Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Happy Birthday, Edgar Allan Poe

When I look up from the grave of Edgar Allan Poe, I see a street sign, “The Poe House,” with an arrow thataway. I actually didn’t know that Poe’s house still stood. I knew he was buried in Baltimore; that’s all I knew about Baltimore, really.  But his house? That was news.

I tighten my laces and walk, thataway, leaving behind Poe’s quiet gravesite in the grounds of Westminster Church - the church all brick, bloodred and gothic - but taking with me his collected works and the flowers I had planned to leave on the grave.

Roses, they have to be roses.

At the corner of Fayette and MLK, horns blare and a Baltimore cop directs traffic. I call out, “Is the Poe House this way?” and he calls back, after waving an Audi on by, “Not your kinda neighborhood.”

It’s a Saturday in May. The little eagle on his badge glints carefree in the sun. I couldn’t ask for a better day, so this traffic-cop isn’t going to prevent my pilgrimage to Poe’s house. I mean, we’re talking about Poe. Edgar Allan. “Do I keep going straight?” I ask, and again he says, “Not your kinda neighborhood.” I think he’s looking at me, but it’s hard to tell because of his mirrored shades. So I just keep looking at him until finally he says, “Yes, that way.”

The surroundings change, fast. The further I walk, the more abandoned buildings I pass. An apartment row teeters, ready to fall like the House of Usher.  Apartment #13 is boarded up, and stenciled words warn, “No Loitering. No Trespassing. If Animal Is Trapped Inside Call 396-6286.”

Then this guy approaches, this guy with holes in the toes of his shoes. About the time he notices the flowers in my hand, I notice his eye. Like the old man’s eye in the “Tell-Tale Heart,” it’s clouded, grey. When he asks if I can help him out, I reach for the change jingling in my coat pocket, leftside. So then he wonders if I have any smokes. Yes I do. Coat pocket, rightside. I don’t smoke, not really, but if someone asks, I like to be able to oblige. “Marlboro Reds!” he says, all excited. I flick open my Zippo, light the Red, and he puffs, happy.

“I’m searching for the Poe house. Any idea where it is?”

He looks at me with his good eye. And looks at the houses all around, the one there with a windowpane, spiderwebbed with cracks, another with a door that used to be bright green.  “Shoot,” he says, “you can take your pick.  All the houses around here are po’ houses.”

I hold it for a second before I laugh. And then he laughs, both of us just laughing on a beautiful Baltimore afternoon. After I thank him for his time, he puffs again and says, “God bless you, my man, and good luck.”

At Fayette and Schroeder, another “Poe” sign with another teasing arrow. As I search Schroeder, I pass this family - mom, grandmom, and two little ones - sitting on a stoop, in the shade, sipping lemonade. The mom says to me, “You looking for the Poe House?” When I nod, she hoots and the grandmom hoots. “I told you,” she says. “The only reason for a white boy to be in this neighborhood,” and mom and grandmom clink lemonade glasses, “is that Poe House.”

The kids are smiling, too, and the younger one? His smile would stop a truck. He sparks that smile and the entire block shines. His mom squeezes his shoulder. “It’s about time we were getting home,” she says to him.  Then to me, “We pass that way. C’mon.”

The boy’s sister stands taller than he does, and she sports a pretty dress with yellow daises. Although it’s Saturday, the dress is looking like her Sunday best - all crisp and ironed. So starched daisies lead the way. And the Poe House is down the street but then you turn left and it’s over on the other side, on Amity Street, and I would never have found it so I say, “Thanks,” and daisies wave and a smile sparks and the mom says, “Take care.”

There it is. The Poe House. Not gothic at all, not like the church where he’s buried, the church where for nearly 60 years a Mystery Visitor in the darkdark of night left roses and a bottle half-full of cognac on Poe’s grave, leaving the gifts to toast the day of Poe’s birth – January 19th.

Poe’s house. Just a little brick house with a little brick chimney.

Poe’s house. Home to the man I read and reread. Too many times when I was too little, probably. Poe who invented the mystery story. Poe whose poems still tintinnabulate through my head.

Poe’s house. And in front of that little brick house three boys play like my brothers and I used to. Three boys, climbing the lightpost outside a simple house on a plain street. I look at the kids as they scramble around; I think about Poe and his words. Just whiling away some time on a Saturday afternoon. One of the boys - almost lost inside a Baltimore Ravens t-shirt - laughs loud and so I laugh, too. Then I lay three roses on the steps, touch red brick, knock on the white door and go.

Not my kinda neighborhood, indeed.


Addendum #1, January 19th, 2010:

This was written years ago when I visited Baltimore for the wedding of my godbrother

Nevermore, quoth the raven.  Today there was silence in Baltimore.

I liked the tradition, its mystery - so as not to forget, I'll raise a glass of cognac to Poe tonight, and if you'll join me, I'd appreciate it.


Addendum #2, January 19th, 2011:

Now, for the second year in a row, the Mystery Visitor has not appeared.  There were impostors early this morning.  One man arrived in a white, stretch limo - hardly the Visitor who, for 60 years, under cover of darkness, dressed all in black, would pay his respects in a manner as unostentatious as possible.

Poe is Dead.  Long live Poe.

*  *  *

From Jerry Thomas'  Bartenders Guide:


Brandy Straight

(Use small bar glass)

In serving this drink you simply put a piece of ice in a tumbler, and hand to your customer, with the bottle of brandy.  This is very safe for a steady drink, but though a straight beverage, it is often used on a bender.


  1. A wonderful tribute, beautifully written, Nicky P. That news item about the "Poe toaster," and your post, really fit my sleep-deprived, melancholy mood today.

  2. Thanks - sleep-deprived, but you survived!

  3. AP is asking if it disappearance of the "Poe toaster" was foul play, and has some guesses about his identity: http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100119/ap_en_ot/us_poe_mystery_visitor

  4. Thanks, Jeremy. I wonder if we'll ever know what happened, or if the mystery just remains...

  5. By the way, Life has a great photo gallery on Poe: Man of Mystery that includes some examples of his fine penmanship and has a pic of his home in the Bronx -- http://www.life.com/image/first/in-gallery/38732/edgar-allan-poe-man-of-mystery

  6. Love, love, love this story. Fantastic. I am inspired to revisit Poe this week. Please keep writing!