Dec. 7, 2006

On the Subway Station

by Grace Paley

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Poem: "On the Subway Station" by Grace Paley, from Leaning Forward. © Granite Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On the Subway Station

The child is speaking to the father
he is looking into the father's eyes
father doesn't answer
child is speaking Vietnamese
father doesn't answer
child is speaking English
father doesn't answer
The father is staring at a mosaic in blue and green
and lavender     three small ships in harbor
set again and again in the white tiled
beautiful     old     unrenovated subway
station     Clark Street     Brooklyn

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1941 that Japanese bombers attacked Pearl Harbor. There were ultimately 2,390 Americans killed at Pearl Harbor and 1,178 wounded.

It's the birthday of the singer, songwriter and actor Tom Waits, (books by this author) born in Pomona, California (1949). As a teenager, his parents moved around a lot, and instead of making friends, Waits became obsessed with music. He didn't listen to rock and roll like his classmates. He was more interested in older music: George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Frank Sinatra, Jerome Kern, Cab Calloway, and the old Nat "King" Cole Trio. He later said, "I ... slept right through the '60s. Never went through an identity crisis. Never had no Jimi Hendrix posters on the wall, never ate granola, never had any incense."

Out of high school he worked odd jobs, as a fireman, a cab driver, a gas station attendant. He said, "[At one point] I worked in a restaurant ... [as] dishwasher, waiter, cook, plumber, janitor — everything. They called me Speed-O-Flash." He wasn't sure what he wanted to do with his life until 1968, when he read On the Road by Jack Kerouac. The book made him want to do something big, and a few weeks later he saw a local guy he knew playing jazz at a nightclub, and he realized that he needed to start making his own music. He became known for lyrics that resembled beat poetry, and in his performances, Waits played a kind of hobo wise man, singing in a gravelly, cigarette-scarred voice that made him sound much older than 25.

It's the birthday of the novelist Willa Cather, (books by this author) born in Back Creek Valley, Virginia (1873). Her family moved west when she was a little girl, to get away from a tuberculosis epidemic that had killed all of her father's brothers. Congress had recently passed the Homestead Act, and thousands of people were moving west to take advantage of the free government land.

As a young woman, she went off to New York and became a successful magazine editor. But after living in New York for 15 years, she quit her job and took a trip back home to Nebraska. Standing on the edge of a wheat field, she watched the first harvest that she had seen since her childhood. That inspired the novels we remember her for, including O Pioneers! (1913) and My Ántonia (1918).

It's the birthday of the linguist and political analyst Noam Chomsky, (books by this author) born in Philadelphia (1928). Though he's best known today for his leftist political writings, he's also known as the father of modern linguistics.

He grew up during the Great Depression, and growing up with poverty all around him left a deep impression. He said, "My earliest memories are of seeing people coming to the door selling rags; and in a trolley car with my mother, I saw people beating up women strikers outside a textile factory." His father was a Ukrainian immigrant and a famous Hebrew scholar. His family was one of the only Jewish families in the neighborhood, and he was surrounded by anti-Semitism. Some of his neighbors actually threw pro-Nazi beer parties in the late 1930s. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, on his 13th birthday, his neighbors suddenly began to hate the Nazis, and Chomsky was fascinated by how quickly they could change their political sympathies.

He was reading newspapers every day at a young age, and as a teenager, he liked to spend his free time with an uncle he described as "a hunchback with a background in crime" who owned a newspaper stand on the corner of 72nd Street and Broadway in New York City. Chomsky would take a train from Philadelphia to New York and spend the day at the newsstand with his uncle, where Jewish intellectuals would show up to discuss political philosophy and psychoanalysis.

Chomsky got interested in linguistics in college at a time when most linguists believed that language is something children only learn through habit and practice. But Chomsky believed that language is something instinctive in human beings. He began working on a way of describing certain grammatical properties of all languages, to prove that they all shared the same underlying structure.

He had a hard time publishing his theories, because they were so radical, but he finally came out with a book called Syntactic Structures (1957), in which he argued that there is a universal grammar innate to the human brain, which is why children don't have to be taught language. They just pick it up instinctively. At the time, this was a revolutionary idea, because social scientists believed that all human behavior was learned. Chomsky was compared to Copernicus and Darwin for revolutionizing his field of study.

It was a few years later that Chomsky became horrified by the United States' policy in Vietnam. He began encouraging his students at MIT to resist the draft, and he spoke at some of the earliest anti-war rallies in the country. He stopped paying his taxes in protest of the government, and helped organize the protest march on the Pentagon that Norman Mailer wrote about in his book Armies of the Night. Since then, Chomsky has continued to write about linguistics, but he's become much more famous as one of the fiercest critics of American foreign policy.

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