Edgar and Me

When I moved to Baltimore in 1982 I knew nothing about the city except that it had a pioneering trauma center, and Edgar Allan Poe is buried there. I’d read in the Memphis Commercial Appeal about the mysterious visitor who left cognac and roses at Poe’s grave every year on the night of January 18th, the anniversary of his birth. Learning more about this unusual tribute was on my to-do list once oriented in my new hometown.

In the fall I began studies in Shock Trauma’s management program at UMBC. As Poe’s birthday approached, I contacted Jeff Jerome, curator of the Poe House and Museum. After talking a while, Jerome invited me to join him with a few others and stay in the cemetery and wait for the Poetaster, as the visitor is known.

On a lark, I called National Public Radio down the street in Washington, and bounced from person to person until I found the assignment editor for All Things Considered, my favorite broadcast. I explained that I had an opportunity to sit and watch Poe’s grave, and there was no way to know what might happen, if anything.

The assignment editor wasn’t too encouraging. My equipment was crude; an ordinary student-style cassette recorder and a plug-in microphone. She said that a reporter has to be rude – push your way to the front and shove the mike right in their face. Just get as close as you can, she said, and call us in the morning.

Poe is buried in a graveyard established in 1786, at the time far from the center of the Baltimore. It’s about a block away from Lexington Market. In 1852, Westminster Presbyterian Church was built atop dozens of burial tombs and vaults, creating catacombs. Westminster Hall has been swallowed by University of Maryland’s School of Law, which uses the building for lectures and ceremonial occasions.

The night of January 18 is invariably one of the coldest of the year, and 1983 was no exception. I kept my recorder going as much as possible, capturing tours Jerome gave for the local TV crews of the catacombs beneath the old church.

Several dozen people gathered around Poe’s monument near the corner of Fayette and Greene for a public ceremony. An actor impersonating Poe read Annabel Lee. Andre Codrescu, the editor of Exquisite Corpse, who lived in Baltimore at the time, also read poetry. We toasted Poe with sips of amontillado.After a short while, Jerome cleared the graveyard and locked the gates. Five of us lingered at the Greene Street gate – Jerome, me, and three Towson State students. When we were sure everybody else was gone, we talked around the block to the law school. A security guard admitted us into the darkened building. We walked through the law library, along a passageway into the old Parsonage, and from there into Westminster Hall, and down narrow wooden steps to the catacombs.

And there we sat in the dark, with the two doors to the catacombs locked from the outside. We shivered and talked, took turns getting locked in family tombs with generations of skeletons, bones tumbling from crumbling wooden coffins.

Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait long. Around 1:30 in the morning we were startled by clattering on the bars securing arches in the church’s foundation. Somebody was in the graveyard, shining a flashlight at us, running around the building, going from arch to arch and rattling the bars. He was taunting us! We stumbled through the darkness, crawled over vaults, trying to get a better view. We were locked in from the outside, with no way out but up. We ran up through the church to the second floor of the Parsonage, where we could look over the graveyard.

We leaned over a hissing steam radiator. There he was — a tall, slender figure with light hair, wearing dark clothing, what appeared to be period costume. He wore a large, flowing black cape, and held in his hand a gold-tipped walking stick. Standing by the cemetery’s eastern wall, adjacent to the law school courtyard. The girl among us – I don’t recall her name — tapped her finger on the window. The Poetaster looked up at us and either shook his fist or waved at us. His walking stick glinted in the light, and in a flash he was gone.

He left the cognac and roses at Poe’s original burial spot deeper in the cemetery, where there is a smaller tombstone, rather than the larger monument at Fayette and Greene. The bottle of cognac was half full. Jerome picked up the bottle and confirmed that it’s the same brand as previous years. The brand of cognac is one of the details kept secret to rule out copycats. We swore to keep the secrets and passed around the cognac to celebrate.

It was nearly 4:00 in the morning by the time I returned home, my feet numb from the cold. I was too wired to sleep, so I drank coffee, read, and puttered around until dawn blushed the night sky. At the earliest reasonable hour, between 8 and 8:30 in the morning, I called ATC and told the assignment editor what I had. Come on down to our studio, she said.

I showered, put on fresh clothes, and drove to NPR headquarters, at the time on M Street in DC. By the time I arrived, just after 10, ATC host Susan Stamberg had already interviewed Jeff Jerome by Phone. I was introduced to Renee Montagne, now an ATC host, who produced my segment. I spent most of the day with Montagne in a cramped editing booth. This was before digital editing, of course. Reel-to-reel tape cut and spliced by hand. Old school.

We wrote the introductory material on an electric typewriter, read it aloud to time it, and rewrote it again and again. In the editing booth, Montagne cut several minutes of Jerome interview and an hour or so of my tape into about three minutes of highlights – not bad by NPR standards, but considerably longer than the average network news segment, where a major story may get 20-30 seconds.

Montagne is strikingly beautiful. I watched spellbound as she pulled lengths of tape across the play head until she heard just the right gap in the whrrrr, her fingers moving blazingly fast, cutting the tape with a single-edge razor, holding the razor between her teeth, splicing the tape together. It was damned sexy.

Montagne cut and rearranged, then rearranged again. There were dozens of individual pieces of audio tape, some to keep and some to discard. The creaking vault door definitely stays in. [That’s Denise Koch, now news anchor of the CBS affiliate, saying “my god!”]. Montagne was enthused about the segment, said it captured an ephemeral event, not unlike the Zapruder film. I struggled to keep track of what she was doing.

Activity in the newsroom intensified through the day, reaching a crescendo in the mid-afternoon. In the minutes before airtime it is a maelstrom, with staffers hustling tape and hammering away at typewriters, a lot of yelling and rushing. The exquisite production quality and notorious laconic affect for which NPR is known belies the chaos behind the scenes. From the inside, it’s amazing that they pull it off at all. Those musical interludes are their saving grace. They use musical interludes fill leftover seconds and get back on track.

Somebody gave us a countdown for our segment: ten minutes to go, five minutes, three minutes. Montagne labored furiously to shorten and tighten the segment, working within seconds of air time, the tape literally taken from her hands and cued up for broadcast.

At 5:25 p.m., I sat at a desk outside the recording booth and watched Susan Stamberg read our script and introduce the segment:

ALL THINGS CONSIDERED – POE VISITOR – JANUARY 19, 1983 (MP3)

I was practically orgasmic. Perhaps it was the combination of fatigue and exhilaration, caffeine and adrenalin, the whole strange transition from graveyard to broadcast studio. There’s no way to describe it but a rush. I was nobody, just a guy, a paramedic from Tennessee, who had no reason for being here. I’d written a few things here and there, and even made a few bucks from it, but nothing like this. I was giddy.

And later NPR sent me a check for $60. That sealed it. I can have the thrill of a lifetime and make money too? I was addicted to freelancing, and ever since I have been chasing that sensation, that high I felt at NPR. It happened again bigtime a couple of years later when, in anticipation of a lot of coverage to commemorate the end of World War 2, I interviewed Jacob Beser for the Washington Post. Beser, a Baltimorean, was the only crew member at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I used the interview as an excuse to visit the Post newsroom.

These two experiences, more than anything, set my course toward journalism. I finished my degree at UM, but never worked in the field again. I was hired right out of school to serve as public affairs officer for the School of Medicine downtown.

Since then, public interest in the Poetaster has grown year after year. Bigger crowds show up, and there are some think things are getting out of hand. The night has turned into a production, and they charge admission.

I’ve written about the Poe visitor numerous times over the years, including one piece for an Arabic publication. I tried getting a photograph for several years, until getting scooped by Life magazine in 1990. Since the 18th falls on a Friday this year, I’m thinking about doing a stillwatch with my 16-year-old son. Maybe webcast it.

In 2007, Sam Porpora came forward to claim that he is the Poetaster. Porpora is the former historian of Westminster Presbyterian Church. There are some problems with Porpora’s claim. He may have done it once in the 1970s, but I seriously doubt he is the Poetaster.

I saw the Poetaster vanish from the cemetery, leaping over the wall to the law school courtyard, where there are three ways to exit to the street. I stood by that wall, which is higher than my shoulder. Porpora is 92, so he would have been 68 years old in 1983. There is no way a 68-year-old man could leap over that wall.

Jerome has some doubts about Porpora’s claim too. I haven’t spoken with Jerome or Porpora yet, so perhaps I’ll have an update in a month or so. We’ll see what happens, if anything.

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