Wednesday, February 18, 2015

What did they do before they were poor?

A common theme in both my scholarly and creative writing is the idea that during the nineteenth century just about anyone was one tragedy away from the poorhouse.  Similarly, distinguishing between the worthy and the unworthy poor was no easy task.

Many of the characters in Orphans and Inmates and A Whisper of Bones are people who had some "respectable" job but ended up in the poorhouse as the result of illness or injury.  Although the names are often different, the circumstances of many characters are derived from the actual inmate records.  For example, Lucinda Gefroren from Whisper is based on a real person who had lost many of her children and other female members of her family to a mysterious condition recorded as chorea.  The real woman was unable to hold a job because of her frequent fits and was admitted to the poorhouse, where she lived until her death four years later.

Original cover sketch for A Whisper of Bones by Bob Higgins

Among the many primary documents from the institution are the Erie County Hospital Mortality Ledgers from the last two decades of the nineteenth century (soon to be available at the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library).  These ledgers listed the individuals who died under treatment at the Erie County Poorhouse Hospital.  Among other variables, the occupations of the people who died there were recorded.  Not all of these people were inmates of the poorhouse.  Most of them simply could afford no other care.  A look at the means by which these early residents of Buffalo made their living reinforces the notion that reversals of fortune were not uncommon in those days.

The majority of men listed in the ledger were unskilled laborers, and many of the woman were domestics. For these folks even one day of lost wages could have left them destitute.  Also of no surprise were the prostitutes and those having no occupation.  However, there were over 1,300 people (just over 21% of the entire sample) who had skilled jobs or professions before they were admitted to the poorhouse hospital.  They were confectioners, slate cutters and ship builders.  Some were machinists, engineers or teamsters.  There were some jewelers, stonemasons and carpenters.  I had to look up more than a few jobs.  A hostler works with horses, a huckster is a door to door salesman, and a hackman drives a carriage.  The most unusual occupations listed included that of an evangelist, a florist, a showman, and a fur model.

What stood out to me the most was that many patients did not end up at the poorhouse hospital because they were lazy or apathetic. Often they were regular people who had experienced accidents, illness or violence. We may never know why or if they chose the poorhouse hospital over the others.  It may have simply been the most reasonable solution for the immediate crisis facing them at that point in their lives.  Some patients may have expected to die in hospital, but others likely saw their situation as temporary and planned to continue in their chosen lives when they were well again.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Buffalo, Books and Beer...Brilliant!

Last night was the inaugural event for Buffalo, Books, and Beer, the brainchild of Matt Higgins, author of Bird Dream: Adventures at the Extremes of Human Flight and Brian Castner, author of The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life that Follows.  The idea of combining books and beer is a no brainer. Who doesn't enjoy a bottle or two with their favorite paperback?  However, combining the two in a bar, in Buffalo, New York, was nothing short of brilliant!  It's the dead of winter here in the Nickel City and cabin fever is setting in for those of us not into hockey, skiing or curling.  The promise of a good story and a pint of sponge candy stout are sure to get even the most stubborn winter recluse out of hibernation.

You may look at the last name of one of the co-founders and think this is just the talk of a proud auntie, but I can assure you that this innovative author event was a class act.  The featured speakers included local author Jeff Schober, who wrote Bike Path Rapist: A Cop's Firsthand Account of Catching the Killer Who Terrorized a Community and Kevin Maurer, author of No Easy Day: A Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama Bin Laden.  If you pay attention to these things, you will already know that No Easy Day ended the reign of Fifty Shades of Grey in the number one spot of the New York Times Best Seller List.  

It was a typical night in Buffalo, alternating sleet and snow, but still Resurgence Brewing Company, known for their craft beers and receptivity to innovative ideas, was packed.  We sat mesmerized in our wooden folding chairs as each author spoke of their experiences with just the right mixture of intrigue and humor. When the Q&A was over, we mingled, drank our beer and bought some books.  I'm already looking forward to next month!

Friday, February 6, 2015

I really love my job, but not today!

I thought today I might write about the working mom part of my split personality.  We are well into winter here in Western New York and that presents certain challenges in the running of a doggy daycare.  

On good days, when temperatures reach well into the double digits, we are able to enjoy a good thirty minute romp in the snow a few times a day.  On those days, our canine companions are exhausted from their frosty frolic and are easily managed for the rest of the day.

Other days are not so enjoyable.  Often we lay in bed just before daybreak listening for the telltale scraping sound of the city plow already at work.  With a groan, we rise and dress for the single digit temperatures that will bring even the dogs in their coats and boots.  FYI it takes about as much time and effort to undress a dog wearing cold weather gear as it does a toddler! With a sigh and a few F-bombs, we find that it is first necessary to dig out the plow before the sidewalks can be cleared.  No time for breakfast or a shower if all the snow is to be out of the way in time for our first furry arrivals at seven o'clock.

Recently, the intestinal fortitude of even the most stoic Western New Yorker has been put to the test with a particularly long spell of frigid temperatures and relentless snow.  These days the F-bombs start before we are even out of bed, knowing that we will, once again, be faced with enormous piles of hard packed snow left behind by the city plow drivers who had worked through the night to keep the streets clear.  They are working hard, but still we curse them as we hack away at the frozen concrete mountains blocking our driveway and street access.

With all hands on deck (two adults and one teenager) we are up and running with just minutes to spare.  Watching the wind blow the snow across the sidewalk I had just shoveled, I wait for the chaos to begin.  A little thing like a blinding snow storm seldom slows down life here in the City of Good Neighbors, and soon the windows are rattling as twenty three dogs of all shapes and sizes greet one another and the day begins.