The students at the Crossroads School in Fells Point were cheering.
Not on the playground or for early dismissal or pepperoni pizza in the lunch room.
The middle-school kids were whooping and hollering for a bedeviled, odd-ball poet who's been dead for more than 160 years: Edgar Allan Poe.
And it was the highlight of 25-year-old Brian Zimmerman's rookie year as a teacher.
"I held up a 12 ounce can with a picture of Poe's face taped to it and rattled the pennies inside,” said Zimmerman, who taught English and history this past school year at the Baltimore City charter school on South Caroline Street.
"They started screaming, 'Pennies for Poe! Pennies for Poe!'”
Zimmerman teaches Poe [1809 to 1849] in a lesson about life in the United States on the eve of the Industrial Revolution.
As the seventh and eighth grade students read and studied the American master [with the revenge-driven, 1840 story "Hop Frog" a favorite], news broke that the West Baltimore house where the writer lived would close because of budget problems. And it rocked the classroom.
"We wanted to save the house," said Aijha Pack, 13. "It's been up for so long, why take it down now?"
Indeed, Mayor Rawlings-Blake, why?
In April, I was invited to the school by Jessica Myles Henkin—co-founder of the Baltimore Stoop Storytelling series—to talk about the legend and recent disappearance of the Poe Toaster.
The Toaster is the man—or men, widely believed to have been a father-and-son team—who from 1949 to 2009 left a near-empty bottle of French cognac and three roses on Poe's West Fayette Street grave on Edgar’s Jan. 19 birthday.
[The booze and bouquet tradition ended abruptly in 2010, drawing inquiries—never satisfied—from around the world.]
Zimmerman—born in Cassius Clay’s hometown, raised in New Jersey and arriving in Baltimore by way of Teach for America—had taken the kids to visit Poe’s grave at Westminster Church and the nearby catacombs.
"We gave them the chance to solve a great Baltimore mystery," said Zimmerman.
The mystery endures: Who is—or was—the Poe Toaster?
The fun of playing detective on a case about the father of the detective story added to the students’ enthusiasm for Poe’s work.
The first thing they asked me was whether the Toaster was the late Fells Point writer and artist David "Footlong" Franks, who lived for decades a half-mile from the Crossroads School in an old barbershop at the corner of South Regester and Bank Streets.
In a coincidence that the prank-prone Franks would have relished, the Poe Toaster failed to show up for the first time in more than a half-century just a week after Footlong’s death.
It didn’t add up to much more than circumstantial wishful thinking, but a few local authors—Rosalia Scalia and myself among others—put two and two together and came up with Franks.
It was a devilish way to titillate local TV reporters while keeping Frank’s name before the public.
But it is very unlikely, and I told the kids as much. Still, as I looked around at their expectant faces, I recalled that an earlier generation of Crabtown youngsters had come to Poe’s aid when the writer’s grave languished without a headstone.
At the end of the Civil War, local schoolchildren began collecting pennies to buy a marker for Poe’s grave. Some $1,200 later—the pennies complemented with a few fat checks from well-to-do businessmen—the immortal lay no longer beneath anonymous sod.
Why not do it again?
The timing was right—“We were already studying Poe, we were involved with him,” said Justin Donawa, 13—and the response was visceral.
PENNIES FOR POE!
A water jug went up on a desk in Zimmerman’s class and many of the first pennies to trickle into it came from a student who brought in a shoebox full of the coins.
[Lincoln Memorial pennies minted before 1982 are 95 percent copper. Those dated 1983 or later are mostly zinc and plated with copper. No matter their composition, a five gallon jug—like the one near Zimmerman’s desk, the kind you see on water coolers—holds between $325 and $350 depending on how the pennies fall.]
By the end of the school year, the students had collected approximately $400 to save the house where Poe lived for several years—and wrote “MS. in a Bottle”—at 203 Amity Street near the corner in West Baltimore. (The Poe House needs about $85,000 to remain open.)
Half of the $400 came from a administrator Jacob Fishbein and math teacher Marshall Cho, who contributed $100 each. That money has been mailed to the city agency that oversees Poe House.
The rest of the money came from the kids, who added other coins to the pennies and salvaged aluminum cans. Cho used the 20,000 or so pennies to teach the concept of “sorting.”
“I found a lot of pennies just walking around my neighborhood,” said 12-year-old Lenny Coleman, who lives on North Decker Avenue near Monument street. “I used to let pennies sit but now I pick them up.”
[Coleman added that he liked the “Hop-Frog” story because the protagonist—a dwarf who becomes a royal jester—“gets tired of people pushing him around.”]
“The Poe House is an important piece of history,” said recently graduated eighth grader Corey Dwayne Hairston Jr., headed for Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Canton. “It’s not right for the city to take it out of business.”
[A handful of Crossroads’ students annually receive scholarships to some of the city’s best high schools, including Gilman, Boys’ Latin and Cristo Ray.]
The lowly penny doesn’t get much respect in Hairston’s northeast neighborhood near Edison Highway and Longview Street.
“They're not worth anything,” said the 14-year-old. “Some people just throw them on the ground. You can find pennies anywhere."
Yet $23.19 of the $400 total was made up of the presumably worthless buttons came from a Converse shoe box in which Hairston was saving pennies. Jaelynn Westbrook brought in a big trash bag of aluminum cans to recycle: converting Baltimore’s trash to protect a Baltimore treasure.
“He would go to field trips and assemblies and come back with plastic bags full of cans,” said Zimmerman of Westbrook.
Yet there was one angle to the campaign—a savory one—that the kids didn’t take advantage of; a standing offer that awaits when school starts again in September.
Andy Farantos, the owner of G&A Coney Island Hot Dogs on Eastern Avenue in the heart of Highlandtown, was the first local business owner to get behind the Pennies for Poe project.
Since my April visit to Crossroads, a fish bowl has sat on the counter near dogs grilling in the front window. That bowl is the official depository for Poe pennies.
When I told Farantos about students collecting change to help out the author of “The Premature Burial,” the grillman declared: “Every kid who comes in here with a penny gets a free hot dog and a small soda!”
I relayed the offer to Zimmerman—on the road in a rental car this summer, playing keyboards in a “noise” band—who told the students. To the best of my knowledge, none of them took G&A up on the deal.
Sitting in a booth near the back of the diner, which looks very much like it did in the 1940s when Farantos’ grandfather ran the place, was a regular named Linda Majka.
Majka, 58, lives on Pulaski Highway near North Curley Street. She hasn’t been in school for quite some time, but she does collect pennies —lots of them—and spends the pence on a particular passion: the King of Rock and Roll.
She was at the infamous Elvis concert at the Baltimore Civic Center on May 29, 1977, a sad affair in which an incoherent Presley left the stage for almost half-an-hour. Many in the crowd that night left angry, but the debacle didn’t dim Majka’s love for the great man.
To the Poe fishbowl, Majka brought $27 worth of pennies earmarked for “The Heart of the King,” an Elvis extravaganza at the Hippodrome this past May starring Shawn Klush.
[Both the poet and the singer share the same initials, with the A between Elvis and Presley standing for Aron.]
Presley’s loss was Poe’s gain.
Enjoying lunch in her favorite booth the other day, Majka said it was the right thing to do.
For more information, visit penniesforpoe.com
To help keep the Poe House open, send contributions to:
DIRECTOR OF FINANCE, City of Baltimore
put the words POE HOUSE in memo line of check.
MAIL CHECKS TO:
c/o Baltimore City Department of Planning, 8th Floor
417 East Fayette Street
Baltimore, MD 21202