Miss Parker is the last tenant on the last day of the occupied life of 1121 N. Larrabee St., Cabrini-Green, Chicago. It's Friday morning and, though she's been ordered to be out by nightfall, she cannot pack one more gadget or romance novel into one more box until she's squirted Dove into the kitchen sink and washed those unused dishes. No way is she moving into a new place with plates stained by cockroaches.
The last few residents of the building known as "eleven twenty-one"--mostly non-leaseholders, more commonly called squatters--left earlier in the day. So did two other unauthorized tenants discovered in abandoned apartments. One was a pit bull, the other an iguana.
Now there's just Miss Parker, who doesn't use a first name and doesn't give her age. "A woman who will tell her age," she says, "will tell anything." She's probably in her 40s. She wears jeans, a white head scarf, a cross around her neck and a whiff of exhaustion a lot older than this morning.
"They rushing me," Miss Parker says of the Chicago Housing Authority team that's stopped by to say they'll lug boxes down the stairs so she can be out by dark.
Miss Parker feels rushed, but almost everyone in Cabrini has known that moving day was coming. Chicago's most famous public housing complex is morphing into a mixed-income mecca, and Cabrini's former residents are being moved to places near and far. Miss Parker's building is just the latest to be emptied.
"What am I going to do with my plants?" She points to a makeshift mantelpiece of boards and plastic milk cartons under a portrait of Elvis. On top sit several plants with vines so entwined they need surgical separation.
For almost a dozen years, Miss Parker, who grew up on the West Side, has lived in Apartment 406 of this seven-story red-brick building. Surrounded by gangs, guns and drugs, she's mostly kept to herself, except to deliver 1121's mail, which is distributed door to door since there are no mailboxes. Life has gotten both better and worse as her neighbors moved away.
"Not so many people hollering and cursing," she says. "It's quieter. But more strangers come up."
The strangers are half the reason a dozen shopping carts barricade the corner outside her front door, near the bottomless milk cartons wired to a wall as basketball hoops. While 1121's tenants have vanished, strangers have turned the abandoned halls into playgrounds, primarily for sex and drugs. The carts, says Miss Parker, keep both trades away from her door.
The shopping carts are also where she stows the recycled items she collects and sells as her only source of income. She receives no welfare, she says, and gets food from a pantry. She used to do some child care, but now, she says, "Recyclin's my hustle."
When Friday started, Miss Parker still didn't know where she'd be moving, but in the late morning, the CHA team tells her she's landed a coveted spot in a nearby Cabrini rowhouse. She often has trouble walking and is glad she'll no longer have to fight the stairs.
As the day ticks away, Miss Parker doubts more and more that she'll be done on time. All these clothes, cans and toys. The books, Reader's Digests, Pottery Barn catalogs. Two bicycles she fantasizes she'll learn to ride.
"I'm going to miss it," she says, surveying the cinder-block walls and peeling ceiling of her overstuffed apartment. "But life is change."
And now, she says, excusing herself, she really has to pack. And wash those dishes.
Outside Miss Parker's place, bulldozers beep in the rubble of a nearby Cabrini high-rise. On the floors below, evacuated apartments are still filled with the refuse of the people for whom 1121 was home.
One apartment is clogged with dozens of old bicycles, countless filthy window fans and a TV talking to nobody. In another, lights beam from a bedraggled plastic Christmas tree. Scavengers have stripped some rooms of their window casings, sinks and toilets. In one apartment lie stacks of self-help pamphlets, including "The World's Most Powerful Money Management."
And out front, in the overgrown remains of what used to be one of the nicest yards in Cabrini, a few orange zinnias struggle in the October sun, the last survivors of 1121.