Mysterious gift intoxicates

This Just In...

January 22, 2001|By Dan Rodricks

A NICE, OLD anthology of fiction appeared -- mysteriously -- on my desk in The Sun newsroom Friday, the 192nd anniversary of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe and the dampest and gloomiest day of the new year. I don't know who left the book; there was no note or inscription. But a piece of paper marked the first entry, Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado," one of his shortest, greatest and creepiest works, published in 1846.

Many stories were in the book -- by dozens of authors, including Ernest Hemingway, James Baldwin, Anton Chekhov and Joyce Carol Oates -- but the person who placed it on my desk had marked "The Cask." I had not read this story since high school, sorry to say, so I settled in with it at home Friday night and had a grand old time.

The opening line is famous: "The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge."

The narrator is a wealthy European named Montresor -- I could see John Malkovich in the role -- and he never explains what injuries and which insult make him determined to put this Fortunato in his place -- perhaps for good. What follows is ingenious storytelling, and a wonderfully chilling descent into the cold catacombs of hatred and revenge. Down, down we go, into the dark, dank wine cellar where Montresor has stashed his recently purchased cask of sweet Amontillado. The self-proclaimed wine expert, Fortunato, has agreed to appraise it.

Fortunato -- I could see Alan Rickman in the role -- gets a taste of something, but it's not sweet.

I will stop here and suggest that you find "The Cask of Amontillado" and either read it again or for the first time. I found it to be an excellent way to celebrate Poe's birthday, on the dampest and gloomiest night of the year, and I thank the stranger who left the book containing it on my desk.

In Baltimore, we claim Poe. He lived here for a time. He worked here. He died a miserable death here. He is buried here. His house is a museum, and people come to see 'im.

Poe is a point of pride here. But it is not enough to say, "He wrote `The Raven.' `Nevermore, baby.'" Cool as it is -- a literary connection to the National Football League -- it's not enough to say our Super Bowl-bound football team is named after one of his poems. (And I side with Jeff Jerome, curator of the Poe House: It was kind of tacky -- certainly beneath the cool dignity of the tradition -- for the mystery man who leaves cognac and a birthday bouquet of roses each Jan. 19 at Poe's grave to make a Super Bowl pick. It's even worse that he picked the Giants.)

As a matter of civic duty, as well as intellectual pleasure, we should read Poe and keep him in mind, keep him from being lost in modern trivialization as a spooky and mad dead poet. He's more than names on the backs of the Ravens' mascots. He's a great literary figure of enduring importance, and if you need proof of that, find his best stuff and read it. "The Cask" is a good starter. Dramatic readings of "The Raven" at Super Bowl parties next Sunday? Why not?

Only in Baltimore, baby.

A fine mess

Evidence that Ravens fever has reached an absurd level: The owner of White Marsh-based Action Business Systems has pitched in $500 and organized an effort to have area businesses pay the $17,500 in fines levied by the NFL against Tony Siragusa and Ray Lewis for their foul hits on quarterbacks in playoff games.

Habit of giving spreads

Many letters arrived at this desk in the past three weeks, telling of the charitable initiatives of readers who got their ideas, I'm happy to say, from this column.

The story of Mischele Nichols, the West Baltimore woman who in early December lost her job while trying to make the transition from welfare to work, prompted several readers to contact her and make a donation toward a brighter Christmas for Nichols' children and grandchildren.

And a column about Earl's Place, the East Baltimore transitional shelter for 17 homeless men, gave several readers ideas for donations. It inspired the theme for the annual holiday party at the Mount Vernon home of John Tonkin and Neal Schauder.

"We called it `Caring and Sharing,'" they reported in a letter to TJI. "Along with the invitations, we enclosed a wish-list for Earl's Place and the House of Ruth [shelter for women]. ... We are happy to tell you that we received $155 in checks, plus 12 large shopping bags filled to the brim. We were overwhelmed. It's like one person makes a small dent, but get a group together and you can really make a difference."

The seventh-grade pupils of Mary Jane Langan at Bishop John Neumann School in East Baltimore also gathered food, toiletries and clothing for Earl's Place. High-fives to Shawn, Vincent, Gregory, John, Tina, Brandon, Steve, Brittany, Johnny, Eric, the other Steven, Samantha, the other John, Matthew, Adam, Lindsey, Vaughn, Maria, Carmen, Charles, William and the third Steven.

And safes are at night

A friend in Bolton Hill needed to replace an old lock on an old rowhouse door. He called a city lock-repair service to make an appointment. "Sure," said the locksmith. "It would be better in the afternoons. We do burglaries in the morning."

Proofreaders needed

We're glad to hear from a TJI reader in Anne Arundel County that a certain fast-food restaurant in Pasadena finally fixed its sign. For more than a week, what should have been "Now Hiring Closers" appeared as "Now Hiring losers."

TJIDAN@aol.com is the e-mail address for Dan Rodricks. He can also be reached at 410-332-6166.

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