Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Possessions & Place

  Top of a nineteenth-century mirror which belonged to my husband's
grandmother; Currier & Ives' Home for Thanksgiving

There’s a poem that I love, Souvenirs, by Jane Cooper.  She was a longtime professor and poet in residence at Sarah Lawrence College.  It starts:

Anyway we are always waking
in bedrooms of the dead, smelling
musk of their winter jackets, tracking
prints of their heels across our blurred carpets.

So why hang onto a particular postcard?
If a child’s lock of hair brings back
the look of that child, shall I
nevertheless not let it blow away?*

Why hang onto a particular postcard?

Very soon my husband and I will start to pack up, getting ready to leave our house in the Atlanta neighborhood of Druid Hills where we lived for ten years.

Like most people, we carry with us not only the relics of our own lives but those of our parents and grandparents. Some of it is just stuff – and some not at all.

Over time, the collections have been winnowed ruthlessly. But many letters, books, photographs, paintings, and all kinds of objects have made the cut repeatedly. Each time they open up to us, there is a story. They have to come along.  

Atlanta garden, spring 2010

As meaningful as these possessions may be, the places that we humans inhabit matter equally.

Each place where we live will echo the first place we knew, as the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard has written. He argued that we are always returning to that first place, a “house of memories . . . psychologically complex.”

We refer to it emotionally, unconsciously, throughout our lives.

In fact, that first space is “physically inscribed in us. It is a group of organic habits,” Bachelard wrote.

“Like a forgotten fire, childhood can always flare up again within us.”

As children we develop ways of doing things, ways of feeling that stay with us lifelong. Many of them originate in that first place we know.

Habit.  Inhabit.  Two words that appear not to share etymology yet are intimately connected.

Nantucket box, a present from my childhood friend Ellen

*”Souvenirs” by Jane Cooper, from New and Selected Poems (1984).

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

I'd Like to Place a Call

Bell Telephone used this idealized image of the telephone
operator in its publications; World War I era

In January 1921, a trade journal called the Union Telephone Operator made its debut.  It hit the ground running, Vol. 1, No. 1, with an editorial that surely provoked J. Edgar Hoover:

The trade unionist is interested in other things than shop conditions.  Every economic, political and social question attracts him.  This type of worker is not favored by anti-union employers, anti-union newspapers, anti-union business men, anti-union bankers and their political agents  . . .  Those interests want a slave class, not in name but in fact. 

Although the FBI would not be formally established for another few years, in 1921 Hoover was chief of the General Intelligence Division within President Warren Harding’s Department of Justice.  There he dedicated himself to rooting out radical political activity and oversaw the Palmer Raids, through which more than 500 foreign nationals were arrested and deported.

In light of the focus on “Reds” – Communists, Bolsheviks, anarchists and leftists – unions inevitably fell under scrutiny.

Agitate! Educate! Organize!  The goal of the new journal was to inspire telephone operators to demand better wages, better hours, and better working conditions.  The workers were largely women and had been since 1878 when the Boston Telephone Dispatch Company hired a woman named Emma Nutt.  The job appealed particularly to women who did not wish to work in manufacturing.

But problems existed.  The women had to conform to certain body proportions because they worked in very tight quarters.  They were required to maintain perfect posture throughout nine-hour shifts.  They were not allowed to speak to each other and always had to be patient and polite, even to rude customers.  These were several of the indignities.  

Switchboard operators, 1914
(Source: Library of Congress)
In 1892, the operators became members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. They had no voice, however, largely because men feared “petticoat rule.”  

Then, in 1918, activists formed a Telephone Operators’ Department within the IBEW.  Julia O’Connor, the daughter of Irish immigrants, led the new department.  A determined strategist and talented writer, she had worked as a telephone operator since 1908 until she became disgusted and left to be an organizer.   

Among O’Connor’s victories was the 1919 telephone operators’ strike in Boston.  In a way, the strike brings to mind the New York City Blizzard of 1888, which brought daily life to a dead stop for more than a week.  During the 1919 Boston telephone operators’ strike, communications ground to a halt for two days, which paralyzed New England.  

The outcome of the Boston telephone operators’ strike affected the local only, although it inspired operators nationwide. The local came away with higher wages, an eight-hour day, and the right to organize. But the strike also convinced the telephone company that it couldn’t afford to depend on the operators. 

Indeed, the heyday of the telephone operator had already passed.  Even in the first issue of the Union Telephone Operator, Julia O’Connor explained why: the advent of “the automatic” – also known as the dial telephone.

The union assured telephone operators that their services would be needed for at least another generation, as it would take a long time to phase in the automatic system.  In fact, operators continued to handle many local calls and all long distance calls.  And it wasn’t till 1954 that New York Telephone finally abandoned the switchboard, as shown in this amusing instructional film, “How to Dial Your Telephone":   

The Union Telephone Operator did not last long.  Its final issue appeared in December 1922. Julia O'Connor wrote many of the articles, expressing chagrin that American laborers lived in the "back wash" of World War I. 

1921 sketch of a telephone operator

On immigration she was ambivalent, even as the daughter of immigrants. The Johnson Quota Act of 1921 restricted immigration from eastern and southern Europe.  By and large, organized labor supported these restrictions because immigrants would work for less money than would unionized workers.

But she celebrated the Sheppard-Towner Act, which funded health clinics to provide maternity and child care. O’Connor knew from the 1920 census that more women than ever – over 8 million – occupied the workforce.  Like most labor activists, she lobbied for a safety net for women and children.  Sheppard-Towner passed in 1921.  

And Julia O’Connor was not without a certain sense of humor.  On the back page of one issue, a “Marriage Notice” appeared:

Miss Low Wages and Mr. Nonunion Worker were married at the home of the bride, Industrial Centers.  Mr. 100% Profit Employer, the father, gave the bride away without any ceremony.  Mr. Longer Hours blessed the union.

Scandal mongers are circulating the rumor that the couple are not happy because the newly wed husband has been flirting with Miss Join D. Union.  The bride’s father however is reported to be opposed to any talk of divorce.

Unsurprisingly, Julia O’Connor became a New Dealer.  She died in 1972.   

Julia O'Connor

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

A Shack in East Hampton

Sammy's Beach, East Hampton, N.Y.
(Corcoran Group Real Estate)

Between 1967 and 1985, my parents owned a small beach house on a windswept road in East Hampton, N.Y.  One drove from the stately old town, through woods crackling with sunlight, to arrive at a spit of land which faced a bay whose water turned every shade of blue. 

The bay was named for a seventeenth-century English settler, Lion Gardiner.  He had lived in the middle of the bay, on Gardiner’s Island, which he purchased from an Indian chief named Wyandanch. 

Sammy’s Beach Road ran along the spit, and we were the second house from the end.  The homes were modest.  I remember one contemporary cantilevered house; otherwise they had all been there since the 1940s and 50s.  One house looked like a shingled box and was extra-mysterious because its owner never, ever appeared.

The beach had not yet eroded.  A dune covered with beach grass and Rosa rugosa sloped from the deck to the end of the path.

 Easthampton Elms in May by Childe Hassam
(Smithsonian American Art Museum)
Main Street, East Hampton, looked much the same in 1970 as in this 1925 print. 

The town was still fun: pre-Ralph Lauren, pre-Tommy Hilfiger, pre-Tahari.  The hot spots were a grocery with a donut machine and the Ladies Village Improvement Society bookstore, packed with books that had been abandoned at summer homes after the war.   

About a half-mile down the beach from my parents’ house, an old shack stood back from the shore.  Made of weather-beaten boards that had turned splintery and silver, it contained a few benches and a partition from its days as a place to change into a bathing suit.  You could sit on a narrow deck and look at the water.  In the manner of teenagers, I thought of it as mine.

I drew the shack, as recalled, in the mid-90s. 

Recently reminded of the shack, I examined a few real estate photographs.
  It’s definitely gone.  That feels poignant, for this is exactly the time of year, a baby step toward summer, when we would head out to East Hampton to open the house for the season.  It became a habit to cast an eye toward the shack to make sure that it was still there.

The Little Time Traveler

  Last fall, my adorable grandson, halfway between two and three years, was finally tall enough to look at the family pictures arranged on a...