Oct. 20, 2011

Bus Boy

by George Bilgere

O teenage bus boy of the summer dusk!
Lugging your gray tub of swill,
bathed in slop and ooze and bits of spaghetti
in the alley behind the Applebee's—
hate me if you will,

as I pass by in my tennis shorts and Obama t-shirt
with a vibrant, dark-haired woman,
on my way to watch game three
of the NBA finals at our local microbrewery.

Hate me, but you cannot know
that I once labored as you do now, at a Big Boy
in Riverside, California, elbow deep
in the very same lumpish goop and ooze.

Like you, I was of the slime of alleys,
of the same immemorial cigarette butts
and rotting cottage cheese.
And like you,

I dreamed of a certain waitress,
and of driving a fork into the forehead
of the night manager,
and of spitting in the soup
of plump, complacent, well-dressed diners
who snapped their fingers at me.

But most of all I dreamed of being clean,
and cool, and never, ever again
slogging through the world's filth and stink,

which is something I have achieved,
as must be perfectly obvious to you.

"Bus Boy" by George Bilgere. Reprinted with permission of the author. (buy now)

On this date in 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee began its investigation of communists in Hollywood. The committee, originally formed to purge the government of suspected Communist Party sympathizers, turned its attention on the liberal film industry, summoning directors, writers, actors, and producers to hearings and asking them the infamous question, "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" Earlier in the year, the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, a political action group co-founded by Walt Disney, had given producers a list of "don'ts": Don't smear the free enterprise system, don't smear industrialists, don't deify the "common man," don't glorify the collective. On the other side of the issue, the Committee for the First Amendment — which included Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, director John Huston, and others — protested against the government hearings.

The blacklist was officially lifted in 1960, when a blacklisted writer and member of the original "Hollywood Ten," Dalton Trumbo, was publicly credited as the screenwriter for Spartacus and Exodus.

Two men claimed to have captured Bigfoot on film on this date in 1967. Roger Patterson and Robert Gimlin were living near Yakima, Washington, at the time; Patterson was something of a Bigfoot enthusiast and expert, having already written and self-published a book called Do Abominable Snowmen of America Really Exist? (1966). He set out on an expedition to Northern California with Gimlin, an outdoorsman and his close friend, equipped with a rented 16-millimeter camera, in search of Sasquatch. They focused on an area near Eureka, California, where road construction workers had reportedly discovered overly large footprints. Sometime after lunch on October 20, the two men rounded a bend and encountered what appeared to be a female Bigfoot by a creek bed. Patterson was thrown from his horse, but grabbed his camera and pursued her on foot, recording as he went. He estimated her to be a little over seven feet tall, weighing in at around 700 pounds, and leaving a footprint more than 14 inches long.

That's the way the story goes, anyway. The film footage has been examined and appears to be real, but most scientists have ruled it to be real footage of a human in a custom-made Bigfoot suit. The Skeptic's Dictionary entry for Sasquatch reads: "The evidence for Bigfoot's existence consists mainly of testimony from Bigfoot enthusiasts, footprints of questionable origin, and pictures that could easily have been of apes or humans in ape suits. There are no bones, no scat, no artifacts, no dead bodies, no mothers with babies, no adolescents, no fur, no nothing. Not that there aren't 'sightings' of such. There are 'sightings' galore."

Patterson died of lymphoma in 1972, and maintained until his death that the film was no hoax. Many years later, though, a costume-maker named Philip Morris came forward and said that Patterson had ordered a large ape suit from him. And another Yakima resident, Bob Hieronimus, claimed that Patterson had offered him a thousand dollars to wear the suit for the film. Patterson never paid Hieronimus; another source reported that Patterson's desperate need for money to pay for cancer treatment was what drove him to perpetrate the hoax in the first place.

Today is the birthday of Monica Ali (books by this author). She was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 1967, to an English mother and a Bangladeshi father. The family moved to Manchester, England, when she was three years old. She dabbled in writing, but felt constricted by the short-story format and tried to work up the courage to tackle a novel. She finally found the push she needed when her grandfather died. "There's something galvanising about a funeral," she told The Observer in 2003. "I felt the need to not put things off any longer. And I sent my husband outside with the little ones, and I drew the curtains against the sun, and I started then." She's the author of four novels; her first, Brick Lane (2003), was short-listed for the Man Booker prize and later made into a film in 2007. She was named one of Granta's "Best of Young British Novelists" before the book was even released, based on a peek at the unpublished manuscript that was making the rounds. Her latest novel is Untold Story (2011).

It's the birthday of the poet Arthur Rimbaud (books by this author), born in Charleville, France (1854). He wrote all of his poetry in the space of less than five years, from age 15 to 20. His father, an army captain, deserted the family when Rimbaud was six. His mother was a devout Catholic and strict disciplinarian. She hovered over him as he did his homework, and she walked him back and forth to school well into his teenage years. Rimbaud was a gifted and brilliant student. He published his first poem when he was 15, and ran off to Paris, where he spent two weeks living homeless and hungry, roaming the streets.

He sent some of his poems to the poet Paul Verlaine (books by this author), who was so impressed with the 16-year-old Rimbaud that he sent the boy a one-way ticket to Paris to visit him. The teenage Rimbaud and the married Verlaine soon became lovers, which scandalized the established literary scene in Paris. The two were inseparable for a year or so, and then, in 1872, they got in an argument, and the drunken Verlaine fired a few gunshots, one of which hit Rimbaud in the wrist. The police arrested Verlaine, and Rimbaud was forced to testify. The trial was humiliating, and Rimbaud disappeared from public life. He wrote one more book, called A Season in Hell (1873), and then at the age of 20, his literary career came to a close. He died of cancer in 1891, at the age of 37, and Verlaine published his complete works four years later.

Rimbaud experienced a form of synesthesia, a neurological condition in which sensory wires are crossed in the brain and stimuli like sounds or smells provoke an experience of color. Rimbaud seems to have experienced the most common form, grapheme-color synesthesia, in which letters or numbers are perceived as possessing color. He describes it in his poem "Voyelles" ("Vowels"):

A Black, E white, I red, U green, O blue: vowels,
I shall tell, one day, of your mysterious origins:
A, black velvety jacket of brilliant flies
Which buzz around cruel smells,

Gulfs of shadow; E, whiteness of vapours and of tents,
Lances of proud glaciers, white kings, shivers of cow-parsley;
I, purples, spat blood, smile of beautiful lips
In anger or in the raptures of penitence;

U, waves, divine shudderings of viridian seas,
The peace of pastures dotted with animals, the peace of the furrows
Which alchemy prints on broad studious foreheads;

O, sublime Trumpet full of strange piercing sounds,
Silences crossed by Worlds and by Angels:
O the Omega, the violet ray of Her Eyes!

It's the birthday of poet and essayist Robert Pinsky (books by this author), born in Long Branch, New Jersey (1940) who said, "I grew up in a disorderly, unpredictable household, jangling alternations of comedy and history, insanity and idealism, doubt and head injury, music and anger, loss and wit." He's the author of 19 books, including his poetry collections Jersey Rain (2000), Samurai Song (2001), and Gulf Music: Poems (2007). Recent works include Thousands of Broadways: Dreams and Nightmares of the American Small Town (2009), a collection of essays; and Death and the Powers, a libretto for composer Tod Machover.

He's been asked many times how he got started as a poet, and has variously answered: "Imitating Yeats, Allen Ginsberg, Frost, Eliot"; "Reading the dictionary and daydreaming about the sounds of words when I was a kid"; "Liking entertaining people when playing the saxophone as a teenager." And another time: "Whatever makes a child want to glue macaroni on a paper plate and paint the assemblage and see it on the refrigerator — that has always been strong in me."

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