Dez crossed her fingers that the job at The American Sunday Standard would be hers for as long as she wanted it, for the first time feeling for herself the undercurrent of anxiety that had plagued people everywhere these past years: How much worse can things get? If I have a job, how long can I keep it? What will I do if I lose it?
The last time Dez had visited New York was in the fall of 1928, and as busy as the city was then, it seemed to have grown more hectic. A vast bridge, made completely of steel, now spanned the Hudson, allowing a flood of cars to pour onto the island each morning. Taxis joined the cars in clogging the streets, and their drivers all seemed to be in a contest to see who could blow his horn the longest. Dance palaces, billiard halls, and movie palaces all blazed with electric light. Street peddlers sold anything they could get their hands on: apples, pencils, neckties, and every block had its shoeshine boys, even though many were grandfatherly age, old men sitting patiently on their wooden boxes, shine kits at their feet. Everywhere was stark contrast: bread lines so long they snaked around corners at the same time that women wearing smart hats stepped out of taxis to enter the dozens of restaurants that seemed to be doing a thriving business despite the hard times.
Dez walked down to the new Empire State Building, tallest in the world, as soon as she had settled in, just to gawk at it, at its modern, stainless-steel entrance canopies, at its sleek, tapered sides that led up to an observatory that maybe she would visit with Jacob. She remembered reading about its official opening a few years back, how President Hoover was able to light up the entire 1250 floors by pressing a single button in Washington, DC. What an extravagance it seemed, to build such a thing in the middle of economic depression. Dizzying, to peer up at its needle-top. Much of it still stood empty, said a man who paused to join her in admiring it. ‘Tenants are few and far between, they say. People are calling it the Empty State Building, but you have to admire its permanence, don’t you?’ he said. ‘It’s not going anywhere, is it?’
Desdemona came from Shakespeare.
Asa? I liked the sound of the old-fashioned name, but I particularly liked the story of a long-ago resident of one of the four towns flooded to create the reservoir in Massachusetts that I use as the model for my Cascade.
Asa Snow lived in Dana, Massachusetts in the 1840s. His nickname was “Popcorn” because he was a vegetarian who survived on popcorn and milk. He, like me, had a terrible fear of being buried alive, so he had a metal casket built for himself, with a glass window at the head. He instructed the undertaker to check on him for a week after his death, to make sure that he was well and truly departed. But stories followed Asa long after his death: he walked the earth every November 15. His body, seen through the glass, did not decompose.
Then there’s Jacob Solomon. That name just came to me one day when I was working on a short story–a story that would eventually turn into Cascade–about artists in New York City in the 1930s. I had decided that Jacob would end up in a tenement on the Lower East Side, and I was looking forward to seeing an exhibit of 1930s photographs at the New York Public Library.
Okay, the VERY FIRST photograph in the show just happened to be the “tenement belonging to Jacob Solomon.” Another ghost?
Maybe. The attached is Jacob Solomon’s tenement on Avenue D, photo by the great Dorothea Lange, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
And for more stories about Asa “Popcorn” Snow, check out the small-press books of J.R. Greene, and this page: Quabbin page.
I was honored when Julianne Douglas asked to review Cascade for her beautiful book blog, Writing the Renaissance, and then when she asked me to write a brief guest post.
So much fascinating research went into the writing of Cascade that I had a hard time choosing a topic, but finally decided on “Why the 1930s?”
What really stands out for me about the 1930s and now, aside from all this “magic” we’ve learned to live with as if it is our birthright: not much else is really all that different.
Here are my thoughts on “Why the 1930s:” link