Jan. 24, 2007

Into the Lincoln Tunnel

by Deborah Garrison

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Poem: "Into the Lincoln Tunnel" by Deborah Garrison, from The Second Child. © Random House. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Into the Lincoln Tunnel

The bus rolled into the Lincoln Tunnel,
and I was whispering a prayer
that it not be today, not today, please
no shenanigans, no blasts, no terrors,
just please the rocking, slightly nauseating
gray ride, stop and start, chug-a
in the dim fellowship of smaller cars,
bumper lights flickering hello and warning.
Yes, please smile upon these good
people who want to enter the city and work.
Because work is good, actually, and life is good,
despite everything, and I don't mean to sound
spoiled, but please don't think I don't know
how grateful I should be
for what I do have —

I wonder whom I'm praying to.
Maybe Honest Abe himself,
craggy and splendid in his tall chair,
better than God to a kid;
Lincoln whose birthday I shared,
in whom I took secret pride: born, thus I was,
to be truthful, and love freedom.

Now with a silent collective sigh
steaming out into the broken winter sun,
up the ramp to greet buildings, blue brick
and brown stone and steel, candy-corn pylons
and curving guardrails massively bolted and men
in hard hats leaning on resting machines
with paper cups of coffee —

a cup of coffee, a modest thing to ask
Abe for,
dark, bitter, fresh
as an ordinary morning.

Literary and Historical Notes:

On this day in 1848, James W. Marshall was building a sawmill for Captain John Sutter, using water from the South Fork of the American River, when he noticed several flakes of metal in the water and recognized them to be gold. Though he tried to keep it a secret, the word spread quickly, and triggered the California gold rush of 1849.

At the time, California was technically a part of Mexico. Coincidentally, just a little more than a week later, the United States and Mexico signed a treaty that led to the United States' purchase of the land that became California, as well as the other southwestern states. If Mexico had known about the discovery of gold on this day, they might never have sold all that land for just $15 million.

The reason the gold rush caused such a huge migration of people across the United States was that gold was a particularly easy mineral for ordinary people to mine. Gold has chemical properties that make it unlikely to combine with other minerals, so it is usually found relatively pure in nature. And because of its density, it would often get washed out of mountainsides in rivers, and then settle at the bottom of the river wherever the water was calm. So instead of having to build a huge mining operation, with lots of fancy machinery, ordinary people could just sift through the pebbles at the bottom of a stream, and if they were lucky, they'd find gold. The price of gold was about $20 an ounce at the time. If a riverbed contained gold, it was possible to pan out 10 ounces a day, earning more in a week than the average worker could earn in a year.

In the 10 years prior to 1848, only 2,700 people had settled in California. By the end of 1850, almost 200,000 people had moved there, and they did so even though California was 1,000 miles from the nearest state, Texas, and there were no major roads to get there.

By 1860, more than $600 million in gold had been mined out of California, but very few ordinary people actually made it rich. The riverbeds were panned out pretty quickly, and then the only way to get the gold was by using machines. But even though it didn't help many of the miners, the gold rush greatly increased government revenues, and helped build the American West. Some historians have argued that the gold from California even helped the North win the Civil War, since it was those gold revenues that helped fund the war effort.

One of the people who did manage to make a fortune from the gold rush was an immigrant from Bavaria named Levi Strauss. He was a traveling merchant, and he specialized in a sturdy brand of trousers made of sailcloth and held together with copper rivets. His pants were extremely popular, and they became the basis of modern blue jeans.

It's the birthday of Edith Wharton, (books by this author) born Edith Newbold Jones in New York City (1862). Her first great novel was The House of Mirth (1905), about the frustrated love affair between Lawrence Selden and a young woman named Lily Bart. She went on to write many more novels about frustrated love, including Ethan Frome (1911) and The Age of Innocence (1920), which was the first novel written by a woman ever to win the Pulitzer Prize.

Edith Wharton said, "Life is always a tightrope or a feather bed. Give me the tightrope."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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