Friday

Oct. 28, 2011

In the Plaza

by Louise Gluck

For two weeks he's been watching the same girl,
someone he sees in the plaza. In her twenties maybe,
drinking coffee in the afternoon, the little dark head
bent over a magazine.
He watches from across the square, pretending
to be buying something, cigarettes, maybe a bouquet of flowers.

Because she doesn't know it exists,
her power is very great now, fused to the needs of his imagination.
He is her prisoner. She says the words he gives her
in a voice he imagines, low-pitched and soft,
a voice from the south as the dark hair must be from the south.

Soon she will recognize him, then begin to expect him.
And perhaps then every day her hair will be freshly washed,
she will gaze outward across the plaza before looking down.
and after that they will become lovers.

But he hopes this will not happen immediately
since whatever power she exerts now over his body, over his emotions,
she will have no power once she commits herself—

she will withdraw into that private world of feeling
women enter when they love. And living there, she will become
like a person who casts no shadow, who is not present in the world;
in that sense, so little use to him
it hardly matters whether she lives or dies.

"In the Plaza" by Louise Glück, from A Village Life. © Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1919 that Congress overrode President Woodrow Wilson's veto and passed the Volstead Act, which provided for enforcement of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, prohibiting the sale of alcohol. The prohibition movement had been led largely by women, who still had a hard time making a living on their own, and many had seen their lives ruined when their husbands squandered the family income on alcohol.

It's commonly believed that prohibition didn't really stop anyone from drinking and merely gave a boost to organized crime. That was true in big cities, because they refused to enforce the law, but in rural America, prohibition was extremely effective. Both Cirrhosis death rates and admissions to state mental hospitals for alcoholism fell by more than fifty percent, and arrests for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct went way down. But city newspapers focused on how easy it was to find alcohol. Even members of the United States Congress had a private country club where they drank liquor openly.

By 1932, prohibition was deemed a complete failure. The 18th amendment had been the first amendment ever passed to limit the rights of American citizens, and it became the first and only amendment so far to have been repealed.

It was on this day in 1886 that the Statue of Liberty was officially unveiled and opened to the public. It was gift from France intended to celebrate the two countries' shared love of freedom, shipped to the U.S. in pieces packed into 214 crates. Workers put it back together in New York. The day of the dedication was cold and rainy, but huge crowds came out for the celebration anyway. The statue was under veil, and the sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi was alone in the statue's crown, waiting for the signal to drop the veil. A boy down below was supposed to wave a white handkerchief at the end of the big speech. The boy accidentally waved his handkerchief before the speech was over and Bartholdi let the curtain drop, revealing the huge bronze lady, and gunshots rang out from all the ships in the harbor. The speaker, who had been boring everybody, just sat down.

It's the birthday of Evelyn Waugh (books by this author), born in London, England in 1903. His family was affluent, and he was upset when he found out that he couldn't attend the same prestigious school as his father and brother. He wasn't allowed in because his brother, Alec Waugh, had a homosexual relationship, was dismissed from the school, and then wrote a book about it. So Evelyn went to a less prestigious school, where he thought all his classmates were unsophisticated. Then he went to Hertford, one of the Oxford Colleges, where he did art and wrote and drank, and neglected his academics. When someone asked him if he'd done any sports at college, he replied, "I drank for Hertford." He left Oxford without a degree. He tried teaching and he hated it, he was in debt, so he attempted suicide by drowning himself in the ocean, but he got stung by a jellyfish so he ran back out. He decided to give his life another chance, and he wrote his first novel, Decline and Fall (1928). It's about an innocent schoolteacher named Paul Pennyfeather who is expelled from Oxford for running across campus without his trousers, and has no choice but to become a schoolteacher. He's surrounded by bigots, drunks, and pedophiles, and he almost marries the mother of one of his students, but it turns out she makes her money trafficking in brothels in South America. Evelyn Waugh went on to write many novels, including Brideshead Revisited (1945).

Evelyn Waugh said, "The human mind is inspired enough when it comes to inventing horrors; it is when it tries to invent a Heaven that it shows itself cloddish."

It's the birthday of the man who developed the polio vaccine, Dr. Jonas Salk, born in New York City (1914) who developed a polio vaccine at the height of a polio epidemic in the mid 1950s, when parents were so worried about their children that they kept them home from swimming pools in the summer. Salk's discovery was that a vaccine could be developed from a dead virus, and he tested the vaccine on himself, his family, and the staff of his laboratory to prove it was safe. The vaccine was finally released to the public in 1955, the number of people infected by polio went down from more than 10,000 a year to less than 100. Salk was declared a national hero.

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