May 16, 2014
Mother and I brush long drifts of snow from the gravestones
of my great grandfather and grandmother, great uncle and aunt,
two of mother's brothers, each less than a year old,
and her last-born brother, George Shorba, dead at sixteen:
A Mastermind. My Beloved Son.
But we can't find the grave of Grandma, who buried all the rest.
Mother stands dark-browed and musing, under the pines,
and I imagine her as a child, wondering why her mother
left home so often to tend the sick, the dying, the dead.
Borrowing a shovel, she digs, until she uncovers:
Mother almost never cries, but she does now. She stares
at this stone as if it were the answer to all the hidden things.
The New York City Board of Health established a cholera hospital on this date in 1849. The city was in the middle of its second cholera epidemic; the first one had swept through New York in 1832, killing thousands. The disease — which could kill within hours of its first symptoms — is caused by a bacterium that is found in contaminated food and water, but people didn't know that in 1849. What they did observe was that it seemed to strike the lower classes hardest, and tore through tenements, where immigrants lived in crowded conditions. Doctors did suspect that filth played a role, but they also blamed "irregularities and imprudence in the mode of living, and mental disturbance."
In 1850, New York's population was more than 515,000, and over half of these were foreign-born. Most of them lived in tenement buildings, which were dark, overcrowded, and spartan at best. Water had to be carried from an outdoor pump, which often froze in the winter. Pigs roamed the streets. Even though many of the tenants kept their apartments clean, the buildings were often overrun with mice, rats, and roaches. One of the poorest neighborhoods in New York at that time was known as the Five Points. It was primarily home to immigrants, especially the Irish, and was notorious for gambling dens, street gangs, and prostitution. It was so notorious, in fact, that Dickens had heard of it and insisted on visiting it when he came to New York. He described the Five Points in colorful detail in his American Notes, writing: "Debauchery has made the very houses prematurely old. See how the rotten beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken frays ..." He concluded, "All that is loathsome, drooping, and decayed is here."
The first case of the 1849 cholera epidemic was in the Five Points. Some of the well-to-do believed that cholera was God's punishment for their immoderate, intemperate foreign lifestyle. The New York Tribune, in an 1849 article about the epidemic, opined, "The condition of that den of filth and iniquity at this time was quite sufficient to breed any epidemic of the most virulent character." The rich could — and did — leave the city during the epidemic, but the Irish, Italian, and African-American poor could not, and the epidemic killed more than 5,000 people.
It was on this day in 1717 that the French playwright and poet Voltaire was imprisoned in the Bastille for insulting the government (books by this author). He was a young man at the time, and a relatively unknown writer. His father had encouraged him to become a lawyer, but Voltaire hated practicing law, so he spent all his time writing satirical poetry instead, poking fun at his political enemies, including the Duke of Orleans. When the Duke read one of the privately circulated poems, he had Voltaire thrown into prison for 11 months.
Voltaire used the opportunity to begin writing his first play, and when he got out of prison a year later, he produced a series of successful plays that made him one of the most popular writers in Europe. He spent the rest of his life in and out of exile from France, speaking out against political and religious repression.
He said, "People who believe in absurdities will eventually commit atrocities."
It is the birthday of writer and broadcaster Louis "Studs" Terkel (books by this author), born in the Bronx, New York (1912). His family moved to Chicago when Terkel was 10 years old and his parents ran rooming houses. Terkel remembers all different kinds of people moving through the rooming houses — dissidents, labor organizers, religions fanatics — and that that exposure helped build his knowledge of the outside world.
In 1934, he attended the University of Chicago and graduated with a law degree. But he soon fell into radio broadcasting, working first on radio soap operas, then hosting news and sports shows, and ultimately landing his own show, where he played music and interviewed people.
He is best known for his powerful interviews of ordinary people, which became a series of successful books, including Division Street: America (1967), Hard Times (1970), Working (1974), and Coming of Age: The Story of Our Century by Those Who've Lived It (1995). His last book, PS: Further Thoughts from a Lifetime of Listening, was released just after Terkel's death in 2008. He was 96.
Terkel said: "Why are we born? We're born eventually to die, of course. But what happens between the time we're born and we die? We're born to live. One is a realist if one hopes."
On this day in 1763, Samuel Johnson (books by this author) met his future biographer James Boswell (books by this author) in a London bookshop. Boswell was an aimless 23-year-old wannabe writer, but the only subject he could think to write about was himself. Johnson was 53 at the time and a highly regarded writer and scholar.
Their first meeting was not auspicious. They quarreled about a mutual friend and didn't part on good terms. But Boswell attended one of Johnson's parties a few weeks later and Johnson warmed up to the ambitious young man. They talked at length at the party and went on to become close friends. Boswell began to record everything Johnson said and did for the biography of Johnson's life that would consume him for almost three decades.
Johnson died in 1784. Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson was published in 1791, and it quickly became a best-seller. But Boswell's later years were by my most accounts unhappy. He felt like a literary failure, despite the success of the book, and he spent his free time drinking. He was a garrulous drunk and people were afraid to confide in him lest he spill their secrets while he was sloshed. He died in 1795 while at work on the third edition of Life.
Today, the word Boswell is used as a synonym for "constant companion." Of Watson, Sherlock Holmes says, "I am lost without my Boswell."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®