Wednesday Jul. 13, 2016

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One Summer Day on the Number One Train

When the doors of the express opened at 72 Street,
the local was waiting. She entered with me,
tall and angular as a crane, her expression alert,
violin poised against her clavicle like a wing.

The train was half-empty, the passengers dozing
or absorbed in their smartphones.
She stood at one end of the car, her gaze
swiftly appraising us, while the doors slid shut.

Closing her eyes, she lifted her bow
and dipped her chin, and into that pause
went all the years of preparation
that had brought her to this moment.

The train accelerated in a rush of cacophony,
her music welled up, and I recognized
a Bach concerto blossoming to fullness
like an ever-opening rose. Suddenly

I was crying for no reason and every reason,
in front of strangers. I thought of the courtroom
where, an hour ago, I’d sat listening to testimony
with fellow jurors, charged to determine the facts

and follow the law. But no matter how we tried,
we couldn’t reverse damage or undo wrong.
The music was contrast and balm, like sunlight
in subterranean air. The tears wet on my cheeks,

I broke into applause, joined by fellow passengers.
We’d become an audience, her audience,
just before the doors opened and we scattered.
Making my offering, I exited, too shy to catch her eye.

But she’d seen the effect her music had wrought.
Its echo resounded in my memory, following me
into the glory of the summer afternoon.
It is with me still.

“One Summer Day on the Number One Train” by Anne Whitehouse. Used with permission of the author. 

Today is the birthday of English poet John Clare (books by this author), born in Helpston, Northamptonshire (1793). The son of rural peasants, Clare published his first book, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, when he was 27. He published it so that he could save his parents from eviction. The book was a great success, and he was welcomed into London literary circles. But Clare, with his humble background, never felt like he belonged there. And once he became known as a writer, he never felt welcome among the laborers in Northamptonshire, either. He wrote, “They hardly dare talk in my company for fear I should mention them in my writings and I find more pleasure in wandering the fields than in musing among my silent neighbours who are insensible to everything but toiling and talking of it and that to no purpose.”

He wound up in a mental institution later in life, and he wrote some of his best poetry from the asylum. His work there bore no trace of his madness. One of the doctors wrote, “He has never been able to obtain in conversation, nor even in writing prose, the appearance of sanity for two minutes or two lines together, and yet there is no indication of insanity in any of his poetry.” Clare died in the asylum in 1864.

There was a blackout in New York City on this date in 1977. Lightning struck three times that night, hitting Con Edison substations and shutting down the power grid. The city went dark at about 9:30 p.m. Kennedy and LaGuardia airports had to be shut down for eight hours, tunnels in and out of the city were closed, and thousands of people had to be evacuated from the subways.

There had been a similar blackout in 1965, and people had faced it with good humor, but in 1977, New York was in the middle of an economic crisis, and unemployment rates were high. There was also a serial killer, who called himself “Son of Sam,” on the loose, and the city was in the grip of a brutal heat wave. It was the worst time for a catastrophic blackout; the city was a powder keg.

In the 25 hours before power was restored, more than 1,600 stores were looted, more than a thousand fires were set, and nearly 3,800 looters were arrested. It was an ugly day in New York City.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®