Saturday

Aug. 2, 2003

Coffee Cup Café

by Linda Hasselstrom

SATURDAY, 2 AUGUST 2003
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Poem: "Coffee Cup Café," by Linda Hasselstrom from Land Circle: Writings Collected from the Land (Fulcrum Press).

Coffee Cup Café

Soon as the morning chores are done,
cows milked, pigs fed, kids packed
off to school, it's down to the café
for more coffee and some soothing
conversation.

"If it don't rain pretty soon, I'm
just gonna dry up and blow away."
"Dry? This ain't dry. You don't know
how bad it can get. Why, in the Thirties
it didn't rain any more than this for
(breathless pause) six years."

"I heard Johnson's lost ninety head of calves
in that spring snowstorm. They
were calving and heading for home
at the same time and they just walked
away from them."

"Yeah and when the cows
got home, half of them died
of pneumonia."

"I ain't had any hay on me since that hail
last summer; wiped out my hay crop, all
my winter pasture, and then the drouth
this spring. Don't know what I'll do."

"Yeah, but this is nothing yet.
Why in the Thirties the grasshoppers came
like hail and left nothing green on the ground.
They ate fenceposts, even. And the dust, why
it was deep as last winter's snow drifts,
piled against the houses. It ain't bad here yet,
and when it does come, there won't be so many of us
having coffee."

So for an hour they cheer each other, each story
worse than the last, each face longer. You'd think
they'd throw themselves under their tractors
when they leave, but they're bouncy as a new calf,
caps tilted fiercely into the sun.

They feel better, now they know
somebody's having a harder time
and that men like them
can take it.


Literary Notes:

On this day in 1876, James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok was killed in what is now Deadwood, South Dakota. The notorious 39-year-old gunfighter was playing poker when he was shot in the back of the head by Jack McCall, at 4:15 pm at the No. 10 Saloon. He died with a Smith and Wesson revolver in his holster and holding a pair of aces and a pair of eights. We now call that the "dead man's hand."

It was on this day in 1824 that Fifth Avenue in New York City was opened. It's America's most fashionable shopping street today, but it started out as a posh residential area.

It's the birthday of the man who designed Washington, D.C., Pierre Charles L'Enfant, born in Paris, France (1754). George Washington put him to work designing Washington D.C., but then dismissed him a year later for trying to exert complete control over the project. L'Enfant's design was based on the same principles used for the palace and garden of Versailles. Long avenues radiate from key points marked by monuments. It's symbolic of power emanating from a central source.

It's the birthday of writer James Baldwin, born in poverty-stricken Harlem, New York (1924). His stepfather was a preacher and James followed in his footsteps. From the age of 14, James gave sermons at the Fireside Pentecostal church. These experiences inspired his famous 1953 novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, about a young minister named John Grimes. In middle school, Baldwin took French classes from poet Countee Cullen, who was a leader of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. Baldwin learned French from him and then moved to Paris in 1948, where he wrote the famous essay collection, Notes of a Native Son (1955). Baldwin lived in Europe for ten years -- Paris, London, Istanbul -- to avoid the racism he experienced in the U.S. But he returned to America in 1957 to get involved in the southern school desegregation struggle. He spoke passionately in support of civil rights. He organized protests. He said: "People can't, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and friends, any more than they can invent their parents. Life gives these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say Yes to life."

It's the birthday of writer Isabel Allende, born in Lima, Peru (1942). Her father was a diplomat, so the family moved around and she grew up in Chile, Bolivia, Europe, and the Middle East. Her uncle was Salvador Allende, the Chilean president. He was a radical socialist and his reforms led to military uprising in 1973. He was killed. She fled to Venezuela and left behind her beloved grandfather, on his deathbed. She started to write him a long letter, to tell him he would always be kept alive in her memory. The letter grew until it became her first novel, The House of the Spirits (1982), about four generations of a Chilean family. More recently, she wrote Daughter of Fortune (1999) and Portrait in Sepia (2000). She writes everything in Spanish, but her work is translated into many languages.



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