Many people today don’t know what a real louse is, as opposed to a metaphoric one in an old James Cagney movie, nor may they recognize the related adjective lousy. There is a better chance that the plural form, lice, will ring a bell. The truth is that in most industrial countries the louse has been rendered a seriously endangered species by the dramatic improvements in plumbing witnessed by the twentieth century. Body lice, the dreaded porters of typhus, are now mainly relegated to memoirs of Auschwitz or the gulag. It would be hard to find a body louse even in the New York subway system, and that is saying something. As the admirable Hans Zinsser pointed out in a classic book*, indispensable to anyone approaching our subject, this should be no laughing matter. But it is. “The louse is foremost among the many important and dignified things that are the subjects of raucous humor by the ribald. Despite the immense influence of this not unattractive insect upon the history of mankind, it is given, in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, two thirds of a column—half as much as is devoted to ‘Louth, a maritime county in the province of Leinster,’ one fifth as much as is allowed for Louisville, Kentucky.”
On the other hand, head lice, which fortunately do not carry diseases, have maintained their small but unshrinking market share among even the higher echelons of the American bourgeoisie, specializing in middle schools and summer camps, including the most de luxe. The website of the National Institutes of Health is very comforting. “Having head lice does NOT mean the person has poor hygiene or low social status”. Of course if you have to be reassured by a governmental bureaucracy concerning your “social status,” you are probably in deep trouble already.
My beautiful and delightful granddaughter Lulu had to learn this the hard way last week. Everybody knows that if you lie down with dogs you get fleas. But what happens if you hang out for hours on end with the offspring of physics professors and tax lawyers in an “enrichment program” at an upscale Quaker summer camp? Answer: head lice. It was only as she was about to board a train to New York with her grandmother and her sisters that Lulu became definitively aware that some very intimate strangers seemed to have taken up residence in her long, gorgeous, raven hair.
I was not in New York, so I am dependent upon my daughter’s report for the rest of the story. It is a source in which I have the fullest confidence. I have bragged about my daughter in another post , and will not now burden my readers with further praise. But she is a very Can-Do kind of lady, and I had no doubt that she would be able to take care of the louse problem. What was unexpected in her report was the incidental good news about the American economy.
She met the girls upon their arrival in the city. After taking very brief medical advice, and conducting a hurried search on one or another hand-held device from her portable console, she took off, with three daughters in tow, for Midtown. There, somewhere in the mid Fifties are the posh offices and state-of-the-art delousing laboratories of Licenders. I’m one of the world’s leading collectors of silver linings. I try to practice, as well as preach to my students, the art of turning lemons into lemonade. But even I was astonished to discover that some American entrepreneurial genius has made a fortune coming up with a franchise for nit-picking. Jobs, jobs, jobs! And not all of them in Texas!
For my daughter reports that the place was crawling with—uh, let me start that sentence again. She reports that the Manhattan offices of Licenders were replete with concerned matrons from the Upper East Side, each accompanied by a nervous child (mainly long-haired daughters), positively champing at the nit to pay a small fortune to undergo a process that the promotional video makes seem as jolly as a mother-daughter visit to the Camden Aquarium.
One mother in particular stands out in my daughter’s narrative: a severe and soignée blonde ice-maiden, “probably the wife of some hedge fund manager.” She couldn’t possibly have known that sociological detail. She was undoubtedly trying to spare her aging parents her more usual vernacular phrase, “rich bitch”. This woman was scandalized to find herself in a delousing station, however upscale, and positively mortified when an examination of her own expensively coiffured head—a survey of the heads of household being part of the drill at Licenders—discovered a thriving colony of the dreaded pediculosis capitis right there on the mother ship.
Meanwhile, life goes on. It took but a moment for our resilient raven-haired beauty to put this distressing episode behind her. She’s back among the Quakers this week without having missed a beat.
*Hans Zinsser, Rats, Lice, and History (1935)