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Hungover History


There’s an old expression that goes, “May you live in interesting times, and catch the attention of important people.”

It’s a curse.

It’s a funny kind of curse, wishing prominence or historical significance on someone, but it doesn’t take much analysis to see how such a thing would have a serious potential for suckage: Yes, power and prominence have their perks—we’d guess—but also a much, much higher incidence than average of island banishment, guillotine and politically motivated GSW, stuff like that.

And—at a less personal, less bodily traumatic level—even involvement on the periphery of an anointed historical movement or moment can set you up for a fall. When you, ordinary nobody that you are, feel the adrenal buzz of being involved in Something That Will Matter, when you are actively engaged in something larger than yourself, when you feel attached to greater humanity, even in some way charged with its custody and care, when you stand on the shoulders of giants . . . well, you make a pretty easy target, even from miles away, actually.

This, I think, in part explains the current blue-state funk, the Great Mope of ’04. It’s a crushing feeling to find yourself on the wrong side of history—to be a loser.

Certainly, I was susceptible. It sucks to think that this historical moment—freighted as it seemed to be with such “meaning,” promising as it seemed to a sweeping statement about the nature of America’s personality—passed me, and other ideologically compatible folk, by. It sucked like the first Neanderthal hint that the Cro-Mags (with their less-muscled frames and their puny brains) were somehow—some- fucking-how—getting the jump on us. It was easy to be cynically partisan, and shortsightedly competitive.

But I’m feeling a lot better now: I’ve eased back into my comfortable personal insignificance. This isn’t defeatism or self-pity, by the way. And it’s no concession. It’s just a recalibration and a reprioritization—and a refusal to view history as a series of discrete and disconnected big moments determined and dictated to the losers by the winners of those moments.

The analogy that comes to mind is the roadside signs you see from time to time designating a “Historic Area,” as if the area you drove through two miles back was freshly constructed, historyless—“Mmm. It’s still got that new-reality smell.”

Me, I’m a punk: I don’t want to be told what to look at. And I don’t accept the evaluations of people who pronounce the judgments of history on history’s behalf. And I’m embracing a different notion of interesting and important. And I’m paying attention to a different stretch of highway. And I owe my restored balance to a road trip, a mild whiskey hangover, a famous American author and a woman who’s been dead for 182 years. (Note: I’m not saying this will work for everyone.)

On a recent weekend, I traveled to suburban Baltimore to visit some friends; and, after a night of gentle debauch, we headed downtown for a stomach-lining greasy breakfast and to get the nickel tour of the port city. On our way through one of the rougher sections of town, my resident friend pointed out the church where Edgar Allan Poe is buried and, at my sudden prompt, made a hard U-turn to allow me a chance to check it out.

Baltimore’s Westminster Church is an unlikely burial spot for so iconic an author. The neighborhood is shabby and neglected—on that particular Sunday, it had the feel of an unused movie-set ghetto. Headstones and small monuments ring the church haphazardly, as if those interred were buried where they fell rather than placed purposely. This, even though a placard indicated the Poe had, in fact, been removed from his original place in the yard to accommodate the slightly grander headstone purchased, in part, with pennies solicited from Baltimore schoolchildren.

The poor guy’s fared little better in death than in life: a panhandled tomb on an overlooked little corner in a shitty section of a struggling city. And who reads him these days? Precocious ninth-graders? History’s just pounded this guy, and he was both interesting and important.

Slightly stunned by this nearly random encounter with the callousness of history, I found a seat on a small raised crypt a few feet away from Poe’s slab and took in some of the other markers. Behind me, a simple headstone informed of the passing of young Fanny H. Peachy, “consort of Thomas G. Peachy.”

Fanny, we’re told, stoically, “was born November the 24, 1799; and departed this transitory life February 11, 1822, in the 23rd year of her age.

“The amiable qualities of this interesting female were such as endeared her to all who knew her; she was a dutiful child and a truly affectionate wife. In early life she bore the cross of Jesus, and by that life has left ample reason to believe that she has ascended to the bright realms of bliss.”

It’s a lukewarm and fading little paragraph on a worn headstone. There’s not much to suggest that dutiful, affectionate Fanny lived a particularly notable life; however interesting a female she was in her own right, to the best of my knowledge, she has escaped the attention of important people.

Maybe it was just the slow, pokey sadness of the end of the weekend combined with the gauzy brain fog of the hangover, but the whole scene had me a bit sentimental. Before we split, I dropped a penny on the Poe memorial, adding one to the row that visitors have left in homage; and while I left nothing for unremarkable Fanny, I—heathen that I am—wished quietly that she did in fact ascend to whatever bright realms await those who avoid the curse.

If she needs the coin, she can bum it from Edgar when she sees him.

—John Rodat

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