Sunday July 19, 2015

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Short-order Cook

An average joe comes in
and orders thirty cheeseburgers and thirty fries.

I wait for him to pay before I start cooking.
He pays.
He ain’t no average joe.

The grill is just big enough for ten rows of three.
I slap the burgers down
throw two buckets of fries in the deep frier
and they pop pop spit spit…
The counter girls laugh.
I concentrate.
It is the crucial point—
They are ready for the cheese:
my fingers shake as I tear off slices
toss them on the burgers/fries done/dump/
refill buckets/burgers ready/flip into buns/
beat that melting cheese/wrap burgers in plastic/
into paper bags/fries done/dump/fill thirty bags/
bring them to the counter/wipe sweat on sleeve
and smile at the counter girls.
I puff my chest out and bellow:
“Thirty cheeseburgers, thirty fries!”
They look at me funny.
I grab a handful of ice, toss it in my mouth
do a little dance and walk back to the grill.
Pressure, responsibility, success,
thirty cheeseburgers, thirty fries.

“Short-order Cook” by Jim Daniels from Places/Everyone. © The University of Wisconsin Press, 1985. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

On this date in 1799, French soldiers in Napoleon’s army discovered the Rosetta Stone at a port town on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast. They were digging a foundation for a fort when they came upon a slab of rock about 4 feet high and 2 and half feet wide, 11 inches thick and weighing 1,700 pounds. What caught the soldiers’ attention was the writing on the stone, in three different scripts: ancient Greek, demotic, and Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Scholars could read and understand the ancient Greek. The second script, demotic, was an Egyptian language that was spoken and written at the time that the Rosetta Stone was carved in 196 B.C., and contemporary scholars understood some bits and pieces of it. But Egyptian hieroglyphics had been a “dead” language for nearly 2,000 years. All around Egypt there abounded pyramids and temples with thousands of hieroglyphic characters carved into the walls, but no one could figure out what the inscriptions meant. When linguists realized that the three texts on the Rosetta Stone all said the same thing, they knew that they had a key to breaking the hieroglyphic “code” at last. A British scholar made good progress on figuring out the demotic text by 1814, and then the French scholar Jean-François Champollion worked out the hieroglyphics between 1822 and 1824.

The Rosetta Stone had been created in 196 B.C. on the orders of Ptolemy V, a Greek emperor who ruled Egypt during the Hellenistic period. It begins with a lofty address, where Ptolemy acknowledges by name some ancestors and gods. He goes on to praise his administration’s good deeds and himself at length, and then he announces tax breaks for the non-rebellious Egyptian temple priest class. He also gives instructions for the building of temples.

The Rosetta Stone has been exhibited at London’s British Museum since 1802 — with the exception of a two-year period near the end of World War I. The stone was moved to an underground railway station in Holborn to protect it from German bombs.

On this day in 1898, novelist Émile Zola (books by this author) fled France in the wake of what would become known as the “Dreyfus Affair.” Zola was one of France’s best-known writers and a leading intellectual. He had already completed his enormously successful 20-volume series Les Rougon-Macquart when he decided to write what would prove to be an inflammatory letter to the president of France, condemning the secret military court-martial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a French artillery officer of Jewish descent, who was accused of selling secrets to the German army and banished to Devil’s Island in South America. Evidence had surfaced of Dreyfus’ innocence, but the French military suppressed it.

Zola’s letter ran on the front page of the Parisian newspaper L’Aurore under the heading “J’Accuse!” (“I accuse!”) It read, in part: “I repeat with the most vehement conviction: truth is on the march, and nothing will stop it. Today is only the beginning, for it is only today that the positions have become clear: on one side, those who are guilty, who do not want the light to shine forth, on the other, those who seek justice and who will give their lives to attain it. I said it before and I repeat it now: when truth is buried underground, it grows and it builds up so much force that the day it explodes it blasts everything with it. We shall see whether we have been setting ourselves up for the most resounding of disasters, yet to come.”

Zola’s letter provoked national outrage on both sides of the issue, among political parties, religious organizations, and others. Accused of libel and sentenced to one year in prison, he fled to England for a year. His letter forced the military to address the Dreyfus Affair in public. Dreyfus was released and exonerated. Zola died four years later. His letter prompted the 1902 law that separated church and state in France and ushered in the political liberalization of France.

Today is the birthday of firearms manufacturer Samuel Colt, born in Hartford, Connecticut (1814). When he was 21, he perfected a working version of a revolver with a multi-shot barrel, which he patented. He also designed a rifle and formed a company to manufacture both of the firearms. Colt produced most of the pistols used during the Civil War, and the company’s six-shot, single-action “Peacemaker” model, introduced in 1873, became the most famous sidearm of the West.

It’s the birthday of French Impressionist Edgar Degas, born in Paris (1834), best known for his paintings and pastels of ballet dancers and his bronze sculptures of ballerinas and racehorses. After he became completely blind in one eye, and nearly so in the other, he began to work in sculpture, which he called “a blind man’s art.” Degas remained a bachelor his entire life, saying, “There is love and there is work, and we only have one heart.”

It’s the anniversary of the first women’s rights conference in history, organized in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. It was organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her friend Lucretia Mott. They had been getting together frequently to talk about the abuses they suffered as women, and they finally decided to have a public meeting to discuss the status of women in society. At the meeting, on this day in 1848, they drew up a declaration, which said in part, “The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman.” Elizabeth Cady Stanton read the declaration and then made a radical suggestion that the document should also demand a woman’s right to vote. At that time, no women were allowed to vote anywhere on the planet. And many of the other women there objected to the idea. They thought it was impossible.

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