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.
As 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:
Perhaps 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:
Even 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:
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?
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]!
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:
Later 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.
Suddenly, 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.