Sep. 23, 2012

Things You Can't Do in Albuquerque or Santa Fe, #11

by Bobby Byrd

The metal blue sky, the sun
with its 104 degrees
raked across bleak Concordia Cemetery,
those acres and acres of graves
scattered like seed
among the weeds and salt cedar,
tombstones tumped to the side,
a burrowing owl poking up
from her cave in the dust where
the heart and soul of Rosa Gutierrez
was laid to rest in 1916—
that's where we found
the grave of John Wesley Hardin,
shot in the back of the head
in downtown El Paso, 1895.
John Wesley was 10 feet south of Rosa
and just across from the stone-walled entrance
to the Chinese plot.
Confucius waved at us and said Hello,
but he wouldn't say a kind word
about this ancestor of ours,
except that we're all better off
that he's dead. Instead,
Confucius pointed us to the L&J Cafe
in an adobe across the street
where the ladies make
fresh lemonade every morning,
squeeze the lemons themselves, they
serve it in big tall
brown plastic glasses of cracked ice.
The L&J is dark and cool inside.
Their enchiladas con queso are delicious.

"Things You Can't Do in Albuquerque or Santa Fe, #11" by Bobby Byrd, from On the Transmigration of Souls in El Paso. © Cinco Puntos Press, 1996. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The first commencement ceremony at Harvard University took place on this date 370 years ago, in 1642. At that time, the university had been in existence only six years, and consisted of two buildings, situated along the edge of a cow pasture. There were only nine graduates at that first commencement, which was conducted in Latin. A grand procession, led by the governor of the Commonwealth and his armed guards, followed by various magistrates and the university faculty, marked the start of the ceremony. Then the sheriff of Middlesex struck the floor with his scabbard and called the meeting to order. The audience was made up of proud parents, of course, but also curious onlookers from Boston and regions beyond, including many Native Americans. It was the first nonreligious ritual to take place in the English-speaking New World, and is one of the country's oldest annual traditions, after Thanksgiving Day.

Commencement lasted all day; the morning featured graduate speeches in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and the afternoon was taken up with Latin debates on matters of philosophy. In between sessions, a feast was laid out. A blessing was given, a Psalm was sung, and the grace cup was passed around the table for each man to have his drink.

Today is the birthday of jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, born in Hamlet, North Carolina (1926). He grew up in a house full of music, and from the time he first picked up a sax at age 13, he seemed to have an innate gift. He made his first recording in 1943, while serving in the Navy during World War II. He was in the Navy band and recorded a tune with four other sailors.

During the 1950s, he played with Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington, but his addiction to heroin made him increasingly unreliable, and though his talent opened many doors, he was soon fired. Miles Davis gave him a chance in 1955; Davis encouraged Coltrane to experiment musically, but he also held him accountable for his drug use. Two years later, Davis was forced to fire him because he hadn't given up heroin, and this seemed to be the final push Coltrane needed to get clean. He embarked on a solo career, and in 1965, he released A Love Supreme, his most influential record. He died of liver cancer two years later, just one day after completing his last album, Expression (1967).

When asked to describe his style, he said, "I start in the middle of a sentence and move both directions at once."

It's the birthday of the musician who wrote "We made a promise we swore we'd always remember/No retreat, baby, no surrender/Like soldiers in the winter's night with a vow to defend/No retreat, baby, no surrender": Bruce Springsteen, born in Long Branch, New Jersey (1949).

Before he got famous, Springsteen was the leader of a series of hard-rock bands with names like the Rogues, the Castiles, the Steel Mill, and Dr. Zoom and the Sonic Boom. He played his early gigs at private parties, firemen's balls, trailer parks, prisons, state mental hospitals, a rollerdrome, and even a shopping center parking lot. His first album, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. (1973), was a huge hit.

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
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