[Editor’s Note, Feb. 22, 2013: The post below is a revised version of a piece I published on Feb. 22, 2012, the last anniversary of Edward Robb Ellis’s birthday.]
Entries from A Diary of the Century by Edward Robb Ellis, about whom I blogged earlier today, on the occasion of what would have been his 102nd birthday, February 22.
Monday, October 5, 1931 This morning I got a letter from Mother saying that the First National Bank of Kewanee has closed. That’s the bank that has every cent I own. Mother also said that Grandpa Robb had all of his money there, and now Grandma is worried to death. Many of the people in Kewanee stood in front of the closed doors of the bank, weeping and cursing. One of Mother’s women friends ran up and down our street, bewailing the fact that her family has lost everything. . . . Here I am at age 20–absolutely penniless.
University of Missouri, Sunday, January 3, 1932 Today I saw my first bread line–200 starving men forming a gray line as they waited for food. The sight of them disturbed me.
Saturday, January 9. 1932 Nace Strickland is the best room mate one could have. Today he told me something that happened when he was a child. Raised in St. Louis, he didn’t know much about country life, so he was excited when two of his aunts took him for a drive on back roads. In one pasture he saw a bull mounting a cow, whereupon Nace exclaimed: “Hey, I didn’t know those things could milk themselves.”
Kewanee, Illinois, Saturday, June 11, 1932 Last night I dreamed I held my diary under a shower and was delighted when the words did not wash off. Does this mean I think my diary may make me “immortal?”
Monday, February 19, 1934 Some of my favorite songs: My Silent Love . . . Lullaby of the Leaves . . . I’ve Got the South in My Soul . . . Time on My Hands . . . Old Rockin’ Chair . . . Piccalo Pete . . . Harmonica Harry . . . I Kiss Your Hand, Madame . . . Somebody Loves Me . . . I Surrender, Dear . . . Body and Soul . . . All of Me . . . You’re My Everything . . . Mona Lisa . . . The Man I Love . . . What Wouldn’t I Do That for Man . . . Mood Indigo.
New Orleans, Tuesday, July 23, 1935 Last night I went to the Golden Dragon, a Negro nightclub on South Rampart St., to listen to Louie Armstrong. Not long ago he came back to New Orleans where he was born, came back in triumph because in England he had played a command performance for King George VI. This is his homecoming, so Louie lifted up his golden trumpet and blew his glad notes. . . . The rasping and gurgling of his voice made my spine feel like a xylophone. he slid from one note to a lower one and then careened down to a guttural bass note lower than my worst sin. As he sang he mopped his face and weaved back and forth, but he kept his black eyes on the mic under his nose, like a serpent hypnotizing a bird. . . . Not only were black people welcoming Satchelmouth home again, but white men and women were to be seen amidst the mob of happy people packed into the Golden Dragon. The waiters were having the times of their lives. They jigged and shuffled and bared their teeth in song as they wafted trays of drinks over the heads of the swaying hundreds. One waiter was busy lighting cigarets in his mouth and then handing them out with a flourish to the dusky damsels sitting at a nearby table. It was an adoring audience. Every time Louie picked up his trumpet, the folks settled into a trance of expectation, and Louie didn’t fail them. Like another Gabriel, he blew his horn and opened the gates to heaven.
New York City, Thursday, May 22, 1947 Today I arrived by train in New York City, which I’d never seen before, walked through the grandeur of Grand Central Terminal, stepped outside, got my first look at the city and instantly fell in love with it. Silently, inside myself, I yelled: I should have been born here!
At the World-Telegram Building I was interviewed by Lee Wood, executive editor, and B. O. McAnney, city editor. They hired me, told me to go back to Chicago to wind up my affairs there, then report for work here on June 2. I walked up Barclay Street toward Broadway and near City Hall saw something that astonished me. Crossing Broadway at Chambers Street was a horse-drawn wagon full of horse manure.
Wednesday, March 23, 1949 Once upon a time there was a man who was in love with a bridge. The time is now, the man is Fred Bronnenkant, and the bridge is the Brooklyn Bridge.
He waits on her hand and foot, for Fred is a bridgeman and riveter employed by New York City. She is a queen–perhaps the most photographed, most painted, most sketched, most ethced, most written-about, most movie-filmed bridge in the world.
Fred, now 74 years old, has been in love with the Brooklyn Bridge ever since he was assigned to her 30 years ago. It’s not that he’s in love with bridges–any old bridge. Not at all. Fred drove rivets into the Williamsburg Bridge, further up the East River, and he bossed a steel gang on Queensborough Bridge, still further north.
As he and I stood beneath the Brooklyn end, he gazed up at the gray Gothic pylon and mused aloud, “Never has been a bridge like this one, never will be.”
A tall sturdy man, he stropped his hands against his overalls as he spoke. A shadow of embarrassment filled his deep-set blue eyes, embarrassment such as many men feel when talking about the women they love, for Fred regards the Brooklyn Bridge as his woman, his mistress.
At home he has a wife who knows all about this love affair because the bridge is all he ever talks about. she’s jealous too. From time to time she will wail: “You think more of that bridge than you do of me!”
A man who quit school after the sixth grade, Fred paws for words as he tries to explain the great passion of his life. “I guess,” he mumbles, looking down at his shoes, “I guess I just love this here bridge more than any man ever has.” . . .
He tends her lovingly. with the help of seven other bridgemen and riveters, Fred sees to it that she is properly maintained. . . .
Why, she’s alive!” he’ll exclaim forgetting to be embarrassed. ” She has more life in her than anybody. . . . The way she shakes up and down when traffic passes over her! The give in her! And in winter she contracts like–” He pauses. Pulling a toothpick from the band of his hat, he stabs the air trying to pinpoint his meaning.
“It’s like–well, in the winter she contracts like a woman sort of shrugging into her fur. Know what I mean? Then, in the summer–”
His eyes roam his upper eyelids. Find the proper phrase, he lowers his gaze. “You might say, well, like in the summer she expands and it’s like a beautiful girl throwing her clothes open to the sun and air. . . . When I die, there’s just one thing: I want my hearse to drive across the bridge. The last time. You’ll see to this, won’t you. Please?”
© 1995 Edward Robb Ellis