The Lincoln Highway

•December 2, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Marker on the Lincoln Highway, outside Princeton

We like to go. In America, the road always points towards a blue horizon. Even when there’s no road. Even when there’s no horizon. Even when we have to roll up our sleeves and build it – the road, the horizon, the blue – ourselves. Because we like to go. Because we come from people who liked to go. From people who needed to go. From people who stepped off the edge of the world, off the edge of everything they had ever known, and went. Not because they knew what was here, not because they dreamed of a better life, but because they wanted to go.

We like to go. We like to sing songs to empty roads. We wind ribbons of steel across the prairies even before we have them named because we like to go. We hear a train whistle in the distance and some Elysian breath fills our lungs and we are gone. Elsewhere, a train whistle is just a distraction. But here, here it’s a sort of invitation. Wistful and mournful and yet filled with promise. Where is that train going? Who would I be if I jumped on it as it headed west? Who would I be when I got there? Would I even recognize myself? Come find out. Come see. Come along. That’s what we hear in a train whistle.

We like to go. We like to pick up stakes, to feel the morning sun on our backs, to load up the car and feel the gears throb in the loins of our vehicles. We like to see what is around the bend, over those mountains that unfold in our northern counties, see what is across that George Washington river. What is out there? What is it like? What are we like? We need to find out. We like to go.

First by foot and then by horse and then by that steam rail. And then someone showed us a car and it was all over. We could go whenever we wanted to. And we could go far. As far as we could imagine – which in this land, with our DNA, was a long way indeed.

So we paved over this little state. We depleted the forests and put the farms on the run. And in the interim, we have become known for our highways and for our barriers and for our cars and for our gas tanks and for the ersatz culture that is born by their intersection in song and story and myth.

We like to go. But we needed something more. We needed something like a launching pad. And in 1913, we got one. The Lincoln Highway.

Carl Fisher wasn’t born in New Jersey, but somehow, he developed a love for the car and the open road that would have made Bruce Springsteen blush. He had the first automobile dealership in America. He was one of the owners of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and was the reason it’s called “the brickyard.” And he had an idea about a road, a road that would stretch from coast to coast. That would start at Times Square and end at the Pacific Ocean. That would feed our need for go like mainlining asphalt directly into our eyeballs. Just under 3400 miles of highway that would pass through California, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York, but that would really start in New Jersey.

Because you know how roads are: you need to get past the things you know for them to open up to you. Get out of New York City, get across that great Dutch river. Feel the adventure of America, feel the dreams of vistas and plains and mountains begin to come to life. The road may start in New York, but it comes to life in New Jersey.

Lincoln Statue on the Lincoln Highway, Jersey City

Cross at Weehawken like they did before there was a tunnel or a bridge. Wind your way through Newark, past the statue of the highway’s namesake by the man who later made Rushmore. Follow the Indian trails through the Indian cities like Rahway and Metuchen. And as you go, embrace the fact that it’s not like other roads. That it not only leads you south and west, but also leads you back in time. To a slower, more contemplative, treelined era. Follow it as it becomes the main streets of small towns, as it passes by cows and the front yards of beautiful homes. Look, there’s where the governor lives. Look, there’s where Madison went to college. Look there are kids playing ball in a field.

And as you drift into the past remember too that it’s a road that no one remembers now. That few even know existed at all. It’s not the Turnpike. It’s not Route 66. No buses roll down it like they do down highway 41. And yet, it still calls to us. As it called to a soldier on a troop truck during World War I, who forty years later would create an interstate highway system based on it when he became president. As it called to Sal Paradise, sitting in his grandmother’s A-frame in Paterson, dreaming of Dean Moriarty.

Close your eyes and listen for it because it speaks to us still. Because we still like to go. We still like to go.

Go.

Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital

•August 30, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital where Woody Guthrie lived from 1956 to 1961

Where does the work begin and the person end? Which part is the disease, which part is the personality? You spend all your time listening to the sounds in your head. Thinking these lonely thoughts and playing them out for an audience of one million, one thousand. One. And at some point you have to wonder, where does creativity – where does the eccentricity, the base foolishness to believe in your ability to see and do and understand and communicate what others can’t even begin to imagine – where does that end and where does delusion begin? And when do you know?

I am walking the grounds of the old Greystone Hospital. Sixty years ago Woody Guthrie found himself here. In long slangy convoluted letters to his family who was broke and stranded back in Brooklyn, he referred to it as “gravestone”. It is a massive, Addams-family monster of an erection. A nineteenth century monument to the confidence of the mourning-coated medical industry, with towering gables and tremendous blocks of granite that grow out of the ground like great golems darkening the sky. Birds sing softly from a row of stately old trees that line the driveway, and the front lawns are clean and correct like pastures of plenty should be, but the grounds around the buildings themselves are all overgrown. The windows are boarded up. And they’re building a new modern version of the facility further down the road.

Woody wound up here as the disease that would eventually kill him began to tighten its grip. He had lit out from Brooklyn, hopping a bus west – where west, exactly, no one knew. But no one ever knew. That was Woody. He got as far as New Jersey, when the cops picked him up for vagrancy and deposited him here.

A few months later, two friends visited him. They asked the doctor how he was doing. The doctor shuffled through his papers – Guthrie? Guthrie? Guthrie? Oh yes. A very sick man. Very delusional. Delusional?, his friends asked. Yes, the doctor went on – he claims to have written over a thousand songs! He claims he’s written a novel. He claims his work is in the Library of Congress!

When Woody was here, when his descent into the dementia of Huntington’s began to steepen, folk music, his music, America’s music, began to rise. At the same time that he was losing the ability to speak clearly, to write clearly, to feed himself, (he could no longer play the guitar, his arm permanently damaged from a fire in Florida a few years earlier), this great Victorian bulwark was becoming a Mecca for folk singers. From Pete Seeger and the old blacklisted Weavers to a generation of kids who grew up listening, improbably, impossibly, to Woody’s old 78s.

Hey, Hey, Woody Guthrie, I wrote you a song.
‘Bout a funny old world that’s a comin’ along
Seems sick and it’s hungry, it’s tired and it’s torn
It looks like it’s dyin’ and it’s hardly been born.

He would not die here, however. He would just deteriorate, as more and more of his nervous system disintegrated, as more and more of him became an impenetrable citadel. Usually forts are designed to keep danger out. But sometimes they also keep danger in, and people function the same way. Every one of us is our own little fortress, which we are constantly building, raising walls, lowering walls – constantly striving to protect ourselves from the slings and arrows on the outside, while at the same time letting enough light in to keep your self from dying on the inside.

But what happens when the walls are suddenly too high? When that talent you have developed over the years for closing out the world in order to focus on what drives you, turns against you, blotting out the sun, silencing the birds, separating you from humanity. What happens when you suddenly feel the immovability of those very stones you had placed yourself? What happened inside that atrophying, drooling, spastic, once beautiful vibrant electric body? Here in New Jersey among the insane, the infirm and the inert. As the motor skills deteriorated, and as the frozen moments during which all movement, sound, spirit suddenly inexplicably ceased – grew longer and longer. Could he tell what was happening in there? Could he tell?

It’s much darker now, and as I prepare to leave, I notice that there is tape on the windows that says ‘no trespassing’. And I am reminded of one of Woody’s songs, the one we learned in grammar school. The one about this land being your land, about this land being my land. But there’s a verse that they didn’t teach us in those classrooms that Arlo told us about later. It goes:

And as I was walking
I saw a sign there, said “no trespassing.”
But on the other side, it didn’t say nothing.
That side was made for you and me.

The birds have softened their singing long enough for me to hear sirens in the distance. They are coming closer. Perhaps they are ambulances coming to the new facility. Perhaps they are police cars come to pick up another vagrant. And as I roll down the ribbon of driveway, I strain my ears and I swear that I can hear the sound of Woody’s laughter among the sirens and the birds.

9 Ridge Road, Rutherford, New Jersey

•December 22, 2009 • 1 Comment

The home of Dr. William Carlos Williams, 1912 - 1963

Why do we do this? This breathing in, this breathing out. Heart beat after heart beat after heart beat. These moments that pass us by like so many horseman and make up the long caravan of our lives. Why? And why do we spend them thus? With our eyes on the horizon of some dreamlike paradise we never quite attain, while our hands and feet are covered in the muck and slime of the day. It’s that muck and slime that is really our lives, you know. Not the dream. The dream is like the covers of the book. The words are the muck and the slime. The words are the papercuts and the infections and the hiccups and the sneezes. The vacation, the party, the financial security, those have about as much to do with us as the morocco that binds the dusty volumes on a forgotten bookshelf in some old man’s library. For you may get to the end of your life and tell the gathered what you had accomplished, which of those aspirations you had beheld. But you will know that what you actually did in your life, with your life – these were the things you held in your hands. The things you spilled, poured, and fumbled. That you ate when you weren’t conscious of eating. That you said when you weren’t conscious of speaking. That you watched, smelled, touched when your thinking angels were distracted by the horizon.

So who among us can tell us about these moments? Who can identify them? Give them names. Pin them like so many butterflies in so many shadowboxes. Or better yet, who can be their patron saint? Who has the skill to be? The patron saint of a cat climbing over a jamcloset. The patron saint of dirty plates and a glass of milk. Of sparrows who sit at my window. Of miscellaneous weeds and the rain. Who?

Here I stand at the house of Dr. William Carlos Williams. His house and home and office. From whence he wrote poetry that won Pulitzer’s prize. From whence he traveled to argue with Pound and Eliot and Joyce. And from whence he journeyed to deliver babies, fix broken arms, sit in kitchens and discuss matters of life and death – literally life and death – with people who would have believed anything he advised, but who never would have believed he wrote poetry. And who, if they had been able to step out of their lives and believed it, would never have believed he wrote the poetry he wrote. The unrhyming poetry of existence, the circadian heartbeat of the spaces in life.

For there are great silences here. Amidst the ideas, amidst the things. The silences of work done late at night, when the world is asleep, when reflection is possible, when the best ideas are floating through the ether, unburdened by the static of mendacity. That is how I like to think of him writing. When day is done, and the moon hangs high and he sits at a kitchen table, overcoat still on. Hat on chair. Empty plums in a nearby bowl. Pencil in hand, filling out in longhand the thoughts birthed during that day. The moments he’d seen, resonating and vibrating beyond their instants.

Here is his house. Is it robin’s egg? Is it lilac? Is it the color of the dawn on a spring day as he returned from a night spent watching someone die? The trim, is it crimson? Like a sunset or an incision? Never mind. It‘s a doctor’s house. A doctor’s house then. A doctor’s house now. Greenery and ancient trees provide some little privacy from the nearby shops and businesses that are across the street, that are down the hill. Can you hear them waking up every morning? Shop windows opening during idle conversation. Doors unlocking. Awnings squeaking as they roll down, offering shade before the day gets too hot to bear and the metal too hot to touch.

And at night, could you hear what we will generously call the revellers (or less generously, the anesthetized), as they step carefully up sidewalks, find car keys and cars, make their farewells and then proceed back, under cover of stars, to beds and other soft places? Close enough to see – should one have eyes to see; close enough to hear – if you could tune your ears to the delicate frequency of the passing moments of life. Close, but not so close.

I see him sitting in this house, at this mythical table, in the quiet spaces of the night. I see him tired from escorting a life into this world, or easing one out of it. I see him thinking about the life and the death he’d borne witness to. I see a fleck of something on his shoe. And then I see him hearing these infinitesimal moments. The sounds of small cheeping birds that make all of our pronouncements about life mis-shapen and grotesque.

So breathe. Breathe deep. Put your hand on your chest and feel your heart as it motors away. Prick up your ears for the car that goes by. Feel the music wash over you as it passes. Catch a fragment of a conversation, the end of a gesture. Smell the lilacs from a neighbor’s house whisper past. Remember not these ideas. Remember these things. These things.

The Elysian Fields

•June 7, 2009 • Leave a Comment
The Elysian Fields, Hoboken, New Jersey

The Elysian Fields, Hoboken, New Jersey

It is June 15, 1846 and we are in the middle of a war with Mexico. California has just declared itself an independent nation. The saxophone has just been invented by a Belgian. And Iowa, that shoeless field of dreams, is not yet a state.

And there is no baseball. Not yet.

No home runs. No green monsters. No curses. No seventh inning stretch. No “take me out to the ballgame.” No use of “three strikes” as a metaphor. No Jackie Robinson stealing home on Yogi Berra. No Jackie Robinson at all. No Curt Flood, no Buck Weaver, no Barry Bonds. No big market clubs, no small market clubs. No Black Sox, White Sox, or Red Sox. No Cubans, Clowns or Crackers.

Not yet.

I am standing on a street corner, in the shade of a tree. And I am looking at a wide intersection that is lined with the kind of early twentieth century buildings that filled the lonely canvases of Edward Hopper. Cars drive by and a light breeze is blowing out towards Manhattan.

And on this spot, on June 16, 1846, while others made their political fortunes in Monterrey and Veracruz and while McGillicuddys fled famines, the Knickerbocker Club got the stuffing beaten out of them by the New York Nine in the first officially recorded baseball game. Here, at what were the Elysian Fields of Hoboken, New Jersey.

This was where New Yorkers came to get away from the congestion of their city. But where are the fields now? Brass markers are set into the street to identify where bases had been. I head out into the crossings to walk the four corners of the intersection, trying to make the same circuit that Paulding and Trenchard and Tryon and Winslow made more than fifteen decades ago.

Because baseball – whether you’re a fan or whether you couldn’t care less – has a relationship with us that is unlike any other activity in this country. Because baseball is the image of our selves that we paint, year after year, but that we leave to other generations to examine and understand.

Do you think it’s just coincidence that baseball was segregated for almost as long as the rest of America was? That we lived separately but equally with two baseball leagues through more than two world wars. Not at all. And is it mere happenstance that the bosses who owned the teams ran them in exactly the same way they ran their big companies – with as little regard for the people who actually did the work as they could muster? Or that when unionization finally did come to the game, baseball reacted about as well as the rest of corporate America did?

Each one of us has some baseball connection. A thread that weaves throughout your life and the life of your family. For me, there is my grandfather, son of immigrants, being offered a minor league contract by the Cubs, at a time when ballplayers were barely a step above hoodlums and rapscallions. A contract his parents would tell him he could not take. And again there is my uncle, fighting for a starting position at third base on a minor league club – until Brooks Robinson shows up and my uncle – in a way few of us ever are – is presented with the limits of his own greatness. Or there am I in an ill-fitting cap and t-shirt with the rest of my team on some dusty ballfield in the Midwest, a dozen thirdgraders and a handful of bats.

And through it all, there is baseball, with it’s peculiarly American idea of teamwork, a teamwork predicated not even on individuality but on separateness. The outfielder who hits the cut off man – who may or may not take the throw. Or the runner on first who distracts the pitcher into misthrowing a pitch that the batter sends over the fence. Or the teammates talking on the bench about how the umpire is calling the strikezone.

Plaque, Hoboken, New Jersey

Plaque, Hoboken, New Jersey

But more than our separateness, it reflects a sense of right and wrong that is almost unheardof by any but our better angels. Because there are no penalties in baseball. No red cards. No fifteen yards marched off for unsportsmanlike conduct, no five minute majors and power plays. There are balls. There are strikes. There are outs. There is the occasional loudmouth sent off the field. One would think that in a country like ours, with prisons bursting and the death penalty on so many lawbooks, that our game, the game that we call our own, would be preoccupied if not actually obsessed, with punishment and enforcement.

How reassuring that it is not. Because as we emerge from this era of bitterness and acrimony, it reminds us that perhaps, at our root, there is more to our national fabric – more to us – than an obsession with punishment. Than a pathology for vitriol. For comeuppance. Perhaps there is fairness. Perhaps there is personal responsibility. Perhaps that is the irony of this game that became our game only after the great malevolence of the Civil War. Perhaps this is baseball’s real lesson.

And it all came from here. From these fields of God in this most litigious state. Where our nostalgia for our mythified rural past is paved over by the blacktop of this urban game’s reality. Batter up.

Weehawken Dueling Ground

•March 24, 2009 • Leave a Comment
Weehawken, New Jersey

Weehawken, New Jersey

Like most things in this country, the original is lost. It comes creeping to us out of the past, interpreted by some as “rocks that look like rows of trees”. And that makes sense, perched so high on those sheer ancient palisades. But it also might mean “place of gulls”, and as you watch them pirouette and dance in the sky above your head, you can see the logic in that. But there is also a school of thought that Weehawken draws it’s name from the old Lenape word for “at the end of”. And that sounds just. Standing here at the end of the cliffs. At the end of America where it meets the Hudson. At the end of the life of Alexander Hamilton and for that matter, Aaron Burr.

Old guidebooks point you to a park overlooking the Hudson and the bright gleaming towers of Wall Street. But you have to keep going, south, in the general direction of the Virgin Islands, following the cliff around to where it veers off onto a namesake road leading you to a flagpole, a bust, a boulder and a few plaques, all surrounded by a black fence. And I understand that fence. You don’t want this to become a magnet for suicide. You wouldn’t want this tragedy to lend some sort of poetry or legitimacy to the confused or the merely murderous.

The shadow of the flag falls across the boulder behind it, the boulder that legend says Hamilton collapsed upon on that July day in 1804, the bullet from Burr’s pistol having bounced off ribs and lodged somewhere in his spine. But even that quickly becomes a myth that the plaques waste no time disabusing you of. Because no one, no matter how angry or insulted, would climb the sheer rock face of the Palisades merely to have a duel. Such an exercise would demonstrate a colossal lack of planning. And dueling was, if nothing else, eminently well planned. So the plaques direct your gaze back down towards the shoreline. Telling you “somewhere below this site” in the general vicinity of those condominiums and railroad tracks and BMWs, “all came to defend their honor according to the custom of the day.”

So you head back down toward the river, asking yourself as you go, is that what they were doing here? After all, it seems plausible. Hamilton insulted Burr and the code duello was clear on what had to happen next. The separate boats bringing the parties across in the dawn. The pistols hidden from the view of the rowers so that they could claim ignorance. The seconds, who would turn their backs and step away from the action at the last minute to protect their own innocence – at least as far as a court of law was concerned. The very spot itself – the very spot you’re looking for now – secluded from view, and yet paradoxically easily accessible and known to all.

The plaques of course list Hamilton and Burr and a few other notables who made the trek out here. Curiously, they don’t mention Hamilton’s son, Philip, who died on this very spot – where ever it is – only three years before. Who died in a duel to defend the honour of his father, a duel his father – who had groomed him from birth for the great things he himself had nearly achieved, who had guided every aspect of his life in exactly the way his own Caribbean parents never had done for him – a duel his father personally directed him into.

So you have to wonder, as you wander the shoreline, if it wasn’t so much honour that Hamilton was looking to defend as it was a future he was looking to recapture. A lost son. A career that was now in shambles, his personal reputation in tatters, his power – which had seemed so complete only four years earlier that many believe he was personally responsible for Jefferson’s ultimate election – a distant memory.

And Burr? What was he doing here? What was the sitting Vice-President of the United States doing here? He had come within one single vote – literally! – of becoming the third president of the United States! He nearly became governor of New York! Certainly he wasn’t well-liked, and of course, he and Hamilton had been trading barbs and insults for years. But what was the logic of standing here on this grassy knoll on this hot summer day? To what possible end? To finally eliminate this thorn in his political ambitions? To fix the past that had always swirled about him with some kind of rumour and innuendo for as long as he could remember?

And did they find it, either of them? Did Burr find the respect he’d always felt eluded him? Did Hamilton find the future he’d lost?

And that’s when you realize what this is. As you stop hacking through the brush and the undergrowth, as you turn your back to the Palisades and look out across the river named for that misguided Dutchman, you give up and you realize what you have found. There is a reason you can’t find it. There is a reason you can’t name it. There is a reason Burr and Hamilton lost everything here. Because this is America’s national monument to not finding what you’re looking for.

415 Monroe Street, Hoboken, New Jersey

•February 27, 2009 • 2 Comments
415 Monroe Street, Hoboken, New Jersey - Birthplace of Frank Sinatra

415 Monroe Street, Hoboken, New Jersey

I am standing in the most improbable spot in the world.

I am standing in a parking lot. It is a small gravelly space – room for only five or six cars if you were clever. It is nestled between two small buildings. One is an old row house – though not the classic Brooklyn brownstones  we’ve seen in a thousand Hollywood backlot movies. This house, which is on the south side of the parking lot, is covered with vinyl siding. The one on the north is short and brickfaced, with tarpaper shingles facing the parking lot.

I look up the street again. The old Italian men on the street corners who have been watching me out of the corners of their eyes, look away again when I look at them. I believe they know why I have been walking up and down this nondescript street on this hot day, looking at door numbers, retracing my steps in confusion. Checking my notes. Because I cannot believe that there is an empty space here. There should be a house here. This is 415 Monroe Street and it is inconceivable to me that there would not be a house at 415 Monroe Street. Because this is where Frank Sinatra was born.

But there isn’t. And that’s because this house burned down in 1967. So I sit down on the park bench in front of 417, the short brick building that has become a sort of “replacement shrine” to Sinatra, and think. The most famous house in Hoboken, the birthplace of the most famous person Hoboken ever produced, burned down. This doesn’t make any sense to me. Because Sinatra’s birthplace should be like the Monticello or Mount Vernon of Hoboken. But where is it?

You could understand it, I suppose, if it didn’t seem so damn random. If it were merely some shortsighted developer who tore it down to install a monstrosity. Or the result of the widening of some inconsequential road. But a fire? Especially when you consider that Frank’s dad was a fireman.

I begin thinking about what this street was like in 1915 when Sinatra was born. Did New York City seem a world away, even though you could walk a dozen blocks east of here and look down from the cliffs and see Wall Street? Did Europe seem like another planet, though both Sinatra’s parents – and probably most of the parents of the kids he knew – had come from there to start over, somehow, here? Did the war over there, which we would join in two years time, did that seem even remotely real? Or did that vast ocean that separated us from Europe insulate everybody on this street?

For we were the backwater. The Hoboken – not even the Brooklyn – to Europe’s Manhattan. We were natural resources – oil and farming and whatever else we could make the land do. But we were not the place people looked for truth. We were not where the world looked for wisdom. The world looked at us the same way we look at the grocery store or the gas station today. And when Europe began it’s dance with death in the thirties and the intelligentsia came to these shores, they came here to escape. They came as generations before had come – for a mythology of promise that bore as little relation to us as dreams usually do. They came here to get away from Europe.

And then I began thinking about the Sinatra that I listen to. That fifties genius – the Nelson Riddle, Billy May, Gordon Jenkins arrangements. When Sinatra wasn’t just himself, he had become the voice of America. The America that was left standing after Europe had bombed itself into the stone age, and, for the second time in thirty years, destroyed it’s own youth and possibility. The America that woke up one morning and discovered that it was the super power; that it was the last great hope, the future. The America that felt that anything was possible. That felt that the rules had all changed and that we – you, me, the guy down the street – could do anything.

You can hear it in his voice, the way he swings around the beat – the phrasing that winks as if to say, yeah, you and me, we’re just average Joes, but you know what? We’re American Average Joes, and that’s the best thing there is. We’re the ones who built the bomb. Who freed Europe. Who invented nylon, for god’s sake. Who invented jazz. A voice of confidence. Of a fearlessness born not of ignorance, but fired in the twin kilns of the Depression and World War 2. Not the reassurance in a dark time that FDR had given them through the radio. But a bravado. A boldness. A self-possession that America felt and that the world had never seen before.

From this guy. This bobbysoxer hero. This only child of a wardheeler abortionist and a fireman. Who grew up to marry Ava Gardner and win an Oscar and pal around with presidents and retire to the palatial ranches of the Golden State.

You know, they used to claim that in Hoboken there was a bar on every corner. I look up and down this street, but I don’t see one. So I get up. I start walking in the general direction of Tennessee. Anybody want a drink?

328 Mickle Street, Camden, New Jersey

•December 19, 2008 • Leave a Comment
The home of Walt Whitman from 1884 to 1892

The home of Walt Whitman from 1884 to 1892

One starts by looking for lilacs.

But standing in the backyard on a weekday, surrounded by old trees and plants in their first flower and by a city that is dissipating, you find yourself distracted by something, something that you can’t quite put your finger on.

As you search for it, you are told that he liked it here because it reminded him of the past. Because this little house in this working-hard-town a ferry-ride from a big bustling city, reminded him of the days before the great war. Hard days to be sure, but through the warming glow of recollection, the best days. When the leaves were young and so was he.

And then they will tell you that he bought this house when his brother, emblem of the growing country in his own way as Walt was in his, moved further into the country. When Walt, old and grey as he was, decided that this was far enough. Camden. Because he loved the city? Because he was so tired of his brother and his brother’s wife? These are questions no one but Walt could answer, and he’s, uncharacteristically, not talking about why he stayed.

Now, standing in the backyard, it feels lovely and peaceful on this boulevard heading down towards the river. But it was different then. For example, it smelled here. Great factories were nearby, belching smoke and all manner of effluence into the air in that gloriously unchecked nineteenth manner. Trains plying their trade between New York and Philadelphia passed nearby as well, adding the outrageous screams of steel wheels and the howls of steam whistles to what most have been a fairly gargantuan smell.

But you would not expect anything less olfactory from Walt. You can not imagine him living in an antiseptic drawing room, and indeed, although there are those quaint nineteenth century touches – the stiff portraits on the mantle, the furniture covered in horsehair, the antimacasssers – it’s still feels, even at this great remove, a fairly working class place. A place of sweat and exertion.

And yet, you are nagged by the idea that, somehow, he does not belong here.

For what could contain him? You look at the pictures and you look at the words, and that’s when you begin to have a sense of the size of his soul. You begin to think of him in a manner unlike other people. And perhaps that was merely a nineteenth century thing. Melville, Whitman, Thoreau, Emerson. These were men who, had souls that were bigger than their bodies, bigger than their houses, bigger even than this incredible nation they were trying to understand. You felt it in what they wrote – not bravura, not bravado, although there may have been that as well. But that they were aiming so much higher, so much bigger than anything we aim at today. That they had some innate understanding of the mind-numbing colossal bigness of the country that they were standing on tiny edge of, that they understood the promise and possibility they were on the precipice of, and instead of feeling small and worthless in the shadow of it, responded to the challenge and grew to it. Endeavored to match it. As audacious and outrageous as that seems. To make the man match the country.

But then you realize, well, he has to live somewhere. Because as much as the poetry is an outdoor thing, as much as the words fairly blow off the page with great tornados of passion and exuberance, as much as the dirt and stones of America, the wheat fields and the scythes, the sweat and sun of a nation just starting to test itself are there in every line and syllable and word, you know that there was a man behind it, and that a man has to have a place to lay down his head at night. And so there is this place.

And you are struck again by how unremarkable it looks. How there does not seem to be a stamp of his personality on it. Unlike, say, Twain’s house which fairly reeks of him at every turn. Is this the logical result of having spent so many years as a boarder? As a guest in other’s homes? Did his imagination not extend to the permission to inflict himself upon these simple working class walls? Or was it that because he was so big, because his soul so wide and enormous, that the canvas of this tiny house on Mickle Street was too small for him to inscribe. For one who is used to writing on the souls of a nation, perhaps a simple house was almost invisible to him.

Back in the house, they will show you his tub and they will show you his bed, and then they will show you the notice the doctor wrote and nailed to his door the day he died. And I don’t know, perhaps this was commonplace in that era. But from this great remove it looks like nothing so much as the kind of note you’d leave for a friend, explaining that you’d stepped out for a bit, but that you’d be back shortly. As if Walt had merely slipped out the back door, to go tramping again. Free of the writing, of the house and of the earthly body. To loaf. To lean. To celebrate. Gone.