May 4, 2012

The Lovers

by Reed Whittemore

Together they stand in the checkout line with
    their carton of raspberries.
They are in love. They love raspberries.
He is tall and blond. She is tall and blonde. They
    nuzzle each other noisily, exhibitionists in the market,
Surrounded by lesser flesh, envious, purchasing slag.
Soon they will exit, gods into the parking lot,
And drive away in their car with the flowers on it.

But the raspberry season is over and they have chosen
The frozen. The line is long and the carton is
    starting to drip.

"The Lovers" by Reed Whittemore, from The Past, The Future, The Present. © The University of Arkansas Press, 1990. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Peter Minuit landed on the island of Manhattan on this date in 1626. Dutch fur traders had established a trading post on nearby Governors Island a few years earlier. In 1625, construction began on Manhattan Island in the form of a citadel, Fort Amsterdam. The Dutch West India Company appointed Minuit Director of the Colony of New Netherland. He arrived to find a small village already in place, with more land being cleared. There were stands of hickory, oak, and chestnut trees among the grasslands and salt marshes. Times Square was a red maple swamp. A creek ran through Midtown. On the west side of the island, there was a cemetery, a small farm, an orchard, and two wealthy estates. Most of the houses were built along the East River, since its shore was more protected from winds than the shore of the Hudson. The main street was built over an old Indian path running from the southern tip of the island north to what is now City Hall Park. First, it was called Heere Straat, or Gentlemen's Street, but it eventually came to be known as Breede Wegh — which became the name we know it by today, Broadway.

The first Freedom Ride set off on this date in 1961. A group of 13 activists had been recruited by CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality) to ride buses throughout the South to test Supreme Court decisions against segregation in interstate travel. The interracial group, most of them college students, set off from Washington, D.C., on their way to New Orleans. White riders sat in the back of the bus in what was considered the black section, and vice versa. At station stops, the Freedom Riders defied the segregated restrooms and lunch counters. They encountered little resistance in the moderate upper South. The Deep South was another matter entirely.

Alabama governor John Patterson said, "When you go somewhere looking for trouble, you usually find it. ... You just can't guarantee the safety of a fool and that's what these folks are, just fools." The Freedom Riders were met with baseball bats and guns, brutal beatings and firebombs, prison cells and chain gangs. They never made it to New Orleans. But they persisted through the summer, until Attorney General Robert Kennedy petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission for tougher new laws against segregation.

It's the birthday of journalist and novelist David Guterson (books by this author), born in Seattle, Washington (1956). He taught high school for many years, and wrote a collection of essays and articles about education and why homeschooling is a good idea. He also published a short-story collection, The Country Ahead of Us, The Country Behind (1989). But he's best known for his first novel, Snow Falling on Cedars (1994). It's the story of a Japanese American on trial for murder at the end of World War II, and he got the idea from teaching Romeo and Juliet and To Kill a Mockingbird. Guterson combined a star-crossed love story with a courtroom drama, and his book won the PEN/Faulkner award for fiction. His most recent novel, Ed King, was published last year (2011).

It's the birthday of the man who invented the piano as we know it: Bartolomeo Cristofori, born in Padua, Italy (1655). In 1688 he was hired by the Florentine Court to take care of the harpsichords, which at the time were the instruments most like pianos. But harpsichords could only be played at one volume because harpsichord keys plucked at strings. In 1700, Cristofori put hammers and dampers and a range of octaves onto the harpsichord model, and since hammers hit the strings, the volume changed according to how hard someone played the keys. Eventually it was called a pianoforte, a "soft-loud," and then just a piano, which means, literally, "soft." Three of Cristofori's original pianos survive—two in Europe and one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

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