Tuesday, January 19, 2010
Quoth the raven: Nevermore.
Ahhhh. Is it all over? The tradition lost for good?
Since 1949, every year on January 19, Edgar Allen Poe’s birthday, a mysterious secret visitor, sometime between the hours of midnight and 5:30 am, would leave a bottle of Cognac and three roses at the monument marking Poe’s gravesite. Last night he failed to appear.
That makes me very sad. I wonder what happened.
As a serious lover of Edgar Allen Poe, one of my most memorable “tourist” excursions was a “back east” Washington DC trip with my good buddies, Theresa and Mary Alice, sometime during the mid-1990s. All three of us are big time readers, lovers of everything Poe, so we made a special trip to Baltimore to pay tribute to Poe, visiting several of the sites that honor him.
In our rented car and armed with a decorative but seriously unspecific tourist map, we finally located the church where Poe is buried – which is to say, Poe is buried in the church yard, but not where the big grave marker is. It was late afternoon when we arrived and a wedding was just about to begin. There we were – in sloppy tourist duds -- while elegantly-clad people were filing into the church. Several people looked askance at us, apparently wondering what we were doing -- I guess local residents take their most famous author for granted.
It was raining – misting, might be more like it. Nicely gloomy for a graveside visit. Because of the wedding festivities, we didn’t go into the back of the churchyard where Poe’s remains actually rest, but when we’d looked, touched, and had our fill of that site, we decided we had time to try for one more.
We set out in search of 203 Amity Street, the old Baltimore house where Poe lived from 1833 – 1935, where he wrote “The Raven”, “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary….” You know the rest. Here’s what it looks like.
The map was terrible. Time and time again we were lost, several times we came close to giving up. What complicated the situation was that by now it was very dark, street signs were either non-existent or obscured, and clearly this was not a popular tourist spot, at least not at that hour. Another issue was that this was most definitely NOT a good neighborhood – a terrible place, in fact, for three dedicated but somewhat clueless lady tourists to lurk and prowl by themselves. Finally, finally, we found Amity Street, and kept following what house number we could see until there it was – an undistinguished red brick row house.
At that exact moment, a fleet of police cars, sirens wailing, passed us, slammed on their brakes a few feet ahead of us. Leaving their light bars flaring, the officers jumped from their cars and proceeded to arrest, or at least pursue someone. Now we really knew we had to get out of there. The possibility of gunfire seemed very real. We’d been told there was a memorial plaque on the house’s door, but there was no way we’d get close enough to see it. None of us wanted to leave the safety of the car to go up to the house itself.
Instead, I opened the car door, barely stepped outside, and with my silly little tourist camera, turned and -- without focusing – snapped a picture of the house.
By virtue of pure luck, that photo was probably the best I’ve ever taken. Because of the misty weather, together with the lights flashing from the police vehicles, the photo of the house turned out to be the very incarnation of spookiness – slightly blurred from the mist, strangely lighted from the cars. I don’t have that photo here in Israel – this was long before digital -- but it’s somewhere, I know that. Once in a while you get lucky, and that was my day.
Once I’d snapped the picture, we left immediately, even as more police cars arrived on the scene. We never did know what was going down – a drug bust most likely.
So for decades, now, every year on January 20, I’d check the Baltimore news, to see if Poe’s most dedicated fan had showed up with his toast of Cognac and bouquet of roses the night before. Every year, he -- or she – did. The Poe “toast” was even better than the swallows coming back to Capistrano – another of my favorite traditions. This one had a human benefactor. Someone, some actual person, was doing this, year after year.
My eternal question was, how can this visitor be so mysterious? With all the hoopla, why isn’t he – or she – identified? The simple answer was, because no one wanted to. It was a lovely mystery. Why ruin it?
All that said, in 2007, the Baltimore Sun reported that 92-year old Sam Porpora claimed he’d started the tradition, calling himself the “Poe Toaster”. Maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t, but this year, the 35 or so people who gathered outside the church yard’s iron gates, hoping to see the ‘Toaster’, were disappointed. He never showed up.
"I'm very disappointed, to the point where I want to cry," said Cynthia Pelayo, 29, who’d stood at the gate for over six hours, hoping to see him. "I flew in from Chicago to see him. I'm just really sad. I hope that he's OK."
Others in the pack of fans, all of whom huddled in blankets during the long cold night outside the churchyard, above, came from as far away as Texas, California and Massachusetts. Everyone speculated about why the mysterious visitor failed to appear. "You've got so many possibilities," said Jeff Jerome, the local curator, who has attended the ritual every year since 1977. "The guy had the flu, accident, too many people." He says he’ll continue the vigil for at least the next two or three years in case the visits resume. "So for me it's not over with," he said.
It’s not over for me, either. I hope someone will pick up the tradition. Lest our longing for the lost Lenore turn into a lament for the lost Poe, himself.