Anna May Swanson goes by Ann generally, unless it’s the government or the doctor calling; then it’s Anna May. She lives alone on the top floor of our three-story apartment and takes the stairs two to three times a day for exercise. She reuses bits of recycling for her own PPE. This is how I met her when we moved in June 2020, coming down the back porch stairs as my boyfriend and I huffed and sweated our furniture through the alley gate, a bit of faded silk scarf over her mouth and nose, biscotti wrappers repurposed into gloves and merrily crinkling on each waving hand.
“Jack was saying how much [information] you can get from your telephone. Well, not from your telephone, from your hand telephone,” she explains to me from the other side of her locked apartment door. Jack, her stepson, helped her prep for this interview: I could hear his voice on Ann’s landline speakerphone while climbing the stairs to her place, sharing some data he’d found about our little crook of Edgewater. For example, the building right next door to ours recently sold for a large sum and is “fancy now.” It wasn’t fancy when Ann lived there from childhood to age 45, when, in the shortest move I’ve ever heard of, she relocated all her belongings across the alley to the place she lives now. Our building was and remains decidedly unfancy—Ann and I have talked a bit before this about starting a tenants union to get our management company to fix literally anything—but she’s made it her home for 47 years, meaning Ann, who will be 92 this spring, has lived on our street for the better part of a century.
I asked Ann if I could interview her because I’m interested in what it’s like to live somewhere so specific for so long, and because I like to hear the stories she tells me in the stairwell. As Omicron spiked, we decided chatting face-to-face was out, but as her landline and my cell phone don’t get along, so was a phone call. Instead, I listen to her drag a chair in from another room to her entryway while I sit down on her doormat. I feed two copies of the Reader with my name in the masthead under the door, so she knows I’m for real, and watch them wriggle and disappear as she tugs on them from the other side. Her door between us and our masks on, we begin.
How long have you lived here?
It’s about 48, 47 years here [on Victoria Street], and 34 on Ardmore [the building next door to ours]. Something like that.
And where did you live before that?
Various places on the north side, always the north side.
What was this building like when you first moved in?
There was no fence in the backyard. There were no washing machines. The sidewalk was cracked in the backyard.
Does the inside of your apartment look different from then?
No, no. Except they decorated [recently], painted the kitchen and the bathroom. They’ve done that before. I got new linoleum.
One time this summer, when I bring her some mail, Ann invites me in. Everywhere in her kitchen, there are sticky notes, with names and numbers written in cursive; I see mine among them, along with the magnifying glass she uses these days to read. Her stove is in the same place as ours, but it’s much smaller, much older, and looks like it’s made of porcelain. Above it, the corner of the ceiling leaks when it rains, she tells me, and gets in her soup.
The apartments on our side of the building come with weird little almost-porches that face the street—not quite three seasons, not quite a room. Some residents use theirs as precious storage space. I’ve filled mine with plants. Inside her place, I see Ann has done the same, only some of her plants are decades old. She has the usual household pothos, green and veiny, except there is nothing usual about hers: there are so many vines it’s become a huge riotous bush, new leaves cascading down over years of yellowing and dead brethren. She too has a Christmas cactus, only hers looks less domesticated and more like the real thing: a strong, fuchsia-tipped desert tree. Her Christmas lilies have thick, heavy stalks—she stopped putting the bulbs to bed a long time ago, and now they bloom and grow year round. Everywhere in this little room are heavy old bags of dirt and half-full gallons of distilled water; everywhere are the husks and dust of things long dead, and life creeping over.
Have you always lived alone? Or did anyone else live with you?
My mother for a while.
Did you move in with Jack and Jack’s dad, or were you alone when you moved in?
I don’t wanna bring that up.
Gotcha. Thank you for telling me.
What was the neighborhood like when you first lived here?
I went to the beach a lot, with my girlfriends. I used to drink water at the fountain there, at Sullivan’s. You should find out about Sullivan’s on your telephone!
I’ll look it up. [I do look it up, but am unsuccessful, so I e-mail the experts. “There was a drug store named Sullivan’s Pharmacy at 5759 N. Broadway from at least 1922 through at least 1965. Would be interested in reading the story. Best, LeRoy Blommaert, Edgewater Historical Society.”]
Then we would go to another neighbor’s garage, which was on the parking lot of Walgreens now, at Ridge and Broadway. We’d use his bathroom. There were four of us who would go in there [laughing] when we were out shopping at the dime store on Bryn Mawr. We were always shopping at the dime store.
What did you used to get?
I used to always get colored sewing thread, because I loved to do cross-stitch and embroidery.
What kind of colors did you like?
Oh, anything that was unusual. Off-reds, off-blues, off-yellows. I’d get up, have a box full of different colors.
While I’m transcribing this interview, Ann knocks on the door. “Mailman!” she sings out through her mask. Ann has had many jobs in her life, one of which was as a preschool teacher. I love her voice: it’s bright and scratchy and exactly right for reading to a bunch of squirmy three-year-olds. It’s the kind of voice that wants to play.
Today, Ann’s wearing a blue cardigan, gray trousers, and drugstore glasses. Her hair is white and flossy and sticks up in excited little exclamation marks all over her head, making her look, to my imagination, a bit like a nonagenarian Joan of Arc. She’s windswept and eager, as always, even though I know it’s been a long time since she’s properly been outside. She hands me a letter that was delivered to her by mistake. We talk for a bit about how messed up our mail has been, but how much better it’s gotten since we started calling the local post office together to fix it.
How has the neighborhood changed?
I don’t know that many people now. At that time, there were more kids to play with. They were always in the alley jumping rope, playing hide-and-go-seek in the gangways, which are not there anymore, except that they’re boarded up. And we would roller-skate on the tar part—[that’s] where the sewers are in the middle of the street. That was smooth skating on that. And then in the street, we would play red rover, red rover, and so we would be standing on the curbs and running across the street, there and back. Then we used to go to the Armory and go roller-skating there.
On the phone yesterday, you told me about a big snowstorm on Outer Drive [an earlier name for Lake Shore Drive that Ann still uses], where you had to crawl on your hands and knees to see the lake.
Oh yeah, that was one year when there’s no cars on the Outer Drive, and I remember thinking, “Oh boy, this is the first time I’ve really been able to walk on the Outer Drive!” I did it as much as I could until I got past the buildings, and then I crawled on the top of the snow like I was swimming to reach the water, which was frozen and had ice caves—frozen waves that were just real high near the edge of the lake.
Why did you want to go see it?
Oh, I figured I’d never get that chance again!
Were you a teenager, were you a kid, were you in your 20s?
Well, that wasn’t that long ago. Probably 1985. I’m not sure. [This places Ann in her mid 60s.]
Do you have advice for other women in the city who are living independently, as you have lived?
Just do everything that you wanna do!
Sometime in the fall of 2020, there’s a soft knock on our door. On the other side is Ann. Her pilot light’s gone out, and she needs to borrow a lighter to spark it again, but the only one we have is one of those long ones meant for grills or, in my case, half-burned novena candles, and she’s never used anything like it before. She takes it, but is back again shortly, asking my boyfriend, Carter, to show her once more how to use it. She practices for a minute in our doorway, using both her thumbs to pull down the safety switch and trembling with the effort to do so. Carter is quietly alarmed, and offers to light her stove for her, but Ann waves him away. “I’ve got it this time!” she says, and then, to our cat Poe, who is a kitten at this point and who has crept to the doorway to watch a human only slightly larger than him wave around some fire, “Hello, bunny! You have a rabbit!”
Definitely alarmed now, we both offer to come light her stove, but Ann assures us that she’ll have no trouble lighting the pilot light now, her eyes are just a little bad at night. She disappears again, and we brace ourselves for an explosion. Minutes tick by, and then here is Ann again: red-cheeked, shining blue eyes, the long lighter held up in her hand like a sword. “I got it!” she says triumphantly, and thanks us.
What do you do during the day lately? How do you spend your time?
Trying to keep up with everything.
What is “everything”?
Well, reading information. I like to read about health . . . I think it’s important to exercise the joints. The legs and the arms, the toes and the ankles—anything that bends that doesn’t wanna bend. And even exercising the scalp, by brushing. A stiff hairbrush, a hundred strokes a day.
How do you get the news?
When the TV is working, I get it through there.
A week or two after the pilot light episode, there’s another knock, only this time I don’t think it’s a knock, I think it’s the apartment settling. A moment later, I hear a rustle, and find a sheet of paper slipped under our door. It’s a note from Ann. “Hi Katie, Carter & Poe,” it begins. “I hope you can all enjoy the ‘Meow-a-thon,’ on Ch. 9, today, Thurs. and have a Happy Enjoyable Halowen [sic]. Ann #3.” On the top right corner, there’s a carefully inked face of a little cat.
You’re someone who has seen a lot of history and has lived through quite a bit. What do you think the next year will be like?
Oh, I think we’ll be in outer space more and more. There’s gonna be plenty of real estate up in the sky there [laughs].
Do you like that idea?
Well, I don’t know if I’ll be here. I think in the future, we’re definitely going to need more people on whatever they discover up there. They started that last week, they went up to outer space—I don’t know if [where they went] is the definition of [space]—they only went ten minutes. I don’t know if that’s above the ionosphere, or stratosphere. There’s so many spheres up there. I don’t know what they consider outer space. Definitely where the Space Station is, they’ll put something up so people can hitchhike up there [laughs again].
If you were here, would you like to go there?
Yes! If it’s safe. Only if it’s safe.
What do you like about the idea of living in space?
Well, there’d be more space [laughs]!
What are your own hopes and thoughts for the new year?
They’ll be able to find vaccines that can handle all the variations of diseases. Other diseases that have been hard to eradicate.
Do you have any advice for young people for next year?
To learn about everything that you wanna learn about.
Once, during the weeks of our mail fiasco, when I bring 13 pieces of Ann’s mail that was delivered to me up to her front door, she tells me a story about spending weeks in England in her 20s, and how she and her sister drank poitín (a type of Irish moonshine) with some Irish immigrants deep in the countryside. Another time, before the COVID spike, Ann shows me the old globe in her apartment. She studies it almost daily, trying to memorize the regions, waterways, and borders. “Even though some of the names have changed,” she explains to me (for example, her globe still says Burma), “the lines and the lands are mostly the same. I just think it’s important to know about the world.”
Passing each other in the stairwell this fall, she unexpectedly starts talking about the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan. “It’s awful,” she says, then stops. Ann is very careful with her words, and when they escape her, she takes as long as she needs to locate them again. I wait. “I just think,” she says haltingly, “that if women were in charge, and if we gave women money, there’d be no more war!”
Do you still embroider?
No, I don’t. ’Bout all I do is sew buttons. Especially when you can’t go to the store and you’re trying to keep everything as wearable as can be.
At this point, as is usual in our conversations, the topic turns to hardtack. In the stairwell one afternoon in autumn 2021, Ann tells me about her favorite way to make hardtack sandwiches, a thing I didn’t know people voluntarily did. She likes them panfried with a slice of strong, good white cheese.
It’s so nice to be able to store the bread and not be afraid of it spoiling.
Where do you get hardtack from?
More and more regular grocery stores carry it. Before it used to be Swedish delicatessens. [Ann was born in Chicago, but one of her parents immigrated from Sweden, the other from “above the Arctic Circle.”]
Did you learn anything new this year about yourself, or how the world works?
I think I have to think about that.
How did you decide to stay on this block for most of your life? Why did you decide to stay?
The lake. That’s always been what I liked about this building, that I could walk to the lake. We can drink Lake Michigan water. And you can always get fresh air. And when a storm is coming, and it’s a northeasterly, you know it’s coming from the lake. It’s coming from Canada.
I always liked to have a perimeter where I can walk all the time—to Sears Roebuck, and that was the first Sears store they opened up, and that turned condo. And I used to walk up to Evanston. I’m afraid of walking too far [now].
Do you remember the last time you went to the lake to see it?
I can’t remember.
If you ever want me to take pictures of the lake, I can take them and print them.
Oh, no no no, that’s OK. One of these days [laughing] I’ll get out of this house when that pandemic gets a vaccine that will wipe it out.
Is there anything you want me to know right now, or do you have any questions?
It’s just nice having neighbors, and I certainly appreciate you taking [care of] the mail. It’s so important to keep in touch with what I’m doing. You made me real happy, and especially at Thanksgiving time, when I noticed there was mail out here. Thank you.
You’re welcome! I hope your mail is getting delivered regularly now, but if you have any troubles, you know where I live.
I think it’s nice that we both have the same idea of making things better. It’s nice to be in touch with somebody that knows stuff, that you can converse with. I’m very grateful for that.
Well, I’m very grateful that you’re my neighbor. I like hearing what you have to say.
When my boyfriend and I were unloading the car after our New Year’s trip to Michigan, Ann is doing her stair exercise. She declines to be interviewed further, but encourages all to have a happy New Year.
Caught in a systemic cycle of incarceration, addiction, and homelessness, how do you make room for the possibility for hope?
I want choice, not a fistful of deeply unhelpful options wrestled, after months, from the banal, cruel system we make poor people navigate to access health care.
For those who live there, the Ewing Annex Hotel is a refuge, an artifact, and a last chance. The man who’s been holding it together for more than 20 years is about to retire.