"This is the 'Oh my God, are you kidding me?' pile," says Peter Walsh, a teensy
hint of exasperation flashing across his face. The usually unflappable Australian is standing with Allison and Kay Johnson in their family's Woodland Hills, California, driveway, the contents of their garage all around him. A quick scan reveals rusty weights, Entourage
DVDs, two stained-glass chandeliers, beat-up cardboard boxes full of dirty gardening tools, a red Snoopy suitcase, baseball bats, pet carriers, a belt sander, a fish tank stuffed with boxes of mosquito dunks, bins of Christmas ornaments, expired containers of motor oil, vinyl records, stacks of books (Flowers for Algernon; Driven from Within,
by Michael Jordan), tangles of neon bungee cord, mismatched dishes, framed Jimi Hendrix posters, and a giant, dingy, dusty Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. In other words, three decades of family life, metastasizing across the cement. Walsh, star of OWN's Enough Already!,
rolls up his sleeves and prepares to get busy.
Step 1: Purge the Junk
When it comes to garages, Walsh recommends "jumping in the deep end" by staging an annual clutter-cide, wherein every last garden shear and mystery electrical wire is dragged out to be assessed and (in most cases) eliminated. Eighty-six percent of single-family houses built in the United States in 2009 had at least a two-car garage, and for many families this square footage ends up becoming a repository for stuff we don't want to look at, don't have room for anywhere else, and aren't even sure we need. "Garages are the elephant burial ground of the 21st century," Walsh says. "Stuff goes in; stuff never comes out."
This has been especially true for Kay and her husband, Tony Johnson, a creative couple with pack-rat tendencies whose garage has been accumulating evidence of their professions and varied interests (wet suits, signs from Kay's defunct floral business) since 1977. Kay, a microbiologist, seems overly fond of glue guns and Christmas decorations, while Tony, a hardworking clinical psychologist from a humble background, has always found it wasteful to part with anything that still works (and many things that don't). Their two sporty kids—Allison, 31, and her brother, Jeremy, 27, who lives in San Diego—contributed their own share of stuff until the garage was so packed the doors wouldn't close; Kay hung bamboo shades to hide the mess from neighbors.
These days, however, Mom and Dad are looking ahead to retirement: Tony is in Costa Rica, fixing up their future home, while Allison, a no-nonsense charity fund-raiser, has volunteered to help her mother shape up the family's bungalow, which will eventually be sold. Allison has already cleared out some of the garage by holding a yard sale ("One person assumed it was a multifamily sale," she says), and persuading her parents to donate their second fridge ("There was a square-shaped carpet of rat droppings underneath"). When the remaining mess was still too much to handle, she called Walsh for help.