Thursday Sep. 1, 2016

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The Ferris Wheel

The rounding steeps and jostles were one thing;
And he held tight with so much circling.
The pancaked earth came magnifying up,
Then shrank, as climbing backward to the top
He looked ahead for something in the fields
To stabilize the wheel.

Sometimes it stopped. The chairs rocked back and forth,
As couples holding hands got off
And others climbed into the empty chairs;
Then they were turning, singles, pairs,
Rising, falling through everything they saw,
Whatever thing they saw.

Below—the crowd, a holiday of shirts,
Straw hats, balloons, and brightly colored skirts,
So beautiful, he thought, looking down now,
While the stubborn wheel ground on, as to allow
Some stark monotony within,
For those festooned along the rim.

The engine, axle, spokes, and gears were rigged
So at the top the chairs danced tipsy jigs,
A teetering both balanced and extreme,
“Oh no,” the couples cried, laughing, “Stop!” they screamed
Over the rounding down they rode along,
Centrifugal and holding on.

And he held too, thinking maybe happiness
Was simply going on, kept up unless
The wheel slowed or stopped for good. Otherwise,
There were the voices, expectant of surprise;
Funny to hear, he thought, their cries, always late,
Each time the wheel would hesitate,

Since the genius of the wheel was accident,
The always-almost that hadn’t,
A minor agony rehearsed as fun
While the lights came up and dark replaced the sun,
Seeming to complete their going round all day,
Paying to be turned that way.

Later, standing off, he felt the wheel’s mild dread,
Going as though it lapped the miles ahead
And rolled them up into the cloudless black,
While those who rode accelerated back
And up into the night’s steep zero-G
That proved them free.

“The Ferris Wheel” by Wyatt Prunty from Unarmed and Dangerous. © The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

San Francisco's first cable car began regular service on this date in 1873. Andrew Smith Hallidie was an English ex-pat who had immigrated to San Francisco during the Gold Rush in the 1850s. On a typically damp, foggy day in 1869, he saw a team of horses struggling to pull a horse-drawn car up a steep, slippery cobblestone street. The horses were being brutally whipped, but to no avail: they lost their footing, fell, and were fatally dragged by the car as it raced down the hill. Hallidie determined to find a better way. His father was an inventor, and held a patent in England for "wire rope" cable. The younger Hallidie was already using the wire rope in the construction of suspension bridges and mine conveyance systems; he figured there must be a way to couple a steam engine and a cable to get a car up San Francisco's famous hills. He signed a contract to form the Clay Street Hill Railroad, and construction began in May 1873. Three months later, the cable car was operational. Hallidie made his first successful test run from the top of Nob Hill at four a.m. on August 2. The cable car began public service on the first day of September, and it made Hallidie a rich man.

It was on this day in 1773 that 20-year-old Phillis Wheatley published Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (books by this author). It was the first book of poetry published by an African-American. Wheatley was born in West Africa and brought over as a slave when she was a young girl. She was purchased by a Boston family, who taught her to read and write, and eventually gave her her freedom. She went to London when her book was published, and she met many important people there, including the Lord Mayor, who gave her a copy of Paradise Lost. George Washington praised her talents, and she published numerous poems in magazines. But her husband fell into debt and then abandoned her when she was pregnant, and she died in childbirth, in a boarding house, when she was only 31 years old.

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