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At the County Fair

April 26, 2016 | by

An illustration by Garth Williams for Charlotte’s Web.

To a little kid, the county fair was pure enchantment. There was a puppet show and a 4-H cake booth and animals and gardens. There were kiddie rides, too, and a man who made wonderful charms out of molten glass. My favorite activity was the “fish pond,” in which you were handed a fishing rod, dipped the hook into a wading pool, and came out with a toy. I liked that it required no luck, no skill, and no courage. Read More »

Diamonds and Pearls

April 25, 2016 | by

From a 1916 Vanity Fair cover.

“How are you?” asked a smiling acquaintance on the street. 

“Well, I’m pretty down about Prince—but aren’t we all?” I said reprovingly. 

“Oh yes,” she murmured. “Of course.” I saw her blinking quickly in an effort to summon tears. “It’s the end of an era, isn’t it?” Read More »

Wild New York

April 22, 2016 | by

Humans_shown_in_their_relationships_with_their_pet_animals,_Wellcome_V0022952

W. Clerk, Matters of Taste, As Regards Natural History (No. 1), lithograph, ca. nineteenth century.

The NPR station WNYC is hosting an initiative they call Wild New York, in which listeners are encouraged to snap and submit pictures of urban nature. The idea is to celebrate Earth Day by drawing city dwellers’ attention to the beauty all around us, and the result is a riot of birds’ nests, plants pushing up between paving stones, blooming trees and, yes, pigeons. It’s lovely, and I’d happily submit if I’d seen anything save a small rat and a decorative cabbage in the last two days.

Like most cities, this one has often had an uneasy relationship with the natural world. A particularly galling reminder of this is the photographic record of a 1920s and thirties craze: animal mania. Like many fads of the era—phone-booth stuffing, goldfish swallowing, pole balancing—animal mania was brief, giddy, frivolous, and paid by the realities of World War II. But even at its apex—think Bringing Up Baby, a screwball centered around a pet leopard—animal mania was a rarified phenomenon: even pre-Depression, most people couldn’t afford an exotic wild animal to parade at parties. Read More »

Lousie

April 21, 2016 | by

Detail showing delousing from Jan Siberechts' painting Cour de ferme ("Farmyard"), 1662

Detail showing delousing from Jan Siberechts’s painting Cour de ferme, 1662.

PEDICULARE, the lousie disease, that is when the bodie is pestred and full of lice and nits.
Iohn Florio, A Worlde of Wordes, or Most Copious, and Exact Dictionarie in Italian and English

Think of the above as an indirect nod to Shakespeare’s birthday: living as he did in a particularly pestilential period of London’s history, the bard had reason to reference “the lousie disease” with some regularity. The plague of 1593 famously shuttered all of London’s theaters; ten thousand people died in this outbreak alone. Even in nonplague years, typhus was a major killer. And at the best of times, lice were a quotidian nuisance and a marker of hygiene. 

Indeed, lice of various kinds come up in Titus Andronicus and King Lear, and that’s just for starters. The reason I am not quoting them is because most of these references are very lascivious and vile indeed. The only context in which Shakespeare uses lice is as an insult: always insulting someone’s cleanliness to sexual hygiene. (Which seems harsh in a time when vermin of all kinds must have been fairly rampant.) Surely not only slatterns and villains were prone to the pestilence! What about Thomas of Beckett, with his hair shirt running with lice? Shakespeare was most definitely a part of the problem.

And the shame and stigma in the modern classroom are alive and well, even in places well-fortified with antibiotics and running water. To wit: On a downtown subway platform, I heard one little girl in a Catholic school uniform—maybe six—turn to her friend and say, “Pinkie swear you’ve never had lice. Pinkie swear. Duly sworn in, the two then walked down the platform and approached a third little girl, standing alone.

“Have you ever had lice?” they demanded sternly. The loner looked around in a panicked sort of way. “N-no... ” she said uncertainly. 

“Will you pinkie swear?” demanded the ringleader.

I have! I wanted to tell her. It doesn’t make you dirty or weird, even if you happen to be sort of weird and lonely! And maybe dirty! Anyone can get it! And those nit combs and that horribly painful shampoo are punishment enough! And then one day you’ll just be a grown-up on the platform and no one will even check if you wash your hair! It will be okay! 

And blessedly, then the train pulled in. 

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.

The Wrong Scent

April 20, 2016 | by

From a vintage Bienaimé advertisement.

When I rejoined my husband, the first thing he said was, “I love that perfume!”

“That’s just as well,” I said shortly.

Here’s what had happened: I’d taken refuge from the weather in a shop. Guiltily aware that I wouldn’t be buying anything, I sniffed at a series of perfume stoppers. Some customer in a fishing hat, a pair of white socks with sandals, and a bag with a picture of Liza Minnelli on it was chattering with the saleswoman about the exorbitant price of neighborhood tea and his depression. “Maybe some cologne will help your day,” said the saleswoman. Read More »

We Guarantee It

April 19, 2016 | by

From a vintage Sealy mattress ad.

“Oh my God,” I said, turning to my husband with tears in my eyes.

“What is it?” he asked, understandably alarmed. The train had stopped at a Connecticut station—Rowayton, maybe—and it smelled like sun-warmed Naugahyde and Metro-North and commuter. “What is it?”

Blinded by tears—and the fact that I’d removed my glasses to dash them away—I pointed to an advertisement on the platform. Read More »