In early November, I received an event notification in my email: “Presidential Hair: A Close Shave with History.” Speaker Robert McCracken Peck, Academy Curator of Art and Artifacts and Senior Fellow, was going to provide insight into the hair collection of Peter A. Browne, the subject of his book Specimens of Hair: The Curious Collection of Peter A. Browne. I couldn’t click fast enough to RSVP.A lawyer, Browne became interested in wool and fur, tracking the differences between animals and species across various geographic locales. The next step was human hair. Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, Browne actively collected human hair samples, including 13 of the first US presidents, famous authors like James Fenimore Cooper, and Napoleon Bonaparte. Browne devoted his life to this project. Before DNA, Browne knew hair was a significant indicator of our identity and that through hair, we could know more about ourselves, as individuals, in addition to the human species. His immense collection, however, would have been tossed in the 1970s had it not been for Peck who stumbled upon the scrapbooks in the hallway of the Academy bound for the trash.
Peck’s book, Specimens of Hair, accounts for the collection through Rosamond Purcell’s stunning photographs and Peck’s rich text. Full of history and analysis, the book is more than just a glance into what many might consider a frivolous oddity, something to ogle and judge. Peck makes the irrefutable case of Browne’s collection being emblematic of 19th-century science, curiosity, and the adventurous spirit of scientific exploration. A week after his talk, Peck was gracious enough to host me in his office at the Academy of Natural Sciences where we discussed Browne’s mission, science literacy and advocacy, and the implications of collecting hair samples. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Such imperious syllables! Such indomitable ones! — at least when emanating from the throat of Flower Abraham Silliman as she hollers down the empty stairwell to the elevator operator in the lobby to come fetch her on the third floor. “Oh, he never listens. He can’t close his gate properly, or I don’t know what he does wrong but he always has a devil of a time fetching me. Never mind!” she says, deciding to forego the lift and use her walker to pound down the three flights of stairs herself. The apartment we’re leaving is a throwback to British Colonialism, an airy expanse of 3,000 square feet in the heart of downtown Calcutta which includes 16-foot ceilings and cannonball-proof walls for which Flower’s daughter Jael pays relatively few rupees each month, plus more for the two attendants who swab the place wet each day against the street dust and who eat their breakfast biscuits and bananas from seated positions on the tiled kitchen floor — their choice.
A palace for peanuts, basically, because it’s been rented by the family that long. Not that you’d have a hint of its grandeur from the outside. Like all the other soot-stained, crumbly-seeming castles tucked behind dusty high stucco walls throughout the city, the Halwasiya Mansion looks decayed on purpose — a ploy, perhaps, to fool the tax office. Or perhaps not: one can never be too sure. Inside, the heirs of the Jewish families who made their fortunes in Calcutta living lives of tasteful grandeur with racehorses, private clubs, and country palaces are dying out fast. Flower Abraham Silliman, navigating the wide wooden staircase past the faded but still flamboyant red paan juice stains expectorated by generations of visitors, is the last of a breed, the final flower of a once flourishing 5,000 strong. More… “Lotsa Matzo In Kolkata”
Philadelphia’s Passyunk Avenue appears from nowhere, cutting diagonally from Queen’s Village through South Philadelphia. Following it, you get a cross-section of old and new Philadelphia. Historical row houses bump shoulders with condos. Family businesses coexist with hot new restaurants, boutiques, and local markets. Regardless of changes to the community is the neighborhood feel of Passyunk Square. One thing, however, was missing: a bookstore. While Philadelphia has an assortment of independent and box store bookstores, local couple Christina Rosso-Schneider and Alex Schneider, saw a gap. At the start of December, their store, A Novel Idea, opened on 1726 E. Passyunk, preparing their community for a new year full of literary treatures, local art, and events aimed to bring the community together. On a brisk but beautiful day, we sat in their store talking about some of our favorite things: Scholastic book sales, cozy spaces, and the joys of loitering.
Shannon Downey is a craftivist, community organizer, and as of June, a commencement speaker. She was recruited by Drexel University’s Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry to deliver the commencement address for their Custom Designed Major. Her speech was firm but funny, honest in the “what is yet to come,” and encouraging in regard to their potential to alter the world one small step at a time. Before she inspired the room, we had an opportunity to sit down with Shannon to talk about Badass Cross Stitch, activism, and going viral. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In late January of 2015, a tree stood wavering on the edge of Detroit’s burnt-out Grixdale neighborhood. A loud, old engine revved. A 100-foot rope tightened. A car strained forward. The tree followed, snapping and dropping into the overgrown yard of an abandoned house. A group of bearded men looked on from the front yard of a fire-ravaged structure across the street. Satisfaction and relief filled them as the final rays of sunlight scattered into the gray horizon. They had lost two ropes and a chainsaw in bringing down the tree, but they comforted themselves with the thought that the abandoned house and the surrounding telephone lines stood unharmed.
They were pretty far from Detroit’s refurbished downtown. Years ago, this neighborhood had succumbed to the rot brought on by the crack wars. Inhabitants fled, homes were torched, and the long blocks, once designed for cars, were left sparsely populated. In 2015, it remained largely abandoned. Sometimes, there were residual flare-ups of violence and theft. Some ways down the road, there remained a crack house. In this quiet, largely forgotten place, however, adjacent to the vistas of empty lots, under the canopy of old-growth trees, there was a new community growing. They lived amongst the neglected red brick houses and chose to call themselves Fireweed, after the pioneer plant species that takes over the landscape after a forest fire. More… “Why Does a Tree Fall in Detroit?”
Bowling alleys are closing. They are leaving holes in cities and along highways across America, to be filled in by auto dealerships and doctors’ offices and vape shops that hope to become pot shops. Some get turned into storage facilities, others into nothing at all, left to sit and rot in the dark, the pins still set up inside them.
Whether or not you’ve noticed that bowling alleys are closing might depend on where you live and what bowling means to you. In New York City, you might see young people dressed up to bowl while sipping 17-dollar craft cocktails. In most of the rest of the country, that doesn’t happen. Throughout much of the 20th century, in smaller towns and cities, the bowling alley was a community center — a place for people to retreat after work, a little beat down. Every so often someone would land in a league and turn out to be a pretty good bowler, maybe good enough to win a little money on TV. But now those places are shuttering and going away. More… “Halfway Back to Worcester”
Neil Serven is a writer, lexicographer, and candlepin bowler who lives in Greenfield, Massachusetts. His fiction and essays have appeared in Catapult, Bodega, Washington Square Review, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter at @NeilServen.
I never knew Eric, he was always Sam’s friend, but like many people in our city, I knew who he was. Riding a bicycle down Langalibalele Street, heading towards the city center of Pietermaritzburg, it was hard to miss his double bed jammed into the double doorway of the old and abandoned St. Anne’s hospital. It wasn’t just a double bed in width, but in height, with two bases and two mattresses, giving the impression that this was how the princess and her pea would live, if she were homeless.
Sam first noticed the hospital, before he noticed Eric, and he loved it, with its tangled garden and hanging shutters and star-cracked windows. A few meters from Eric’s bed, an embroidered heart flapped in the wind, given as a red get-well gift, now grey. Behind his bed, a chain padlocked the double doors. I pictured the floors shiny, disinfected, the corridors bustling with soft-shoed nurses one day, and the next day superintendent pulling the double doors to, winding the chain, clicking the lock, saying, “Well, that’s all folks. Thanks for everything.” More… “Eric Was Here”
Sarah Groves lives in an apartment in the inner city of Pietermaritzburg, South Africa with 1 husband, 5 children and 98 neighbours. She spends her afternoons writing, and her evenings enjoying the city. It’s dirty, noisy and busting with language and culture, from all over Africa. Her first childrens’s book (Sbonelo Snoop) was published last year with Penguin SA.
“I’ve organized a happy hour with a wonderful group of women friends who periodically gather to support each other and share ideas and food,” Lane’s email concluded. “I’m attaching an invite.”
Lane* is a fellow writer whom I’d met in grad school and always liked. It had been many months since we’d last communicated, and I welcomed her invitation.
I looked at the flyer. “This is a great time to envision and work towards common goals and individual life pursuits,” it read. “Let’s share some of our ideas and projects that we hope to accomplish or advance in this new, exciting, uncertain, life-affirming year ahead!” More… “The Price of Friendship”
Kathryn Paulsen writes for stage and screen as well as page. Her essays, short stories, and poetry have appeared in the New York Times, West Branch, New Letters, et al., and may currently be read or are forthcoming in journals including Humber Literary Review, The Stinging Fly, and Saint Ann’s Review. She lives in New York City but, having grown up in an Air Force family, has roots in many places. See her occasional musings at ramblesandrevels.blogspot.com.
If you ask Google Images what a library is, you’ll get a very clear answer: books on shelves in a column-faced building.
Like Google, most of us think of the library as a storehouse for books. We can be forgiven for thinking so. Our word library comes from the Latin librarium, meaning bookcase. It’s the same for the Latin and Greek equivalents for library — bibliotheca and bibliothiki, respectively — which led to the word for library in most modern Indo-European languages. It’s also notable that the Latin word for book, liber, originally referred to the kind of bark that was used in book construction. All this is to say that, through and through, we have conceptualized the library in terms of physical objects. Bark, books, shelves, buildings. More… “Lines of Spines”
Tim Gorichanaz is a PhD candidate in information studies at Drexel. His research explores the historical and philosophical aspects of libraries and information technology. His work appears in Straight Forward, Sinkhole and numerous academic journals. He enjoys running long distances and practicing classical guitar.
Along with honor killings, slavery, and polygamy, personal charity is a relic of barbarism. As civilization advances, the satisfaction of basic human needs moves from the realm of personal charity to the realm of civic solidarity. The extent to which a modern society still relies on personal charity to provide unfortunate individuals with adequate access to food, shelter, medicine, and even education, by way of scholarships, should be a source, not of personal pride on the part of generous philanthropists, but of collective shame on the part of the community. More… “Against Charity”