Chatterbox Slept Here

The “Leisure & Arts” page of the Feb. 15 Wall Street Journal carries a story about a burgeoning preservation battle over the house where Edgar Allan Poe may have written “The Cask of Amontillado.”  Built in 1836, it lies one block south of Washington Square in New York’s Greenwich Village. New York University, which owns the whole block, has no immediate plans to pull it down, but neighborhood activists worry that it might. NYU has been on a building binge in the neighborhood for years, and demand for space is apparently greater than ever, in part because Felicity has boosted university applications. Poe lived in the house, with his tubercular wife and his mother-in-law, in 1845, the year he achieved celebrity with the publication of “The Raven.” Now it contains law-school offices and classrooms.

Debra Jo Immergut, who wrote the Journal story, didn’t get past the building’s locked front door, so details about the interior are scarce; she mentions only a “messy storage closet” visible from a dirt-smeared ground-floor window. As it happens, Chatterbox knows that ground-floor window well. During the summer of 1979, Chatterbox rented it (along with the rest of the front room) from the NYU fraternity that then occupied the building. Immergut suggests that the building looks “like the kind of place that might conceal a long-decomposed body in some overlooked chamber.” But if NYU is holding classes in the building today, it would almost have to be less Gothic than it was in 1979, when Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness at the Edge of Town blasted through the place at all hours of day and night–Chatterbox quickly discovered that the pay phone out on 3rd Street was quieter than the one on the second-floor landing–and the halls were permanently scented with mildew and marijuana smoke. (There was no air conditioning.) Chatterbox has particularly Poe-like memories of the dank basement, where he watched Jimmy Carter deliver his “malaise” speech. At the time (Chatterbox was then avidly making his way through the novels of Walker Percy), the speech made perfect sense. Just past the TV set was a kitchen that Chatterbox could never quite bring himself to use because nobody ever took down the strips of flypaper blackened with the corpses of dead flies. The fraternity brothers were inept poker players, which was good because that was Chatterbox’s only source of income while he stayed with them; the summer internship with The Nation that had brought him to New York was unpaid. After poker, we would often wander across the street for drinks at Bonnie and Clyde’s, a lesbian bar that subsequently gave way to an upscale Italian restaurant called Il Mulino.

Chatterbox provides these details in hopes that they might assist efforts to designate the house a historical landmark. Chatterbox’s own literary output that summer consisted mainly of rejection letters to would-be Nation contributors and a tortured essay about lethal injection that The Nation, in its wisdom, never published. If the building is preserved, all Chatterbox asks is that a small brass plaque be placed to the right of the front door commemorating the building’s small role in fostering the birth of Internet journalism.