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House work

January 6, 2011

We're awaiting commencement of the Project here on Paulina Street, but we're purposely not holding our breath, because the work is being undertaken by the city of Chicago, and experience suggests it won't be fast. That's OK, because the Project involves digging up the sewer, specifically our sewer (that is, from our house to the street), and the city is paying for it — to the tune, the city's Web site informs us, of $5,000 to $10,000. That being the case, my feeling is, provided the toilets keep working (which, for the present, they are), the city can take all the time in the world. Besides, the delay gives us an opportunity to contemplate how we got here, where we're going, and what the point of it all is, and God knows we could use an excuse to do that.

The question is where to start. If I were a no-nonsense storyteller in the modern mold, I'd begin when we first noticed the sewer backing up, which predictably happened this past Thanksgiving, with the house full of relatives, the turkey in the oven, and dinner not two hours off.  However, in my opinion, that'd be taking an excessively narrow view of things. This has been, from our perspective, an epic saga, involving decay, defilement, and ants, and the tale should properly commence earlier.

I take up the story, therefore, on that bright day in September when coming events first cast their shadow. I had gone down to the basement, glanced in a direction I don't normally glance, and noticed the stain. I knew instantly what this meant: it was time to call Eddie the contractor once again.

Eddie for many years has been my principal defense against the Second Law of Thermodynamics, of whose implacable workings all homeowners have a gut understanding. The Second Law can be written in complicated form with Greek symbols and such, but is more simply expressed as follows: Left to themselves, things tend to go to hell in a handbasket. (I confess to having borrowed this piquant formulation.) Or as it's sometimes restated: If you think things are bad now, just wait.

The significance of the stain, a brownish discoloration high on the basement wall, was that water was leaking into my house. I went outside to inspect; two vertical trim boards on the side of the house had separated, allowing rain to infiltrate. I'd noticed this earlier, but had put off doing anything about it; now I was going to pay. This is the situation to which version #1 of the Second Law cited above speaks.  Nonetheless, I thought, things really weren't all that bad; just pull off the boards, do a little patching, put the boards back. Ha. I was now about to confront the reality described in version #2.

Eddie came over a few days later and inspected the separated boards, expressing mild concern. We then examined the rest of the house in the interest of thoroughness. This served to remind me that I'd put off quite a number of things, repairwise. He paused at one, at the rear corner of the house. The trim board there had rotted. You could stick your finger right through.

Early one morning a few days later Eddie's carpenters arrived at the house. They were stout Polish fellows, their faces filled with virtue, a look all Polish carpenters cultivate. To my surprise, they put up their ladders not on the side of the house, near the leak, but at the rear corner. Two hours of prying, sawing, and hammering then eventuated. At the conclusion of this period the carpenters called me outside to have a look.

They had peeled back the entire rear corner of the house, removing all the siding and sheathing, so that the studs were visible, or what was left of the studs. They had mostly rotted away. (The studs, not the Polish carpenters.) Water had leaked in through a concatenation of unfortunate circumstances it would be tedious to recount — had been leaking in, in fact, for many years. 

But worse was yet to be revealed. As I watched, the carpenters pried one last board off the parapet. This revealed … how shall I put this?  An ant mine. An ant Woodstock. A critical mass of ants, swarming in such neutron-star density that it had probably fused synaptically and was thinking its own thoughts. This thought could now be summarized as: we need to get the foo out. Before my horror-glazed eyes the seething ant army was exiting the hollow wall it had  previously occupied and was covering the premises in a house-shaped ant rug.

What's more, lest I fail to convey the gravity of the situation, these weren't tender, delicate, picnic-size ants, but  giant, swollen, Amazon jungle mutant ants. Big ants, is what I'm trying to say here. It was surprising they hadn't tipped over the house.

The exterminator, a pleasant young fellow, informed me the following morning that they were carpenter ants, which he said was good. They might have been termites, which would have been bad. Wood, for termites, is food, whereas for carpenter ants  it was merely a building material, which they hollowed out to make room for their extended families. I said I didn't find this comforting. If the ants had moved in the equivalent of the population of India, which it appeared they had, they were going to need to do a lot of hollowing. In fact I could see on closer scrutiny they'd done some, but really not that much, because the rot caused by the leaking water had gotten to the wood first.

In any case, I explained, it was now time to put an end to the reign of the ants. The exterminator said he would be happy to do this, using an environmentally friendly product. I stopped him. I didn't want to be politically incorrect, I said, but I didn't want an environmentally friendly product. I wanted a product that said to the environment: this is war. I wanted body counts. I wanted widows and orphans weeping by tiny ant campfires. I wanted shock and awe.

You didn't get that nowadays, the exterminator explained. You sprayed goop on the ant habitations, and they died in the fullness of time. I watched as he went about this business. Most of the ants by this time were lying low, but a few could still be seen browsing about the insecticide-sodden ruins, seemingly unfazed. Maybe they were dead ants walking, but you had to take this on faith. Don't get me wrong. I'm not a sadist. I didn't expect the ants to explode. But one wanted positive results. Rows of crosses on hillsides. An ant bugler playing taps.

Didn't happen. Twenty-four hours after the application of the pesticide, I saw a couple ants perambulating slowly over the house's exposed timbering. They looked decidedly infirm. That was it. The carpenters poured anticidal powder on the framing as a prophylactic measure, then rebuilt the house. Two weeks later the painters came and painted it. I won't describe this process; the house wound up looking largely the same. Where the vast insect population went I don't know. The great engagement had ended indecisively — but it was only an engagement. We still had a lot more war.

And now you'll have to excuse me. I hear the rumble of earth-moving machinery, signaling that the sewer guys have made their appearance. We'll continue this story next week. 

— Ed Zotti
Photo by Pat O'Neil

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