I could get used to 21st-century apartment living
After a month in a high rise in Chicago, life back in the countryside seems quaint
From the 47th floor (about half the height of our mountain in Wicklow) I had a panoramic vista
I just spent a month in a Chicago apartment and I might be a changed man. My balcony opened onto a forest of skyscrapers: each one a concrete, glass or steel expression of vertical living.
Back here in Wicklow life is more horizontal – our front door looks across low lying hills. The mercurial Irish weather with its ever-changing light ensures that the view is perpetually engaging throughout the turning seasons. Sliabh Bui, the high point on our horizon, changes hue daily, it absorbs me year round and I have yet to tire of it. The summit, a thousand feet above the surrounding farmland, is still 25 storeys short of some of the towers I saw from my Illinois window in the sky.
From the 47th floor (about half the height of our mountain in Wicklow) I had a panoramic vista. On cloudy days mist wreathed the tallest buildings. In sunlight Lake Michigan sparkled in the distance. When daylight ebbed the electric lights came on and the concrete canyons became sharply defined by the mosaic of lit windows in receding rectilinear blocks. Neon signs pulsated and parallel lines of red and white car lights streaked the streets. If I hadn’t had work to go to I could have watched, fascinated, for hours and if I’d lacked a tourist’s curiosity I need never have stepped outside at all.
This sufficiency supplied from outside gradually erodes the habit of acting for yourself. Learned helplessness sets in
Twenty-first century apartment living appears to be materially self-sufficient – in my fully serviced building at any rate – where an integrated, autonomous community (the population of a small Irish town) coexist in ascending layers on a half-acre site. At street level a high-end supermarket operated from early morning to late at night. Bread was baked daily and the butchers, fishmongers, wine store, deli, dairy and grocery purveyors offered seemingly limitless choice. Salad bars and hot food counters served American and international cuisine to order.
The general public was welcome but residents had their own entrance from within the building. The trolleys were designed to fit comfortably in the elevators, thus removing the need to ever lay foot on a sidewalk. The seventh-floor amenities included a gym, a party room with catering kitchen and bar, a well-stocked library, an office space with desks and easy internet access and a management office staffed by friendly people whose purpose was to make life even easier. They were deeply sorry to break me the bad news that the open air pool with surrounding barbecue facilities was closed until the warmer months.
My apartment had its own private internet access and laundry room. It was cleaned regularly and towels and bedclothes were mysteriously changed in my absence. But if the whim struck, a phone call ensured additional fresh linen when required. There were inconveniences: I was asked not to use the trash chute between 10pm and 6am; and apart from paper and glass, any recycling had to be brought to the basement. But the lift was swift and often offered opportunities for human contact.
I was transient of course, but families, couples and single people of all ages lived there and neighbourly chat occurred in the elevator or the residential coffee dock. When tired of the social whirl I could retire to my eyrie and listen to the sounds of the city far below – sirens and the hum of traffic – or silence them by closing the super insulated windows to watch TV and stream music in my sealed, separate, self-absorbed space.
It was great – for a few weeks. If I needed anything at all one call sufficed. I lifted the phone and spoke to the nice women at the desk in the lobby, who sorted it before getting the bus home when they finished their shifts. They didn’t live in the building, of course. Neither did the cleaners or the management team or the supermarket staff.
The sense of the building as self-reliant was entirely notional. Everything was serviced from elsewhere. This sufficiency supplied from outside gradually erodes the habit of acting for yourself. Learned helplessness sets in. When my family visited I ordered fresh towels before remembering I could have just put a wash on. Though I began my stay by cooking in the well appointed kitchen, I ended it nipping down regularly for rotisserie chicken and coleslaw.
Back home on our hillside, life is less convenient – a forgotten pint of milk requires a long walk or a short car ride – but we are also a little more self-sufficient . . . up to a point. We are ultimately in charge of all services, facilities and amenities. This sometimes induces panic but there is that sense of satisfied achievement in solving things yourself. When we can’t – as in Chicago – one call will often do. We ring our farmer friend who knows many things and most people. He helped us fix a kaput bathroom tap last week.
Which reminds me: I’m very glad to be home again but the apartment had a kitchen tap with a multi-directional power hose extension. I really, really want one.
Philip Judge’s book In Sight of Yellow Mountain is published by Gill