Monday Sep. 4, 2017

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Long ago, the old friends stopped calling. I used to think they had
lost my number. Now I forgive them their children and their jobs,
their wives and their divorces, their cancer and their lawns, the fifteen
minutes they allow themselves at the piano every night. I am able to go
on without them—a kind of orphan from the life I used to live. This is
what I’m thinking as I get in the car to take my daughter to her voice
lesson. The ride is a quiet one. She is getting older and has learned to
keep things to herself. When we arrive at the lesson, she makes it clear,
without saying so, that I should wait outside. So I stay in the car—doing
the bills, doing the things I hate—as her high notes drift through the
studio door, the glass of the car window, the air that will be between us
now from here until the end.

“Drift” by Charles Rafferty from The Smoke of Horses. © BOA Editions, 2017. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

The city of Los Angeles was founded on this date in 1781. Its original name was either “the Town of the Queen of the Angels” or “the Town of Our Lady of the Angels of Porciúncula,” depending on which source is consulted. All can agree that the town was named after “los ángeles” — the angels — and that’s the name that stuck.

On the orders of King Carlos III of Spain, Governor Felipe de Neve drew up the plans for a settlement on the bank of the Porciúncula — later known as the Los Angeles — River. De Neve followed the usual Spanish model: a central plaza, a town house, a guardhouse, and a granary. The corners of the pueblo were laid out at the four cardinal directions, so that strong winds would not blow up and down the town’s streets. De Neve sent out a call to Mexico for settlers. Eleven families took him up on the offer, and the original Spanish population of Los Angeles was just 44 people. The royal treasury issued each family two oxen, two mares, two mules, two sheep, two cows with one calf, one donkey, and one hoe — the cost of which was deducted from their pay in installments. The area was also home to an existing Native American village known as Yang-na, or Yabit. While the Europeans managed to sustain their colony, they also brought European diseases, which devastated the Native American population.

Flooding wiped out the original pueblo in 1815. Ten days of heavy rains caused the river to overflow its banks, and the debris the water carried with it created a dam that actually changed the river’s course. While its exact location has not been determined, many historians believe that the original pueblo was north of what is today downtown Los Angeles, near Chinatown. It was roughly bounded by the streets now known as Main Street, Spring Street, Paseo Luis Olivares, and West Cesar Estrada Chavez Boulevard. A parking lot sits on the site now, but there is a historic monument to the original “city of angels” nearby.

Thomas Edison flipped a switch to turn on the first commercial electric power plant on this date in 1882. Edison had already invented a long-lasting electric light bulb, but there was no electric infrastructure, and therefore no demand for his invention. He founded the Edison Electric Illuminating Company in 1880 and began working on a way to not only generate electricity, but also to deliver it into people’s homes and businesses. He looked at the way other utilities like gas and water were delivered, and determined that he could lay electrical cables under the streets of Manhattan. His next step was to invent all the fixtures, sockets, fuses, and meters that would be installed in buildings, and then form manufacturing companies to supply them.

Edison built his first commercial power plant at 257 Pearl Street, in lower Manhattan’s First District. He chose the site with care, because he wanted a densely populated area that was home to potential business as well as residential customers. The more people he could serve with his power plant, the faster that word — and customer demand —would spread. Another benefit to the Pearl Street location was its proximity to Wall Street and all the potential financial backers that Edison could impress with his invention. On the day that the Pearl Street Station powered up for the first time, Edison was standing in the offices of J.P. Morgan, one of his biggest investors. He gave the signal to his chief electrician, who closed the circuit and began the first commercial delivery of electric power. The New York Times — which was also among Edison’s first customers — reported the following day: “Edison’s central station, at No. 257 Pearl street, was yesterday one of the busiest places down town, and Mr. Edison was by far the busiest man in the station. The giant dynamos were started up at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, and, according to Mr. Edison, they will go on forever unless stopped by an earthquake. [...] The electric lamps in THE TIMES Building were as thoroughly tested last evening as any light could be tested in a single evening, and tested by men who have battered their eyes sufficiently by years of night work to know the good and bad points of a lamp, and the decision was unanimously in favor of the Edison electric lamp as against gas.”

It's the birthday of the novelist Richard Wright (books by this author), born in on a farm near Roxie, Mississippi (1908). He grew up in Jim Crow's South, the son of a sharecropper and a schoolteacher. His grandparents had been slaves. His father abandoned the family when Richard was five years old. He moved with his mother to Memphis. He lived with various relatives and attended school sporadically, but he taught himself to read by secretly borrowing books from the whites-only library in Memphis. He said, "My days and nights were one long, quiet, continuously contained dream of terror, tension, and anxiety."

In 1927, he followed the Great Migration of blacks from the rural South to the urban centers in the North, winding up in Chicago. He hoped that he would find better jobs and less racism in the North, but in his autobiography Black Boy (1945), he wrote, "My first glimpse of the flat black stretches of Chicago ... mocked all my fantasies. Chicago seemed an unreal city whose mythical houses were built of slabs of black coal wreathed in palls of gray smoke, houses whose foundations were sinking slowly into the dank prairie."

Wright found a city where blacks and whites sat on streetcars next to each other, bought newspapers at the same newsstands, ate at the same restaurants. He'd always known the rules in the segregated south, but in Chicago, he suddenly had no idea how he was supposed to act. At his first job as a dishwasher, he was shocked when a white waitress asked him to help tie her apron. He did so, and later wrote, "I continued my work, filled with all the possible meanings that tiny, simple, human event could have meant to any Negro in the South where I had spent my hungry days."

Wright spent ten years in Chicago, working as a ditch-digger, delivery boy, hospital worker, and a postal clerk. He began to write short stories and his first book was the collection Uncle Tom's Children (1938). Two years later, he published his masterpiece Native Son (1940), the story of a black man named "Bigger Thomas" who gets a job as a driver for a beautiful, young white woman and then accidentally kills her. Wright based the character on every bully, rebel, and outlaw he'd ever known.

Richard Wright said, “I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of hunger for life that gnaws in us all.”

George Eastman received a patent for the first film camera, which he called Kodak, on this date in 1888. Eastman had been an enthusiastic photographer since he was a young man, but found the whole method — with its bulky cameras and heavy, breakable glass plates — cumbersome and inconvenient. He wanted to make it easier for people to take up the hobby, so he worked on new technology in his spare time. By 1880, he had improved on the previous photographic plate, so he formed his own business. He then developed cellulose film, which could be rolled onto a spool; it eliminated the need for plates altogether.

His next step was to design a camera that could make use of a roll of film, and on this date he obtained a patent for that invention, which came to be known as the Kodak box camera. The box camera could hold enough rolled film to shoot 100 exposures, and it completely revolutionized the art and science of photography.

The name “Kodak” is also an invention of Eastman’s, and carries no special meaning. He once explained: “I devised the name myself. The letter ‘K’ had been a favorite with me — it seems a strong, incisive sort of letter. It became a question of trying out a great number of combinations of letters that made words starting and ending with ‘K.’ The word ‘Kodak’ is the result.” He also patented the slogan “You press the button. We do the rest.”

It was on this day in 1957 that Arkansas governor Orval Faubus called out the National Guard to bar nine black students from entering Central High School in Little Rock. In response, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent in the 101st Airborne Division to make sure they could enroll. A few days later, Eisenhower made a prime-time, live televised speech to the nation in which he said, "Mob rule cannot be allowed to override the decisions of our courts."

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