May 20, 2010

The Secret of Life

by Ellen Goldsmith

I grabbed the streetcar from Fisherman's Wharf
to the Ferry Building to save my feet for later.
My dollar bill, wrinkled and worn, resisted disappearing
into the slot. I stuffed the transfer
in my pocket without looking.

As the streetcar rounded the Embarcadero,
I called my mother-in-law with mother's day wishes,
imagined the conversation
I'd have with mine, were she alive.
On exiting, I asked the conductor
how long the transfer would last.
I gave you extra time, he said.
Just show it. Hardly anyone looks.
It's good until it's taken away

"The Secret of Life" by Ellen Goldsmith from Such Distances. © Broad Cove Press, 2009. Reprinted with permission.

It was on this day in 1609 that the publisher Thomas Thorpe made an entry in the Stationer's Register that said: Entred for his copie under the handes of master Wilson and master Lownes Wardenes a booke called Shakespeares sonnettes. Soon after that (we don't know the exact date), Shakespeare's sonnets (books by this author) were published. Many people think that Thorpe published them without Shakespeare's consent.

It's the birthday of the person who said, "If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind." John Stuart Mill (books by this author) born in Pentonville, London (1806).

He wrote On Liberty in 1859, expressing his fear that bold and freethinking people were becoming all too rare. He wrote, "The despotism of custom is everywhere the standing hindrance to human advancement." He is also well known for his book Utilitarianism (1863).

It was on this day in 1873 that Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis received a patent for work pants reinforced with metal rivets, the pants that came to be known as "blue jeans."

But the story of blue jeans began about 500 years ago, in the port city of Genoa, Italy, where a special thick cloth was used to make pants for fishermen and sailors in the Genoese navy. The cloth came from the Italian town of Chieri, a town known for its weaving and textiles. The fabric started out brown, but was eventually dyed blue with gualdo, or wode, a plant that was popular for its blue dye before indigo. The pants were designed to be heavy-duty, to stand up to wet and dry, to roll up easily when the deck got wet, and to be quickly removable if the wearer fell overboard. Our term "blue jeans" comes from a bastardization of the French "bleu de Genes," or "blue of Genoa." In 2009, Genoa held a three-day conference celebrating their role in the history of blue jeans.

But the fabric that Levi Strauss ended up choosing was serge, from the city of Nîmes, in France. It may have been copied from the Italian version, or it may be a similar fabric that was created independently, but it was this "serge de Nîmes," that Strauss chose for his pants, and "de Nîmes" eventually turned into plain old "denim."

Levi Strauss was an immigrant from Bavaria, born Loeb Strauss in 1829. His family had a dry goods business, and when he was 24 years old, he saw an opportunity in the California Gold Rush and headed west. He had some canvas that he had intended to use for wagon covers and tents, but when he discovered that the men out there had trouble finding sturdy work pants, he started making pants out of canvas. And when he heard that the pants were good but they chafed, he switched fabric, to the "serge de Nîmes."

One of his customers was a tailor named Jacob Davis, from Reno, Nevada, who bought cloth from Strauss and sewed his own work pants from it. Davis had heard from customers that the pockets kept ripping, so he had the idea to reinforce them with metal rivets at their weak points. He decided that he should get a patent for this idea, but he didn't have enough money. So he wrote Strauss and asked if he would be interested in sharing a patent for sturdy work pants with metal rivets, and Strauss agreed. On this day in 1873, the two men received U.S. Patent No. 139,121 for "Improvement in Fastening Pocket-Openings."

By the 1920s, jeans were the most popular men's work pants, although still used only by laborers — with one notable exception being the Santa Fe Artists Colony, whose members wore blue jeans in the 1920s as an artistic statement. In the 1930s, Hollywood Westerns portrayed cowboys in jeans, and they became a novelty fashion item for East Coasters who went to dude ranches. During World War II, jeans were considered suitable work pants for both men and women to wear in factories. For women's jeans, the zipper went down the right side instead of the front.

The 1950s saw the biggest change for jeans, as they became a teenage status symbol. James Dean wore jeans in Rebel Without a Cause, and along with leather jackets, they became the quintessential clothing of bad boys and juvenile delinquents. Jack Kerouac wore blue jeans and work shirts as early as the 1940s. In the late 1950s and into the 1960s, jeans became the outfit of choice for bohemian artists, preferably with a black turtleneck and sandals. In 1960, the word "jeans" was finally used in advertising (teenagers had been using it for years). By the late 1960s, bellbottom jeans were taken up by the flower children of the counterculture, and by the 1970s they were a staple of mainstream American culture. And there are some people who can always wear jeans — John Grisham said: "Writers can wear anything. I could go to a black-tie dinner in New York City with blue jeans on and boots and a cowboy hat and a bow tie, and people would just say, 'Oh, he's a writer.'"

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




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
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