Plumbing supply places, like auto parts stores, have long
counters with bar stools for the customers. When I came in, the
man behind the counter was telling a story about the time he
and his friends had decided to celebrate getting home from
Vietnam and had bought a lot of Scotch and given one bottle to
a wino who drank half of it all at once and dropped dead.
Then the man, with Walter stitched on his shirt, asked what he
could do for me and I told him I had come to buy a toilet, the
cheapest, most basic toilet they had. He wanted to know if I
was putting it in one of my apartments or something and I said
no, it was for my own house and I was, oddly enough, buying
a toilet for the first time because we were installing indoor
plumbing. The other houses I’d lived in had always come with
toilets and I’d never given much thought to choosing one,
though today I’d kind of decided I wanted bone, not white. So,
in the process of getting the bowl and the tank and the seat and
some pipes and gaskets from the warehouse, we got to talking
about our outhouses and he allowed as how the one he had in
Florida when he was kid in the fifties hadn’t been all that
bad, except for the bugs and sometimes a snake, and we both
agreed that there are times out there when you see things from
an unusual vantage, for instance: that view of the night sky in
winter is unparalleled.
“Standard Plumbing” by Marie Harris, from Weasel in the Turkey Pen. © Hanging Loose Press, 1993. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
The cornerstone of the White House was laid on this date in 1792, on a site chosen by George Washington. The Commissioners of the District held a contest soliciting designs for the mansion. Hundreds of people entered the competition, including Thomas Jefferson, but first prize — an award of $500 — went to James Hoban, a young Irish immigrant and Freemason from County Kilkenny. Hoban based his design on Leinster House, a Dublin mansion that was the birthplace of Irish Freemasonry. The presidential residence was the first public building erected in Washington. Its gray-white sandstone was distinctive among the brick buildings that rose up around it in subsequent years, so it was informally dubbed “the White House” in 1812. Theodore Roosevelt made the name official in 1901.
It’s the birthday of Harlem Renaissance writer Arnaud “Arna” Wendell Bontemps (books by this author), born in Alexandria, Louisiana (1902). For three generations, all the men in his family had been brick masons, but after his mother’s death when he was 12, his father sent him to a private school where he was the only black student. He went on to be the first member of his family to get a college degree, but his father was furious that he chose to study literature instead of medicine or law. After he graduated from college, he moved to New York City because, he said, he wanted to see what all the excitement was about. The excitement was the Harlem Renaissance, and he quickly became friends with writers like Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, and James Weldon Johnson. They encouraged him to publish his poetry and fiction, and his first novel, God Sends Sunday, came out in 1931.
His second novel, Black Thunder (1936), was about an actual slave uprising, and many people consider it his masterpiece. After Bontemps’s third novel got terrible reviews, he gave up writing fiction and got a job as the chief librarian at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. He used his authority as a librarian to build up one of the best collections of African-American literature anywhere at the time, and he went on to become one of the most important anthologizers of African-American literature, editing books such as The Poetry of the Negro 1746–1949 (1949) and The Book of Negro Folklore (1958). Much of the literature that he preserved and anthologized might have been lost without him.
It’s the birthday of Margaret Thatcher, the first woman to lead a major Western democracy when she became the prime minister of the United Kingdom in May of 1979. Thatcher was born Margaret Hilda Roberts (1925) in Grantham, a small town in eastern England. Her father owned two grocery shops and the family lived above one of them.
It’s the birthday of singer and songwriter Paul Simon, born in Newark, New Jersey (1941). Simon and Garfunkel recorded their first folk album, Wednesday Morning, 3 AM, in 1964, but it only sold a few thousand copies. They figured their career was probably over, but, unbeknown to Simon and Garfunkel, their record label had added electric guitars to the song “The Sounds of Silence” and released it as a single. They had just moved back in with their parents and were sitting in Simon’s car, wondering what to do next, when they heard the song come on the radio, and the DJ said it had gone to No. 1. Simon turned to Garfunkel and said, “That Simon and Garfunkel, they must be having a great time.”
On this day in 1881, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda held the first-known conversation in modern Hebrew. Hebrew had not been spoken in a mother tongue since the second century CE. It had endured for more than a millennium until 135 CE and was then only used in literature or prayer.
Ben-Yehuda (born 1858) grew up in Belarus, in the former Russian Empire. He began learning ancient Hebrew at three in a cheder, a yeshiva for young children. As an adult, he became convinced that reviving the Hebrew language in Israel would bring Jews around the world together. He said, “The Hebrew language can only live if we revive the nation and return it to the fatherland,” and he made the decision to move to Palestine.
Ben-Yehuda raised his son to speak only Hebrew. When friends visited, he banished his son to his room so he would not hear another language. He even reprimanded his wife for singing Russian lullabies to his son. His son became the first native speaker of modern Hebrew.
Ben-Yehuda planned to reintroduce Hebrew in three ways: through “Hebrew in the School,” “Hebrew in the Home,” and “Words, Words, Words.” He compiled the first modern Hebrew dictionary and coined new Hebrew words for doll, bicycle, ice cream, jelly, and omelet. Originally, his dictionary was just a way for him to translate words for himself. He wrote them on the back of a small notebook he used for his grocery shopping. Eventually, this list of words grew to be the 17-volume A Complete Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew.
He said, “The Hebrew language will go from the synagogue to the house of study and from the house of study to the school, and from the school it will come into the home and … become a living language.”
It was in Paris that Ben-Yehuda met a Jew from Jerusalem and who agreed to speak Hebrew with him. On October 13, 1881, Ben-Yehuda and his friends made the agreement to speak exclusively in Hebrew.
It is said of Ben-Yehuda that, “Before Ben-Yehuda, Jews could speak Hebrew; after him, they did.”