Wednesday, August 12, 2009
I dream'd that was the new City of Friends;
Nothing was greater there than the quality of robust love--it led the rest;
It was seen every hour in the actions of men of that city,
And in all their looks and words.
(from Leaves of Grass)
Our good friend Joseph Yearous-Algozin is moving to Buffalo on Monday morning, but today we took a pilgrimage we've been threatening to make for a long time. Walking across the Benjamin Franklin Bridge to Camden in the intense heat was exhausting, so we stopped off at the Walt Whitman Center to hang out on a couch in the air conditioned theater, and to fill our water bottles with the disgusting tap water in the bathroom. NOT that I've ever eaten a urinal cake mind you, but I do believe this water is what it would taste like.
The folks working at the center for some reason had no idea that Mickle Boulevard, where Whitman's house sits, no longer exists as Mickle Boulevard. I've walked to this house before over the years and know that it's right across the street from the prison, which is why I was confused standing on Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard CERTAIN that we were in the right place. Joey asked a couple pushing a stroller who told us the boulevard was renamed after King. Maybe the WALT WHITMAN CENTER needs to know this?
The walk through the streets of Camden was a sad walk, sadder than I ever remember it being. When we arrived at the house it was closed, but we looked through the mail slot to peer at a portrait of the gray poet on a wall.
We decided to sit on the front steps in the shade of a tree, where we were soon joined by men begging for change from anyone who walked past. 20 cents asked for, then 30 cents. "I dream'd in a dream..." There were a dozen plastic beer can rings strewn over the sidewalk in front of the house, and a parade of men with the unmistakable, unsettling glaze of crack-cocaine in their eyes. It's not just in the eyes of course, but in the unsteady gait and a musculature not entirely owned by the men, somewhere, inside the bodies. Few things frighten me more than that jagged, zombie strut.
This was the saddest visit I've ever made to Walt Whitman's house. In the past I've witnessed women and children standing in front of his house to motion their homemade sign language to loved ones at the windows of the prison across the street. It was too hot today for sign language, but we saw women and children leaving the prison after their visits. One boy, no more than six, wiping tears from his face with the backs of his fists, trying to push the tears back inside his head or keep them from coming out, or both, and a young woman -- possibly his sister -- texting on her cell phone several paces ahead of him, seemingly unaware of, or uninterested in his overwhelmed state. That little boy was the saddest sight of all, incredibly depressing, and the kind of sight you see and wonder WHAT CAN BE DONE to help people have their needs met?
When I say this was the saddest visit I've ever made, it felt more like visiting Dante than the body electric celebrations of gentle Walt.
Walt Whitman's dream of a city invincible was either a terribly wrong prediction, or a dream he hoped for his fellow citizens which the future had no intention of honoring. A day among broken, breaking souls for Joey and I, but of course Camden is Camden everyday, and we were just visitors. The boulevard is renamed after Dr. Martin Luther King, the new address for Walt Whitman's house, but changing the name of the street is hardly the answer to anyone's misery.
And I'm not saying I have answers, but I am wondering WHY the city's leadership is spending time and energy and money changing maps, and buying all these shiny new boulevard signs when the bail bonds shops are blossoming in the neighborhood, and building after building is boarded up? And drug addicts continue to be somebody's child, brother, father, uncle, lost in such a way it's hard to imagine how to ever bring them back. Camden, were you even the city Whitman dream'd in his dream? Was he dreaming of another city? But the poem is quoted in granite on the tower of Camden's city hall, and again in the train station.
The city CLAIMS the poem without apology, towering above all heads are these words, and you don't need to squint to read the massive carved letters. You can see it everyday I DREAMED A CITY INVINCIBLE. It's a pox upon all who attempt to thrive here, endless days of misery, which from my gauge is getting ever more miserable with each visit I make. I'm feeling despair for our world tonight, and cannot listen to the news with all the ASSHOLE Republicans talking about Americans NOT NEEDING proper health care, not needing care, not what? Not what? Not needing? The need is immense, it's almost too painful to examine just how many needs are not being met while these SCUM bargain down the price while bargaining down the 20/20 vision of the world around us, here, everyday in Camden, and elsewhere.
I'm sleeping with nightmares of Whitman's house tonight, and all his neighbors awaiting "the quality of robust love."