Thursday Nov. 5, 2015

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At the Sparkle Laundromat on Rice Street

The teenagers are bored, having nowhere else to go, not
wanting to go home to the drab familiarity of housing projects
and apartment complexes. We too are directionless, but
directionless in the same place and time—between jobs,
between loves, between ambitions; we are loitering without
intent. Hank Williams echoes from a small dusty speaker,
quarters tumble from the change machine, pool balls click with
soft indifference. The ceiling-high windows are veiled with
steam, impossible to tell at first glance if it is summer or winter,
daylight or evening. There is no stampede of years here, no
memory rushing in either direction, insistent on its own
inherent beauty—only the rhythm of machines in cycle, that
constant turning without arrival. We could come back decades
from now, pick up where we left off, wait it out for one more
song before returning to the world again.

"At the Sparkle Laundromat on Rice Street” by Greg Watson from All the World At Once. © Nodin Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the birthday of the man who said: “While there is a lower class, I am in it. While there is a criminal class, I am of it. While there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” That’s the speaker and labor organizer Eugene Debs, born to poor Alsatian immigrants in Terre Haute, Indiana (1855). At the age of 14, Debs left high school to work as a paint scraper on the railroad. He soon joined the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, became an influential member of the union, and went on to become editor of their national magazine. He first went to prison for support of the Pullman Strike of 1894. He emerged six months later a committed socialist, a charismatic speaker, and in 1900, ran for president on the Socialist ticket. He also co-founded the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies) alongside Bill Haywood and Mother Jones.

A tall lanky man with piercing blue eyes, Debs was an animated speaker, often bending far over the podium to look into the faces of the crowd. He disliked the label of leader, saying: “Too long have the workers [...] waited for some Moses to lead them out of bondage. I would not lead you out if I could; for if you could be led out, you could be led back again. I would have you make up your minds that there is nothing you cannot do for yourselves.”

In 1912, Debs campaigned for president on “The Red Special” locomotive, traveling to the farthest corners of the country. He lost yet again, but this time he received more than a million votes. Five years later, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for a speech in which he said, “The rich start the wars; the poor fight them.” The Espionage Act had recently passed, making it a crime to publicly oppose the American involvement in World War I. Debs represented himself, called no witnesses, and his statement before the court is regarded as a masterpiece of American oratory.

He continued to speak out from an Atlanta penitentiary on labor issues, and ran yet another popular presidential campaign from behind bars. Now in his early 60s, he refused any special treatment in jail and won over his fellow inmates by constantly fighting on their behalf. When he was pardoned on Christmas Day in 1921, the warden opened every cellblock and allowed more than 2,000 inmates to gather at the gates and bid farewell to Debs. As he turned the corner and began to walk the gauntlet of prisoners, Debs opened his arms to the men and began to weep as the crowd roared. Some 50,000 people greeted him upon his return to Terre Haute.

His book on the prison industry, Walls and Bars, was published after his death from heart failure in 1926.

Eugene Debs, who said, “When we are in partnership and have stopped clutching each other’s throats; when we’ve stopped enslaving each other, we will stand together, hands clasped, and be friends.”

It’s the birthday of poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox (books by this author), born in Johnstown, Wisconsin (1850). She said, “I do not remember when I did not expect to be a writer,” and by age 14, she was publishing in magazines. She published a handful of stories, although she estimated that she received nine rejections for every story that was printed. As a young woman, she published two little-known books of religious and sentimental poetry — many of the poems were in support of the temperance movement.

Then she wrote a manuscript of sentimental love poems; many were poetic retellings of famous love stories, and some weren’t love poems at all, but meditations on values like Courage and Progress. All of the poems in her manuscript had already been published in various magazines, without much notice. However, a famous Chicago publishing house refused to publish the manuscript, citing its “immorality.” Of particular concern was “The Farewell of Clarimonde,” based on a story by French writer Théophile Gautier, about a priest who falls in love with a woman who turns out to be a vampire.

Wilcox complained to a friend about her rejected poems, and that friend told a Milwaukee newspaper, which published the sensational headline the next day: “TOO LOUD FOR CHICAGO. The Scarlet City by the Lake Shocked by a Badger Girl, whose Verses out-Swinburne Swinburne and out-Whitman, Whitman.” She was shocked by the turn of events; she wrote: “I was advised to burn my offensive manuscript and assured that in time I might live down the shame I had brought on myself.” Another publisher saw an excellent marketing opportunity and offered to publish her book with the title Poems of Passion (1883), and so despite its relatively tame subject matter, it became a huge best-seller and Wilcox became famous.

In “Solitude” in Poems of Passion, she wrote: “Laugh, and the world laughs with you; / Weep, and you weep alone. / For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth / But has trouble enough of its own.”

Today is Guy Fawkes Day in Britain, also known as Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes Night. On this night in 1605, Guy Fawkes was arrested while guarding a secret stash of explosives beneath the House of Lords. Fawkes was a member of the Gunpowder Plot, a plan hatched by a group of provincial English Catholics who plotted to blow up the Houses of Parliament and assassinate the Protestant king, James I, and replace him with a Catholic head of state. In the aftermath of Fawkes’s arrest and the discovery of his accomplices, King James encouraged his subjects to celebrate his “survival by divine intervention” by setting off fireworks, lighting bonfires, and burning the traitors in effigy. During his interrogation, Fawkes told the Lords that his intention was “to blow you Scotch beggars back to your native mountains.” Fawkes and his 12 co-conspirators were tortured and beheaded in front of cheering crowds.

The celebration became an annual event, which, over the years, grew to include effigies of everyone from the pope to Margaret Thatcher.

In turn-of-the-century-Britain, children constructed effigies of Guy Fawkes and trundled them around villages in wheelbarrows, demanding a “penny for the Guy,” much like trick or treating in the U.S. Fawkes’s distinctive, curling mustache, pointed beard, and oversized smile became a popular mask for children. Masks were given out for free each autumn with the purchase of a comic book.

Once considered a notorious traitor, Fawkes is now seen as a revolutionary hero, with his mask becoming a well-known cultural symbol for anarchy worldwide. The online hacktivist group known as Anonymous uses the mask as their symbol. In Alan Moore’s comic book V for Vendetta (1982) and the film version (2006), the character of Vendetta wears the Fawkes mask and blows up Parliament. During the 2011 protests in Wisconsin, the masks were worn by protesters in the crowd, as they were during the Occupy protests on Wall Street and in Argentina. In response to the use of Guy Fawkes masks during possibly unlawful activity, Canada has banned the wearing of masks during riotous or unlawful assembly. Wearing masks carries a mandatory 10-year prison sentence.

And in the Harry Potter book series, the character of Albus Dumbledore has a phoenix named Fawkes.

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