April 8, 2008
Yesterday afternoon I drove back from New Jersey to the house in Long Island where I had spent most of the past two and a half years. It is a summer house, built by my grandmother, Hilda M. Gilbert, around the year 1932. She and her next-door neighbor in Queens, New York, a Mrs. Robinson, had travelled out to the end of the Island to visit the North Fork at that time, had evidently fallen in love with the place, and decided, without telling their husbands, to buy two lots of land adjacent to each other on which to build houses. At least, that is the way the story is told in my family. At that time, land could be had here for next to nothing; it was during the Depression; both my grandmother and my grandfather had steady jobs, she as a history teacher in the New York public school system, he as a linesman and switchboard operator for the telephone company, with an only son (my father), so a summer house was something they could afford. A second floor was added to the house about 25 years ago, when it became clear that both my brother and my sister would be raising families of their own, who would need rooms to accommodate them. This is the house in which I deposited my books (about 70 boxes of them) when I moved back east in the summer of 2005 after teaching for seven years at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
For various reasons, I decided, over the past winter, to return to New Jersey. A number of things precipitated the decision; one of them was the following. One afternoon late in December, when I was sitting in the local public library writing Christmas cards, I overheard a man talking to the librarian about my barber, Frank Fitzpatrick, in tones of regret and in the past tense. I asked the man what had happened, and was told that Frank had been hit by a car while crossing the main road. (He lived in Greenport, and I often saw him waiting at the side of the road, late in the day, to take the bus home.) Later I got a fuller story; Frank had not been killed, but was in a coma. As of a month ago, when I last asked about him at his barbershop, he had still not come out of the coma; an assistant barber is keeping the store going, just in case Frank wakes up.
This accident helped convince me to leave, in part because I realized that Frank was one of the few people among the local townsfolk who had been consistently and genuinely kind towards me, and whose attitude towards his customers transcended purely mercantile interests. Also, the accident reinforced for me an unhappy sense I had had for some time that the drivers on the North Fork of Long Island are largely possessed by demons who tell them that traffic laws apply only to other people.
When I came back to the house yesterday, however, I was quickly reminded of another reason why I decided to leave.
For most of this winter, I had been getting ants in the kitchen. By and large, these were tiny, black ants that seemed to be coming in by way of cracks around the edges of the kitchen window. I first tried spreading Ajax cleanser on the window sill, thinking that the smell of this might deter them. No such luck. I then started putting up masking tape over any cracks through which ants were seen to enter; eventually, virtually the entire perimeter of the kitchen window was masked over. For a brief while, this seemed to solve the problem. I very early lost any pretense of wishing “Peace to All Sentient Beings”; having rolled up a newspaper, I employed it as a cudgel, relying on my human ingenuity and strength against the ants’ superior numbers. I was convinced that their capacity to reproduce themselves could not be infinite, and that, if I would simply flatten enough of them with the New York Times, they would eventually understand what odds they were up against, and would make a collective decision to leave.
Around the end of February, I began to notice a significant change in the character of the ants that were entering the kitchen. Although there still were some of the tiny, black ants, these were now accompanied by large, fat, winged ants, something like fifty times the bulk of the former, and very otiose in their habits; unlike the smaller ants, they made absolutely no attempt to run for cover; even when bopped on the head with the New York Times, they showed no fear, but, if capable of movement, would simply walk lazily in another direction until bopped again by the same rolled newspaper. Also, the ants now seemed to be coming in, not so much from around the window, but from under the wall between the kitchen and the washing room; a heating duct in the washing room seemed to be a favorite way in and out.
I covered the heating duct with a phone book; when ants still found ways of entering through cracks under the metal duct, I put masking tape around it. I set out ant traps; I sprayed in the corners. I continued to wield the newspaper, and found myself using it, and cleaning up ants’ remains, for long hours of the day, and then the next day, and the day after that. The kitchen took on a distinct, and revolting, smell of formic acid. At that point, having packed my bags, and loaded up my car, I drove back to New Jersey, and stayed there for a month, hoping that, perhaps with the advent of better weather, the ants would go outside and the birds would eat them.
Yesterday I returned to the house on Long Island. The ants are still here in force. They pushed an exit through the tape on the heating grate in the wash room; the area now resembles one of the storage boxes I have seen at zoos and pet stores, where insects are kept as live feed for lizards. I called my father; he agreed that we need to hire an exterminator. This morning I arranged for one to come by here tomorrow, to give an assessment. The entomologist, named Mike, called this evening; he asked if the winged ants were few or many; I told him that there are tons of them. He said that that is not good, it means that the ants are swarming, i.e., they are trying to start another nest. The winged ants, he explained, are the female ones.
Anyway, I thought I would give this as a brief account of what I have been doing lately, in case any readers of this blog may be wondering what ever happened to the work I was doing on John Bekkos, and why I have not posted anything about him for some time. Also, the federal and state governments want me to pay them some money next week….