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Friday
Feb082008

The Poe Toaster

In hindsight, watching the Toaster enter the cemetery was a very thrilling moment.  I was standing on the corner and noticed a man walking up the street, right next to the cemetery wall, head bowed, maybe carrying something.  The time was around 11:25.  I was fifty or so yards away.  He was walking towards the gate that Jeff Jerome had tried to make appear as if it were locked.  When I saw him, none of the other revelers were at the gate.  I looked around and two or three others had noticed him, as well.  We all had that look in our eyes that said, "There he is.  This is the moment."  I walked towards the Toaster, not to intercept him, but just to have the privilege of observing him enter to lay his memorial.  A few of us walked towards the gate, but he was no where to be seen inside the cemetery, as the old Poe gravesite is behind the building.  None of us who had observed him made any announcement to the larger crowd in front of the church.  We all felt a kind of protective urge.  We were helping the Toaster with his duty.  We were, in a sense, on his team, not just observing, but participating by our silence.

And that was it.  I never saw him leave, although I have it on good authority that he did leave, and walked up the street right past the gathering out front.  I don't know how he exited.  He never came out the gate that he entered.  So it all seemed so anti-climactic at the time.  The surge of excitement at first seeing him, dissolved into confusion.  Was that really him?  It couldn't have been.  It's too early.  The Toaster always arrives between midnight and 6AM.  Why would he change the schedule this year?  If it was him, that would mean he actually arrived on Jan 18, not Poe's birthday.  The "expert" onlooker, Sam, hadn't even seen him enter.  He was on his corner, binoculars to his eyes, watching the front when it happened.  For hours, the few who actually saw him talked about it and we were never satisfied that we had actually seen him, that we were wrong.  He was still coming, probably very early in the morning. when the crowds died away.  I stayed all night, until 6:25 AM, partly because I has already committed to doing just that, but partly because that doubt stayed with me all night long.  What if that wasn't him and he arrives at 5AM.  I couldn't take the chance of missing him. 

The next day, when I arrived at the Poe House, I ran into one of revelers, Dave, who was one of the few who had seen what I had.  Actually, when we walked towards the gate the Toaster had entered, Dave pulled the gate closed.  Turns out "Dave" was actually Chris, a volunteer for many Poe Society events, and a "mole" to help insure the Toaster made it in and also that the crowd behaved themselves.  He confirmed that the man we saw enter at 11:30 was the Toaster and that he too was surprised he had come before midnight.  As it turned out, from that moment on during the night, the gate was always covered with observers, so he couldn't have made it in at any time between midnight and 6.  Which leads me to believe that he must have had someone watching for him.  When the gate is clear, his accomplice calls him and he comes up the street.  If someone approaches the gate before he can get to it, he can either walk on and try again later, or he can just nonchalantly walk in and proceed to the back.   

You see how I've fallen under the spell.  Creating scenarios of how the Toaster makes his yearly visit.  That is the chief activity of the crowd all night long.  On this particular night the few of us who witnessed it spent the rest of the night going over what we saw, why it could have been the Toaster, why it wasn't, when he would actually come, how he would do it, and on and on.  Maybe it's the cold keeping our bodies and minds rejuvenated throughout the long vigil.  But we all got the bug.  The need to talk about the mystery.  The need to somehow participate in the ritual.  We all want to dedicate our lives to celebrating the memory of Poe, year after year, on a cold city street, in the middle of the night.  We all want to be the Toaster.

Next time: meet the cast of characters who braved the cold streets of Baltimore.

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