MAY 21, 1819: DON’T TAKE ANY WOODEN BICYCLES

DON’T TAKE ANY WOODEN BICYCLES

In 1819, the first bicycle in the U.S. appeared in New York City.  And it started a craze that was to overtake the city for the rest of the summer. Actually it was a sort of a bicycle. It didn’t have any pedals. And you didn’t sit on it. It did have two wheels, but no one called it a bicycle. People variably called it a “velocipede” (Latin for fast foot), “swift walker,” “hobby horse” or its most popular name “dandy horse,” referring to the dandy who usually rode it.

The dandy horse and the craze that it caused had been imported from London, although the contraption was actually invented in Germany. It was propelled by the rider pushing along the ground with the feet as in regular walking or running. The front wheel and handlebar assembly were hinged to allow steering. One major drawback of the dandy horse was that it had to be made to measure, manufactured to conform with the height and the stride of its rider. And it had wooden wheels which were okay for the smooth pavement of the city but any other surface made for an extremely uncomfortable ride.

The dandy horse fad was short-lived. Perhaps it was the constant ridicule or the rocks thrown by ruffians. And with riders preferring the smooth sidewalks to the rough roads, many pedestrians began to feel threatened by the machines. As a result, laws were quickly enacted prohibiting their use on sidewalks.

It was another 40 years before velocipedes came back into fashion – equipped this time around with pedals – when a French company began to mass-produce them. The French design was sometimes called the boneshaker, since it was also made entirely of wood and was still a very uncomfortable ride.

Man Smart (Woman Smarter), Part 2 — Opportunity, Knock

The flirtations continued to grow like the frangipani nurtured by the tropical sun until their passions broke the bonds of silence and spilled into the open. Neither Mireille nor Captain Petrullo was surprised that the other shared the same feelings, but each had a different reaction to them. The captain being a forceful military commander wanted to take action, to leap into the fray, to engage those passions as though they were advancing enemy forces that must be physically subdued. Mireille, on the other hand, being the dutiful if not particularly happy wife of another man to whom, no matter how vile he was, she had pledged herself, was determined to hold passion in check, to never speak of it again, let alone take any action.

And so, as the months passed, their affair remained innocent, for even though Captain Petrullo frequently begged leave to sully it a bit, Mireille stood fast in prohibition. But passion contained is not passion extinguished, and theirs continued to smolder,  just short of the flash point, the danger of combustion ever present. To some degree, their innocence was aided by the lack of real opportunity to act without fear of being caught, but fate was not about to let the two lovers go untested. Opportunity, knock.

“Meeting in Port Charles tonight,” grunted Mayor Cervantes one morning. “It’ll go late. I’ll stay the night.” Perhaps if he had just said his piece, had not punctuated it with a loud burp, Mireille would not have decided right then and there duty be damned – passion, I am your prisoner.

Having made this momentous decision and later that morning encountering Captain Petrullo during his strut up Ponce de Leon Boulevard, Mireille informed her lover-to-be. Captain Petrullo was at once as squiggly and squeaky as he had been the day he first saw her. With his head bobbing up and down so fast it might lift him off the ground, he agreed to an encounter that evening – after the Mayor had departed, after it had been dark and quiet for a while.

continued

This story  is included in Calypso, Stories of the Caribbean.

 

Advertisements

MAY 20, 1899: LEADFOOTED IN THE BIG APPLE

LEADFOOTED IN THE BIG APPLE

Jacob German, a New York City taxi driver, earned the dubious distinction of being the first person to be cited for speeding in the United States when he was pulled over for barreling down Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. The scofflaw was “clocked” at a speed of 12 miles per hour by a police officer who, with persistent pedaling of his bicycle, managed to overtake him. German was imprisoned in the East 22nd Street station house. He did not have to surrender his registration and license because there were no such things in 19th century New York.

The speed limit was claimed to be (although it was not posted) 8 mph on straights and 4 mph through turns. German was driving an electric vehicle. Records don’t indicate whether or not he was on duty or carrying a fare.

A fair number of drivers have been issued speeding tickets since. The US Census Bureau tells us that 100,000 people per day are cited for speeding in the United States. At an average fine of $150 per ticket, that’s $15 million daily, a nice source of income for various municipalities – particularly in Ohio where the most tickets are issued (followed by Pennsylvania and New York). And certainly an award must go to tiny Summersville, WV. The town, with a population of 3,200, gave out 18,000 to 19,000 speeding tickets annually.

Texas claims the ticket for the fastest speed – 242 mph in a 75 mph zone. That driver was not pulled over by a police officer on a bicycle.

Man Smart (Woman Smarter), Part 1 – Saltwhistle Strut

Captain Petrullo was a very proud man. He had just been placed in full command of the army unit stationed in Passion Point, the third largest town on the entire island – five hundred men, all under his very own command.

If a man were given to strutting to begin with, being in command of a 500-man army unit would certainly encourage him to strut in earnest, which Captain Petrullo did, up Ponce de Leon Boulevard across Saltwhistle Street and back down Citadel Road, two, sometimes three times a day. He would nod with a certain aloofness to those who watched him in awe as he did his turn around the town at a pace that just hinted at military precision.

Since Captain Petrullo was in the habit of being watched, not watching others, he was not prepared to react to spotting for the first time Mireille, the pretty young wife of Mayor Horatio Hornblower Cervantes. (Mayor Cervantes’ unlikely name was the result of the union between his father who claimed to be descended from the Spanish writer whose name he bore and his mother who claimed to be related to the English admiral, not realizing, perhaps, that he was a fictional character.) The mayor had married the lovely Mireille before she was old enough to know better. In her youth, she had been seduced by the stature of the office, overlooking the stature of the man, which was less than impressive by almost any yardstick. In fact, the man was vulgar when not in the public eye, his eloquent words giving way to a vocabulary of grunts and wheezes and snorts. All in all, the marriage was not a source of profound satisfaction for Mireille.

When Captain Petrullo first saw Mireille, his military veneer went AWOL, and he trembled as if he were the lowliest recruit in his own 500-man army unit. His gait became awkward as he passed her; when he tried to nod, his head danced on a rubber neck; and when he tried to greet her, his voice squeaked. The poor man fled up Ponce de Leon Boulevard as though he were being pursued by a 500-man army unit, not commanding it.

But the captain was a resilient man, and by the very next day, he was back to strutting. During his second strut of the day, he once again saw the woman who had done him such damage the day before. But he steeled himself for their encounter, and as they passed each other, they exchanged smiles. As the days passed, further smiles were exchanged, then words of greeting. Words of greeting grew into conversations, and the conversations became more personal. The words they dared not let enter their conversations were in their eyes, in looks that probably should not have been exchanged between the captain of a 500-man army unit and the wife of the mayor.

continued

This story  is included in Calypso, Stories of the Caribbean.

 

 

MAY 16, 1988: ONE MAN’S TRASH

trashcanONE MAN’S TRASH

In 1984, the Laguna Beach Police Department learned from unnamed sources that one Billy Greenwood had a little home-based business selling illegal drugs. An investigator asked the neighborhood’s regular trash collector to turn over to police the plastic garbage bags he collected from the front of Greenwood’s house. In the garbage, the investigator found tell-tale signs of drug use. Using that information, police obtained a warrant to search Greenwood’s home. Lo and behold, when officers searched the house, they found cocaine and marijuana along with dirty dishes and other signs of poor housekeeping. Greenwood was promptly arrested.

 

California courts ruled that searching the trash was a no-no under both federal and state law. The matter found its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.  On May 16, 1988, the Court reversed lower courts and ruled by a 6–2 vote that no warrant was necessary to search the trash because Greenwood had no reasonable expectation of privacy having put it right out on the curb like that.  No matter that he had put the trash in opaque plastic bags whose contents could not be seen without opening and that he expected it to be on the street only a short time before being taken to the dump.  The Court said it was “common knowledge” that garbage at the side of the street is “readily accessible to animals, children, scavengers, snoops, and other members of the public,” none of whom might have search warrants. Not only that, Greenwood had left the trash there expressly so that the trash collector, a perfect stranger, could take it, and do with it as he pleased.

 

In dissent, Justice Brennan reasoned that the possibility the police or other “unwelcome meddlers” might rummage through the trash bags “does not negate the expectation of privacy in their contents any more than the possibility of a burglary negates an expectation of privacy in the home.”  Under existing law, the bags could not have been searched without a warrant if Greenwood had been carrying them around in public. Merely leaving them on the curb for the garbage man to collect, Brennan argued, should not be found to remove that expectation of privacy any more than leaving an unattended bag in an airport terminal would. “Scrutiny of another’s trash is contrary to commonly accepted notions of civilized behavior.”

 

And one person’s trash is another person’s treasure.

MAY 10, 1893: THE SUPREME COURT SAYS TOMAHTO

THE SUPREME COURT SAYS TOMAHTO

An 1883 tariff act required a tax to be paid on imported vegetables, but not fruit. The Nix family, tomato entrepreneurs, went to court to recover back duties paid to the Port of New York under protest, claiming that they owed nothing because, botanically, a tomato is a Tomato1fruit, a seed-bearing structure growing from the flowering part of a plant. The case made it to the Supreme Court where, on May 10, 1893, the justices unanimously ruled that, botany be damned, a tomato is a vegetable.

At the hearing, both the plaintiffs’ counsel and the defendant’s counsel made extensive use of dictionaries. The plaintiffs’ counsel read in evidence the definitions of the word tomato, while the defendant’s counsel read the definitions of the words pea, eggplant, cucumber, squash, and pepper. In a clear case of one-upmanship, the plaintiff then read in evidence the definitions of potato, turnip, parsnip, cauliflower, cabbage, carrot and bean.

The court decided in favor of the defense and found that the tomato should be classified under the customs regulations as a vegetable, based on the ways in which it is used, and the popular perception to this end.  Justice Horace Gray, in a horticultural burst of logic, stated that:

“The passages cited from the dictionaries define the word ‘fruit’ as the seed of plants, or that part of plants which contains the seed, and especially the juicy, pulpy products of certain plants, covering and containing the seed. These definitions have no tendency to show that tomatoes are ‘fruit,’ as distinguished from ‘vegetables,’ in common speech, or within the meaning of the tariff act.”

He acknowledged that botanically, tomatoes are classified as a “fruit of the vine”; nevertheless, they are seen as vegetables because they were usually eaten as a main course instead of being eaten as a dessert. In making his decision, Justice Gray brought up another case in which the court found that although a bean is botanically a seed, in common parlance a bean is seen as a vegetable. While on the subject, Gray clarified the status of the cucumber, squash, pea, and turnip for good measure.

It would take another century to declare ketchup a vegetable.

MAY 5, 1862: VAMOS A CELEBRAR

VAMOS A CELEBRAR

Today is Cinco de Mayo. It is sometimes mistakenly thought of as a major Mexican holiday; it is, rather, a celebration of Mexican heritage and pride by people of Mexican descent living mostly in the United States – and, of course, non-Mexicans looking for an excuse to drink tequila.

 

In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is celebrated primarily in the state of Puebla where it is called El Día de la Batalla de Puebla (The Day of the Battle of Puebla) observed to commemorate the Mexican army’s unlikely victory over French forces at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. France, under the leadership of Napoleon Number Three, sought to establish a Gallic empire in Mexico (possibly because things had gone so well for Napoleon Number One in Russia back in 1812). In 1861, a large French force landed at Veracruz sending the Mexican government into retreat. Moving toward Mexico City, the French army encountered heavy resistance near Puebla from a poorly equipped Mexican army of 4,500 men. The Mexicans were able to soundly defeat the 8,000-strong French army, considered the best in the world.

 

Although there’s not much happening in Mexico City on May 5, there’s plenty of action elsewhere as celebrations everywhere honor Mexican cuisine, culture and music. In addition to the many U.S. events, Windsor, Ontario, holds a Cinco de Mayo Street Festival, and a club near Vancouver, British Columbia, holds a Cinco de Mayo skydiving event. In the Caribbean, there is an annual Cinco de Mayo air guitar competition in the Cayman Islands and a celebration at Montego Bay, Jamaica. Cinco de Mayo events are held in Australia, New Zealand, London and and even in Paris (where it’s sometimes called, Cinco de Mayo, Merde).

MAY 1, 1931: TALL BUILDING WITH APE

TALL BUILDING WITH APE

US President Herbert Hoover pushed a button in Washingtonempire D .C. turning on the lights of a building in New York City. On May 1, 1931, the world’s tallest building (102 stories with a total height of 1,454 feet), one of the seven wonders of the modern world, and soon to become an American icon, the Empire State Building, was open for business.

Commanding the intersection of Fifth Avenue and West 34th Street, the Art Deco masterpiece had taken just over a year to complete. It remained the tallest building in the world for 40 years, and is still a celebrated symbol of American culture. It has been a featured star in over 250 movies and many other forms of entertainment for its entire existence – An Affair to Remember, Sleepless in Seattle, Elf and, probably the most famous, the one with that giant ape clinging to its spire, battling modern technology.

Although jumping (or attempting to) from the Empire State Building is a much depicted form kingkong-oldof suicide, just 30 people have pulled it off. The most noted is the 1947 death of a young woman who landed on a United Nations limousine parked at the curb. A photo taken minutes after her death was featured in Life magazine as “The Most Beautiful Suicide” and was later used by Andy Warhol in his print Suicide (Fallen Body).

Notable failures included a woman who jumped from the 86th floor observation deck, only to be blown back onto the 85th floor by a gust of wind and left with a broken hip, and a man who jumped or fell from the 86th floor but landed alive on an 85th floor ledge from which he was rescued suffering only minor injuries.

 

 

APRIL 29, 1946: GOD’LL GET YOU FOR THAT

GOD’LL GET YOU FOR THAT

God was married on this day in 1946. For the second time. He was 70 at the time; she was 21 and, he claimed, a reincarnation of his first wife.

Unlike many other religious leaders who claimed to have God’s ear, Reverend Major Jealous Divine, (1876 – 1965) claimed to be God. Some contemporaries – jealous’ themselves perhaps – claimed he was more charlatan than god. Earlier in his life, before he became God, he was simply the Messenger. He founded what some have called a cult and oversaw its growth into a multiracial and international church.

Father Divine preached extensively in the south where, in 1913, he ran afoul of local ministers and was sentenced to 60 days jail time. While he was serving his sentence, several prison inspectors were injured in an auto accident, which, Father Divine pointed out, was the direct result of their disbelief.

Upon his release, he attracted a following of mostly women in Georgia. In 1914, several of his followers’ husbands and local preachers had Divine arrested for lunacy. This did not have the desired effect; it actually expanded his ministry. Father Divine was found mentally sound in spite of “maniacal” beliefs. When arrested, he had refused to give his name and was tried as John Doe (aka God).

After moving north and attracting a New York following — just as you were saying with a smirk, it could only happen in Georgia — Father Divine was arrested again, this time for disturbing the peace. At his 1932 trial, the jury found him guilty but asked for leniency. Ignoring this request, the judge called him a menace to society and sentenced him to one year in prison and a $500 fine. The 55-year-old judge died of a heart attack a few days later. Father Divine told-you-soed thusly: “I hated to do it. I did not desire Judge Smith to die . . . I did desire that my spirit would touch his heart and change his mind that he might repent and believe and be saved from the grave.”

In 1944, singer/songwriter Johnny Mercer attended one of his sermons – the subject, “You got to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.” Mercer was impressed. He returned to Hollywood and, with songwriter Harold Arlen, wrote “Ac-cent-tchu-ate The Positive”, which was recorded by Mercer himself and the Pied Pipers in 1945. It was also recorded by Bing Crosby with the Andrews Sisters.  And probably sung a year later at God’s wedding.

 

 

APRIL 28, 2004: IT WAS SHEAR PLEASURE

IT WAS SHEAR PLEASURE

Some folks will go to great lengths to avoid sitting in a barber’s chair. So it seems will some animals. A New Zealand Merino sheep named Shrek — not to be confused with the bald green guy of the same name — really didn’t want to be shorn. So he went on the lam in the late 90’s, living as a fugitive, hiding in caves, always looking back over his shoulder.  He avoided capture for six years but alas someone finally fingered him and he was apprehended in April 2004. And on April 28, the now incredibly woolly Shrek went under the shears. It took a mere 20 minutes to denude him, and the entire indignity was nationally televised. The suddenly svelte Shrek gave up 60 pounds of wool, enough to suit 20 New Zealanders.

Now famous, he took tea with the Prime Minister on his tenth birthday and was allowed to spurn the shears for another 30 months before being shorn on an iceberg off the New Zealand coast (certainly a jumping the shark event). Shrek bought the sheep farm in 2011.

Sardine in Honorable Tin Can

Following the death of Warner Oland, who had successfully brought the character of Charlie Chan to the screen in 16 films, Twentieth Century Fox began the search for a new Chan. Sidney Toler, who was born in Warrensburg, Missouri, on April 28, 1874, was chosen to play the detective, and filming began less then a week later on Charlie Chan in Honolulu. Through four years and eleven films, Toler played Charlie Chan for Twentieth Century Fox. Fox terminated the series in 1942, following the completion of Castle in the Desert. Sidney Toler went on to star in eleven more Charlie Chan films for Monogram Pictures. Very ill during the filming of his last two Chan pictures in 1946, Toler died in 1947.

The character of Charlie Chan was created for the novel The House Without a Key in 1925 by Earl Derr Biggers. Biggers loosely based Chan on a real-life Honolulu detective named Chang Apana. He conceived of the heroic Chan as an alternative to the many stereotypical villains such as Fu Manchu that typified the so-called Yellow Peril, a prevailing vision of the menace of Asia. Sounding like a turn-of-the-century Donald Trump, Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune intoned: “The Chinese are uncivilized, unclean, and filthy beyond all conception without any of the higher domestic or social relations; lustful and sensual in their dispositions; every female is a prostitute of the basest order.” Luckily, Greeley is remember more for urging young men to go west.

Over four dozen films featuring Charlie Chan were made, beginning in 1926. Movie-goers took to Chan, but in later years critics found that in spite of his good qualities he too was an Asian stereotype. Many also objected to the fact that he was played by Caucasian actors in yellowface (although Keye Luke who played Chan’s number one son in 7 films was a bona fide Chinese-American actor).

In addition to his great detection, Charlie Chan was noted for the aphorisms sprinkled liberally throughout the films. A handful of the very many:

Accidents can happen, if planned that way. (Dark Alibi)

Action speak louder than French. (Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo)

Bad alibi like dead fish – cannot stand test of time. (Charlie Chan in Panama)

Detective without curiosity is like glass eye at keyhole – no good. (Charlie Chan in the Secret Service)

Even wise fly sometimes mistake spider web for old man’s whiskers. (Charlie Chan’s Chance)

 

chan

 

APRIL 26, 1970: FLAUNT YOUR INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY

FLAUNT YOUR INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY

Shine up your sneakers, grab your party hats and noisemakers. It’s a day to cast off your inhibitions and get wild and crazy. Yes, today is World Intellectual Property Day, the day set aside to “raise awareness of how patents, copyright, trademarks and designs impact on dailyparty life” and “to celebrate creativity, and the contribution made by creators and innovators to the development of societies across the globe.” And get pleasantly pickled of course.

It’s not quite as over the top as say Fat Tuesday but it’s close. Celebrating the contributions of creators and innovators with two guys in clown suits and a person of unknown gender wearing nothing but a rubber chicken puts a fair amount of zest into a gray day in late April. And coming as it does on the heels of World Book and Copyright Day – well, it’s not for the faint of heart.

Why April 26 you ask? Because it’s the date on which the Convention Establishing the World Intellectual Property Organization was established in 1970.  Perhaps you missed it.  What is intellectual property you ask? That’s the beautiful part. It’s anything you want it to be. What you are reading here at this moment by very elastic definition could be considered intellectual property – especially after three Harvey Wallbangers. So live it up; National Defense Transportation Day is nearly a month away.

APRIL 22 ,1886: BUT WILL YOU RESPECT ME IN THE MORNING?

BUT WILL YOU RESPECT ME IN THE MORNING?

In a blow to lounge lechers everywhere, the state of Ohio passed a law making seduction unlawful. Covering any man seduction1over 18, it prohibited sex, consensual or not, with a woman of any age if the woman were being taught or instructed by the man. It covered all subject matter, leaving a lot of room for interpretation.  Other states jumped on the anti-seduction bandwagon. In Virginia, he’d better not try to engineer an “illicit connexion with any unmarried female of previous chaste character” using the promise of marriage. In Georgia, he couldn’t “seduce a virtuous unmarried female and induce her to yield to his lustful embraces.” In some jurisdictions, however, a woman could not press charges on her own behalf; only the father could do so based on his property interests in his daughters’ chastity.

Naturally, such laws were enforced with varying degrees of fervor. An unfortunate man trapped by the law in New York was headed for certain conviction until he proposed to his victim during the trial. Just to make certain, he didn’t back out, the judge brought in a minister and had the ceremony performed then and there.

A court in Michigan, on the other hand, went out of its way to favor the accused male. On three charges of seduction, two were thrown out because the woman was no longer virtuous after the first seduction. The other was tossed when the court ruled that her claim that they had sex in a buggy was physically impossible.

Sick in de Stomach, Part 1: Albert’s Lament

“Albert, you’re not sick,” said Peaches, handing a mug of strong tea to the man lying on the chaise lounge wearing an oversized nightshirt that made him look much frailer than he actually was. Peaches, who would not reveal the source of her nickname, had by default fallen into a grudging guardianship of the cantankerous old Frenchman. “You’re just imagining these things because you know you should be up on your feet being a human being.”

“We have no aspirin,” answered Albert. “Are we a third world country that we have no aspirin? How can a civilized people have no aspirin?”

“Because no one has been to Guadeloupe for two weeks. We’re running out of things.”

“It is because this island has no pharmacy,” said Albert. “It is the twenty-first century. How can an island be without a pharmacy?”

“You always said pharmacies are a plague of civilization,” said Peaches. “That easy access to medicine creates sick people, people dependent on medicine. That’s what you said.”

“I was a well man when I said that. Now I need a pharmacy because I need aspirin because I am a sick man. Is that so difficult to understand? Please speak, don’t nod; my vision is blurred.”

“That’s because you’re a cross-eyed old fool,” Peaches said warmly.

“Perhaps I am, perhaps I am,” Albert almost whispered. “And I’m a burden. But please don’t think ill of me. I may only be a burden for another day or two. The tea is very nice. I appreciate your bringing it to me. Would you recite for me, please, the tiger poem you love so much? I’d like to hear it once more.”

Peaches was dumbstruck. Albert had always criticized her love of poetry, particularly British poetry, and now he was requesting a recital. Maybe he was dying after all. What other reason could he have? He needed a pretty thought to take him to heaven. Peaches couldn’t deny such a request, even if he were dreaming his illnesses, so she recited in a very serious poetic voice: “Tiger, tiger, burning bright, in the jungle late at night . . . uh . . . afraid of nothing but where they bury.” She paused, then grinned and said: “For this tiger is fearful of the cemetery.” Peaches had, of course, ad-libbed the final two lines, but they were quite good, capturing the spirit, if not the exact wording, of the original. She repeated it once again, giving more emphasis to the dramatic elements she had created, then sat smiling with satisfaction, waiting for Albert to voice his appreciation.

“I think the dog is probably rabid,” said Albert.

“Why do you say that?”

“He bit me.”

“It’s a she,” Peaches corrected.

“It is my understanding that rabies is found equally among the two sexes of the species.”

“Yes, but she doesn’t have rabies,” said Peaches. “She just doesn’t like you.”

“We would be able to find out for certain if there were a veterinarian on this island,” Albert lamented. “But of course there isn’t. There are probably a thousand veterinarians in Paris. But not here. We don’t even have a doctor. This is no place to live. In France, there are specialists. If I have a heart attack here, I have no chance. If disease sweeps the island, we’ll all die.”

“But you said that doctors were worse than disease,” Peaches reminded him. “You said the only difference between a medical doctor and a witch doctor was their makeup.”

“I have said a great many things in my life.”

“And now they’re coming back to haunt you.”

“Situations change,” said Albert, sighing. “I hope you’ll excuse me now. Conversation has made me weak. I must rest.”

continued

Sick in de Stomach is one of the 15 stories from Calypso, Stories of the Caribbean, available as an ebook or in a print edition with real pages and everything.