Sep. 2, 2009

Real Estate

by Mark Perlberg

How odd to look across the way and note
the Hymans, neighbors for a generation,
are gone. Strange not to see a glimmer of light
in any window as I pass by, or Ida, bent and wiry,
climbing her stoop with a bag of groceries,
or tending the doctor, neatly dressed, asleep in his chair
on the porch, his light dimmed by a succession of strokes.

I was shocked when Ida called to say she sold
the building: two stories high, smooth gray brick,
solid as a bank. Then, one day, the big truck came,
Thirty years gone. Just like that.

"Real Estate" by Mark Perlberg, from Waiting for the Alchemist. © Louisiana State University Press, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1901 at the Minnesota State Fair that Teddy Roosevelt (books by this author) gave a speech and uttered his famous phrase, "Speak softly and carry a big stick." He said that it was a West African proverb that he had always liked. He probably picked it up from his wide reading — he often read a book a day, even after he became president, and he wrote a total of 40 books during his lifetime.

In 1901, Roosevelt was vice president under President William McKinley, a position that he didn't like very much. He said, "I would a great deal rather be anything, say professor of history, than Vice President," and said that the position was "not a steppingstone to anything except oblivion." When he was invited to give a speech in February of 1901, shortly after he had taken office, he refused, explaining that it was "chiefly for the excellent reason that I have nothing whatever to say."

But eventually he got so bored that he decided he needed some regular activity besides his vice presidential duties, and so he went on a speaking tour after all, and the Minnesota State Fair was part of that. Just four days later, at a public reception back in Washington, McKinley was shot in the stomach by a young anarchist. After a couple of days, the president looked like he would recover completely, and so Roosevelt took off on a hiking trip with his family. But the president died on September 14th — a messenger had come to find Roosevelt in the Adirondacks, but by the time he made it to Washington, McKinley was dead. Less than two weeks after his famous speech at the Minnesota State Fair, Roosevelt was the new president, and at age 42, the youngest in the country's history.

It was on this day in 1666, at one o'clock in the morning, that the Great Fire of London broke out at the king's bakery on Pudding Lane.

Fire was a real danger in London — most of the buildings were made out of timbers, with thatched roofs, and were built one up against the next; and on top of that, it had been a dry, hot summer. But peoples' minds were consumed by the plague, which had devastated the population in the previous two years.

The king's baker was named Thomas Farynor, and it was his house that caught on fire. One of the workers in the bakery woke up to the smell of smoke, and woke everyone else up. They went up to the roof and escaped by climbing onto the roof next door — everyone but the maid, who was too scared, and died in the fire.

There wasn't a centralized method of fire control in London. People usually took care of fires themselves, and if the danger was serious enough, they tore down adjacent buildings to make a fire break. When the Great Fire broke out, people in the neighborhood called in the Lord Mayor of London to ask permission to tear the buildings down. He didn't think it was a big deal — in fact, he said, "A woman might piss it out."

A lot of the information we have about the fire comes from Samuel Pepys, who kept detailed diaries about his personal life and the events going on around him. His maid woke him up at 3 a.m. to tell him about the fire, and he wrote, "So I rose, and slipped on my night-gown and went to her window, and thought it to be on the back side of Mark Lane at the farthest; but, being unused to such fires as followed, I thought it far enough off, and so went to bed again, and to sleep." But a few hours later, she woke him up again, and told him that 300 houses had been destroyed.

Pepys walked to a high point in the city to look, where he saw what he described as "an infinite great fire." He realized that the fire was far more serious than the Lord Mayor's reaction. So Pepys went straight to the King and the Duke of York and told them what was going on. They immediately authorized tearing down buildings for fire breaks, but by that time, it was too late. The wind was strong, and the fire was spreading. On top of all that, mobs were forming, convinced that there were arsonists. Some blamed the French, some the Dutch, others the Catholics.

The fire burned from the early hours of Sunday through Thursday. Pepys wrote, "I met with many people undone, and more that have extraordinary great losses." By the time it had finally run its course, 373 acres of the city had been burned, and 13,200 houses. One sixth of Londoners were homeless.

The dispossessed people of London wanted to blame someone. Anyone who was Catholic or didn't speak English well was considered a suspect, and many people were attacked. A French man confessed to starting the fire. Even the jury at the time believed him mentally unstable and probably not guilty, but they needed to blame someone, so he was hanged for the crime. Anti-Catholic and anti-foreigner sentiment continued in London. There was even an inscription that blamed the Catholics put on the monument to the Great Fire, and it wasn't removed until 1831, more than 150 years later.

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