Nov. 14, 2013


by Louis Jenkins

I remember when I was a child I had a pair of canaries
in a cage in my bedroom. I had the idea that I would
raise and sell canaries. I asked one of my sisters if she
remembered them. She remembered that they were
parakeets, not canaries. I asked another sister. She said
she didn't remember any canaries but she remembered
how mean I was to her. My youngest sister doesn't
remember having birds but thinks that we had a pet
rabbit. I don't remember that. My brother thinks we
had a pet crow that talked. I don't remember a crow
but I remember we had a myna bird for a while that
said, "Hello sweetiepie," but he belonged to someone
else. My mother says that she would never have
allowed birds or any other animals in the house. I
remember how the female canary ignored the male
but chirped plaintively to a mockingbird that sang
outside my window all summer long.

"Mockingbird" by Louis Jenkins, from Tin Flag: New and Selected Prose Poems. © Will o' the Wisp books, 2013. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1832 that the world's first streetcar, named the John Mason, began operation in New York City, running between Prince and 14th Streets in Lower Manhattan. For a long time, Americans had relied on horse-drawn carriages to get them around cities. In 1827, a new form of mass transit was built in New York City, called an omnibus. It was the brainchild of a businessman who owned a line of stagecoaches. He had seen something similar in a French drawing, so he commissioned a young Irish immigrant named John Stephenson to build one. An omnibus was basically a big, boxy stagecoach, but it ran along a designated route and the fare was cheap. If someone wanted to ride one, they just put up their hand, and to get off they pulled a leather strap, which was connected to the ankle of the driver.

In 1832, 23-year-old Stephenson received a commission from John Mason, a wealthy banker and one of the biggest landowners in the city. Mason envisioned an omnibus on rails, but with the rails laid in the street, and he had just been granted a charter for such a rail line: the New York and Harlem Railroad. He left it up to Stephenson to design and build the new streetcar, to be named the John Mason in honor of the railroad's president. Stephenson modeled it on railway cars, but he dropped the body of the car so that the seats were above the wheels but the floors were in between the wheels, which made it easily accessible from the street, without a railway platform. Stephenson was granted a patent for this idea the following year, and requests began to pour in from all over the country.

Stephenson's new streetcar was a huge improvement on the omnibus. Although an omnibus was supposed to carry 15 people, there were usually many more packed inside and even on the roof, and everyone tried not to fall off as the car bumped over rough roads. One contemporary writer proclaimed: "Modern martyrdom may be succinctly defined as riding in a New York City omnibus. People are packed into them like sardines in a box with perspiration for oil. Passengers hang from the straps like smoked hams in a corner grocery ... pickpockets ply their vocation ... the foul, close heated air is poisonous." By contrast, the streetcar was luxurious. The John Mason had three separate compartments — each had their own entrance and held 10 people, and the compartments were bigger than those in an omnibus, with beautiful upholstered seats and glass windows. Horses pulled the streetcar's steel wheels along steel rails in the street. With the reduced friction, a streetcar was much easier to pull than an omnibus — so the ride was much smoother for the passenger, almost twice as fast (6-8 mph), and needed fewer horses. Because of the increased efficiency, a ride on the John Mason cost about 10 cents, instead of the 15-cent omnibus.

Each streetcar was operated by two people: the driver and the conductor. The driver sat in front, on an open platform no matter what the weather was like — the thinking was that the driver would be more alert out in the open than in the comfort of an enclosed compartment. He controlled the horses and had a brake handle to stop the streetcar. The conductor sat in back and helped passengers board the train, took their money, and rang a bell to signal to the driver when to stop and go.

By 1870, New Yorkers made 100 million trips a year in horse-drawn streetcars. By 1880, there were at least 150,000 horses in the city. But each of those 150,000 horses was producing 22 lbs. of manure each day, and soon the city was a mess. One citizen wrote: "In hot weather the city stank with the emanations of putrefying organic matter." Another wrote that the streets were "literally carpeted with a warm, brown matting of comminuted horse dropping, smelling to heaven and destined in no inconsiderable part to be scattered in fine dust in all directions, laden with countless millions of disease breeding germs." One writer guessed that by 1930, the manure would reach the third story of Manhattan's buildings. But in just a few decades, cars took over as the primary form of transportation, and in 1917 horse-drawn streetcars ceased to operate in New York City.

On this day in 1851, Harper & Brothers published Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville (books by this author), about a ship captain named Ahab who is obsessed with hunting the great white sperm whale that took his leg. The book had been published in Britain in October with the title The Whale; Melville's decision to change the title didn't get there in time. The American version of the book had crowded pages and ugly binding, but the English version was done in three beautiful volumes with bright blue and white covers. It also had gold stamps of whales, but they were the wrong kind: they were shaped like Greenland whales — humpbacks or gray whales — instead of sperm whales. The British publisher accidentally left out the ending of the book, the epilogue. This confused a lot of British readers, because without the epilogue there was no explanation of how the narrator lived to tell the tale. It seemed like he died in the end with everyone else on the ship. The reviews from Britain were harsh, and costly to Melville. At the time, Americans deferred to British critical opinion, and a lot of American newspaper editors reprinted reviews from Britain without actually reading the American version with the proper ending. Melville had just bought a farm in Massachusetts, his debts were piling up, he was hiding them from his wife, and he was counting on Moby-Dick to bring in enough money to pay off his creditors. The book flopped, partly because of those British reviews. Melville never fully recovered from the disappointment.

It's the birthday of the woman who wrote about the adventures of a girl named Pippi Långstrump, or, as we know her in English, Pippi Longstocking: Swedish author Astrid Lindgren (books by this author), was born Astrid Ericsson on a farm near Vimmerby, Sweden (1907). One day in 1944, Lindgren sprained her ankle, and while she was stuck in bed she wrote down the Pippi Longstocking stories she'd been telling her children for years. She wanted to give a copy to her daughter, Karin, for her 10th birthday. Astrid Lindgren was so happy with her work that she sent it to a publisher, and in 1945, Pippi Longstocking was published. Pippi is a nine-year-old girl with no parents who lives in a red house at the edge of a Swedish village with her horse and her pet monkey, Mr. Nilsson. She has red pigtails, and she wears one black stocking and one brown, with black shoes twice as long as her feet. She eats whole chocolate cakes and sleeps with her feet on the pillow, and she's the strongest girl in the world. The sequels to Pippi Longstocking include Pippi Goes on Board (1946) and Pippi in the South Seas (1948). Lindgren's Pippi Longstocking books are her most popular, but she wrote more than 115 others, including detective stories, adventure stories, fantasy novels, and realistic fiction. Her books have sold 80 million copies and have been translated into Arabic, Armenian, Vietnamese, and Zulu. Lindgren died in Stockholm in 2002. She was 94. When she was asked what she wanted for her 94th birthday, she said, "Peace on earth and nice clothes."

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