by Nancy McDaniel

The man from Omega (“The Last Word in Demolition”) told me it was called a “track hoe with a grappler.” He said it was a small one, only about 50,000 pounds. But to me it looks like a giant yellow beast. A very hungry one. First it bashes and crashes, then it munches and crunches, knocking down the house next door and eating it. Along with 18 years of memories of my next door neighbor, George.

Tearing Down
It was called a “tear down,” reflecting how increasingly dear property has become in my ever-so-trendy (and pricey) neighborhood in Chicago. Ancient houses and two-flats are worth more to tear down than to sell intact. This one, in fact, probably should have been a tear down, a little frame two-flat, in a bit of disrepair, owned by an absentee landlord.

A builder paid $300,000 or so to destroy it so a brand new three-story stone condominium building can go up on the 25′ x 125′ city lot. Instead of a long time, somewhat eccentric tenant next door, there will be families of yuppies. And so it goes. Progress is sometimes sad.

Beast Feeding
The Beast has a gentle mouth – it softly picks up a corner of the second floor, then gingerly turns it inward, so as not to crash on the back porch of the elderly Yugoslavian princess in the house on the other side. After it pushes the pieces down on the ground, it picks them up again and munches them and spits them out again in more bite-size pieces.

It picks its teeth with a giant toothpick that used to be a beam. It keeps eating. It is a very hungry beast.

The “Mayor”
George lived there for 18 years. Always renting, always alone. A retired Chicago fireman and long time industrial hardware supply salesman, George was a life long bachelor. His dogs were his only companions. First there was Crackers, born on the Fourth of July, a sort of lab-like black dog. Spoiled and overweight, she was a sweet dog. After she died, George got Candy (you guessed it, adopted on Halloween). Another black lab-mix. Sweet but a barker.

George was the informal but universally acknowledged “mayor” of our street. The residents are a mix of old timers (the Yugoslav princess, a couple who fed pigeons, several of us who had bought and rehabbed 25 years ago or so) and young college students and young professionals just out of college. The trend is to a homogeneous bunch. Not a lot of “diversity” on this block. George knew them all by name. Especially if they had dogs.

About George
The building that had now become lunch for the Beast sat at the back of the lot, sort of like a “coach house,” with what used to be grass in the front (until the dogs ran it barren and, when it rained, it became a giant mud puddle). George would sit, in Spring, Summer and Fall, at a picnic table, talking to the dog, watching the Cubs (or, in May and June when the Bulls were usually still playing. Oh, those were the days) the Bulls on TV.

He usually had a Bloody Mary or a Squirt and vodka or a Beck’s in hand. And always with a 25 pack of Marlboros (not the traditional 20, because this way he could limit himself to a pack a day). He usually wore a T-shirt commemorating something or other.

It was years before I knew George was bald because he always wore a baseball cap. I used to bring him ones when I traveled. He was missing a few teeth and had a big gap in front that showed when he laughed, which was often.

George, The Neighbor
Ours was a good, if occasionally difficult, relationship. George was the old time type of neighbor who knew everything that was going on and everyone that should – and maybe shouldn’t – be there. His job allowed him lots of vacation (all spent in the yard) and lunch hours at home. So I always felt safe, knowing George was on the watch. Many a robbery in this affluent neighborhood was foiled by George, even more so George than his barking dog. He could yell and cuss like nobody else. If I hadn’t belonged on the block, I would have kept my distance too.

The hard part was when I wanted to sit quietly in my backyard, perhaps sunbathing, reading, or just needing some quiet time with my thoughts. But George always wanted to talk. He had so few people to talk to. I tried to understand that but occasionally it got on my nerves.

George was a talker, not a listener. Occasionally he would get his nose bent out of joint about something I did or didn’t do or say. Never knew what. Maybe it was just the vodka. He always got over it. We always made up.

George, In Charge
He put himself in charge of changing my security floodlights when they burned out and bringing in my mail and newspapers when I was gone on a business trip and taking the propane tank for my gas grill to be refilled because he knew the cheapest place. I would pick up extra things for him at the grocery store. He would share his Poppin’ Fresh pies with me (“Oh, maybe just one piece.”)

I gave him my old Weber grill, when it got too dirty to use. He cleaned it up and used it when he wanted to make a pork roast, when he couldn’t use his beloved top-of-the-line gas grill. It’s now on the sidewalk. I guess the Beast couldn’t eat it.

George, The Protector
George and my ex-husband got along OK. George was also sort of protective of me and seemed to worry a bit about me whenever I had a date. But he also always would make sure it was me who was walking up my back stairs when I came in from the garage at night.

And the time someone broke into my house and stole my VCR, it was George that replaced the lock for me and stayed with me until the police came.

The Beast is eating George’s house. Pretty soon it will be a pile of crumbs. In a couple of days, it will be an empty lot when the house goes to a landfill somewhere. In the Summer it will become a too-tall-for-the-neighborhood building with couples that make one or two hundred thousand dollars a year between them and probably drive a BMW or, more likely, some SUV that will barely fit in the garage. (George had a huge Ford maxi-van that would barely fit on the street. Nothing mini for or about him.) They’ll live there a year or two, then trade up to something else and leave. Not like George, who rented there for 18 years.

The Beast keeps eating. George is gone. I miss him.