The Cold War in Our Backyard: Tear Down this Garage!

Fixing up an old house feels like a decade-long game of Aesthetic Whack-a-Mole. As soon as you fix one mess, everything around it instantly becomes doubly ugly – doubgly.

Moving into the Babushka house in winter meant that for the first few months, we could easily ignore the Babushka Back Yard, otherwise known as the Chicago Urban Rodent and Deadly Plant Wilderness Preserve (CURADPWP – which is also the sound* made when the flat side of a shovel lands on a rat).

In June, we kicked off the backyard cleanup by cutting down several lanky, mangy Blue Spruce trees, including one that towered over the three-story apartment building next door.

IMG_6077As soon as the trunks hit the ground, sunlight flooded into our dining room like a bunch of East Berlin teenagers in 1989 (the dining room is West Berlin in this metaphor). The tree cutters – who, despite their cavalier daily use of chainsaws, still boast their original arms and legs – left us with a handful of “sittin’ stumps,” and a perfectly clear view of the rotting garage at the back of the yard:

IMG_6179Perhaps if we had snobby neighbors, or lived in a city with a better-functioning government, we would have been ticketed and forced to tear it down months ago. But the crumbling Babushka garage has been our dirty little secret, our private pocket of sadness.

Are you ready to be sad? Here’s the roof, or what’s left of it:

IMG_6195Like an adolescent snake, the west side of the garage seems to be molting its outer layer:
As long as we’re dabbling in snake metaphors, here’s where the rats go in and out:

rat holes in redEven the parking pad was trashed. Rats had burrowed underneath and up through the foundation, transforming the concrete floor of the garage into a dusty mound of dirt and rat turds. I didn’t get a good picture of it, but just imagine that a truck full of Fiber One™ Cereal had spilled into our garage:

fiber one or rat poo

Guess who’s too classy to post a picture of actual rat poop?

A couple weeks ago, the toxic mix of garage sadness and disgust combusted inside me. I called a few garage contractors, but none would build a new one for less than $10,000 – not including the initial demolition or (if we wanted to get real fancy), city permits.

Later that day, I caught my next-door neighbor Bill smoking on his front porch and explained my dilemma. Bill told me that in the 50-plus years they owned this house, the Babushka family never actually parked a car in that garage. In fact, the Babushka herself didn’t even know how to drive. “Oh yeah,” Bill coughed, “she walked to work, she walked to the store; I don’t know why they even owned a garage.”

Suddenly, the answer was obvious: WHY DO WE EVEN OWN A GARAGE? I’ve never owned a car, and never will, so what’s the point?

And before you know-it-alls start grumbling about resale value, please know that we don’t plan on selling this house for another 30+ years, which is beyond the life expectancy of any garage we would build today. Besides, who needs a garage 30 years from now, when we’ll all either be 1) dead, or 2) flying around with solar-powered jet-packs?

not sure why fatal is in quotation marks

Not sure why “fatal” is in quotation marks here.

To my delight, simply demolishing the garage was well within our arbitrary backyard budget (coincidentally, the same as our tax refund).  Now, to persuade Scott of the brilliance of my demolition-only plan, I summoned the ghost of Ronald Regan, circa 1987.

Admittedly, in 1987, I was more worried about what tampons were for** than the state of Cold-War Europe. But President Regan, who was probably not scared of tampons, made a speech in West Berlin, perched dramatically before the Brandenberg Gate of the Berlin Wall. He said (sort of):

As long as this scar of a [GARAGE] is permitted to stand, it is not the German [BACKYARD] question alone that remains open, but the question of freedom for all mankind. Yet I do not come here to lament. For I find in [THE BACKYARD] a message of hope, even in the shadow of this [GARAGE] a message of triumph. General Secretary Gorbachev, [SCOTT] if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this [GARAGE]. Open this [GARAGE]! Tear down this [GARAGE]!

Tear down this garageDespite being a lifelong Democrat, Scott agreed.  I picked the skeeziest, face-tatooeeyist (not coincidentally, the cheapest) guy to do the demo.

A few days later, Face Tattoo’s crew showed up with the cutest little Urban Compact Excavator you ever did see. Estelle chose to watch the demolition from the safety of her cardboard house:


By lunchtime, they had crushed the structure and began digging up the Fiber One™ foundation:

20150724_102240Later that day, it was our turn to host the neighborhood fortnightly Friday night potluck party. I warned our gaggle of friends that they could browse the weeds and rubble that was now our backyard, but that they probably wouldn’t want to hang out there, especially with kids. 

Despite my warnings, curious friends wandered out back with their drinks, eager to toast our Liberated Backyard. Then somebody dragged out a cooler, then a box of water balloons, and a speaker, and a tray of chips and dip, and before you know it we had a makeshift party circle, with folks sitting on plastic chairs, milk crates and tree stumps. Kids happily picked through the rubble, discovering ancient bottle caps, and an old pipe wrapped in a copy of a November 1979 Chicago Sun-Times.

IMG_6205Suddenly, our yard fell twice as big as before. Because it was! My mind swirled with possibilities (our neighbor’s bathtub whiskey also helped) – what to do with all this space? By Chicago standards, our backyard now was positively Versailles-aian.

Enthusiastic friends, of course, submitted their plans. “Winter hockey rink!” shouted our hockey friends. “Urban Farm!” yelled our gardening friends. “Archery range!” squealed our toxophile*** friends. The ideas flowed: Bocce ball court. Corn maze. Lap swim pool. Underground trampoline. Mud wrestling pit. Jell-O™ wrestling pit. Pet cemetery. Golden Girls– themed lanai. Cage-fighting octagon. Improv amphitheater. Skunk pig**** sanctuary. Hubcap museum.

The future of our backyard – now liberated from the tyranny of the Garage – is bright. As a certain Cold War president once said:

“[Garage] Freedom leads to prosperity. [Garage] Freedom replaces the ancient hatreds among the nations [neighbors] with comity and peace. “[Garage] Freedom is the victor!”

*  I’m thrilled to combine two of my favorite devices – acronym and onomatopoeia – into a brand-new, genetically modified word form, the Acrotomotopeia (patent pending).
  **  Tampons still kind of scare me, with more health warnings on the box than a pack of Marlboro Lights.
*** Toxophile is a lover of archery, and has nothing to do with tampons.
**** Or really, any breed of the New World Pigs.


14 thoughts on “The Cold War in Our Backyard: Tear Down this Garage!

  1. I am so enjoying your blog. I love the Babushka House and every improvement you make to it. I feel you are unburdening it, peeling away a lifetime of drab. Plus, I enjoy the alliteration and metaphors. I’ve added you to my Blogs I Heart. ( Do bloggers still do that?) Thanks for another great post. -Sally


    • Glad you like it, Sally! I like how you say we’re unpeeling layers — that’s exactly how it feels. Like when we first bought the house, on day one we pulled down curtains, then carpet, then wallpaper, down the layers. The garage never felt like it belonged to us anyway, like a big alien squatting in the backyard, a reminder of another era.


  2. I have a shed like that, halfway down our very large backyard. Perhaps not *quite* so toxic, and we haven’t seen any rats, but it’s definitely an eyesore. Trouble is, we do use and need a shed… I’m considering planting something rampant and invasive to sprawl over over it, and there’s a plan to put a row of banana trees in front. One day…
    Now, in your new acreage, how about a large vegie plot, a shade tree or two down the end, and a chicken run: fresh eggs and huge entertainment value for the children (and you, if we’re honest)?


    • We are definitely going to get some kind of secure storage shed for bikes. I’ve been drooling over the ones from this company:
      Though they are way out of my price range. They have yoga sheds and greenhouse sheds and studio sheds! I want all the sheds — a whole colony of sheds!


      • I can see why they’re out of most peoples’ price range – they’re luxurious studios, not sheds! Mind you, I wouldn’t mind one of those bigger ones for a sewing studio, with perhaps a greenhouse off one side of it, and a mini kitchen somewhere, and an extension off the back to hold the motorbikes…. Well, you get my point!
        Something a LOT of people do in Australia is buy an old shipping container, stand it on a concrete slab, install ventilation and a light tube, and use it for *everything*. There are even people living in them, suitably converted of course, and they come in different sizes.


  3. it’s a “fatal” car crash because in the future, with the inevitable zombie apocalypse, car crashes become very dicey predictors of “fatalities” — sure, there was disembowelment, but was the brain sufficiently damaged so that this was a “fatality” that in fact stays “fatal”? Or does the driver, after a reanimating dashboard nap, come snapping and urrrghing back to life on a zestful search for brains?


  4. Pingback: The Fence that Broke All the Rules (and maybe a couple of building codes) | projectophile

  5. Pingback: Paw-anormal Activity: The Feral Cat in our Wall | projectophile

  6. Pingback: Do-It-Yourself or Call a Pro? Use this Fun & Free Flow Chart to Decide! | projectophile

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s