Pushing back the jungle

WHEN the people rake their lawns as gently as they comb their hair and sweep their driveways as if waxing a new kitchen floor and polish front door knockers as though these were brass decorations on a Greek billionaire's yacht, it must be spring. Spring brings the obsessions of a neatnik to a full raging bloom beside which tulips look pale.

Like extra-compulsive ants, the neatniks lay out borders of cedar chips and white pebbles, drawn ruler-straight by electric edgers.

Your ordinary shaggy yard is suddenly treated like a blue serge suit from which the resident neatnik is resolved to remove the last bit of lint.

Time passes, and as other passions of spring cool to normal, so does the passion to manicure the world into an unnatural state of perfect prettiness, like a touched-up photograph.

This spring may go down in history as the year the suburban mania for neatness got legislated into permanence. The city council of Dublin, Calif., has written an ordinance stipulating a $500 fine for a Dubliner guilty of such heinous crimes as drying laundry on a clothesline, failing to maintain the lawn in a state of A-1 trimness, imposing on a neighbor the cruel sight of an unconcealed trash barrel, and allowing (shudder) the house paint to peel.

Other California communities have instituted even more severe ordinances, making it a civil offense to leave one's garage door open, sprout a TV antenna on the roof, or paint one's house an ``unapproved'' color, however immaculately it is laid on. The thing that makes Dublin different - the place to watch, and not just for spiffiness - is the civil war that has ensued. A real mess, if you'll pardon the expression.

No Dubliner has made a case for the majestic virtue of carefree sloppiness - yet. But a number of citizens, while conceding that neatness counts, protest the idea of one neighbor turning in another for being a slob. Such phrases as ``Gestapo tactics'' and ``police state'' are being heard on the well-scrubbed streets, and the accusations are not to be silenced by the standard explanation: ``We're only trying to protect the value of property.''

George Santayana - who once confessed that he loved to polish his shoes, but certainly knew when to stop - defined liberals as people who devoutly want their children to wash their hands, though it must be because the tots choose to.

In other words, insofar as liberals are neatniks, they can hardly be liberals. To be neat - compulsively neat - is an act rigid with control, and the baggy, unkempt masses who never polish their shoes (or close their garage doors) do well to fear for their freedom: the civil right to be disheveled.

Let an ideologically tidy city council take over your clothesline, and how long will it be before they take over your clothes? Ordinance 1552: There shall be a $200 fine for any town member found guilty of the following offenses: (a)wearing black socks with sneakers or white socks with dress shoes; (b)dressing in blue jeans after sunset; (c)wearing T-shirts with mottoes not previously approved by a majority vote of council, and so on. Is this too wild to imagine?

From legislation to control the growth of lawns it is a small, sneaky step to prescribing tolerances for haircuts and beards.

Ridiculous, you say? Neatniks may not be reasonable, but they wouldn't go that far!

Just try them. A neatnik of our acquaintance folds up dirty laundry in the hamper more neatly than most people do in their drawers. His soiled socks he lines up with toe and heel precisely parallel. Would you encourage this man with the power of the law?

Another friend compulsively organizes his purchases on the supermarket checkout belt so that produce is arranged according to category and all labels face the same way. The awful part is that he has confessed to a desire to do this for the customer in front of him, and behind him ... and then the customer at the next counter.

And what about the parking lot where shoppers refuse to conform to the painted lines? In a just (and neat) society, shouldn't there be a fine for that? And for cars so disgracefully dusty that small boys write messages on them. And for peeling bumper stickers left over from old elections. And on and on, until the whole world, from your supermarket parking lot to the Great Wall of China, is as spit-and-polish clean as a Marine Corps boot camp.

Appalling thought!

Do even the neatniks truly want this? Well, yes - and no. The truth is, there lies a deep split within most people - we are both halves of the Odd Couple, depending on our mood.

``Chaos knows no bounds,'' says the Felix voice.

To which the Oscar voice responds: ``Neither does neatness.''

A Wednesday and Friday column

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