The Ravens Return

February 1, 2013

I’ve never been a fan of American football. I’m not even sure why we call it “football” when the rest of the world already has a sport called football, and American football mainly consists of guys carrying the ball with their hands. Most of the time the only way I’d watch a football game is if you shackled me to a wall in a dank dungeon, which is probably why I have a soft spot in my heart for the Baltimore Ravens. A lot of writers have written about sports, so it’s really cool that at least one team has returned the favor and taken a name in tribute to Edgar Alan Poe. Admittedly after the Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore they didn’t want to be the Baltimore Browns, which sounds too much like the name of a ‘30’s bank robber, so they took a new team name from Poe’s most famous poem, even though Poe never really wrote much about sports, unless you count “Never Bet The Devil Your Head”. Although it does seem a little odd that Baltimore would choose to celebrate Poe.

It’s true he died there, and he’s buried there, but he’s not exactly a native son. Then again the only prominent Baltimore native son I can think of is John Waters, and when the Browns moved to Baltimore the local jai alai team was already called the Pink Flamingos, but that’s another story. Poe was born in Boston, Massachusetts on January 19th, 1809, but in Southey, which is why he’s often referred to as a southern writer. Technically the fact that he spent most of his youth in Virginia and even served in the army in South Carolina might also have something to do with that. He never really even spent much time in Baltimore, aside from a short period before his death. He traveled to Baltimore, disappeared for three days, and reappeared seriously ill. He was admitted to a hospital and died shortly afterward, on October 3rd, 1849. There’s been a lot of speculation about what killed him. Most people assume it was alcoholism, but it’s also been rumored to have been a heart attack, rabies, syphilis, epilepsy, a brain tumor, trichinosis, a drug overdose, an allergic reaction, spontaneous decapitation, assassination by the Masons, and some people are convinced there was a second shooter on the grassy knoll. The fact is we’ll probably never know. What little is left of Poe probably wouldn’t be enough for a conclusive autopsy, and the monument marking his grave make it really difficult to exhume him. Maybe some mysteries are just better left unsolved.

I think that’s also true of the mysterious person who began visiting Poe’s grave early in the morning on his birthday as early as the 1930’s, around the time that Baltimore Brown was looting the nation’s banks. The person, who became known as the Poe toaster, would always bring a bottle of cognac, drink a toast at Poe’s grave, and leave three roses. In 1993 the toaster left a note that said, “The torch will be passed”, and in 1999 a note was also left indicating that a new person, “a son”, had taken up the tradition. Unfortunately, whereas the old toaster had been secretive and occasionally left cryptic notes addressed to Poe himself, the new toaster was about as subtle as a radio talk show host. In 2001 he left a bit of doggerel imitating the last lines of The Masque Of The Red Death predicting that in the upcoming Super Bowl the New York Giants would beat the Baltimore Ravens. And then the Ravens won. And in 2004 he left a note criticizing the French. Obviously the younger toaster didn’t have that much appreciation for Poe, or he would have known that, while there are American critics who don’t think that much of Poe, French writers thought he was a genius back when the American army still owed back pay to General Lafayette. Yes, I know the same thing can be said of Jerry Lewis, but remember that The Bellboy is really just a modern retelling of Hop Frog. Charles Baudelaire, who knew a thing or two about good writing and who was a contemporary of Poe’s, called him “the most powerful writer of the age”, and some French writers learned English just so they could read Poe. The new toaster’s abuse of his position didn’t go unnoticed either. The tradition had developed sort of a following, and people would gather to watch for him like the swallows of Capistrano, or the snowbirds of Miami.

In 2006, feeling that the new toaster wasn’t being respectful enough some people tried to detain and unmask him, but were stopped. I’m not sure what they thought they would have accomplished. How likely is it that the toaster was someone they actually knew? They’d have to get his wallet as well. It would be like the scene in Spider-Man 2 when Spider-Man’s mask was pulled off by some people, and they said, “Hey, he’s…some guy.” And even though they’d be exposing a replacement I’m still glad they didn’t, because that would have likely exposed the identity of the original toaster, who was engaging in a private, personal ritual and whose desire for anonymity deserves to be treated with respect. Since 2010 there has been no early morning visitor to Poe’s grave, so it may be that the tradition has quietly ended. We’ll probably never know the identity of the original person, and it’s not just because of their desire for anonymity that I think that’s a good thing. There are some mysteries that should be left unsolved, some corners that should remain dark. And the toaster would probably turn out to be Jerry Lewis.

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