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Boat owner tells tales of living as floating squatter on Chicago River

Paul Buschauer talks about his bowhich he docked illegally Chicago River for years. “It’s like . . . living log

Paul Buschauer talks about his boat, which he docked illegally on the Chicago River for years. “It’s like . . . living in a log cabin, but then you walk up the embankment and there you are, smack dab in the city.” | John H. White~Sun-Times

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Updated: April 26, 2013 6:02AM

In the dead of night on the Chicago River, and at the top of his lungs, Paul Buschauer loves to sing, “I found my thrill! On Blueberry Hill!” while playing piano.

And why not? Only ducks hear Buschauer, who has been an on-and-off floating squatter for 15 years — docking illegally and unapologetically alongside land he doesn’t own until he and his 74-foot boat got the boot.

But the 58-year-old nomadic boatman of the North Branch could not fly below the radar of authorities forever, and the most recent boot, delivered by the city last fall, uprooted him from a cozy spot near Goose Island.

After months of declining to chat, Buschauer decided to shed his low-profile mentality and paint a one-of-a-kind picture of his life on the river.

“It’s like going out on your own and living in a log cabin, but then you walk up the embankment and there you are, smack dab in the city,” Buschauer said. “The sun bounces off the water and spreads across the boat like a million shimmering diamonds.”

Over the years, he has hauled a baby grand piano aboard (it’s a pain); watched a giant beaver at work (it’s beautiful); fished a chubby drunk guy out of the water in the middle of the night (also a pain); experimented with numerous Charlie Trotter recipes in the galley (they’re delicious); taken hundreds of naps while reading books on still summer days, and formed a bond with the river few will ever know.

But squatting isn’t all storybook stuff. The self-described “river rat” has butted heads with property owners and police over his unique lifestyle. And Buschauer would advise going on at least five dates to blunt the shock of bringing a woman back to the boat.

Buschauer grew up in the Norwood Park neighborhood on the Northwest Side, one of five kids in a Catholic family. His life trajectory was pointing toward a career in crunching numbers until he abandoned his accounting major after graduating from Western Illinois University, preferring instead to use his mechanically inclined hands and his imagination.

The two forces found balance when, in 1979, he began restoring the exterior of old high-rises — a purely warm-weather gig that allowed him to devote winter months to “personal projects.”

His greatest project to date is his 30-ton homemade cruiser. Together they have become a modern curiosity.

River squatters are a rare breed in Chicago and were last seen in mass on the North Branch after the Great Depression — lured by the rent-free existence of life on a houseboat, according to John Quail, a director at Friends of the Chicago River, a conservation group.

It appears Buschauer has no contemporaries.

His unlikely route to the river started in 1991, when, as a landlubber with little watercraft experience, he saw a newspaper ad for the steel skeleton of an unfinished boat. A master craftsman and expert tinkerer who enjoyed staring at construction sites as a kid, Buschauer had found his next life project.

So at 36, he paid $10,000 for it. “It was as powerful a feeling I’ve ever had,” he said.

Its previous owner, after years of labor, had only managed to weld together the boat’s hull before dying of cancer.

Buschauer worked on the boat for six years, finishing two rooms, then shoved it in the water and thanked the gods of buoyancy.

He was eager to start his life on the boat, which he christened “Burden of Dreams” as a nod to its previous owner.

Squatting is a trial-and-error process. His Depression-era predecessors didn’t leave a how-to guidebook, but Buschauer didn’t mind winging it.

He learned to stay away from ever-increasing shoreline condo developments.

“You don’t want some couple sipping coffee on their patio to see you and get upset. It’d be disrespectful,” he said.

And he stuck to the North Side. “It’s where I grew up.”

Buschauer has been booted from at least eight spots. After a few missteps, he ended up alongside the parking lot of Gordon Tech High School.

“A priest came down and told me, ‘You’ve got to leave. We’re sorry to see you go, but we’ve got to get you out of here because parents are complaining,’ ” Buschauer said. “He was charitable, though, I’d been there for two years.”

After the priestly reprimand — nothing new for Buschauer, he went to Holy Cross High School — he next parked on the east side of Goose Island, just north of Division. During this three-year stint, the area underwent heavy development, and Buschauer ran afoul of a parking lot owner.

“He wanted me out, and I told him, ‘Forget it, you don’t own the river,’ ” he said.

The police soon came knocking and they relayed, in no uncertain terms, that he had outstayed his welcome in Chicago. So he retreated to a marina in south suburban Riverdale, where the “Burden of Dreams” stayed for three years. But after a few bad business deals, Buschauer found himself with only $100 in his pocket.

“So I decided to sneak back to Goose Island,” he said. “I headed north on New Year’s Eve because I didn’t think anybody would be on the river to see me.”

He found a perfect spot east of the island, next to the Carbit Paint Co. and across the river from a recycling plant. Bushes lined the river’s edge, and he couldn’t be seen from the nearest bridge. “I was nearly invisible,” he said.

For five years, Buschauer lived there on his boat — his longest stretch. Parking was ample and his paint-factory neighbors appreciated the extra set of eyes for security, even letting him use their hose. Buschauer would walk a block to buy groceries at Whole Foods, often taking his time and having a beer at the bar. He took garbage to local Dumpsters and had pizzas delivered to a nearby cross street.

“I played the blues. I had a TV, a stereo, all the comforts of home,” he said.

Locked steel doors protected his sleeping quarters. He spent only $3,500 a year, mostly on firewood, maintaining the boat’s battery and pumping out waste. Buschauer kept a little speed boat tethered to the larger boat and went cruising at all hours. “It was like the river was mine.”

Buschauer observed water fowl, floating refuse and an increasing number of kayakers. He had no enemies, unless you count, for one unusual summer, the hundreds of rats that became his shore-side neighbors. “I’d stomp my feet and they’d scatter,” he said.

“I never saw a dead body, but I’m sure one floated past,” he said, half-joking.

Buschauer married twice, divorced twice and had a son during his river odyssey, during which he lived in the city and suburbs between stints on the boat.

“My first wife was indifferent towards the boat,” he said. “My second wife hated it.”

Neither spent much time on board. His son, 20, is studying aviation at Western Michigan to become an airline pilot.

“I wanted to live on the river because I wanted to be able to make some noise,” Buschauer said.

But by November 2011, the river’s allure had faded. Buschauer moved out, taking his piano with him.

“I was losing interest in roughing it, only living in two rooms,” he said. “I wanted neighbors.”

He rented an apartment in Edison Park but returned regularly to work on the boat, until authorities again came knocking last fall.

In October, the Chicago Department of Transportation towed “Burden of Dreams” to a dead-end river channel just west of Chinatown.

Pete Scales, a department spokesman, said Buschauer was moored illegally, tied up to tree roots and branches, “posing a potential hazard to navigation if it ever came loose.”

His smokestack was too close to tree branches; the boat was unregistered, and living on a boat on the river is illegal, Scales said.

“CDOT repeatedly asked him to move it and make repairs, but he refused. We towed it to a safe and secure place for the time being,” he said. “He’s got to step up to the plate and secure his boat.”

When asked why, after five years in the same spot, the department finally decided to dislodge Buschauer, Scales said he didn’t know.

“I had a nice spot where I was,” Buschauer said. “I rode it as long as I could. I figured maybe they would come down on me for some reason, and they did.”

He thinks someone must have complained about his boat.

“It’s an eyesore. Maybe I should have painted it, but I was really happy there,” said Buschauer, who claims his squatting days are over.

His interests have wandered, and he has taken on new projects. He recently posted a three-part documentary, “74 Foot Homemade Boat” on YouTube. He’s also videotaping the fingers of piano players to create a new and improved how-to DVD series for budding pianists.

And the boat is for sale, Buschauer said.

“But, who knows? Maybe I’ll find a way to finish it and motor down to South America, like I’ve always dreamed.”

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