilet. When I moved out it was only half the size. It is incredibly difficult to find the light switch since it is embedded in one of the skull boxes.
This is Matt's work area which occupies the entire front room. On the left is his work table for messy projects such as collages and dead bird sculptures. Oh yea- did I mention there were always a bunch of dead animals in our freezer? On the right is Matt's animation table...for many years he animated the annoying kids in cereal commercials. (It's actually some sort of miraculous aberration that cereal companies still employ stop-motion animation!) He would often come home cursing the animated children by name and would jump for joy when he would be given a circus monkey or the Trix rabbit to animate. These days Matt is an animation professor at a fancy art school.
This is the same room. It's very claustrophobic. On the left is some greasy lobster-faced Perry Ferrel looking guy posing with one of Matt's stranger recent acquisitions. On a trip to Japan a few years ago, Matt was staying with a guy on a small island. Even though he had to keep his baggage light, he still went to town in search for records. When he showed his Japanese friend his amazing finds, he was laughed at- Matt essentially picked up the Japanese equivalent of Heino...a treasure around these parts...but to be scorned by a forty-something Japanese guy who really loved American hair metal.
These are some of the shadow boxes that cover Matt's walls in his bedroom. He has a story for almost every piece of garbage...a doll head found in an abandoned farm house in Missouri, an ossified bird brought back from Poland, a rusted bit from a gutted Southside Chicago factory. One of my favorite stories is the one where he and a friend were in the sticks of Missouri looking for skulls and they asked some kids if they had seen any. The kids led them to the river where they knew of one. Unfortunately it was a bloated and rotten cow coated in flies. The kids started maniacally shooting it with BB guns and laughing. They then turned the BB guns on Matt and his friend. There is no skull to accompany the story, but it's a story that is always brought up.
This is the kitchen, a significantly larger room. The ceiling is monolithic and pop culture junk covers every square inch of the walls. The room is brighter than the others- weird pastel colored Asian food packages replace the browns of rusty bits and skulls. The top left picture is my one main contribution to the apartment- an entire wall of thrift store paintings hung at a perfect diagonal adding a bit of disconcerting German Expressionism to the room. The purple trim is another layer of a former roommate trying to counter Matt's overwhelming neutrals. While the other rooms generally stay the same with Matt's collection fixed in place, the kitchen grows and evolves like a living creature...there is usually some new construction hanging off the wall whenever I visit. Not visible is the painted skeleton on the ceiling.
These are some more random bits from around the apartment. Unfortunately, these photos don't adequately represent the space. You could spend six years here and still discover something new or at least notice a subtle but hilarious juxtaposition of objects.
BOXCARTOON is a recent animation collaboration by Matt and a few friends.