Almost two years ago, my dear friend and writer Robert Roth asked me if I wanted to contribute a piece to his magazine And Then. “Can you write something about street vendors in New York? It can be anything, as long as it’s short and accessible.” Short and accessible, hmmm. “I’m an academic historian, Robert, we usually don’t do short and accessible. But I will give it a try.” At the time, I was reading a lot about the newsboys’ strike of 1899 and I knew I wanted my story to focus on them and their courageous actions.
It took me longer to knock out a 200-word piece for a broad audience than a full-blown scholarly article for fellow historians. I had several panic attacks and wanted to tell Robert I couldn’t do it, that he shouldn’t count on my contribution. But I persevered and last week the And Then crew celebrated the publication of their nineteenth volume featuring my piece New York, 1899.
This is the story of a bunch of bold boys. You have probably heard of them, they are those fierce-looking fellas who sell the news in New York’s streets. When two editors they worked for refused to raise their pay rates, the boys became the news themselves. They went on a strike and dominated the headlines the next days. They ganged up, armed with sticks and stones, on the look-out for would-be dealers and delivery men. They marched from Jersey City over Long Island to Brooklyn, shouting their demands and shredding the boycotted newspapers to pieces. Some witnesses stated that at some point, the shunned newspapers were nowhere to be seen, whereas the newspaper boys — Dewey, Bob Indian, Kid Blink — lined the streets. After two weeks of talk and action, their demands were finally met. The editors caved, dumb-struck by the loss of profit the strike had triggered. The newsboys went back to their paper rounds, heads held high, pockets bulging with full returns. They no longer were the news, but they sure as hell had changed their old lives (And Then 19 (2017) 110).
When I read the publication, I felt awkward. There was my work amidst the beautiful creations of artists and writers who know what they are doing and who are great at it. My dry and artificially feeling piece felt like a miss-fit in a volume that I experience as graceful art. But then Bernard Tuchman came along. Bernie is an old friend of Robert, and of the magazine. He wrote a poem about every entry in the volume, including mine. He took something I didn’t really like – my own piece – and created something I love – his beautiful poem, which I happily share here. The historian in me will think twice next time she’s asked to do something for a broad audience. Instead of embarking upon such an adventure by herself, she will talk to people who juggle with words and images, who create meaning beyond her academic reference frame.
there to be
deep from within
except by action,
to be born
Illustration by brotiN biswaS via Pexels.