Apr. 29, 2005

Fathers in the Snow

by Jill Bialosky

FRIDAY, 29 APRIL, 2005
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Poem: "Fathers in the Snow" by Jill Bialosky from The End of Desire: Poems. © Alfred A. Knopf. Reprinted with permission.

Fathers in the Snow


After father died
the love was all through the house
untamed and sometimes violent.
When the dates came we went up to our rooms
and mother entertained.
Frank Sinatra's "Strangers in the Night,"
the smell of Chanel No.5 in her hair and the laughter.
We sat crouched at the top of the stairs.
In the morning we found mother asleep on the couch
her hair messed, and the smell
of stale liquor in the room.
We knelt on the floor before her,
one by one touched our fingers
over the red flush in her face.
The chipped sunlight through the shutters.
It was a dark continent
we and mother shared;
it was sweet and lonesome,
the wake men left in our house.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Duke Ellington, born Washington, D.C. (1899).

It's the birthday of the poet C.P. Cavafy, born in Alexandria, Egypt (1863). His parents were Greek. He wrote in Greek but lived in Egypt almost his entire life. He lived with his mother until he was 36. The family apartment was just above a brothel, and across the street from a church and a hospital. Cavafy said, "Where could I live better? The brothel caters to the flesh. And there is the church which forgives sin. And there is the hospital where we die."

It's the birthday of the editor and publisher Robert Gottlieb, New York City (1931). He was the editor at Simon & Schuster, then at Knopf, then at the New Yorker magazine. Robert Gottlieb, who said, "There are four things in my life: work, the ballet, reading and my family. I don't do anything else. I don't have lunches, dinners, go to plays or movies. I don't meditate, escalate, deviate or have affairs. So I have plenty of time."

And it was on this day in 1983 Harold Washington was sworn in as the first black mayor of Chicago. He'd been in the U.S. Congress, representing a poor district in Chicago, which was 92 percent black, in a city that had been one of the most racially divided in the country for 100 years. The Democratic machine that ruled Chicago was known to deny municipal services to black neighborhoods, not enforce housing codes there, not fix potholes or sidewalks, send fewer policemen and firemen and invest less in the public schools. In 1980, unemployment in many black areas of Chicago was as high as 25 percent.

Harold Washington entered the primary race against two democratic candidates. He was the least well known, and had the least amount of money. One of his opponents spent ten million dollars in the primary, the other spent two million dollars. Washington spent less than $750,000. He didn't run any TV ads until the last week of the primary.

But he made a name for himself during the televised debates. He seemed to be the only candidate who talked like a real person, with some humor and some passion. And of course, it helped that the two white candidates split the opposition vote. And so Harold Washington won the primary with 82 percent of the black vote.

Usually whoever won the Democratic primary in Chicago would become the mayor. But when Washington was the Democratic nominee, many whites turned against him. Many of them voted for his Republican opponent, Buddy Epton, whose campaign slogan was "Epton, before it's too late."

The mayoral election turned out a record 82 percent. Harold Washington won by just over 40,000 votes out of about a million and a half cast.

He spent his first term fighting against members of his own party in the city council but tried to be the first mayor of Chicago to treat all the wards of the city equally. He became a kind of a folk hero in the city. He ran for re-election in 1987, won, and died of a heart attack a few months after the beginning of his second term.

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