The victim of the murder, 52-year-old Ruthie Mae McCoy, may have been schizophrenic, but definitely was paranoid. On an April evening in 1987, she was shot to death by someone who entered her apartment through the hole in the bathroom wall for her medicine cabinet. McCoy heard the intruder or intruders coming, called 911, and told the dispatcher frantically that someone had "throwed the cabinet down" and was breaking in. Two neighbors also called police and reported hearing gunfire in McCoy's apartment. Yet the officers who responded to her door that night left without entering, and it was not until a return visit two days later that they found McCoy, decomposing on the living room floor.
It sounds like a nightmare, of course. But that's what the high-rise projects often were.
McCoy lived in the Grace Abbott Homes, which were near Roosevelt and Loomis. The seven Y-shaped, 15-story Abbott towers housed 3,600 poor African-Americans, most of them children being raised by single mothers, aunts, or grandmothers. Members of a faction of the Black Gangster Disciples, the Paymasters, roamed the halls, calling out, "We got what you want, we got what you need"—meaning the rock cocaine, heroin, PCP, and reefer they were selling. Robbery, theft, and burglary were rampant, Abbott residents doing what they had to in order to buy what they wanted and needed.
The Abbott Homes back then were but one example of the abomination of Chicago's public housing. There were also Robert Taylor Homes, Stateway Gardens, Ida B. Wells Homes, Dearborn Homes, and the Ickes Homes on the south side; Rockwell Gardens and the Horner Homes on the west side; and Cabrini-Green on the near north side. Most of these were built or expanded in the 1950s and '60s. Chicago Housing Authority officials had wanted public housing to be integrated, racially and economically, to the extent possible, given that public housing would be mainly for those of modest means. They suggested sites in a variety of neighborhoods, including white, middle-class areas. But white aldermen weren't about to tolerate public housing projects in their wards, so the projects ended up in black ghettos, where they soon filled with African-Americans on public aid. The projects were woefully funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and CHA saved what money it could by not maintaining them.
I wanted "Bathroom Mirror" to give readers a sense of the plight of the people living in the Abbott Homes. The media, like most everyone else, tended to neglect the projects. Medicine-cabinet break-ins weren't rare in the Abbotts, I learned in reporting this story, but they'd never been written about. ("Bathroom Mirror" describes the mode of entry.) And despite the bizarre circumstances of the McCoy killing, Chicago's dailies and other media virtually ignored it.
McCoy's death seemed especially tragic because of the progress she was making in her life. She'd been visiting a neighborhood psychiatric clinic regularly and taking GED classes. "She was learning to trust people here, come to them with her troubles," the clinic's coordinator told me. "I'm not saying Ruthie didn't have problems. But she was doing things to conquer those problems."
A reader commented Monday on the superficial similarities between the story I wrote and the 1992 movie Candyman. That horror film about urban legends centered on a killer in Cabrini-Green who entered apartments through his victim's medicine cabinets.
There are other similarities. The movie opens with the telling of the story of a Cabrini-Green resident named Ruthie Jean who called 911 for help, wasn't taken seriously, and was later found slashed to death. Ruthie Jean has a neighbor named Anne Marie McCoy. A newspaper—the "Chicago Dispatch"—displays the headline "Who, What Killed Ruthie Jean?" with the subhead "Life in the Projects." In 1990 I'd written a second story, about the trial of two men belatedly accused of McCoy's murder. That piece was titled: "Cause of Death: What killed Ruthie Mae McCoy—a bullet in the chest, or life in the projects?"
I think I know how some of the real story got grafted onto Candyman.
Several months after "Bathroom Mirror" ran in the Reader, I got a call from John Malkovich. He'd been in town for a Steppenwolf production when the story was published, and he'd read it. He said he saw a movie in it, and we met in a bar near Steppenwolf to discuss this.
Malkovich told me he was struck by the tenor of the Abbott Homes. He wanted to render it for audiences who had no idea of the nightmarish conditions in the high-rise projects. He was interested in directing or helping produce such a film.
That seemed fine to me. But Malkovich went on to propose that the lead character be a white reporter investigating a medicine-cabinet killing.
I told him I was uncomfortable with the idea of a movie about poor black people focusing on a middle-class white person. Malkovich said he understood that reservation, but explained that movies whose dominant roles are black usually didn't get funded.
He said he'd propose the general idea to a few producers. I didn't hear back from him, so I assumed no one had been interested.
When Candyman came out in 1992, I paid it no attention. Someone eventually pointed out to me the parallels between Candyman and "Bathroom Mirror," and I rented the film and watched as much as I could stand.
The movie was adapted from a short story, "The Forbidden," by Clive Barker, an English author who specializes in horror fiction. The main character is a grad student researching urban legends. She's especially interested in the one about Candyman: dare say his name into a mirror five times, and a man with a hooked hand will appear and slash you to death with his hook. Such a tale of course requires copious blood, gore, and violence. The grad student was white; Candyman was black.
The film got mostly favorable reviews. The New York Times's Janet Maslin liked Candyman's "spooky atmosphere." Roger Ebert gave the movie three stars. "Urban legends tap our deepest fears," he observed, "and one of the most subterranean involves the call for help that is laughed at or ignored."
Ebert may not have realized that in the projects, it was hardly a deep fear that calls for help would be neglected—it was simply expected.
Our critic, Jonathan Rosenbaum, wrote that the film "depends for much of its shock and suspense on demonizing ghetto life beyond its real-life horrors, which is another way of saying that it exploits white racism to produce some of its kicks."
Barker's short story was set in England. I presume that one of Malkovich's Hollywood chats eventually got to the Candyman people, who thought medicine-cabinet slayings in a U.S. housing project would lend their tale verisimilitude.
Candyman did well enough at the box office to spawn two sequels—Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh and Candyman 3: Day of the Dead.
Most of Chicago's housing projects, including the Abbott Homes, were demolished in the last 15 years. Communities were severed by this, but starting anew with public housing here was necessary. The wrongful policies, however, have hardly been corrected. Some new mixed-income developments opened, but the razing of the projects has resulted in a significant net loss of low-income housing. The CHA's Plan for Transformation has largely failed at moving project residents into more integrated housing; many residents have instead wound up in other poor African-American neighborhoods and suburbs. In coveted neighborhoods near downtown, the Plan for Transformation has often seemed instead like a Plan for Gentrification.
I was glad to learn that Longform was giving "Bathroom Mirror" a second wind, and I hope you'll consider making time for it. I know that a story of more than 10,000 words is a big commitment, but I think it reads like it's barely 8,000. (The second story, about the trial, weighed in at 12,000 words. What can I say? Back then "long-form" really was.)
I also recommend High Rise Stories, a collection of interviews of former project residents that was published last year. And of course Alex Kotlowitz's 1992 account of life in the Horner Homes, There Are No Children Here, is indispensable.
Urban legends may captivate us more than urban realities. But the grim realities of the projects were experienced by many people still living in Chicago today, and we show our respect by at least being aware of them.