Monday, November 23, 2009

Walt Whitman's house

God I love Walt Whitman. I imagine him standing naked on a rock in the middle of a stream, writing poetry on his arm with a sharpie. Oh wait, that sounds like me.

I was recently in Philly and decided to walk across the Ben Franklin Bridge to Camden, NJ, to see the house where Whitman died. I had been there before, but it's only open by appointment. On my previous visit, there stood a very scary large homeless man outside Whitman's house who offered to be my tour guide and kept hugging me. He smelled terrible.

"Give me a dollar!" he demanded.

"No, sorry."

"How about five dollars?" he asked.

I paused. In these types of negotiations, would he be asking for less money after I tell him no? Needless to say, his strategy did not work out. He and I left on bad terms, I guess... him not getting to "guide" me, and me not gaining entry into the Whitman house.

So I made an appointment and gave another try. And I can honestly say I think Whitman would laugh his ass off at this literary shrine. Everything was perfect and clean and tidy and completely unlike any writer's home I know of. Even the old photos of the place, they show notes strewn everywhere, books left open, dishes with half-eaten food. Yes, Whitman was a messy slob artist just like me. Good to know.

The tour guide was a portly gentleman wearing tight-fitting jeans. He kept hustling me through each room. Upstairs, I looked at Whitman's bed, the bed where he died. Underneath, I saw a large leather tub and tapped it with my foot. Lester, the tour guide, came unglued.

"Don't touch that!" he yelled. I promptly withdrew my foot.

"What is it?" I asked.

"It's the specially made tub that Mr. Whitman used for his sponge baths."

Gulp. Isn't that special.

I looked around the room and it felt so artificial. Hard to explain. I sat in there, trying to wrap my mind around Whitman and his achievement and trying to reconcile my experience of him with this overly tidy museum room, when I heard a tap-tap-tap of Lester the tour guide's foot.

Lester had his arms crossed and kept looking at his watch.

"Is something wrong?" I asked.

"Well, we need to hurry this up. I have a report to write."

And I just burst out laughing. What a beautiful contradiciton, how wonderfully inappropriate. To contrast the reveries inspired by Whitman's poetry with this wheezing, stressed beaureaucrat tending to his legacy. Almost poetic, I'd say.

He recommended I visit the Whitman statue on the Rutgers campus, a few blocks away. I walked through the rain and cold and saw Whitman's figure towering over a courtyard. What a fine fine flowing beard. Underneath the statue, I heard a guy proposing a date with a girl.

"Baby, you wanna go on a date with me?"

"Sure, what you thinkin?"

"I'm thinking this: you, me, the McDonald's Dollar Menu."

"OH YEAH, it's on!"

The two lovebirds slapped high-fives and moved on. Walt Whitman and his beard sat frozen in contemplation.

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