Resolutely, she marched across the streaming pavement and Jim turned the hose away as she came close.

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by Jim Frise, May 10, 1947.

“Public opinion? Pffft!” declared Jimmie Frise.

“Do you suppose,” I scoffed, “that we’d be out here scattering fertilizer on your lawn if it weren’t for public opinion?”

“I resent that!” stated Jim, pausing in the task of strewing greyish chemical fertilizer from the big paper bag. “I like flowers. I like a well-kept lawn. I like a place tidy and attractive. And you say it’s all on account of the neighbors.”

“So it is,” I insisted. “Your lawn is kind of run down. You see all the neighbors’ lawns nice and green. Every time you look out the front window your lawn reproaches you. Your wife reproaches you. Your neighbors, in the evening, as you stand on your verandah, call across to you about your lawn being kind of skimpy…”

“So,” said Jim bitterly, “instead of giving me credit for being out here working, you give it to the neighbors?”

“Certainly,” I agreed.

“You’ve got a pretty low opinion of mankind,” submitted Jim. “At that rate, everybody in this block is just keeping up with the Joneses.”

“That’s it,” I admitted.

“Jim stood and gazed with some resentment around at the neighboring houses. Then he started flicking handfuls of the powdered fertilizer onto the grass again; and I with my bag of it followed suit.

It was just about to rain. It was one of those soft May days when it threatens rain for hours and then begins; the rain dropping softly as feathers. A perfect day for fertilizing a lawn. Jim had called me an hour before to run over in my old clothes and give him a hand at revitalizing his front lawn.

“Not too much,” warned Jim, as we passed each other, carefully flinging the chemical powder. “Too much will burn it. We’ve got to spread these two 20-pound bags evenly over the whole lawn…”

“It’s coming out even,” I assured.

Jimmie looked up at the lowering clouds and held out his hand.

“If it’ll just hold off another 15 minutes,” he said, “while I scuffle it with the rake, it will be perfect.”

“Nice timing,” I agreed. “And in a couple of weeks, you’ll have a lawn here that will admit you back into full citizenship with your neighbors.”

“Look,” said Jimmie firmly. “If I lived away out in the backwoods, somewhere, I’d still have a tidy and attractive home. I’d have a nicely painted shanty, even If it were only a shanty. I’d have nice grounds. around it, and flower beds…”

“In all your life,” I interrupted, “did you ever see a nice tidy place in the backwoods? No. They’re all the same. With old junk leaning up against the walls. With tools and implements dropped just where they happened to fall. Jim, the nature of man is to be as untidy as he can get away with.”

“Listen, I’ve seen lonely farm houses,” declared Jim, “away off the beaten track, that were simply beautiful, with flower gardens, and lawns, and everything beautifully painted.

“That isn’t the general rule, Jim,” I countered. “The farther off the beaten track you go, the more run-down the farms are. The more you come into farming communities, the better are the chances that some one farmer has got a little style to him. And he infects the whole neighborhood. And everybody starts keeping up with the Joneses.”

“In other words,” exclaimed Jim a little angrily, “we’ve all got to be led. We aren’t equals. We don’t stand on our own feet. We don’t do good of our own free will. We have to be wheedled or prodded or SHAMED…”

“That seems to be it, Jim,” I philosophized. “Our whole social system is based on the mutual respect of neighbors. Now, you take a big city like this. There are districts full of dirty, slummy streets where every house is equally run-down and dilapidated. Not one house in a block will show the slightest sign of care or attention. Do you suppose that among the hundreds of men and women living in that street there isn’t ONE good housekeeper? Not one good man who would like to improve the appearance of his home? There must be. But they respect their neighbors. They respect everybody else’s poverty. They fall in line.”

“Hah!” exulted Jimmie. “Now you’ve disproved your own theory!”

“Not at all,” I assured, walking along the last edge of the lawn and sprinkling the chemical evenly. “The thing that keeps this street you live in all at about the same general style and condition is that you all fall in line. And if you people fall in line, you must expect the slum districts to fall in line. We are led up. Or we are led down. But we hate to be conspicuous. So we all do as our immediate neighbors do.”

“In the slums,” insisted Jimmie, “I HAVE seen the odd nice, tidy, painted home…”

“Yes, and a very unhappy man you’ll find in that house,” I explained. “It’s the same with streets like this one you live in. Now and again you’ll come across a neglected, run-down home sticking out like a sore thumb amid all the neat and tidy neighborhood. Somebody very unhappy lives there too. In the case of that neat little house in the slums, that man will keep on struggling until he can move away into a better district. In the case of the run-down place in the nice district, the guy will continue to muddle and struggle until he is able to move down into some neighborhood where he is more at home. To be happy in this world, Jim you have got to conform.”

“To YOUR neighbors?” demanded Jim, glaring around at the circle of pleasant homes surrounding his.

“To your neighbors,” I sermonized. “Public opinion is everything in this world. Not public opinion in the broad sense. But in the narrow sense. Some people think public opinion as being a vast vague body, like the ocean or the air we breathe. Public opinion is no such thing. It is in compartments. It’s like water in a bucket. Or air in a sealed room. It starts in small compartments like this immediate neighborhood in which you live. The public opinion you are most concerned with is the opinion of your immediate neighbors here. Then comes the public opinion of this district at large. Then, adding the various districts together, you get the public opinion of your city. Then, of your province. And so on. But it all starts right here on this lawn.”

“You mean…?” cried Jim indignantly.

“That we are throwing this fertilizer here on this lawn,” I triumphed, “because you are submitting and conforming to public opinion!”

“I hate the whole idea,” muttered Jim, casting his eye over the finished job.

We had got the grey powder very nicely and evenly distributed by hand all over the expanse of the lawn. Here and there were little patches where it was too thick, but Jim was getting the rake to scuffle it evenly.

Any minute, the rain would start to fall: Soft May rain that would first dampen, then moisten, and finally wet the fertilizer and, according to the directions on the bag, seep the revitalizing chemicals sweetly and harmlessly into the soil around the tender spring grass-roots.

Jimmie got the rake and swiftly scuffled the top dressing. And I went and sat on the verandah.

“There!” cried Jim, as he finished the raking to his satisfaction. “And just in the nick of time.”

I saw the first gentle drops falling through the air. And Jim came up and joined me on the verandah to lean back in our chairs and smoke and view with satisfaction a job well done.

“How long,” I inquired, “will it take for this stuff to show results?”

“The directions on the bag,” said Jim, “say that an emerald green will be apparent within a few days. If the stuff is properly applied.”

I picked up the empty fertilizer bag off the verandah floor and found the directions. I read them with the pleasure intended by the writer. I could fairly feel the little grass-roots out there tingling. I read down to the bottom, where it said “Warning!”


“As this fertilizer is a concentrated plant food, do not exceed the prescribed amounts or serious burning of the vegetation will result. Be specially careful of lawn grass. Ten pounds per 1,000 square feet is the maximum and less is recommended rather than more.”

“Ten pounds,” I said to Jim sharply. “Per 1,000 square feet! Why, Jim, that lawn isn’t much more than 1,000 square feet…”

“I figure it’s 4,000 square feet,” said Jim. “Forty foot frontage by…”

He sat forward abruptly.

The rain was increasing. Soft, but thick.

“Holy…” gasped Jimmie.

“Jim,” I cried. “We’ve put 40 pounds of fertilizer on there…!”

“Forty foot frontage by…” whispered Jim in agitation. “Forty by 10 is 400 square feet…. Oh, my gosh!”

“Jim, it’s ruined!” I shouted, leaping up.

“The hose! The hose!” wailed Jim, floundering to his feet.

“What’ll the hose…?” I cried following.

“We’ll wash off all we can, before the rain seeps it in!” shouted Jimmie, leading into the house.

He grabbed his raincoat and threw me a spare slicker. It was much too big for me, but it would do. That rain outside was increasing to a lovely warm deluge. And every second, that poor grass was being burned worse.

Down the back steps we galloped like firemen, seized the coiled hose and raced out the side drive with it. Jim slammed the connection up to the garden tap and started screwing while I took the nozzle end and dragged for the lawn.

The rain was now pelting. It beat on my slicker and bounced in a warm spray.

I felt the hose stiffen and the cool stream shot forth. Jim came and seized it from me.

“You get the broom,” he panted, “and the rake. I’ll hose as hard as I can, and you try to sweep…”

I dashed around to the back kitchen and got the broom. And on rejoining Jim, I stood forth and swished for all my might. I swished as Jim hosed.

And the rain came down all the harder.

I happened to look across the street, and a lady, one of Jim’s neighbors, was standing on her verandah in an attitude of astonishment.

When she saw me look at her, she suddenly shrank back and disappeared indoors.

“I guess the neighbors will think we’re crazy,” I cried to Jim.

I happened to glance up again in a minute, and I saw several ladies standing on their verandahs. Also a couple of old gentlemen of the kind who have retired.

They were all watching us.

The ladies began skipping, in the rain, with their coats over their heads, from porch to porch, and gathered in little knots and groups.

And the rain increased. And Jim advanced with the hose, step by step, shooting the powerful stream in its work of mercy, while I danced ahead, swishing with the broom.

“We’re creating a little excitement,” admitted Jim, as he saw the gallery increasing.

“I wish this slicker fitted me better,” I said. “I must look kind of silly….”

“Well, neighbors are neighbors,” muttered Jim. “Even if we do look silly, they don’t need to spread the word…”

“They’re not laughing,” I pointed out.

“By golly…” said Jim, seeing the same shocked expression on them all…

Then from one of the verandah gallery groups a figure detached itself. It was old Mrs. Crisp, one of Jim’s favorite neighbors. A dear old lady under an umbrella, who often came and sat in the evenings on the Frise porch.

Resolutely, she marched across the streaming pavement and Jim turned the hose away as she came close. Under her umbrella, she came right close to us. “Boys!” she said, in a shocked voice. “Boys, for your wives’ sakes, for your families’ sakes, won’t you be good boys and go indoors!”

“Why, Mrs. Crisp…!” cried Jim, staring.

“Boys!” hissed Mrs. Crisp commandingly. “It’s raining. It’s pouring rain. Now, do, like good boys, go in the house. Please! You are making a spectacle of yourselves before the whole neighborhood…”

“But Mrs. Crisp!” gasped Jimmie, turning off the nozzle so he could talk more freely.

“Now, now,” soothed Mrs. Crisp firmly. “I don’t object to a little jollification for you boys. But not with the whole district out observing…”

“Mrs. Crisp,” said Jim, stepping close and bending down so the old lady could see his honest sober gaze and smell his breath if necessary. “Mrs. Crisp, you are quite mistaken. We’ve just discovered we’ve put far too much fertilizer on the lawn, and we’re trying to wash it off, before it burns the…”

“Oh!” squeaked Mrs. Crisp, in consternation. “We thought… we all thought… oh, dear!… I must go and tell them…”

And she hustled across the street under her umbrella and hurried from verandah to verandah, calling out the explanation to the gallery, which, in response to the news, vanished indoors immediately.

“Yah!” grated Jimmie, resuming the hosing, “so there’s public opinion for you! There’s neighbors! Always putting the worst possible interpretation on everything…!”

“Thank heavens,” I gasped, sweeping, “for dear old Mrs. Crisp!”

Editor’s Note: There was one other illustration that came with this story, but it was in the seam of the microfilm scan and was completely illegible.