Humans of New York

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Humans of NYHumans of New York
by Brandon Stanton

A picture book — a completely engrossing and thought-inspiring picture book. That’s what I found on the “new books” shelf of my local library branch. I picked it up on a whim, thinking I would thumb through it in one evening and return it quickly. Instead, I kept it for the full 3-week loan, studying these photographs one by one, slowly savoring the individual faces and their brief snippets of words.

According to the book’s Introduction, this photo collection began in 2010 as a project to create a pictorial census of New York City. But as the photographer continued taking pictures of people, he found himself listening to their words, seeing their uniqueness, wanting to convery the wonderful variety of humanity in a fresh way. He began posting a portrait every day on a web site “Humans of New York” — (HONY for short). It’s been going on for several years now, and attracted more and more viewers, but I had never heard of it until I picked up this book in the library. For some of us, a traditional book is still our doorway into a new place.

There’s not much text, but what’s there is almost like found poetry:

A young girl is grooving to music on a front stoop — I really wanted to take her photo, so I walked up to the nearest adult and asked, “Does she belong to you?” Suddenly the music stopped, and I heard, “I belong to myself.” 

An old man with gray hair and a white beard leans on his cane and stares straight into the camera — “One day you’re gonna realize who I am and you’re gonna say, ‘Oh, shit’.” — “So who are you?” — “I’m the guy in your photograph.”

Two toddlers pose at the foot of a playground slide — “If we put them at the end of the slide, will they sit still?” — “For about five seconds.”

 A man working at a construction site — “You better not make it seem like we were sitting around. Don’t take the picture until the bulldozer starts moving.”

A young woman clutches a book to her heart — (a copy of “A People’s History of the Third World”) — “I want to change the world, but I don’t know how.”

An elderly woman in a fur hat stands beneath her umbrella — “When my husband was dying, I said, ‘Moe, how am I supposed to live without you?’ He told me, ‘Take the love you have for me and spread it around’.”

A young couple poses with their newborn baby — “We’re gonna be fine.”

Then there are the wordless photos, the ones that seem to shake off the need for words.

A young man stands in a downpour, dramatically pointing his cane up at the clouds.

A man kneels alone in an attitude of prayer surrounded by green grass and trees of a city park.

A little girl in a cherry-red coat and colorfully beaded hair giggles in delight as her picture is snapped.

A young woman holds still while a pair of pigeons eat out of her mittened hands.

A young man exuberantly swings upside down from a pole in a subway car.

There are faces that speak deeply all by themselves, without any action or pose at all.

A young woman on this page, an old man on that page, a group of teenagers here, all simply looking into the camera, their eyes and mouths communicating things that I can’t figure out how to describe.

This book has kept me engrossed for three weeks, just looking at people, then looking at them again.

In my job at the front gate of the zoo, I see Humans of Rochester pass before me every day. Watching the people makes even a slow day interesting. Today I saw an awkward teen couple negotiate the ettiquette challenge of who was going to pay admission. I saw an elderly man push his wife into the zoo in a wheelchair, with their toddler granddaughter riding in her grandma’s lap. I saw a little boy kissing his baby sister in her stroller. I saw the woman who daily walks her dog past our gate pause to let excited children pet the dog. I saw the parents and children, young couples, old couples, teenagers in groups, lone adults with cameras.

If my eyes were a camera, and my mind took a picture every time my eyes blinked, this is what my work day might look like. It might look like this book.


Anything Can Happen


Anything Can HappenAnything Can Happen
by George and Helen Papashvily

I first discovered this delightful book when I was about 13 or 14 years old, in that wonderful semi-circular fishbowl of a library at Britton Road Junior High. Ten years later, when the school closed, I stumbled on this book at the library discard sale and snapped it up. It has never failed to give me a lift and a smile during all the years since.

It’s the autobiographical account of the author’s journeys from Vladikavkaz, Georgia, Russia, to New York City, and after that to Detroit, California, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and assorted roads in between. Along the way, he meets people of every culture — both locals and transplants — with open-minded interest and open-handed generosity — and takes the reader along for the ride.

It’s a laugh-out-loud funny book. His embarrassing predicament when his package of yeasty dough — for making k’hinkali — squirms out of control and starts a panic on a crowded streetcar always makes me smile. The story of “How Chancho Sold My Nose” is another good one. So is the day they took the depressed Ilarion on a quiet beach picnic to cheer him up, and got into a a fight with armed men who seemed to be bootleggers, only to end up drinking wine and cooking shashlik on the beach together with their attackers. But probably the funniest story of all is the multi-chapter account of the road trip from Detroit to California with Anna Feodorovna, her father the General, the children, Ermak, and Madame Greshkin — and the samovar and the canary cage and the General’s sword. Sometimes, when I haven’t read this book in a long time, and I come across it on the shelf — well, it’s the story of the California trip that I turn to first. And that usually draws me into starting over at the beginning and reading the whole book again, chuckling happily.

But it’s not just a funny book. It’s also a cheerfully philosophical book. Giorgi Ivanitch has an outlook on life which enables him to travel with equanimity through its ups and downs, and an outlook on humanity which enables him to see friends in the most unexpected people. He has been through war, poverty, wandering, and yet he doesn’t let the dismal side of life get him down. There is always an interesting new sight to be curious about, a lovely small moment to appreciate and savor. There is always hope that something wonderful is just around the next bend. As for the people he meets along the way, they are all members of the same human family, and all are greeted like long-lost cousins. Some are a tad annoying — he has his exasperated moments with the drama queen Anna Feodorovna and the slow-thinking Chancho — but the annoyance is irrelevant when measured against the deeper value of the human being. We are reminded that we are all laughably flawed creatures. It’s simply an inescapable aspect of being human. We judge each other gently, remembering our common vulnerability.

As the characters in the story meet and get to know each other, America reveals herself as the place where all the world meets and gets to know each other. Russians and Syrians, Italians and Turks, Californians and New Yorkers, farmers and factory workers, all bringing their own customs and viewpoints into the mixture. The author is sometimes ignorant about the customs of those he meets, but always curious and open-minded, ready to learn and happy to find common ground. At one point, he says, Now I didn’t feel bad about my broken language any more or my stranger ways. I saw everybody is a foreigner. Only difference, some came early and some came later.

Food as the glue of good fellowship is a running theme all through the book. When some Plains Indians pull his truck out of a muddy river, he trades recipes for lamb with them, cooking them some shashlik while tasting with interest the lamb recipe they cook for him. He shares good red wine with Italian farmers on a California beach after they initially mistook each other for bootleggers. His American wife Helen has the idea that on orange juice runs everything but steam engines, so he learns to like orange juice. Cornbread and corn whisky — and Kathleen’s whisky concoction Boilo — are all delights he picks up from Virginia kitchens, and his Maine-bred mother-in-law introduces him to lobster and the New England shore dinner.  When people sit down to eat and drink together, even if it’s just box lunches, something in the way of bonding can happen.

The larger-than-life glorious figure of Dzea Vanno — Uncle John — is threaded all through the stories. The author first met him when he was a miserable lonely apprentice boy in Vladikavkaz. As Giorgi lamented, “What I’m living for? Might as well I be a dog, too?” he was startled by a man who overheard him from the other side of the fence.  Must be he was seven feet tall with fierce mustaches and hair black like a devi’s. Only his eyes was laughing. “Have a bone … If you like to be dog, that is. But if you rather be a man, and believe me you gonna enjoy it a lot better, I been a man now fifty years and I’m not sorry yet, why then climb over the fence and eat at the table with me.” So I did and he was right.

Whenever Dzea Vanno turns up somewhere in America, it’s always the occasion for food and drink, storytelling and singing, friendship and happiness. When Giorgi marries the American Helen, it is Dzea Vanno who stands in as the family of the groom, the caterer of the wedding, and the life of the party. In the end, Giorgi wonders, “How could a man like Uncle John be dead? Man who loved so deep the world. Man who made such friend of life. … What good he did was wrote on the faces around his casket. But then comes the feast in his honor, and the quarrels made up and friendships restored as they ate and drank together. “… All for Uncle John’s remembry. Is good this, even if an old-time way. It lets a man be sure he will finish from the grave, at least, what he has a duty to work for through his whole life — bring peace among his friends.

To bring peace among friends. That seems like as good a way as any to follow through our lives. The central idea of life is that we are all in this together. The miser, the misanthrope, the loner, these are to Giorgi the saddest figures imaginable. Connecting with our fellow human beings is the only way that we ourselves can be fully human — the only way in which our own selfish selves can fully develop and flower and become fruitful.

After all — If you’re not father or husband or son or brother or neighbor or friend to somebody, who are you then to yourself?

Mavericks of the Sky


Mavericks of the SkyMavericks of the Sky
by Barry Rosenberg & Catherine Macaulay

I breezed through this book in a weekend. The story of the first few years of the U.S. Airmail Service, it’s full of action and adventure — and frequent comedy. The thought that crossed my mind more than once as I read was — “They ought to turn this into a movie.”

In 1917, the U.S. entered WWI with an air force that was still new and untried. But then, aviation itself as a field was barely over a decade old at that point. Planes, engines, and piloting skills were all going through a period of rapid experimentation and development. Everyone was working through a steep learning curve.

Flying the mail originated not in a particular demand for faster mail delivery, but from a crying need to develop pilots’ skills at cross-country flying. The first chapter of the book lays out the problem succinctly:

The country had been at war for just over a year and already dozens of flyers had been killed. … The problem had less to do with the superior dogfighting skills of aces like Baron Manfred von Richthoven than with the fact that the airmen were simply getting lost. With only a rudimentary compass to navigate by, and facing unfamiliar enemy terrain beneath their wings, they were unable to find their way back to base and eventually ran out of fuel and crashed. They were proficient with stick and rudder, but they lacked the ABC’s of cross-country flying.

Between them, the Army and the Post Office came up with a novel solution to the problem:

Beginning May 15, 1918, pilots of the U.S. Army Signal Corps would begin delivering Uncle Sam’s mail in order to gain firsthand experience in the art of navigation. Contact flying — that’s what pilots needed, experience at flying over long stretches of unfamiliar territory. And now, with the help of the U.S. Post Office Department, they were about to be given that skill by flying the mail 218 miles between New York and Washington. The idea was to put a green Army pilot on the mail run for a couple months and give him experience at flying from city to city without slamming into a mountain or riding into a thunderstorm. Theoretically, he’d then be ready to be shipped off to the front. 

From the day this plan was dropped into the lap of Major Reuben Fleet until the day he was expected to pull off the first scheduled mail run in front of an assortment of dignitaries, including the President, was a mere nine days. In barely over a week, Fleet was expected to get a whole new program up and running, from scratch to fully functional. It was an unreasonable expectation, but somehow it had to be done.

First, three airfields had to be found and prepped — one at each endpoint in New York and Washington, and one at the midway point in the relay. Major Fleet easily found an open pasture in Pennsylvania for the mid-point, and arranged to use the grassy infield of Belmont Racetrack for the New York terminus. But the Washington airfield was chosen for him. It was a small picnic ground near the Lincoln Memorial, for the convenience of President Wilson and the dignitaries. It was a dinky space hemmed in by trees — with one tree right smack in the middle of the landing space. Major Fleet argued in vain. Overruled. The best he could manage was to have that tree in the middle of the runway surreptitiously cut down one night.

Six pilots were needed for the first run, four to fly the four legs of the mail relay, and two back-ups. Of the six, two were the kind of inexperienced pilots that the program was intended to nurture. But with the eyes of the President on this first run, Fleet had hoped to use the four more experienced pilots that first day, saving the rookies for future flights with less publicity. Again, overruled. The two new pilots were connected to important men in Washington, and they were to have the honor of being part of this first run. They were sure they could do it. Major Fleet crossed his fingers and hoped for the best.

Meanwhile, the planes had been purchased on a rush order — Curtiss Jennies equipped with new powerful engines for long-distance cargo hauling. To everyone’s frustration, they were not delivered until two nights before they were to fly. And they were delivered in crates on trucks, unassembled, with missing and broken parts, and maddeningly confusing assembly instructions. “Fleet’s team had only eighteen hours to uncrate, assemble, service, tune, and flight-check each aircraft. Like so many frantic parents trying to assemble their children’s toys on Christmas Eve, Fleet’s crew began a long night’s struggle to piece together the half-dozen aircraft.” It was a mad race against the clock to have flyable planes by the next day, so there would be time to ferry three of them to Washington and Pennsylvania and get them into position.

After an all-night plane-assembly session in New York, only three of the planes were ready to fly. Four were necessary to complete the relay. With no time to lose, Fleet himself undertook to make the longest preparatory flight, ferrying one plane to the Washington terminus where it would be ready for the return run. The other two planes, in the hands of two of the relay pilots, set out for Pennsylvania. The fourth plane was still under construction, hopefully to be ready in time for the takeoff from Belmont Racetrack.

Fleet and the other two pilots flew through a pea-soup fog out of New York, struggling to reach the Pennsylvania airfield before darkness. Early the next morning, Fleet took off for Washington, arriving just in time to greet the arriving dignitaries and to give instructions to the rookie pilot who would fly this first leg of the relay. To everyone’s relief, they had word that the fourth plane had made it to Belmont and was ready for takeoff. The postal truck loaded the mail onto the Jenny, making special ceremonial flourishes over a letter added to the mailbag by the president.

So far, so good. Until the moment of takeoff, that is. The Jenny was out of fuel, after Fleet’s morning trip from Pennsylvania. A supply of fuel had been ordered to be ready and waiting, but the Lieutenant who had been delegated that job had neglected to get it done. Amidst much fury and embarrassment, hasty improvisation was the only option. After using a hose to siphon gas out of another nearby gas tank, the plane finally got off the ground.

Unfortunately, the rookie pilot promptly got lost. He went 30 miles the wrong way before making a rough landing in a freshly plowed field. By the time the word of this predicament got to the transfer point in Pennsylvania, the second leg of the relay was already late for takeoff. With not a scrap of mail in his plane, the second pilot in the relay took off anyway, knowing that there was a crowd waiting at Belmont Racetrack who expected to see the plane arrive. He flew in to cheers and applause. “Who cared that President Wilson’s letter and all the other mail from Washington was lying upside down in a Maryland field? It was the feat being honored.”

The Long Island Railroad had brought the mailbags from New York out to Belmont. They were loaded into the waiting plane with lengthy speeches by assorted officials, and the pilot took off. This leg of the relay went perfectly. The pilot reached the hand-off point in Pennsylvania, transferred the postal cargo, and saw the final leg of the relay take off six minutes later. The final pilot was one of the two rookies, but unlike the other, he did not embarrass himself by getting lost. Squeaking past the encircling trees and the crowds on the field, he brought his plane in for a safe landing at the Washington picnic ground and actually delivered the first sacks of airmail to make it to their destination.

All of this excitement happens in just the first three chapters of the book. Take my word for it — the rest of the book is just as action-packed, and if I were to describe it all, this blog post would be far longer than it already is. As we watch the struggles of the airmail service to expand routes across the country, we meet all the daring pilots who learned by dangerous experience how to fly over mountains, how to fly at night, how to fly in fog and rain and wind and snow, how to find landmarks and create useful flight maps. Cross-country aviation was a death-defying job in those days, and the number of pilots killed in action in the mail service reminds the reader shockingly that the mail service was not any safer than wartime flying.

By the time the airmail service was separated from its origins as a military adjunct, standing on its own as a division of the post office, it had come a long way from its shaky start. Planes were flying across the Appalachians and the Rockies, carrying mail from coast to coast. And rarely losing either the mail or the pilots anymore, thanks to everything that had been learned by the hard experience of those early airmail pilots.

LibriVox 10th Anniversary Collection


LV 10th AnniversaryLibriVox 10th Anniversary Collection

Every year on August 10th, LibriVox has celebrated the occasion by releasing the annual Anniversary Collection. These are very eclectic potpourris of fiction, poetry, memoirs, essays, history, science articles, even occasional songs, some only two or three minutes long, others nearly an hour long. The only thing these pieces have in common is that each title must include the number of the anniversary year — eight, nine, — and now — ten.

The number of individual items in each collection has grown each year — eighty for the 8th Anniversary, ninety for the 9th — and thus this year, to celebrate the 10th, we have a collection of a full 100 items.

I was a newcomer, a greenhorn, when the 8th Anniversary Collection was assembled. I read five items for the project that year —

  • “Shall Our Presidents Be Elected For Eight Years?” by George Polen (a political essay from 1898)
  • “Eight Hour Strike” by Billy Pastor (a popular union song from 1872)
  • “When Hannah Var Eight Yar Old” by Katherine Girling (a short story from 1915, recounting the tragedy that drove a Swedish girl to America)
  • “Eight Years in a British Consulate” by Zebina Eastman (an 1872 memoir of an American Consul in London during the American Civil War)
  • Excerpt from Eighty Years and More by Elizabeth Cady Stanton (a chapter from the memoir of the woman’s suffrage leader)

The next year, for the 9th Anniversary Collection, I contributed these eight items–

  • “In New York With Nine Cents” by Abraham Mitrie Rihbany (1914 memoir of a Syrian immigrant)
  • “Nine Lost Minutes” (a brief news item from 1911 about standardizing time zones)
  • “99 Linwood Street” by Edward Everett Hale (a sweet and funny short story about an Irish girl’s arrival in 1899 Boston)
  • a chapter from The Nine-Tenths by James Oppenheim (a 1911 novel about labor uprising)
  • Ninth Census, 1870: Instructions (a handbook for the census-taker of 1870)
  • “Nine Elections in One Year” (from 1909, a brief discussion of local election matters)
  • “The Nine-Hour Law” (a 1908 news item about labor law limiting hours for railroad engineers)
  • Nine Months in Rebel Prisons by George Weiser (Union soldier’s 1890 memoir of his Civil War experiences)

And so now we have arrived at the 10th Anniversary Collection. This year, I was more ambitious, and contributed ten items to the collection. I was particularly pleased with the variety of material in this batch. Each item was satisfying to read, solid and interesting, sometimes surprising.

My Contributions to the 10th Anniversary Collection:

  • The Bill of Rights: The First Ten Amendments to the Constitution
    It never hurts to get back to basics now and then. I memorized these in Mrs. Reiss’s AP History class when I was in high school. Nice to know they’re still stuck in my head.
  • Excerpt from Ten Days in a Mad-House by Nelly Bly
    I had a book about intrepid Nellie when I was in junior high, and I remember being riveted by the chapter in which she proved to the editors that she could get the tough stories by infiltrating the asylum on Blackwell’s Island in the guise of an inmate, then writing an expose that brought a flood of inspectors down on that place. For LibriVox, I read two good chapters of this 1887 book.
  • “Ten-Twenty-Thirty” by Arthur Ruhl
    Daddy loved this one, and listened to the recording with pleasure as my in-house proof-listener. This little 1914 essay is a warm nostalgic look back at the world of summer stock theater in the early 1900’s, and the life of those who kept the show going for audiences who paid between 10 cents and 30 cents for a seat to see everything from Shakespeare to melodrama.
  • Excerpt from Ten Years Among the Mail Bags by James Holbrook  
    A quirky little memoir written in 1855 by a postal inspector, recounting an odd assortment of postal scams, frauds, and other shenanigans which he was employed to ferret out and thwart.
  • Sonnet No. 10 from Sonnets from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
    One of the classic sonnet cycles, probably second only to Shakespeare’s in popularity. If you’ve never read the whole cycle, you ought to. Meanwhile here’s just one of them to whet your appetite.
  • Excerpt from The Nine Tenths by James Oppenheim –
    Another chapter from the same novel which I’d read from last year. (Since it has both “nine” and “ten” in its title, I could use it in both collections!) The 9/10ths referred to in the book’s title is the 1911 equivalent of what today would be called the 99% — the folks who do all the work on which the 1/10th (or 1%) get rich.
  • Excerpt from A Ten Year War by Jacob Riis
    This 1900 book opens with the dedication “To the faint-hearted and those of little faith this volume is reproachfully inscribed by the author”. As a follow-up to his earlier work, Riis here looks back on what success and failure has come in the ten years of battle against the tenement house landlords in New York City.
  • “The Tenth of January” by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps
    This 1869 short story tells the tragic tale of a blighted romance and a horrific industrial accident in a bleak New England mill town.
  • “The Ten Blowers” by Abbie Farwell Brown
    A pleasantly whimsical children’s folk tale from 1904, about the miller’s gifted sons who make their fortune as they progress from blowing the sails of windmills to blowing up a wind for the king’s ships.
  • “Longitude Ten Degrees” by Robert Leighton
    From an 1899 collection of seafaring short stories, this one is a rousing account of a plague-stricken ship, an enterprising cabin boy, and an infestation of pirates.

This year’s collection has ninety other items that I haven’t heard yet, recorded by other LibriVox readers. It just hit the catalog this morning, so I haven’t had a chance to explore yet. But I know where I’ll be looking for bedtime stories for the rest of this week! There’s bound to be good stuff in there!

Also –

Don’t forget to check out the LibriVox 10th Anniversary Podcast. Here are interviews with several LibriVox readers and coordinators, as well as two — (yes two!) — fun and lively group sing-alongs (“Boom-de-Yada” and “Ten Years, Ten Years”) in which you may be able to pick out my warbling off-key notes at times. I was in both of the earlier anniversary podcasts, but my bits there were frankly dull. This year I decided that anything is better than being boring — and so you will hear me go to some fairly silly extremes of vocal shenanigans in my tribute to “My Inner Barking Mad Fairy Godmother” for 10th Anniversary Podcast. I’m not the only one who had too much fun on this podcast. Frankly, I can’t get through the first nine minutes of the broadcast without falling off my chair laughing at a cat named Bachelor Number One, the choicest selections from the blooper thread, and chocoholic’s terribly funny lament on recording in a noisy household. So please, listen and laugh!

And remember — we are always looking for new volunteers! Don’t be afraid to come on over and see us on the LibriVox forum!

Don’t Mind the Gap


Yeah.  It really has been three whole months since I paid any attention to this blog.

Over on the LibriVox forum, that sort of thing happens often enough that they have an acronym to cover it — RL. Anyone who explains a gap in activity by saying, “Sorry, I got caught up in RL“, is instantly understood. Real Life — it happens to all of us.

We all have an internal sense of what to drop when we are juggling too many things to carry. If I’ve got a purse, some books, and a bag of groceries containing eggs, and something’s going to slip and fall kerplop, I’ll drop the purse or books in order to hang onto the eggs. They’re most likely to be hurt, and the other things can be picked up after I safely set down the eggs.

When RL becomes a juggling act, this blog is what goes kerplop and lies underfoot until more immediately needy tasks have been safely landed.

It’s happened before, and it’ll probably happen again. Eventually, dropped items do get picked up. No harm done, really — maybe just a bit dusty from lying around so long.

Here I am, looking back to last May and considering where I left off and how I might begin again.There’s a gap that seems to require some explanation, some spackling-over. Then again, spackle is useless when the hole to be filled is too wide. Maybe this gap will just have to remain unfilled.

I haven’t actually stopped reading during this gap. I’ve just stopped documenting the reading. In my personal hierarchy of priorities, doing certain things is important — documenting what I do isn’t.

That’s such an important statement that I want to say it again — say it clearly so that it sinks into my thoughts. What I do — day by day, year by year — matters muchly. Documenting what I’ve done doesn’t matter at all in the long run.

People have lost every scrap of their life’s documents — photos, letters, diaries — in floods, fires, and wars. It hasn’t mattered. What has mattered is their lives as lived, their effect on the world and people they touch. What matters is what goes on in RL, Real Life.

The books I have read have shaped my thoughts and feelings, my character and my actions, at an internal core so deep that only God understands what goes on there. The events and people that command my attention and involvement have shaped me, too, even as I’ve played a part in shaping them. This is the unstoppable ruckus of RL and its constant development.

I pause to write now and then, as I’ve done since I was a child, because the activity of writing is for me actually an activity of thinking. Writing slows down the thought process, helps me to think with more awareness of what I’m thinking, helps me to examine what’s happening at that unseen deep core, perhaps to understand it better.

But much as I need these occasional fits of writing, I don’t need them the way I need other more immediate things. If there’s an occasional gap in the writing, that’s okay, the activity of RL is still going on and still doing its work of shaping who I am becoming. And eventually, there will always be slower moments when I can return to writing. Maybe one of those slower moments is coming along now.

As to the three-month gap, it’s not going to be filled. Let’s just hop over it and keep on going.

The San Francisco Earthquake


San Francisco Newspapers Cover PictureThe San Francisco Earthquake of 1906
by a number of nameless but intrepid newspapermen

A few months ago, I began working on a LibriVox recording with my usual LV team — (GregG and AnnB) — A History of the Earthquake and Fire in San Francisco by Aitkin & Hilton, written in 1906 just a few months after the events described in the book. In the course of working on that project, I became particularly interested in the work of the newspapermen of that city. The headquarters of all the major newspapers were destroyed, along with their printing presses, and yet the reporters still managed to collect and publish news of what was happening around them. On the Library of Congress website, I found this collection of historic newspapers, including several issues of the San Francisco Call from the days following the earthquake. That led to my most recent solo project, The San Francisco Earthquake and Fire as Reported in the Newspapers of that City.

Reading these newspapers, more than a century old, felt surprisingly familiar. It connected in my mind with the reading I do at Reachout Radio, where we do live readings from today’s newspapers. In the Aitkin & Hilton book, even though it was written shortly after the event, the story was told in the past tense, as something already beginning to pass from “news” to “history”. In the newspaper readings, everything is happening in the present tense, in the immediate here and now. If only radio had existed in 1906, I might have been a Reachout Radio reader, turning the pages of the papers, looking for the articles that would be most informative to the listeners on the other end of the airwaves.

We would have to begin with the leading articles, the ones which pull together the big picture of what’s happening. Where are the present fire lines and which way is the fire moving? Where are the civic leaders meeting and what is their game plan? Where are people to go for safety, and how are they to get there? Before the internet, before television, before radio, the printing press was the clearing house for everything people most desperately needed to know.

Then there are the small and personal items. A wealthy woman lost all her property in the fire, but announced that she was giving half of what she had in the bank to the relief fund. Two men in what appeared to be a Red Cross wagon stole blankets and jewelry from the homeless camped in Golden Gate Park. Enrico Caruso got a black eye during an altercation over luggage at the ferry boat wharf. A University of California professor rescued the paintings at Hopkins Art Institute by cutting them out of their frames as the flames surrounded the building, rolling up the canvases and taking them to safety.

The reporters diligently collected data and more data, and devoted full pages to making it available. People seeking friends and relatives checked the hundreds of names and addresses published in the papers. Lists of people hospitalized at various locations were available, with a brief description of their injury. Locations of relief stations and food distribution stations were published in the paper. Businessmen, driven out of one location, turned to the newspapers to announce new temporary locations and to ask their employees to check in.

Even the “Personals” were fascinating little glimpses of small human details in the larger story. Herb asked Eve in a classified ad, “Where are you?” Mr. Monteverde published an ad asking for information on the whereabouts of the children of the Mexican Vice President, who had been staying with a Miss Velasco. Our Lady of the Sacred Heart announced that their building had escaped unharmed and that school would resume Monday. An enterprising Oakland real estate broker advertised “an earthquake-proof 5-room cottage” and advised the reader to “Grab it quick!”

The San Francisco newspapermen were working under serious disadvantages. All three major papers in the city lost their buildings to the fire on the first day. But being true news hounds, they weren’t about to give up when they were standing in the middle of a big story. Reporters from the three rival papers pooled their stories on the first day, located a borrowed press across the bay in Oakland, and put a small 4-page edition on the streets of San Francisco the next morning. By the following day, each paper had organized a temporary location of its own and was ready for some serious reporting. By the third day, the San Francisco Call was putting out eight pages of fine print, including stories from surrounding towns like Santa Rosa and Mendocino.

Of course, the newspapermen couldn’t help including an article about themselves. “Call Distributed Free to the People from Automobile — Crowds Rush Frantically to Secure Paper Wherever Stops are Made” announced a headline of pardonable pride.  Yes, we did a good job, the boys of the press told themselves and their readers. It was true; they did a job of notable importance and they did it well. And to top it off, they temporarily waived profit for the sake of their deeper mission — the perennial mission of the press, yesterday and today and always — keeping the people informed.

London Under


London UnderLondon Under
by Peter Ackroyd

This book is subtitled “The Secret History Beneath the Streets”. It’s not a systematic and chronological history, but a series of topical meanderings, each chapter a relish of assorted tidbits and trifles. The life of a great city, hidden beneath the streets and surfaces, is considered as though we were considering the bones and blood vessels of an organism, the life lived just beneath the skin.

One bit that impressed me was this: While Manhattan’s bedrock is solid schist, London’s foundation is gravel and clay. For all the centuries of its habitation, London has been slowly sinking into the muck beneath. The surface structures of Roman Britain have gradually become the cellars and basements and underground crypts of more modern buildings. Even the rivers and streams which once flowed on the surface of the land have gone to earth over the centuries, roofed over and left to flow in the darkness under the city. When new foundations are dug, the clay “weeps”, and this watery substratum continually seeps into the city, a reminder of the marshes from which it rose. A statistic that stopped me and made me read it again — every day 15,000,000 gallons of rising groundwater are pumped out of London.

There’s an entire chapter on the greatest of London’s underground rivers, the Fleet. There was a time, long ago, when it was a navigable waterway, spanned by beautiful bridges. By the time Ben Jonson and Jonathan Swift wrote about it, it could only be described as a sewer. By the eighteenth century, it had been covered over and hidden underground, although in 1846 it escaped in an explosion of foul gases and a deluge of filthy water which flooded the neighborhood. Archaeologists have found the debris pulled from the muck of the Fleet a treasure-trove — everything from carved Roman deities to medieval toilet seats, from floor tiles to buckles, from children’s toys to decapitated skulls.

Another chapter describes how Londoners took to the tunnels of the London subways to shelter from the bombs during WWII. At first, the city authorities and the subway companies tried to discourage this behavior, fearing the presence of panicky people loitering idly underground. But it proved impossible to stop people from buying the cheapest ticket to anywhere and then riding from station to station at random. As thousands of people began lying down wearily on the platforms, blocking the way, creating a sanitation and fire hazard, the authorities decided to accept the inevitable, and set some rules to control the situation. People were allowed to shelter in a particular assigned station, lines were painted on the platform to indicate spaces to be kept clear, wooden bunks were installed for sleepers, and sanitary rules were enforced by inspectors.

There are several chapters discussing various aspects of the London Underground, one of the most legendary subway systems in the world. One is a recounting of the ghost stories that haunt the tunnels, another is a look at the explosion of art and literature inspired by the Underground. There was a 1928 silent movie called Underground which preserved a view of the life beneath the streets in the era between the wars, and a Seamus Heaney poem “The Underground” which sets the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice in the vaulted tunnels and tiled stations.

The London sewer system is the subject of a fascinating chapter. I had first read about this as one of several great engineering projects in a book called Dreams of Iron and Steel by Deborah Cadbury. Revisiting the story here, I met with bits I didn’t recall having heard before. Workmen digging the sewer line in Smithfield uncovered ashes and human bones, and were startled to realize that they had stumbled on the site of the burnings of 16th-century Catholic and Protestant martyrs. People known as “toshers” made a living off the sewers, entering at low tide from the points where the sewers emptied into the Thames, scavenging underground armed with bullseye lanterns and long protective coats with capacious pockets in which to stow their findings. Modern-day tourists who visit the sewers are dressed in waders, hard hats, and coveralls, taken on tours by guides who read them the safety rules before setting out on this strange odyssey.

Deep dungeons, gas lines, aqueducts, pneumatic tubes, buried rivers, Roman baths, medieval crypts, holy springs, air raid shelters, mudlarkers and toshers, mole men and miners, all the life under the skin of the city, flow through this little book as the Fleet flows under the streets of London.

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