If my heart is a house
then it stands on your street
in the little village
where you are paperboy,
mailman, garbage collector,
water meter reader,
building inspector, vacuum
cleaner salesman, UPS driver,
yard crew, chimney sweep,
window washer, tax assessor,
snow shoveler, house painter,
voyeur, door to door
scam artist, vandal,
arsonist arsonist arsonist.
“The Neighborhood So Far” by Ron Carlson from Room Service. © Red Hen Press, 2016. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
It’s the birthday of Greek poet C.P. Cavafy (books by this author), born today in Alexandria, Egypt (1863). Cavafy spent his youth in England studying the works of Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde. Though he is considered to be the most distinguished Greek poet of the 20th century, he worked in unpublished obscurity during his own lifetime. He was gay, and wrote highly personal erotic poems that he chose to circulate only among friends.
Today is the birthday of American composer, pianist, and bandleader Duke Ellington, born on this day in Washington, D.C. (1899). Both of Ellington’s parents were pianists, and though he hoped as a child to become a baseball player, Ellington was destined to follow in their footsteps. He led his orchestra from 1923 to his death in 1974.
Ellington thought of his band as a musical laboratory, and he experimented with many different styles, everything from swing to bop. He said, “Playing ‘bop’ is like playing Scrabble with all the vowels missing.” He went on to compose jazz standards like “Mood Indigo” (1930). In his later career, he composed longer works such as Black, Brown and Beige (1943), a musical portrayal of African-American history.
In 1965, when he was 66 years old, he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for music, but he was passed over. When reporters asked him if he was disappointed, he said, “Fate’s been kind to me. Fate doesn’t want me to be famous too young.”
He liked to tell his band, “Let’s not pout, gentlemen. It makes bad notes.”
It’s the birthday of the comedian whose television sitcom spawned such quirky pop culture catchphrases as “Yada yada yada” and “No soup for you!” That’s Jerry Seinfeld, born on this day in Brooklyn, New York (1954). Seinfeld is best known for his long-running television sitcom Seinfeld (1989–1998), in which he played a thinly veiled version of himself, a stand-up comedian living in New York City surrounded by anxious and conniving friends, like his pal George Costanza, who once made up a fake charity called “The Human Fund,” convinced his coworkers to donate, and kept the money for himself.
Jerry Seinfeld grew up loving the comedy of Robert Klein and the Abbott and Costello movies. His father was an aficionado of jokes: while he was stationed in the Pacific during World War II, he’d write down the best jokes he heard and store them in a box for safekeeping. Jerry Seinfeld started performing stand-up while still in college, honing his skills at clubs like Budd Friedman’s Improv and Catch A Rising Star. He wasn’t a fan of vulgar comedy, and his show was clean and popular, with his observational humor about everyday life catching the audience off guard. One popular joke was, “Why does moisture ruin leather? Aren’t cows outside a lot of the time?” Another was, “A two-year-old is like having a blender, but you don’t have a top for it.”
When Jerry Seinfeld was invited to perform on The Tonight Show in 1981, he was so nervous he jogged around Manhattan listening to his five-minute routine more than 200 times on his Walkman. His acting career began with a recurring bit part on the television sitcom Benson in 1979. He played a mail delivery boy. He was fired abruptly, but no one bothered to tell him; he just showed up for taping one day and learned he had no part in the script.
Seinfeld and his friend, comedian Larry David, were either in a grocery store or a diner, no one can quite get the story straight, joking about everyday things, when they came up with the idea for a show about a comedian and his everyday life. The show would be called The Seinfeld Chronicles and would feature humor based on real things that happened to David and Seinfeld. Seinfeld played himself, and the character of George Costanza was a loose version of Larry David, and when Seinfeld first hit the air, it took a few years to become a hit, but when it did, it became the most popular sitcom in America. The characters of Jerry and George even pitched a show, just like the one audiences were watching, to fictional television executives over the course of several episodes, in which George describes the show as “about nothing.” The phrase caught one, though Seinfeld wasn’t sure why. He said: “The pitch for the show, the real pitch, when Larry and I went to NBC in 1988, was we want to show how a comedian gets his material. The show about nothing was just a joke in an episode many years later, and Larry and I to this day are surprised that it caught on as a way that people describe the show, because to us, it’s the opposite of that.”
Seinfeld writes all his jokes longhand with a Bic pen on yellow legal pads, and says doing live comedy is like “standing against a wall blindfolded, with a cigarette in your mouth, and they’re about to fire.”
On this day in 1946, The Portable Faulkner by William Faulkner was published by Viking (books by this author). Faulkner is best known today as the author of the novels The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying, and the screenwriter for films like The Big Sleep and The Long, Hot Summer. Faulkner’s fiction painted a full, chaotic picture of the American South, but by the time of The Portable Faulkner, he had fallen into near-obscurity — his works almost out of print. The critic Malcolm Cowley compiled the collection in an attempt to revive Faulkner’s career. Afterwards Faulkner wrote to Cowley saying: “The job is splendid. Damn you to hell anyway. … By God, I didn’t know myself what I had tried to do, and how much I had succeeded.”
Today in 1913, a Swedish engineer named Gideon Sundback was living in Hoboken, New Jersey, when he patented the modern zipper under the name, “Hookless No. 2.” The public, however, was far from sold. Preachers initially called the device “the Devil’s fingers” because it eased the process of removing clothing. Other early zipper models were patented under names like “C-curity Fastener” and “The Automatic, Continuous Clothing Closure.” It didn’t take off until a boot company adopted the technology for their “Zipper Boot,” launching both the method and the word into fame.
American soldiers liberated 30,000 prisoners from a concentration camp in Dachau, Germany on this date in 1945. The camp had been established in March 1933, just five weeks after Hitler rose to power as German chancellor; it was the first concentration camp the Nazis established. Originally it held political prisoners, unionists, and other opponents of the Nazis, but by 1945, most of the prisoners were Jews. The camp also held communists, homosexuals, Roma Gypsies, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. It was a labor camp and a training ground for SS camp guards. Nazi scientists carried out experiments on the prisoners, which crippled or killed hundreds of them. Thousands more were executed or died of typhus, which was rampant. When the Americans arrived, they found 30 railroad cars filled with bodies, and the survivors were on the brink of starvation. Some of the American soldiers were so shocked and horrified by what they saw that they opened fire on their German prisoners of war, killing as many as 50 Nazi guards.
The gates of Dachau proclaim, in wrought iron, “Arbeit macht frei” — work sets you free. There is a memorial inside those gates now, which reads: “May the example of those who were exterminated here between 1933 and 1945 … unite the living in their defense of peace and freedom and in reverence of human dignity.”