I leaped from my stool and mounted the counter. I pinioned him with my eye and gave him a decisive swat.

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, September 1, 1945.

“Will I be glad,” sighed Jimmie Frise, “to have my family back.”

“House in a mess?” I inquired.

“Ah, yes, the usual,” heaved Jim sadly. “All the beds slept in, one after another. I sleep in my own bed until the bedclothes fall off. Then I move into the next room. And so on. I average about a week to a bed.”

“Dishes?” I inquired.

“Yes, the sink full,” said Jim. “And both sides of the sink piled up. And ants all over.”

“Ants?” I exclaimed.

“Nothing attracts ants like a summer bachelor,” announced Jim. “I can’t find out where they come in. But there are regular processions of them across the kitchen floor, up the legs of the sink, in and around -the dishes…”

“Aw, Jim,” I protested. “You ought to wash the dishes. The least a summer bachelor can do is wash dishes. He can let the beds go. He can let the dust accumulate and the vestibule fill up with old newspapers, handbills, dodgers and advertising literature. But he should wash the dishes.”

“I don’t see it that way,” mused Jim. “If a man is abandoned by his family, if they all go traipsing off to the summer resort and live the life of Riley, swimming, loafing, fishing and keeping cool, while the poor old breadwinner stews in the city, he shouldn’t be expected to keep house, too.”

“But for your comfort, Jim,” I insisted. “Think how smelly the house must become with all those neglected dishes in the sink.”

“A closed-up house,” declared Jim, “gets smelly anyway.”

“But those ants, Jim,” I pursued. “Nasty little insects.”

“Nasty?” cried Jim. “Ants? Never. They are the cleverest creatures in the world. Man is a filthy monster compared to an ant. An ant spends its entire life cleaning up. From the minute it is hatched from the egg, it begins a life of tidiness that makes the finest housewife in the world look frowsy by comparison. The whole be-all and end-all of ant society is cleaning up. They found their colonies for no other apparent reason or purpose but to rid up the world. Ages before ‘good housekeeping’ was thought of, the ant had dedicated its life to housecleaning the earth. Without ants, this earth would be a pesthouse of filth, muck, disease and death.”

“What do they find so interesting in your kitchen?” I inquired slyly.

“My dishes,” agreed Jim cheerfully. “They know I shouldn’t leave my unwashed dishes in the sink. But they don’t look on the moral aspect of it. They don’t fuss and fume about it being my duty to wash the dishes, or that it is none of their affair. The minute they detect, by their miraculous radar equipment that each ant carries, a situation requiring a cleaning-up job, they go to it. Locked doors, screens, bug-proof walls – nothing stops them. Through brick walls, past the most efficient locks and defences, the ants penetrate to their job.”

“I don’t like them in the house,” I submitted.

“If they come into your house,” declared Jim, “it is because you have left something around that should have been cleaned up.”

“Like a jar of raspberry jam,” I suggested bitterly.

“You shouldn’t leave a jar of jam where ants can get at it,” explained Jim, “for if you do, it is spoiling already. And anything spoiling is part of the ants’ job. There are two main sorts of ants. Sugar eaters and fat eaters. If you overlook one little spot of grease that gets on the floor, from spilt milk or a sputter from the bacon frying, the fat eaters will be in to tidy it up for you. If you leave anything sweet about, the ants will be along in no time to get it out of the way before it starts to spread decay.”

The Value of Humans

“How about termites,” I demanded, “and red ants? They eat wood. They’ll ruin a whole house if it’s made of timber.”

“Sure,” said Jim. “How is an ant to know that the dead wood he is eating into sawdust and returning to the earth is part of your house? All he knows is that dead wood must be chewed up to make way for new trees. If it weren’t for the ants, there would be no forests anywhere. The world would be a vast petrified forest, choked with dead trees that leave no room for fresh growth.”

“You make ants sound almost as important as human beings,” I countered.

“Human beings?” snorted Jim. “They’re the least important of all. They’re just parasites. They don’t contribute anything to the earth. They just damage it, alter it, use it, live off it and give nothing back. Take the human race off the face of the earth, and they I would never be missed. The forests would thrive as ever, the wild creatures would swarm as of old, the seas would heave as blue and lovely and teem with undisturbed fish. But take the ants off the face of the earth – and boy, inside of 50 years the earth would be ruined. Changed beyond recognition. Altered fundamentally and perhaps fatally for most of the living things on it now.”

“You’re pretty disrespectful of the human race,” I asserted.

“All right,” said Jim. “Tell me one particular in which the human race would be missed on this earth if, by some miracle, a plague were suddenly to wipe out every last living human being. Tell me one single thing for which they would be missed by the rest of the earth.”

I couldn’t think of one.

“The human race,” triumphed Jim, “is the most perfect parasite designed by nature. A tiger is far more useful. He kills off the weak and the sickly of the animal races he preys on. Mankind not only does not kill off the weak and sickly. He eats only the healthiest and strongest of the things he preys on. And on top of that, he actually tries to heal the sickly and feed up the weak to make them strong enough to eat.”

“Aw!” I protested.

“Mankind has worked up so high an opinion of itself,” said Jim, “that it is a wonder nature doesn’t take some steps to put us back into our proper perspective. We think we own the earth. Yet, as a matter of fact, we are the least essential creature of all, including ants.”

“Wait until your family comes home,” I muttered, “and finds the kitchen full of ants.”

“Aw, I’ll explain it to them,” said Jim easily. “I’ll deliver them a lecture on ants.”

“Why don’t you batch it like me in the summer?” I urged Jim. “I found out long ago that the best way to be a summer bachelor is never to eat a meal in the house. Take all your meals out. When the family goes away for the summer, empty the ice box, empty the cupboards. Don’t allow a shred of food to remain. It is the only solution. Then the only problem you have is bed-making.”

“Part of the joy of summer bachelorhood,” disagreed Jim, “is in having your meals when and where you like. You can whip up an omelette and eat it on the back steps. You can feast to your heart’s content on a quart of milk and a box of your favorite corn flakes while listening to the radio in the living room. Independence. That’s the watchword of the summer bachelor.”

“And ants,” I added. “And mouldy smells.”

“Look,” suggested Jim, “come up to my house for supper with me tonight. I’ll prepare you a treat. I’ll serve you omelette a la ciboulette.”

“What’s that?” I inquired.

“I learned to make it in the last war,” expanded Jim. “At a farmhouse in Picardy. Ciboulette is French for chives. You know: those little oniony, garlicky-flavored things you grow in the garden. You cut a few of the green shoots. Chop them up very fine. Then beat up an omelette and mix the chives in. Yum. Omelette a la ciboulette. It is a combination of flavor curiously perfect. Like bacon and eggs, liver and bacon or bread and butter,”

“It sounds good, Jim,” I confessed.

“Come on,” coaxed Jim. We’ll each eat an omelette a la ciboulette and drink a pint of ice cold milk.”

“Is this a scheme,” I inquired, “to get me up to your house so I will help you wash up a whole summer’s dishes?”

“I assure you. I’m not going to do the dishes,” asserted Jim. “It’s a matter of principle.”

So we went up to Jim’s for supper. The sink was piled so high with plates, cups, bowls, that the top layers were balanced and interlaced so as not to slide and bring the whole pyramid into collapse. Jim had been obliged lately to use all sorts of dishes not ordinarily employed for eating, such as cut glass celery dishes which indicated he had dined off sardines within recent nights, and a gravy boat had traces of shredded wheat in it.

On either side of the sink he had stacked the frying pans, saucepans and all the Frise utensils…

“Jim,” I complained, “don’t you even rinse out a frying pan?”

“And deprive it of its protective film of grease?” cried Jim. “Not on your life. I don’t want rusty frying pans.”

I shuffled through the five or six frying pans and saucepans. Some had traces of egg, some of bacon, and one was decidedly fishy.

“When did you have fish?” I asked grimly.

“Ah, let’s see,” figured Jim. “A week ago Friday, I picked up a swell salmon steak…”

“Summer bachelor!” I sneered. “Summer hobo.”

Jim proceeded to sort through the tangled paper bags, boxes and packets that he had accumulated on the kitchen table.

“Good,” he said. “Six eggs.”

“Which frying pan are you going to use for the omelets a la ciboulette?” I inquired.

Jim bent down and rummaged through the pots and pans cupboard under the gas stove.

“Here’s a couple of granite pie plates,” he announced eagerly. “They’ll do fine.”

I looked around at the scene of wreckage and disaster. The perfect summer bachelor.

“Jim,” I announced firmly. “I won’t eat any omelette a la ciboulette off a granite pie plate. The ghost of Savarin and all the great French chefs would haunt us. I won’t be party to adding even one pie plate to this scene of devastation. I am ashamed of you. I never in all my summer bachelor years saw such a…”

“Here,” cried Jim, “let’s scrape out one of these frying pans, then!”

But I was firm.

“If it wasn’t a matter of principle with me,” I said, “I’d insist on you cleaning up this mess and washing every dish and scraping and polishing every pot and pan. But for 30 years and more, I have made it a rule never to help a summer bachelor wash his dishes. It’s a matter of principle. I’m one of those easy-put-upon people. I’ve had dozens of invitations to help in summer bachelor dishwashing bees. But I have refused them all. On principle.”

“Principle,” murmured Jimmie, and we flocked up and walked the three blocks over to the shopping district where the all-night lunch emporium, “The Swank,” offers summer bachelors the best available.

Mike, the Balkan, who runs “The Swank,” welcomed us cheerily and suggested a tomato omelette. He had not heard of ciboulettes. He was fresh out of bacon, fresh out of liver, fresh out of meat in general. But the good old hen had, as ever, come to the rescue of perishing humanity.

“Give me a fly swatter, Mike,” I commanded.

The place was busy with flies.

“Mike,” I protested, “why don’t you do something about these flies? When I was a young guy, the best restaurants had lovely sticky spirals hanging from the ceiling, covered with dead flies. They had plates distributed around the counters with a sort of iodine colored pad, in water, with dead flies by the dozen floating around. A first class restaurant like “McConkey’s” or Thomas’ “Chop House” had festoons of beautiful pink crepe paper suspended from the ceiling to which the flies were attracted away from the customers’ food.”

“Flies,” said Mike, “in September, flies.”

“But they’re foul, Mike, they’re filthy,” I assured him, as I swatted about. “They carry disease.”

“Everything,” said Mike, as he proceeded to organize the tomato omelette, “carries disease. Chipped cups. Chipped soup plates. Waitresses. We got to have inspection all the time. Disease. How would you rather die? Disease? Or old age?”

I swatted three flies at one swat.

“You’re Hipped”

“Flies?” said Mike. “Every fly has got a number on him. If he has got your number, you get him. Maybe here in Mike’s swell place, ‘The Swank.’ Maybe when you are asleep in a street car. Maybe when you are eating in big downtown hotel where lights are so dim, you can’t see flies.”

“Look,” cut in Jimmie, “you’re hipped on insects. How do we know what good or what evil flies do? We have spent the past 50 years discovering what evils the flies do. Have we tried to find out what good they do? Maybe without the flies, the whole economy of nature would collapse. Maybe these flies you are so blithely swatting are the carriers of good sense, of moderation, of kindliness… of all the things the world has been lacking in the past 50 years.”

I looked at him.

“Jim,” I said, “I realize that a summer bachelor goes from bad to worse. I understand the slow decline in the morale and mental stamina of a man abandoned by his wife and children for a couple of brief months. You spent the earlier part of today defending the ant. But I refuse to listen to a defence of that foulest of all insects, the dirty, disease-carrying, house fly.”

One lit on my nose.

I wafted him off.

He flew to the ceiling.

And very nimble, I leaped from my stool and mounted the counter. I pinioned him with my eye and gave him a decisive swat.

But “The Swank’s” counters are not above suspicion. I leaned a little far in making the shot. My rubber heel touched a small area of counter that the grease-consuming ants had not got their radar on.

I crushed four cartons of eggs, $1.60. I barked my right shin and skinned my left elbow. I broke one cup and two saucers. I ruined the tomato omelette.

“It will cost you,” elucidated Jim, as we helped each other in all directions, “$1.60 for the eggs, maybe 50 cents for the crockery, 80 cents for the omelette, and to get your suit cleaned – with things the way they are in the cleaning and pressing business, it will be three weeks before you have the use of that suit again – at, say, $1.50.”

“Wipe my elbow, wipe my elbow,” I cut in.

“All told,” pursued Jim, “this comes to maybe five bucks. All because of the unthinking, uncontrolled prejudice inherited from past generations of high-handed conceited human ancestors…”

“Listen, Jim,” I hissed, “you’re just a typical summer bachelor You’d even defend mice!”

The mouse?” cried Jim, as he wiped egg off me. “Well, sir, if it wasn’t for the field mouse…”

But Mike came around from the counter with a dish cloth to wipe me off and he suggested that if we would go back to Jim’s garden and get a handful of ciboulettes – chives to you – he would be most interested in faking up an omelette a la ciboulette.

Which we did.

Editor’s Notes: The “life of Riley” means a luxurious or carefree existence.

Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin was a French lawyer and politician, who, as the author of Physiologie du goût (The Physiology of Taste), became celebrated for his culinary reminiscences and reflections on the craft and science of cookery and the art of eating.