Walt Whitman-The Amazing Drag Queen
First Published in Enheduanna: A Pagan Literary Journal, Vol 1, 2016, pp., 87-94
Walt was loafing about in his usual place, between E and 23rd street. Taking notes of the denizens he so loves: Big Joe, Yellow John, all those usual guys barked a greeting as they strolled past in their omnibuses. Walt gave a grin, a slight nod of the head, and watched as the omnibuses were swallowed up in the sea of traffic and people. Loafing was one of his usual activities when he needed to get out, feel alive, feel the city, and taste the electric air of the world in one place.
The sun stretched higher, noon approached, and Walt decided to stroll around the blocks, even grabbing a bite at a café if the smells took him in. Sausages on a stick, potato cakes from the Irish, cabbage soup, fresh bread, boiled eggs, varieties of apples, Greek porridge. He passed the alleys where the fish were cleaned, the docks stank of old blood and rotting flesh, but he paid no mind—it was all part of the experience. He kept strolling, around the blocks as the sun swooned higher into the sky, chasing a cloud.
He came to a little place he usually frequented after the opera, called Dimitri’s. It served all manner of Russian food. He had a particular liking for the tart and sour dishes, and was in the mood for shchi—the cabbage soup here was particularly sour. Plopping into a chair, he took out his pencil and daybook to jot a few notes as the chef heated him a bowl.
“Saw the guys—the usual suspects encouraging me. Big Joe, Yellow John, Dandy and the rest that keep E. street nailed down. It felt great to be in the crowd of people, flowing like the sea between the buildings, the street—offering up to the Earth payment for their day activities—I merely watched, feeling the sun on my face and the wind in my ear.”
Walt looked around, but didn’t see any familiar faces. So many new people, immigrants, drawn from afar to the big New York—often he could walk for miles and not encounter anyone he knew—how the place had changed. The soup came, the clumsy waiter spilling some on his notebook, but Walt knew it was part of the exchange, customer and restaurant—living organism and soul, making his place in his life, so he wasn’t bothered. He slurped up the soup, the sour taste hitting him instantly, and dipped the hard black bread that into the bowl. It was so tough these days it had to soak a little to soften.
A few young Russian boys walked in, on break from the day’s labor at the meat market. Covered in blood, but fair in the face, Walt ogled one or two as they walked by, bread hanging out of his mouth. With faces as hard as the bread, Walt suddenly had the desire to sink his teeth into one of these boys. A little young, but no doubt the kind he admired: hard working, rugged, those that understood the city—fresh to America but would give their souls for the freedom it offered.
“Young and fresh—hard working—candied meat on sticks.” He jotted. “What I wouldn’t give for a strong, western, fresh faced, bearded, scythe swinging man to ride his horse into this town and sweep me off my feet.” Walt continued eating, watching, admiring the young workers as they ordered some pelmini and black bread with Kvas to drink.
He lounged for a bit, enjoyed the feeling of fullness, resigning his mind to wander on the lines of poetry he wanted to publish in his upcoming book Leaves of Grass. He could feel the changes around him, the tension in the air, and thought to himself LOG should help change the feeling in society, give people some grounding and renewed sense of direction. Some may even find inspiration and peace from my work. Walt knew that he had the upper hand to make his book whatever he wanted, having connections in the print industry gave certain perks. Newspapers—papers, diaries, shit of cows…the day in and day out of newspapers. Low quality papers of the day were abound, but Walt had his fill with the editing post at the Brooklyn Eagle. Now working for the department of the interior, he had the time to write his own works.
He rose to leave, throwing a silver dollar and half a penny on the table. The waiter bowed. Walt shuffled out to the street, taking in the later afternoon sun and clouds passing over. He wander back up to E. street, standing on the corner where the vegetable boys and sellers were. The locals knew Walt, and the kids knew he always had candies of sorts: peppermint, butterscotch, and licorice were usual to be found in his pockets. He would toss a few to the boys and let them run to catch them.
Through the crowds, a strange figure appeared. A young woman—no more than 25, wearing a white dress and brown shawl, scarlet red hair and a content look—was standing on the curb with another woman, who was dressed in darker clothes with a pin up bun. Walt recognized the current Baltimore fashion of the latter, but was curious as to the origin of this odd and rare creature. His eyes followed the pair across the street as they went to a lounge for ladies. His curiosity followed him as he found he was already walking past the lounge, curious to see what was going on inside that could attract such a pair.
The windows were dirty and the lighting dark, but he could make out a few dozen women of varying shapes and sizes floating about the room. The sign on the window read “Ladies Lounge of New York. Est: 1843.” Apparently this was a women’s group, a society for their kind.
Stroking his beard and looking around, he was wondering if he could sneak inside, but by the look of the two stocky women guarding the door, he’d rather not receive a lashing of any kind today. He sat on a crate nearby and wondered how he could attend the meeting. Clearly men weren’t allowed. He had a few friends he could send, but he knew they wouldn’t take it all in like he could. He leaned against the brick foundation, relaxing in the shade of a tree that lined the avenue, when he glanced over and a few windows down was a women’s dress shop. He continued looking at the fashions, the trims, the lacing, and then it hit him. Oh to be a lady! The idea excited him so much that he leaped off the crate, nearly falling over, and ran to the shop window. Which one, which one could I get. Of course I couldn’t say it was for me. They’d never let me try them on…but if I can get one that’s about my size and height, it may just work.
Looking around for someone about his size, he didn’t spot a broad strapping handsome woman in the vicinity. Though disappointed, he wasn’t dismayed. He knew where to find such a broad. “To the markets.” Big working women put in their days there along with the men to bring in extra income to the home—most with large families with husbands who had jobs as laborers; some cases, even the children were out working.
Walt strutted into the markets at about 4 o’clock, aware that soon the day would be over and everyone would close up. He needed to hurry as the shops down by the Ladies Lounge kept banker hours as well. Amidst the stench of rotting flesh, fish, fruits, the distinct odor of animals, sweat, and rain perfumed the air. A light shower had washed through, pooling all the filth into the paths, but he was used to the sweet odors of the city.
Walking along he received the occasional wink from the broad shouldered ladies. Hands like stone—libidos like a steam engine—he was aware that any of them could take him down like an Amazon woman; such work did not relive its stress in the open, but on the bed post.
The more refined women worked the fruit and flower stands. Their labor wasn’t as strenuous. Chopping stems and fruit didn’t compare to the cutting of bone and sinew the beefy women did by hand at the slaughter stall. They also smelled less of the stink of the alley; a slightly sweet overtone.
He decided to approach a red headed young woman, wearing a brown working dress and yellow apron, cutting plums with a knife
“Miss? Could I ask something?”
“I have a strange request, but hear me. Would you be willing to pick out a dress for me.” The woman sneered slightly. “Oh don’t get me wrong, you see, I can’t quite go into the dress shop and pick one out for me. I’m trying to meet a lady I fancy and I’d rather do it in disguise, and for that, I need a dress. And well, you’re about my build and height, so if I gave you the dollars, could you pick one out? I’d also pay you for your time, say $5?”
The Irish gal sat there—not knowing what to say, simply holding her knife and plum—looking down and away to think, still in shock at the strange request.
“You know, back in Ireland, I saw some pretty strange things. People dyin’ o hungar, no food or potatoes anywhere. Some Scots wore their Kilts, but nottin’ of dis sort, I tell ya, your’ a strange fellow.”
“Yes, well, no need to dally any longer. Will you do it? “
“Aye, for $7 dollars you got a deal.”
“$7! My, you drive the bargain. Ok. Let’s get on down the road. What’s your name?”
“Tenna, Tenna Tipton. You sir?”
“Uh, Whitman, call me Whitman. Nice to make your acquaintance.”
“Uh huh, likewise. Any man worth paying me $7 is a man I need not ask questions to.”
“You one of the Irish, come over because of the famine?” asked Walt.
“Yes sir, not a good potato in sight in ma’ village. Pretty sad really, but life here is better, more work, more free. Not the cursed British comin’ down on ya at every turn.”
“Sorry to hear that Tenna, at least you made it out. I know so many that didn’t.”
“Aye, it is wut it is.”
They arrived at the shop before closing. Walt walked in with Tenna—still in her apron on from work—as the shop keep might not sell to her. He walked in behind her and told the keep “I’m looking for a day gown for my lady here, something modest yet formal.” Tenna took off her apron and handed it to Walt while she went with the shop keep to be fitted.
Walt settled on something brown with green trim, nice earthy colors that would be cool in the hot sun. The dress cost $40 dollars. He also purchased a makeup kit and bonnet for $10, he couldn’t walk in looking like a man in a dress. He gave the keep a sixty, with three dollars in tip. Once outside, he handed Tenna her apron back with the seven they agreed upon. “You just made an old gal’s life easy this mont’. Sellin’ fruit doesn’t exactly bring the money.”
“I’m glad we could help each other. I’ll be sure to come back for my next shopping day and get some of your plums. I know they’ll be sweet and delicious prepared by your loving hands” and gave her a wink. She smiled and nodded, and walked off. Walt walked back to the alley behind the Ladies Lounge to change. Remembering he couldn’t waltz into the place with his scruff, he went for a $4 shave and cut at the barber around the corner before returning. He put on the green dress and stuffed his other clothes in an empty crate. The fit was a little off, but not too snug or loose.
Not walking around too much to prevent chaffing at the seam, but inside he was loving the fabric, the feel on his skill, the colors. He brushed on what he thought was a reasonable amount of blush, lipstick, and covered his hair with the bonnet.
Gaining some confidence, he walked into the crowd and set his eyes on the door. No one paid any attention, as he was dressed enough to pass as a lady without close scrutiny. With one big intake of air, he turned the knob and walked into the lounge. About a dozen women were positioned in chairs, at tables with cards, or milling about the place. He received a few glances, but nothing out of the ordinary. The big women who had guarded the door in the afternoon were nowhere to be seen, so ordering a drink from the bar seemed fitting.
They didn’t serve anything strong here, just some gin, vodka, and whiskey. Must be due to the ladies fragile nature and temperament.
“Gin please,” he said in a soft voice.
“Ten cents,” replied the barkeep.
Sipping the drink, he scanned for the woman in white with the flaming red hair, but she wasn’t there. Damn, must have left. There were other rooms, so he walked through and found a few different parlors. One with lectures, poetry readings, a smoking room, and one with sofas. He spotted the woman in the lounge with the sofas, reclining on the other woman she had been seen with earlier.
Walt wasn’t sure how to go about introducing himself, so he sat down to a sofa adjacent her and listened to the dialogues going on.
The woman didn’t speak much, just her companion. He caught her name in passing: Emily. She was invited to read some poetry. Walt was intrigued; was it hers or a famous authors? Tennyson perhaps?
Emily opened, “I thank all the masters for coming, please enjoy these few sparse lines of my creation.” Walt raised an eyebrow of interest. “Oh this wondrous sea—sailing silently—Ho! Pilot! Ho! Knowest thou the shore where no breakers roar—Where the storm is o’er? In the silent West Many…”
Suddenly a ruckus was heard near the front. The two sturdy ladies like tree trunks who had been guarding the door were back. They were confronted by a gang of gentlemen who demanded entry.
“Ma’am, kindly remove your stoic self from this door so I may enter.”
“Ladies only, this is a Ladies Lounge sir. Can’t you read?”
“Lounge yes, but not for ladies. The only ladies I see are perverse lesbians trying to claim my wife!”
The woman slapped the man’s face. Walt snuck a peak through the doorway to the entrance. Men concerned that their wives are prey to the more subversive types that populate the lower section of Manhattan. I better scoot.
Refusing to move from the door, the group of men pushed into the two ladies. Other ladies came to the door to fight off the crowd. Some of the men in back had sticks and clubs with which to beat anyone in their way. Walt walked back to tell Emily to leave when he heard the first *crack* of the skull on one of the large stoic ones. Running back, he entered the front just as a woman turned, swayed, and fell to the floor. Wide eyed and, in knowledge that he’d be ruined if anyone found him in drag, he hiked he skirt and yelled, “come on ladies,” fleeing through the back door.
Walt and his group of women were met by another gang who had been around back to catch any escaping out the exit. He pushed headlong into the group of them, barreling them over and giving enough time for the other ladies to escape. He brought up the back, with the men in hot pursuit through the back alleys of New York.
Walt knew the ladies wouldn’t last long in an open run.
“Into the crowds!” he hollered as they came to E. street. He grabbed Emily’s hand as the group of ladies split among workers, citizens, and street traffic.
Swirling among the masses, Walt and Emily—with her companion, Susan—quickly lost the gang as they blended in. They slid off the street and into the shadows of an antique store. They made their way to the back of the shop before the owner came out.
“May I help you?”
“Just looking,” said Walt.
Two of the gang members came in, and the trio ducked behind a Japanese curtain and exited through the back door quietly before the men noticed. Breathing a sigh of relief, Walt gestured, “We need to keep moving, down the alleys and away from E. Street.” Emily and Susan nodded, and they made their way to 35th and D.
It was nearing sunset when they emerged. “I think we’re safe now. That was close.” said Walt. Emily looked at him, starring into his eyes, deep into his soul.
“What manner of woman haven’t the Gods seen these long mortal years. Thank you, I thank you for saving us. We had no idea such happenings took place.”
“Neither did I. I’m Wal…Whitney, Whitney Whitman. And you are?”
“Emily, Emily Dickinson and this is my sister-in-law Susan. We are here just for a trip to read and hear poetry. I myself being a poet of no manner from Amherst. Susan being my confident in all poetic doings.”
“Brilliant! That was your work then I heard. I quite enjoyed it, being fond of the sea myself, growing up in these neighborhoods. I’d be interested to hear more of your work.”
Emily blushed, “it is of no significance. I never do this, but was missing my dear Susan. To own a Susan of my own is the greatest thing.” Susan blushed as well, giving Emily a side smile.
“Well then, how about over dinner? We can talk about words, places, things of the sea? Fish perhaps? It’s no problem for a lady to be out in the city, we aren’t like other places in these United States. No man required…but I fear that’s what got us here in the first place!” said Walt laughing.
“I fear our dearest Whitney that we can’t, we are headed back tonight by coach to Baltimore before I part for Amherst. I will be seeing Susan and my brother at their home.”
“Well, that’s too bad. Let me give you my address and we can exchange some letters. Poetry and words? I do long letters and writing, myself a poet. I can tell you about all the happenings here. You could also return and visit sometime.”
“Quite desirable, I agree. One day is not enough for such grand adventures. Alas, no paper or pen is near.”
“Don’t worry, I have some.” said Walt pulling some pencil and a small notebook from an inside pocket. Susan noticed his hairy legs.
“Trends of Manhattan?” Walt looked down.
“Oh…ugh yes, you know, from the French…” He wrote down his address and handed it to Emily. It read 91 Remsen St., Brooklyn, NY.
“Wonderful. As soon as I return to Amherst, I shall post right away. I look forward to it Whitney. One needs good strong friends like you in exciting places.”
The trio parted ways. Walt picked up his clothes from E. street.
A few weeks later a letter came in the post from Emily. The handwriting had a certain eloquence, yet blocky look.
My Dearest Whitney,
What a glorious evening it was the day we met. Like a knight out of a story, you saved us from certain doom. I owe you at least the words to the poem you so liked that I was reading. Please take them in payment for a debt I can never repay
Oh this wondrous sea- sailing silently-
Ho! Pilot! Ho!
Knowest thou the shore
Where no breakers roar-
Where the storm is o’er?
In the silent West
Many- the sails at rest-
The anchors fast
Thither I pilot thee-
Land! Ho! Eternity!
Ashore at Last!
I hope this letter finds you in good health and that we can communicate very soon. Please send a return as soon your time permits. I am very much waiting your reply.
In loving admiration,
Walt gave a big smile, promptly pulled a fresh sheet from the floor, and began writing
I was so pleased to hear from you. I hadn’t expected the letter so soon. But what delightful pleasure it gave me to read the words. It is a quiet day here in the city. I was walking about as usual, taking in the smells, tasting the sounds, seeing old friends and making new ones (but none like you!)—The sun beams its linear rays down upon my house, yet it is not as bright as if you were here! Your presence—your words would fill the room—I would bask every minute in them. I will carry your letter every day till I have it committed to my memory.
Is your companion Susan is well. She didn’t talk much, just moved her body to the sounds of the city—she’d do well here. Of course one big city to another, Baltimore to New York. How I would love to see the country whole, go west perhaps to Illinois and beyond. Such fresh opportunities in those western mountains.
Today has been a composing day. I am working on a book, Leaves of Grass that I’d like to publish soon. Of course I have many scraps of paper and little notebooks I take everywhere. I can’t miss any moment, any opportunity—to record life, the universe—the birds, bees, squirrels, sounds, scents, leaves, pleasures, people, and jostling of the day. But tell me, what do you think of these words, to be found in my upcoming volume, they at least can please you till my next letter
I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here from parents the same, and their
parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.
Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.
I would love to read more of your words. You have such a grace about you-timid, yet powerful.
Anything you can send along I will be sure to devour into my soul.
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Here are samples of my writing out in the world in print in publications and journals.