Monday

Mar. 24, 2014

                             Fortune
                                            has its cookies to give out

which is a good thing

                                     since it's been a long time since

                that summer in Brooklyn
         when they closed off the street
                         one hot day
                            and the

                                                                FIREMEN

                                                                                   turned on their hoses

                and all the kids ran out in it

                                in the middle of the street

                         and there were

                                                maybe a couple dozen of us

                                                                                          out there

with the water squirting up
                                                 to the

                                                                sky

                                                                       and all over
                                                                                         us

there was maybe only six of us
                                                    kids altogether
      running around in our
                                              barefeet and birthday
          suits
                   and I remember Molly but then

      the firemen stopped squirting their hoses
                   all of a sudden and went
                                 back in
                           their firehouse
                                   and
                started playing pinochle again
                             just as if nothing
                                    had ever
                                                    happened
while I remember Molly
                                        looked at me and

         ran in

because I guess really we were the only ones there

"11" by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, from Pictures of the Gone World. © City Lights Books, 1968. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the poet, publisher, and bookstore owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti (books by this author), born in Yonkers, New York (1919). His father died five months before Ferlinghetti was born, and his mother was so devastated by the loss that she had to be committed to the state mental hospital. Young Lawrence was sent to live with his aunt in France.

He didn't learn English until he was five, when he returned to America. As a teenager, he became an Eagle Scout and was also arrested for petty theft, as part of his involvement with a street gang called the "Parkway Road Pirates." But shortly after, he was inspired by a copy of Baudelaire poems he was given, and became interested in poetry and literature.

He went to college at the University of North Carolina and then joined the Navy during World War II, where he was the commander of 110-foot ship. He said: "Any smaller than us you weren't a ship, you were a boat. But we could order anything a battleship could order so we got an entire set of the Modern Library. We had all the classics stacked everywhere all over the ship, including the john. We also got a lot of medicinal brandy the same way."

After serving in the war, he moved to San Francisco, where he decided to open a bookstore. He named it City Lights after the Charlie Chaplin movie, because he said: "Chaplin's character represents for me ... the very definition of a poet. ... A poet, by definition, has to be an enemy of the State. If you look at Chaplin films, he's always being pursued by the police. That's why he's still such a potent symbol in the cinema — the little man against the world."

In 1958, he also published his own collection of poetry, A Coney Island of the Mind, which shocked everyone by going through 28 printings and selling 700,000 copies in the United States alone. By the end of the 1960s, it was the best-selling book ever published by a living American poet.

Ferlinghetti is one of the few poets in the United States who has never held a job at a university, never received government funding, and never attended an MLA conference. He's never won a Pulitzer.

It's the birthday of one of the great showmen in American history: Harry Houdini, born Erich Weiss in Budapest (1874). His family immigrated to the United States when he was just a baby. He began working as a circus acrobat when he was a teenager, but he decided to switch to magic and took the stage name of Harry Houdini. Early on, his signature trick was to swallow a series of needles, and then pull them out of his mouth threaded together. After he got married, he performed with his wife, and she specialized in mind-reading on stage. They also had a comedy routine.

But Houdini had developed an interest in lock picking, and he began to develop a trick in which he escaped from a pair of handcuffs. The performance didn't become a big hit until he got the idea of inviting the local police to lock him up in their own handcuffs. The presence of the police made the trick more real somehow, and people were amazed. Houdini began to play bigger and bigger venues, and he would escape from more and more elaborate contraptions: straitjackets, jails, coffins, trunks, steel containers, and glass boxes filled with water. In one trick, he leapt from a bridge wrapped in chains, and he had to escape before he drowned in the river.

When asked about his success as a performer, Houdini said, "The easiest way to attract a crowd is to let it be known that at a given time and a given place someone is going to attempt something that in the event of failure will result in sudden death."

It was on this day in 1955 that the Tennessee Williams play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opened on Broadway (books by this author). It's the story of the 65th birthday party for a man named Big Daddy, at his plantation house on the Mississippi Delta. The family members struggle to get along at the party and try not to talk about the fact that Big Daddy is terminally ill with cancer. The play focuses on Big Daddy's son Brick, who is struggling with alcoholism and his sexuality. His wife, Maggie, is trying to revive their marriage, terrified that her husband might be homosexual.

It was on this date in 1989 that the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground off of the southern coast of Alaska, spilling 11 million gallons of crude oil into the icy waters of Prince William Sound, creating one of the worst oil spills in the history of the United States. Shortly after midnight, the ship's captain, Joseph Hazelwood, left the bridge under the command of his third mate, and the oil tanker struck Bligh Reef, severely damaging eight of the 11 tanks on board. More than 250,000 barrels of oil spilled into the remote, expansive Alaskan coastline.

It took the efforts of dedicated volunteers and workers from all over the world to try to contain the damage. Specialists from the Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency, and smaller groups from Hubbs Marine Institute in San Diego and the International Bird Research Center of Berkeley all set out to rescue, clean, and rehabilitate wildlife and restore the coastline. All told, more than $2 billion has been spent on cleanup and recovery, with Exxon paying approximately $1 billion in damages.

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

 









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