A year ago I was invited to my first Whitmanstide. Saturday on the Purple Line, en route to this year’s celebration, I ran into Nina. I hadn’t seen her since the street near her house was ceremonially renamed in honor of her husband, Lee, a great writer who passed away suddenly a few years back. She didn’t recognize me until I introduced myself. She apologized, explaining she was face-blind. She also remarked that I looked like the type of person who would be going to the event we were going to.
We walked the few quiet blocks from the Main stop together. She kept offering to check the Google Maps she’d screenshotted but I assured her I remembered where the house was. At the door, Tony’s wife, Beth, tried to place Nina but had the opposite problem from the one we’d had on the Purple Line—Beth can’t remember faces.
Last year the house was so crowded there was no place to stand. There were only a few people sitting on the living room couch at 6:45pm now. The invite said the reading of the poem would start soon after 7. I wondered whether the four or five of us would have to read the whole epic two-hour thing, but then, as if floodgates were sprung, people started streaming through the door.
Soon we were packed in Tony’s basement and he began the poem. I brought my sketchbook this time and got off a few drawings. After Section 33—a really long one—Tony looked toward the doorway jammed with listeners and asked if anyone else wanted to read before we went back a second round. A bunch of us took that as a cue to give up our seats and go upstairs, giving others a chance to be part of it.
I talked with my Reader editor Aimee and her boyfriend and carefully avoided a former coworker or two. I didn’t get a chance to talk to Tal and Taylor because the house was so glutted with humanity I had to leave.
I still loved being part of that crowded basement reading that poem but something felt different this year. Maybe it was because Tony’s not at the Reader anymore, maybe it’s because the state of this country is even more dire than last year, there was a bittersweet air about it all. Tony said it would be the last time he’d be having Whitmanstide at the house. It’s gotten too hectic to have so many people there. It felt like the end of something.
But maybe it was just me.