~ by Robert P. Barsanti ~
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
Walt Whitman has joined the crew.
He is not old. He does not have wild hair, a fifty year beard, and leather leggings. As far as I can tell, he isn’t jotting down notes to himself, chasing the deer through the woods, or ranting and rambling through his day in iambic pentameter.
Walt, however, is a rambler in Carharts. He went from one college to another to a gap year and another gap year before someone tried to put an end to his wandering with a diploma. But the diploma merely freed him to keep on going.
He didn’t appear to be rich. He didn’t seem to have had a father who sent him to the right lacrosse camps with Connor, Harrison, and Wes. He wasn’t one to drive to the job site in a Saab and wear frat house t-shirts. His boots had been worn down honestly and he smoked like a craftsman.
Walt was young, though. He had spent a great deal of time and money tattooing both his arms from wrist to shoulder with a goth mix of a totem pole and a Maori sand painting. He wore his dirty blond hair a little long and a little ragged, with a squint and a smile that would drive the high school girls into fits.
He learned fast. He didn’t need to be shown twice. He didn’t need to prove himself better than or cooler than or smarter than. He watched how it was done and did likewise. He asked questions when he should.
When I dropped him off at night, he left the truck carrying a can of beer and his lunch cooler. When I picked him up the next morning, he looked just about the same, with a dimmer set of eyes and a cup of coffee.
You shall scatter with lavish hand all that you earn or achieve
He slept on a sofa in the front room of an apartment that he shared with four other guys on Old South Road. The refrigerator had beer, butter, and ketchup, along with a three stale hamburger rolls. In the freezer, a five pound box of frozen hamburgers thawed and refroze. He rolled out early in the morning, rolled in late at night, and slept the sleep of the innocent as soon as he got horizontal.
You must spent a part of your life living luxuriously in your own youth, feasting on candy bars and coffee. You live paycheck-to-paycheck, bill-tobill, stretching out the ramen and frozen peas until the next pay day comes in, when it becomes Chicken Box shots and meatball subs.
These are the days that must happen to you
Because you don’t have the foresight, wherewithal, or wisdom to make them your own, the days roll and batter. Later on, you learn to have more control, plan more, think more, trust more, and you don’t let the days happen to you. The triumph of age comes in a celebration of boredom. My days no longer happen to me because my poor, fragile, and aged life is organized into lists of things I can control. Adventure is my enemy and surprise is his weapon. I lay awake at night armoring myself against them.
The young can let the days happen to them. The days come in like waves. Each one plucks you up and hurls you forward. The indomitable, impervious hide of youth rolls with him up the beach, laughing and giggling. Walt lives the legend of his days. To be Walt is to be in the present and see it as a story to be told to a wife on a long drive, to be hinted at to a son, to be winked at a friend. “Oh, I spent a summer on Nantucket, y’know. Years ago. I was working.”
We understand then, do we not?
I do not envy his bed or his breakfast. I can turn the pages back to my chapter in the basement of the Manchester’s house (“six feet under” we called it) and my winters in the cold apartment behind Dr. Vallett’s house on Centre Street. I remember tuna fish and salsa on English muffins to go along with Busch beer and a flickering television set. I remember biking to work in the winter dark and combing the sand out my hair, then shaking the ticks out of the cuffs of my pants.
I remember, too well, the energy of my youth. I remember how lightning came in every step. Where I stood, I anchored in rock. I sang in the halls and shouted in the classes and rode the waves through the day. I can still do that if I have two cups of coffee and a good night’s sleep.
But I miss all the years spread out before me, all of those blank pages and all the unwritten chapters. The rest of your life could spring at you in surprise and fall in legend. Now, I see the stories that have been written and how thin the rest of the volume is. Age hopes that the rest of the tale measures itself out gently: youth wants the tale to come in torrent of words.
I think heroic deeds were all conceiv’d in the open air, and all free poems also,
I think I could stop here myself and do miracles,
I think whatever I shall meet on the road I shall like, and whoever beholds me shall like me,
I think whoever I see must be happy.
On my way home from the Stop and Shop, I saw the crowd building at the Chicken Box. Walt Whitman stood in the line, in a square of others, alight with fire and talk. The night held more than stars for him. I left him to it and headed home, to the roof he didn’t know he needed yet.
“These are the days that must happen to you”
– excerpts from Song of the Open Road by Walt Whitman