Thursday, May 21, 2009
Welcome to "The Gods Are Bored," your deity daily! Pay close attention to the "Worship Wanted" section -- we have some discount coupons for bargain pantheons.
Yesterday the weather was about as good as it gets in the Delaware Valley. There wasn't a cloud in the sky, the temperature stood at about 75 F, and a cool breeze blew up from the southwest. My daughter The Heir and I went to a Walt Whitman pilgrimage in Camden.
I'm sure you know who Walt Whitman is, but did you know that he spent the last years of his life in a two-story row house in Camden, New Jersey? He arrived in Camden in 1873 to be at the bedside of his dying mother, and he just stayed. His house is a museum now.
Our old friend the Monkey Man led the pilgrimage. He channeled his inner Walt and was dressed for the part. He can recite long sections of "Leaves of Grass" and "Song of Myself." He started the evening with "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," since our pilgrimage began on the shore of the Delaware River, facing Philadelphia.
I wondered what Walt Whitman would think of Philadelphia, with its skyscrapers and huge steel bridges, one of them bearing his name into the here and now. I wondered what he would think of the giant tanker that edged up the river, and the busy little tugboat that arrived to guide it to shore. I suppose toward the end of his life there must have been ships that big. Not certain on that.
From the river we walked to Stephen Street, where Whitman's brother and mother lived. The house has been torn down. There's a plot of grass where it used to be, and a vacant lot across the street. The Monkey Man said a friend of his came upon the demolition of the house as it was commencing and snatched some architectural pieces from the property before it disappeared.
It is impossible to walk even a few blocks in Camden without being reminded that it's one of the most impoverished and desperate cities in America. The citizens who watched our progress looked grim or stoned, or they ignored us altogether (more googly-eyed white people, frothing over Walt Whitman).
Walt's house has been nicely restored. It wasn't open, so we lingered on the street, sharing poems. The Heir pointed out a nest of starlings in the eaves of the adjoining building.
What's most remarkable about this wonderful poet's house is the view from the front steps. The home of Walt Whitman is across the street from the Camden County Jail. This is the facility where prisoners are processed before they head off to the penitentiary. The Monkey Man pointed out that the last part of the real world the felons see is Walt Whitman's house.
He also mentioned another phenomenon, and while we were there, it happened.
Family members of the incarcerated come and stand in the street and use their own personal sign language to communicate with the prisoners, high up in the tower, peering through small windows. A woman and a girl about nine years old crossed in front of us and then stared up at the heights of the building and waved. Well, the woman waved. The little girl just stood there. After about two minutes, they turned and walked away in the direction from which they had come.
The Monkey Man, who spends a good deal of time in that location, has written a poem about the signers. I wouldn't presume to publish it without his permission, but I'll ask. His poems are wonderful, but they're best when he reads them aloud. He's quite dramatic.
The image that will stay with me from this pilgrimage is not that of Walt Whitman's quaint abode, but of the blight surrounding it, the hopelessness and dissatisfaction, the eerie quiet of deserted city streets that could be bustling with people, the woman waving good-bye. What song would Walt Whitman compose for this Camden? His ghost must mourn.