Oct. 17, 2004

Men Come, Men Go, But Laundry is Forever

by Sara King

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Poem: "Men Come, Men Go, but Laundry is Forever," by Sara King.

Men Come, Men Go, but Laundry is Forever

Two towels mean he's been here,
and one towel means he's gone.
Beer bottles gathering dust mean
he's been gone awhile.

Then a new name on the phone machine,
wine glasses on the floor,
my children exchange glances,
eyebrows up and down.

So who is this guy? they ask me.
Just some friend, I say.
Does this friend have a name?
It's John, Okay?
And you're not going to meet him,
unless he's going to stay.
But he doesn't.

I declare him irresponsible,
unstable, self-centered.
He says I don't play volleyball,
I'm not skinny, and I'm not Jewish.
Then his photographs come down,
and his towel.
His toothbrush hits the trash.
I resume my old ways of keeping house—
I don't.

Do you think you'll ever remarry, Mom?
It's too late, I tell them.
I'm running out of towels.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Arthur Miller, born in New York City (1915), widely considered to be the greatest living 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 was thirteen years old. It was terrifying for him to watch his father go from being so powerful to being so helpless. He said, "It made you want to search for ultimate values, for things that would not fall apart under pressure." 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. He won the same contest the following year, and decided that he was born to write plays. Unfortunately, the first play he wrote out of college, The Man Who Had All the Luck (1944), closed after four performances.

He considered giving up but decided to try writing one more play. His next 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 twenty-one 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 four hundred acres of farmland in Connecticut. In 1948, he moved to Connecticut by himself, and spent several months building a ten by twelve 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." It has gone on to be the most widely produced play in the world, playing in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, and Argentina. It has been particularly popular in China and Japan. Miller has gone on to have an extremely long and productive career, publishing short fiction, essays, an autobiography, and many more plays. His most recent play, Resurrection Blues, premiered in 2002 at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

It's the birthday of novelist Nathanael West, born Nathan Weinstein in New York City (1904). He was inspired to write his first major novel when he met a woman who wrote an advice column for a local newspaper. She showed him a few of the letters she had received from readers, expecting that he would find them funny. Instead, he was heartbroken at how desperate these people were, and he wrote his novel Miss Lonely Hearts (1933), about an advice columnist who is overwhelmed by the sadness of the people who write to him. It got great reviews, but within weeks of its publication, the publishing house went bankrupt. West tried working for a few literary journals, but they all folded. He wrote a parody of the Horatio Alger novels his father had given him called A Cool Million (1934), but it got bad reviews and it didn't sell. He finally decided to move to California and try to write for the movies. He drifted around Hollywood for a few years, unable to find a job, living off money from friends. He got to know the people who lived on the margin of Hollywood, people who had hoped they would make it as movie stars, but who failed and became stuntmen, extras, criminals, and prostitutes. He loved the way they talked, and considered compiling a dictionary of Hollywood slang. Instead, he wrote a novel about them called The Day of the Locust (1939). It's now considered one of the best novels ever written about Hollywood.

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




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