Oct. 17, 2009

Department Store Fictions

by Jason Whitmarsh

The mannequins are all in love with you
and too depressed to say it. The cashier
flirts with another cashier, who eyes you,
who eyes the sales rack of wool pants.
Behind each mirror hunches an old man
watching women adjust their skirts,
their sunglasses, their hair. Small dogs disappear
on the escalator. Everyone leans forward
at the perfume counter, asking to be touched.

"Department Store Fictions" by Jason Whitmarsh, from Tomorrow's Living Room. © Utah State University Press, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The London Beer Flood occurred on this day in 1814. At 6:00 on a Monday evening, a torrent of beer came rushing through the streets of the St. Giles district of London.

It started at the Horse Shoe Brewery at Tottenham Court and Oxford Street, where there were huge vats of porter perched on top of the roof. They contained beer, which had been fermenting right there for months. The wooden vats were enormous — some as tall as 22 feet — and were structurally supported by large iron hoops, dozens of them. They sat on the roof of the Meux Brewing Company, each of them containing hundreds of thousands of liters of beer.

The largest vat had started to strain under the weight and pressure of all that porter, and on this day, around 6:00 p.m., one of the iron hoops gave way and all the porter in the 22-foot-tall vat came gushing out. There were about 600,000 liters of beer in there, and when the vat burst and all that beer came exploding out, there was a chain reaction and the surrounding vats on the roof also burst. More than a million liters of beer toppled the brewery's brick wall (it was 25 feet tall) and began flooding the streets of St. Giles.

People came out onto the streets of St. Giles with mugs and buckets and pots and pans to collect the free beer; others leaned over and drank directly from the streams gushing down the streets. But many people were injured by the torrent and sent to the hospital, where inpatients smelled the beer and nearly rioted to get their share.

Nine people died. About half were children who drowned or sustained fatal injuries from the flood, which had also crushed the roofs of buildings near the brewery, adding heavy timber to the gushing rivers of beer. One man died a few days after the flood from alcohol poisoning. Trying to prevent all of it from going to waste, he had drunk a lot of beer in the span of a few days. People brought a lawsuit against the Meux & Company Brewery, but in court the flood was ruled an Act of God, and the brewery was not held legally responsible.

In 1919 there was a molasses flood in Boston, Massachusetts, after a massive tank of molasses crumpled and burst. The molasses flood destroyed houses and trains and killed 21 people.

It's the birthday of Arthur Miller, (books by this author) born in New York City (1915), widely considered to be the greatest playwright in America. His father was the wealthy owner of a coat factory, and the family had a large Manhattan apartment, a chauffeur, and a summer home at the beach. Then, in 1928, his father's business collapsed. He watched his parents sell their most valuable possessions, one by one, to pay the bills, until finally the family had to move in with relatives in Brooklyn. Miller had to share a bedroom with his grandfather.

He paid his way through college with a job in a research laboratory, feeding hundreds of mice every night. He had never been interested in theater before, but he thought he would enter a play-writing contest to make some extra money, and he won with the first play he'd ever written.

His play, All My Sons (1947), was about a man who has been selling faulty machinery to the Army, and finds out that he has caused the death of 21 soldiers. The play ran on Broadway for 328 performances, and was made into a movie the following year.

Miller used the money he made from All My Sons to buy 400 acres of farmland in Connecticut. In 1948, he moved to Connecticut by himself and spent several months building a 10-by-12-foot cabin by hand. As he sawed the wood and pounded the nails, he thought about the main characters of his next play: a salesman, his wife, and his two sons. He knew how the play would begin, but he wouldn't let himself start writing until he had finished the cabin. When it was finally completed, he woke up one morning and started writing. He wrote all day, had dinner, and then wrote until he had finished the first act in the middle of the night. When he finally got in bed to go to sleep, he found that his cheeks were wet with tears, and his throat was sore from speaking and shouting the lines of dialogue as he wrote.

The play was Death of a Salesman (1949), about a man named Willy Loman who loses his job and realizes that he doesn't have much to show for his life's work. Miller wrote, "For a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life. He don't put a bolt to a nut, he don't tell you the law or give you medicine. He's a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine."

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