The ship that took my mother to Ellis Island
eighty-three years ago was named “The Mercy.”
She remembers trying to eat a banana
without first peeling it and seeing her first orange
in the hands of a young Scot, a seaman
who gave her a bite and wiped her mouth for her
with a red bandana and taught her the word,
“orange,” saying it patiently over and over.
A long autumn voyage, the days darkening
with the black waters calming as night came on,
then nothing as far as her eyes could see and space
without limit rushing off to the corners
of creation. She prayed in Russian and Yiddish
to find her family in New York, prayers
unheard or misunderstood or perhaps ignored
by all the powers that swept the waves of darkness
before she woke, that kept “The Mercy” afloat
while smallpox raged among the passengers
and crew until the dead were buried at sea
with strange prayers in a tongue she could not fathom.
“The Mercy,” I read on the yellowing pages of a book
I located in a windowless room of the library
on 42nd Street, sat thirty-one days
offshore in quarantine before the passengers
disembarked. There a story ends. Other ships
arrived, “Tancred” out of Glasgow, “The Neptune”
registered as Danish, “Umberto IV,”
the list goes on for pages, November gives
way to winter, the sea pounds this alien shore.
Italian miners from Piemonte dig
under towns in western Pennsylvania
only to rediscover the same nightmare
they left at home. A nine-year-old girl travels
all night by train with one suitcase and an orange.
She learns that mercy is something you can eat
again and again while the juice spills over
your chin, you can wipe it away with the back
of your hands and you can never get enough.
"The Mercy” by Philip Levine from The Mercy. © Knopf, 2000. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
Today is the birthday of Isaac Asimov (1920) (books by this author). He was born in Petrovichi, Russia, and his family immigrated to the United States when he was three years old. He grew up in Brooklyn, where his family ran a candy store. He wrote or edited more than 500 books, many of them works of popular science, and he was one of the major science fiction authors of the 20th century.
Asimov said, "Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers."
On this date in 1974, President Nixon signed a law setting the national speed limit at 55 miles per hour. The Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act was a response to an oil embargo put in place by the Arab members of OPEC — the Organization for Petroleum Exporting Countries — in protest of the United States' support of Israel. Gas prices went up 40 percent, block-long lines at the pumps were an everyday occurrence, and it wasn't uncommon to see signs reading "Sorry, no gas today" in front of your local filling station.
The western states, with their wide-open spaces and straight highways, complained bitterly about the new national law, but they complied. Gas prices continued to be high even after the embargo was lifted a couple of months later, and Americans began to look overseas, to Japanese cars that were smaller and more fuel-efficient.