“Suppose,” said the ash man, hands on hips, “everybody on the street hoarded up their ashes all winter?”

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, April 20, 1946.

“A man’s cellar,” enunciated Jimmie Frise, “is his castle.”

“Just a minute …” I put in.

“It used to be a man’s home is his castle,” went on Jim firmly, “but that is no longer true. Little by little, in the past 50 years, men have been pushed farther and farther out of their own homes. Today, about the only part of the house a man is supposed to rule is the cellar.”

“When men began to shave off their beards,” I contributed, “they began to lose their authority in the home.”

“Once upon a time,” recollected Jim, “when a man came home from work, he sat down to supper in peace and quiet. There were no funnies in the newspapers, so nobody wanted to look at the paper but him. The family ate in orderly fashion. The children helped mother red up the dishes. Father retired to the living-room and sat down in his easy chair to spend the evening reading the news.”

“If there was too much noise in the kitchen,” I added, “the father roared for a little less racket.”

“Correct,” said Jim. “Then, when the dishes were done, the children quietly closed the dining-room doors and set to their home work on the dining-room table. Mother brought her knitting and settled down modestly in the rocking chair in the living-room. If father saw anything in the papers that he thought might interest mother, he might read a little of it to her.”

“Through his beard,” I pointed out.

”But mostly,” said Jim, “the evening went in perfect peace and quiet except for father clearing his throat occasionally, in a deep, warning sort of way, if anybody started whispering or giggling in the dining-room.”

“There was no radio,” I put in. “No phonograph. No comics. No movie theatre down at the foot of the street. No motor car in the side drive wheedling everybody to go places.”

“Those,” submitted Jimmie, “were the days. It paid to be a man in those days. The man was the bread winner. He was the mainstay, the prop, the foundation of the whole family. It was the duty of the family to nurture him, tend him, care for him.”

“Aaaaaahhh,” I sighed.

Then,” cried Jim, tensing, “the insidious change began. First – the phonograph.”

“Or was it the comics?” I questioned.

“Maybe it was the telephone,” corrected Jim. “Let’s go right back to the days when men wore beards and sat like gods in their living-rooms. Yes, I bet it was the telephone.”

“The jangle of the telephone bell,” I recalled, “would suddenly disturb the peace and serenity of the home. It might be somebody to talk to father. It might be somebody to talk to mother. At any rate, the seclusion, the sanctity of a man’s castle was broken, invaded.”

“Then followed all the other so-called advances,” said Jim. “The phonograph, the movies, the comics, cheap pianos around which the young people could gather, the motor car, to make home a mere base of operations, then radio …”

“Now,” I recounted, “instead of man coming solemnly and portentously home, to an institution awaiting him in all obedience and respect, a man comes home to find his children, like tiger cats, poised to jump him, grab the paper off him and tear it to pieces on the living-room floor. The radio is on full blast. The telephone is ringing. Mother has the movie page, picking out what show he’ll go to; and the housemaid is demanding to know if this is her night to have the car.”

“Spring Cleaning Time”

“And there, in the midst,” said Jim, “is the man, a poor little clean-shaven guy…”

“Jim,” I demanded, “do you suppose all these so-called advances of civilization might be an insidious plot on the part of the women of the world? Isn’t it a fact that the suffragette movement began just about the time the telephone was invented? Doesn’t it seem strange to you that all these inventions, like the phonograph, the radio, the movies, the motor car, have kept pace, step by step, with the emancipation of women?”

“Did,” added Jimmie, “the emancipation of women accelerate the invention of all these home-destroying agencies; or did the invention of all these home-destroying agencies… I refer to the destruction of the home from the point of view of the man … accelerate the emancipation of women?”

“There’s a very funny hook-up there somewhere, Jim,” I assured. “The more comfortable the world becomes, the more insignificant men become.”

“And the more uncomfortable,” said Jim.

“Aw,” I offered, “maybe we’re just suffering like this, Jim, because it’s the annual spring cleaning season.”

“That may be it,” sighed Jimmie. “Do you suppose that heroic guy we were describing a minute ago, that bearded big guy sitting reading the newspaper in a silent and orderly home, had to put up with housecleaning too?”

“Ah, worse,” I reminded. “Don’t you remember, the carpets were made the full size of the rooms and were tacked down all around the edges? There were carpets in the halls, there were carpets on the stairs, all fastened down with tacks and with nickel-plated corners to hold the stair carpets in place.”

“That was for the sake of quiet,” explained Jim. “A man didn’t want to be annoyed by the sound of people tramping around the house and pattering up and downstairs. Quiet was what a man wanted in those days. Peace and quiet.”

“Yes, but spring cleaning!” I exclaimed. “Boy, what a riot! All those carpets torn up, all of them taken out to the backyard and beaten with carpet-beaters. Wire carpet-beaters and rattan carpet-beaters…. I’ve swung them by the hour as a boy! And the scrubbing of the floors underneath. And the shifting and taking apart of beds, dressers, sideboards…”

“The city,” agreed Jim, “in spring was a din of carpets being thudded and tacked down, and the squeaking and banging of beds and sideboards being taken apart.”

“What did that old bearded guy do in those days?” I tried to recollect.

“He went trout fishing,” explained Jim. “That is why trout fishing used to begin on April 15. In those days there were no highways, so Papa had to make his trout fishing trip by train and be away a week to 10 days, somewhere up in the country, staying at one of those good, thriving hotels that flourished all over. While Papa, in his whiskers, was away trout fishing, his patient and obedient wife, with the aid of the older children, did the spring cleaning. And Papa arrived back to find everything in order and all sweet and tidy for another year of peace and quiet….”

“What dopes we are!” I muttered.

“Have they started at your place?” inquired Jim.

“They’ve been at it two weeks,” I sighed.

“Do they do the cellar?” asked Jim.

“Yes, there’s a playroom down there, so they won’t let me….” I explained.

“You’re lucky,” said Jim. “My cellar has the furnace-room, my work bench and the fruit cellar; and the tradition has been established that the furnace and the work bench make the cellar my problem.”

“Aw, that shouldn’t be much of a problem, Jim,” I chided. “After all, a little sweeping around your bench. A little straightening away of the furnace tools, the shovel, the poker….”

“I know, I know,” agreed Jim. “It’s just the principle of the thing.”

“Look, when I was a kid,” I laughed, “the cellar was my job. I did the tidying up there. I even sloshed down the floors with a few buckets of warm water and a long-handled sort of stable brush. I straightened away the furnace tools, put the coal bin planks neatly in one corner. Carried out a few old boxes and stuff. It didn’t take me half a Saturday morning. And then my mother would come down and inspect the cellar and congratulate me.”

“I suppose there’s nothing to it,” muttered Jim.

“Why, look,” I offered, “I’ll gladly come over and give you a hand at straightening up your cellar, if that’s what you are hinting at. It will give me a nice sentimental feeling. It will bring back my boyhood. …”

“Would you really?” smiled Jim eagerly. “Gosh, Greg, you’ve no idea how a little company, a little co-operation, makes light work of a hateful task.”

“Good Old Guys”

“Aw, it’s just that old-fashioned man in us that rebels,” I explained. “It’s a sort of resentment we feel, coming from our ancestors, good old guys who never deigned to do a tap around the house, on principle…”

“When can you come over?” asked Jim eagerly.

“What’s the matter now?” I replied. “We’ve nothing else on.”

“The reason I’d like to do it now,” admitted Jim, “is this is garbage day and there are a couple of things I’d like to put out…”

“Let’s go,” I agreed.

“How about you putting on some old clothes… ?” suggested Jim.

“Aw, these are all right,” I said. “There’s nothing to it. I won’t soil these clothes.”

“You’d better put on an old windbreaker,” suggested Jim cautiously, so I won’t feel I am imposing on you; I may kick up a little dust…”

“Okay, okay,” I consented. And went and put on an old windbreaker and an old and comfortable hat.

We walked around to Jim’s. All up and down the street were evidences that spring cleaning was in full blast in the neighborhood. Huge heaps of ash cans, cartons and boxes were piled out for the garbage men to collect. Ladies sitting, reversed, on window sills polishing windows. Vacuum cleaners humming, sounds of tapping and banging. An air of great activity. Jim’s house was no exception. There were no cartons or boxes, however, stacked on his side lawn.

“Aha,” I chuckled. “I see through you, Frise! You want me to help carry cartons of junk.”

“There’s not much,” said Jim, rather hurrying up his side drive.

“You are still obsessed,” I laughed, “with the idea that a short man can lift a box of rubbish easier than a tall man.”

“It’s mighty decent of you to come over,” applauded Jim as he opened the side door and led the way down cellar. Instantly I realized what a mistake I had made.

“Jim!” I accused bitterly, “have you left the whole winter’s ashes?”

In the front cellar were stacked a dozen large tin garbage pails, wooden boxes and paper cartons, all bulging with ashes. Back in the furnace room, I could see the shadowy shape of more boxes. And beyond them, the outline of a huge pile…

“Aw, I got a little behind the last few weeks,” apologized, Jim. “In that cold snap the furnace was misbehaving, and I had to spend so long tinkering with it I didn’t have time to carry out ashes too.”

“A little behind!” I snorted. “I bet your whole winter’s ashes are here.”

“No, no, no,” protested Jim. “Just towards the end of the winter, I got a little…”

“This is a dirty trick, Jim,” I stated firmly. “The whole business. Getting me all mixed up in your talk about the way men have lost their dignity in this world. And telling me to put on a windbreaker…”

“If you don’t want to lend a hand,” said Jim, “okay.”

“It isn’t their dignity men have lost,” I asserted. “It’s their energy.”

But Jim had hoisted the first big garbage can full of ashes and was sliding it heavily along the concrete floor. It was far too heavy for one man to lift.

“You even,” I suggested bitterly, “had me in mind when you filled that ash can fuller than you could lift it!”

Jim took one step up and, turning very red in the face, slowly hoisted the can up to him. It was a desperate effort.

“It was just a conspiracy,” I said, bending and getting a hold on the bottom of the can. “Even when you were dumping those ashes on the cellar floor, away last Christmas, you chuckled to yourself and said I’ll hornswoggle Clark into helping me clean out the cellar next spring.”

Jim grunted and heaved. I hove. The ashcan went up.

We doubled on the large cans and on the heavier boxes. We singled on the cartons and smaller odds and ends Jim had used for ash containers. It was dirty work. It was bitter-in-the-mouth work. We could hear the garbage and ash men coming down the street. Cans were clanging, boxes thudding. We had quite a collection out on the front lawn by this time.

“Let’s get it all out,” urged Jim.

“Let’s leave what is left for next collection day,” I countered.

“Aw, let’s get the job done,” cried Jim.

So we hustled.

“That loose pile,” I pointed to the heap of ashes, “will have to wait till next time.”

“You could bring down the containers, as the ash men empty them,” explained Jim heartily. “I’ll fill and you carry. We could clean up this little pile in four or five trips…”

“Nothing doing,” I declared flatly. “I undertook to come and help you sweep up a few shavings, straighten up a few furnace tools. If I’d known you had this mess on your hands, I would certainly never have come.”

An Intentional Oversight

The ash men were four doors up as we carried the tenth and eleventh cartons out and stacked them. When I came out with my next load, the ashmen were past Jim’s place. But our huge display of ashes had not even been touched!

“Hey,” I called. “Boys!”

But they paid no attention. I set the carton down and went over to the truck.

“Hey, boys,” I called “You’ve missed those.”

“And we intend to miss them,” replied the head ash man sharply.

“But it’s your duty…” I exclaimed.

“Suppose,” said the ash man, hands on hips, “everybody on the street, suppose everybody in the city, hoarded up their ashes all winter! How many trips would it take us, how many weeks would it take us, to remove all them ashes?”

“Why, there’s just a couple of weeks’ ashes …” I submitted.

“There’s six weeks’ ashes right there,” cried the ash man, “and he’s bringing up more!”

Jim was hastily retreating for another load.

“You can’t leave them there,” I protested.

“Can’t I?” said the ash man. “My truck is full. Suppose I go back and tell my boss that I had my truck full and a citizen had then come out with all his winter’s ashes. What would he say?”

“But it will be an awful eyesore to leave them,” I argued.

“An awful eyesore especially to you,” said the ash man.

“They’re not mine,” I explained hastily. “I’m just helping a friend.”

“Ah, in that case,” said the ash man, and his comrades were gathering, “don’t you think it would help to teach him to put his ashes out over the winter if we just left that pile a few days until our next round?”

“Couldn’t you make a special trip?” I asked, man to man.

“Not a chance,” said the ash man. “Our schedule is tight enough as it is. I don’t know but what my boss might decide that this was a case for the citizen to make his own arrangements for a private truck to remove the ashes. The city doesn’t contract to move a man’s ashes once a year. They undertake to do it twice a week. That makes it possible.”

Jim appeared with another big carton bulging. He was staggering pathetically under the load.

“If you don’t take them,” I said, “the poor guy will have to go to work and carry them all back in the side drive and hide them for the rest of the week.”

“The trouble you save yourself in January,” philosophized the ash man, “always catches up to you in April.”

“The trouble is, it catches me too,” I muttered. “I can’t walk out on my friend now.”

“Is he delicate or something?” asked one of the other ash men, watching Jimmie tottering back up the drive for another load.

Jim was certainly the picture of an invalid.

“Yes, very delicate,” I sighed, hitching up my windbreaker, and preparing to conclude the conversation.

“In that case, Bill,” called the ash man, “back her up.”

So they backed up, and in no time at all they had hoisted all the cans and boxes up, agreeing also to take the old cartons, And they even waited while Jim and I scooped up the pile in the furnace room and carried those cans out.

It is astonishing how much the ash men’s truck will hold; and also, how much an old friendship will hold too.

“Suppose,” said the ash man, hands on hips, “everybody on the street hoarded up their ashes all winter?”

Editor’s Note: “Red up the dishes” means to clear an area or make it tidy.