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Poem of the Week

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Nine-Eleven
Charlotte Parsons

You passed me on the street
I rode the subway with you
You lived down the hall from me
I admired your dog in the park one morning
We waited in line for a concert
I ate with you in the cafes
You stood next to me at the bar
We huddled under an awning during a downpour
We dashed across the street to beat the light
I bumped into you coming round the corner
You stepped on my foot
I held the door for you
You helped me up when I slipped on the ice
I grabbed the last Sunday Times
You stole my cab
We waited forever at the bus stop
We sweated in steamy August
We hunched our shoulders against the sleet
We laughed at the movies
We groaned after the election
We sang in church
Tonight I lit a candle for you
All of you

Elegy for a sad day all Americans will remember

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To Marry an English Lord

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If you like Downton Abbey, you really should read Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace’s  To Marry an English Lord. I got the audio book from the library. The narrator had the perfect voice, elegant and slightly aristocratic.

To Marry an English Lord presents all sorts of facts and vignettes about the American heiresses, and there were dozens if not hundreds, who crossed the ocean to marry well. The focus is on New York socialites, whose fathers had fortunes, but couldn’t break into the elite circle of the Kickerbockers. Kickerbockers were the descendants of the first New York settlers from Holland, these people wore knickerbockers, i.e. pants that stopped at the knees. No amount of money could get you into their social circle so those with new money headed for England where they were welcomed not just for their money (though that was key) but also because American girls were so open, confident and free. British girls were sheltered and shy. They were chaperoned everywhere, but the American parents gave their girls a lot more freedom. And they had much larger clothing allowances. A British girl would make do with 3 new gowns a season, but the American would get 18 or so spending about $500.000 in todays money (plus a 50% tariff). The British men noticed, in droves apparently.

The book covers every aspect of the women’s lives from dress, parents, education, hobbies and such to marriage, infidelity and socializing. I found it quite interesting that these girls had the best of all worlds because as was typical in the U.S. at the time they were encouraged to be spirited and confident as debutantes and unlike the women who married in America after they wed they could follow the custom of getting involved in politics or writing, which was normal in England.

The book is a solid and entertaining social history that makes me think a real life Cora had more meaningful work to do, more extravagant parties to give, more friendships and probably more infidelity than we see on Downton Abbey. (Mind you I’m happy Cora did not hop into bed with Bricker, the bounder.) The authors’ style is full of wit and energy.

While I enjoyed being able to listen as I drove, I think I’ll get the actual book, because I can envision wanting to fact check the history and that’s hard to do with a CD.

His Family

Ernest Poole, author of The Harbor and Giants Gone was the first novelist to win the Pulitzer Prize and he won it for His Family. In His Family, Roger Gale tries to live out his promise to his dying wife to keep his daughters together, to really know each one. Each young woman is distinct and unless they were sisters they’d never cross paths. Set in New York around the time of WWI, the novel follows Gale and his three daughters through a tumultuous era. Deborah throws herself into her work as principal for a tenement school. Edith obsesses over being the perfect mother making sure her children have the perfect childhood and Laura flits about as a “modern woman,” which by her definition means being a fashion plate who dances a lot.

Roger owns a clipping service, not the usual business featured in novels. His perspective of his daughters and life in this era was perceptive and genuine. He cares and yet feels unable to influence or understand his daughters. Life hands them surprises and tragedy, catching everyone off guard. Roger is as shaped by his daughters, particularly Deborah, as they are by him.

Here are a few favorite quotations:

“He saw each of his daughters, part of himself. And he remembered what Judith had said: ‘You will live on in our children’s lives.’ And he began to get glimmerings of a new immortality, made up of generations, an endless succession of other lives extending into the future.”

“Queer, how a man can neglect his children, as I have done … when the thing he wants most in life is to see each one …happy.”

“He had thought of childhood as something intimate and pure, inside his home, his family. Instead of that, in Deborah’s school he had been disturbed and thrilled by the presence all around him of something wild, barbaric, dark, compounded of the city streets, of surging crowds, of rushing feet, of turmoil, filth, disease and death, of poverty and vice and crime.”

Pullman Journeys

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There’s a new Pullman Car service between Chicago and New Orleans. A few old style Pullman Cars restored to their 1950s version with a dining car, club car and porter service offer a kind of time travel. Click here to see the CBS Morning feature on these Pullman journeys.

In the fall there will be Pullman Cars going weekly between New York and Chicago.

If they had the 19th century style cars, I’d take one anywhere. The 1950s isn’t a decade I think was so special. Still if someone else were paying, I’d try one.

The Harbor by Ernest Poole

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Ernest Poole’s The Harbor is tied for the most exciting book I’ve read this year (with The Count of Monte Cristo). Written in 1915, The Harbor tells the story of New York’s harbor from the late 19th century till WWI through the eyes of Bill, whose father has a lucrative business. The Harbor gripped me from page one when seven year old Bill shares how he hates the harbor. Though crude to a sheltered rich boy, this harbor is filled with sailing ships, exotic foreigners, spices, silks, and riches. Yeah, there’s plenty of spitting and cursing and the odd fist fight as Bill learns when he meets a Dickensian boy, Sam who’s something of a “harbor-urchin” leading a back of wildish boys who scare and fascinate Bill. He’s never the same after meeting Sam. The rich kids in their starched shirts with their gentle games lose whatever charm they had.

We follow Bill from his often adventurous childhood through college when he meets Joe Kramer, a worldly politically active man, whose family became destitute after his father unknowingly gave tainted medicine to children with small pox. Though the fault was with the drug company, Dr. Kramer and his family were driven out of town and had to move from town to town as rumors caught them. Joe is full of the straight dope. He sees through society’s shams and thinks most of college is a “tour through the graveyard.” Joe comes and goes always making Bill and his sister Sue question their views and life.

The Harbor has the tone of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, that vivid, robust tone from the turn of the century. Poole’s not as polemic or biased as Upton Sinclair (whom I do like). The middle class and upper class views are presented honestly. It was amazing and sad to see how work and life on the harbor got harder when sailing ships were replaced by bigger steel ships.

Poole was the first writer to get a Pulitzer Prize, which he got for his second novel, The Family. From what I’ve read The Harbor‘s the better book and the new prize wanted the author of The Harbor to get credit for the fine writing in that book.

I’ve got that joy of discovering a new favorite writer whose every book I want to read. I’ll get to The Family after I finish his Giants Gone about “the men who made Chicago,” which I’m getting from the library this morning.

Bill Cunningham New York

Bill Cunningham (!) Taking Kate's Picture

Bill Cunningham (!) Taking Kate’s Picture (Photo credit: Shawn Hoke)

Although I read the New York Times online, I had no idea who Bill Cunningham was. Partly, that’s due to the N.Y. Times limit of stories per month. Now it’s 10. Don’t get me started.

Netflix coaxed me into watching the documentary Bill Cunningham New York. What a gem!

Cunningham is a fashion photographer who celebrates how real people dress with style, wit and charm, but there’s more. He lives with such joy because he loves his work. He loves people and he loves simplicity. He is the heart and eyes of “In the Street” and Evening Hours, a column on parties for the beau monde.

The documentary Bill Cunningham New York invites us into Bill’s office and tiny apartment in Carnegie Hall, which is filled with file cabinets holding his prized work of about 5 decades. We get to see him on the street in all kinds of weather as he captures real fashion worn by everyone from socialites to the down and out. One of the great things about Bill is that he doesn’t judge the people, rather he admires and shares great fashion.

I delighted in his quirks. Though Bill goes to all kinds of expensive galas, he scrupulously refuses any food or drink for fear that these freebies might make him beholden. In fact he’s far from a gourmet. He pretty much eats sandwiches, coffee and probably water or other non-trendy beverages. Though he’s enamored with fashion, he pretty much sports the same nondescript slacks, Shetland sweaters and blue workman’s smocks that he found Paris street sweepers wear. Those smocks are durable, have a lot of pockets and cost like $20. When it’s cold, he dons a beret.

Over 80 years old, Bill’s main form of transportation is bicycle. At the time of the film, he’d had 27 bikes stolen and was on bike 28. He rode home at all hours even after his black tie events. At times I wished he’d take a cab fearing that even with his reflective vest some drunk might plow into him.

Everyone who’s anyone in New York seems to know Bill and the film features interviews with the dandies and socialites who seem to dress for him and his paper. The film shows Bill’s neighbors and fellow artists who face eviction as the artists are getting thrown out to make way for telemarketing or other such tenants. (It’s a shame, but the New York Times must pay Bill a decent salary and he’s been in a rent controlled apartment for over 50 years it seems. He’s not spending his money on food, clothes or transportation.)

Even if you’re not a big fashion lover, I think you’ll love watching a man who lives on his own terms with lots of joie de vivre.

Disclaimer

Dear Fellows, The State Department has requested that any Fellows who maintain their own blog or website please post the following disclaimer on your site: "This website is not an official U.S. Department of State website. The views and information presented are the English Language Fellows' own and do not represent the English Language Fellow Program or the U.S. Department of State." We appreciate your cooperation. Site Meter
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