A Visit to the Walt Whitman Mall

I grew up near Huntington, the Long Island town where Walt Whitman was born in 1819. Whitman didn't stick around here long, though. He wrote a few poems about Long Island, but he lived most of his adult life in Brooklyn. He also put in a few years as a schoolteacher in Jamaica, Queens, and spent the last years of his life in Camden, New Jersey.

As a young kid growing up on Long Island, I didn't like it much either.

The suburbs rub me the wrong way. When I was a teenager, I used to hop on the Long Island Railroad and go into the city every chance I got. I was 16 the first night I slept in Penn Station, after I went alone to a Richard Hell and the Voidoids concert at Irving Plaza and found out I didn't have enough change in my pocket for the train home. (It was a crummy night. I slept sitting against a tile wall, and in the morning a cop woke me by smacking me hard on the arch of my foot with his stick. Now I know ... when those cops hit homeless people, they hit to hurt.)

There's a mall named after Walt Whitman in Huntington, and I think this is typical of the lameness of Long Island. I'm not saying it's wrong to name malls after writers. I could picture going to Hannibal, Missouri and visiting the Mark Twain Mall, for instance, and I'd have no problem at all with this. I wouldn't even mind a glitzy upscale F. Scott Fitzgerald Mall on the north shore of Long Island, in Great Neck or Manhasset. But is there any American writer whose work has less to do with shopping than Walt Whitman? He was an unwashed iconoclast, a rebel who loved to offend polite society, and an in-your-face sensualist homosexual back when nobody had the nerve to come out in public. He was so offensive, even Ralph Waldo Emerson balked at inviting him over for dinner, and it was Ralph Waldo Emerson whose endorsement of Leaves of Grass made Whitman a famous poet.

The worst thing is, this mall is not even an especially good one. I mean, they got a McCrory's, they got an A & S ... this is nothing special, nothing at all. And a few weeks ago it occurred to me that now that I run my own Web site I can say anything I want and present it to the world, and the very first thing I thought of was: OK, now I'm gonna dis the Walt Whitman Mall.

I loaded up my trusty camera with Kodak film and headed off to Huntington with my wife. I didn't know what I was going to take pictures of, but once I got inside the mall I started shooting everything that caught my eye, the same way I did on the 7 train when I did my rush-hour Beatles medley. But guess what happened? Well, you see this dude in the silly-looking Mountie cap coming towards me in this picture?

See how purposefully he strides toward me? The reason is, he's about to tell me it's against regulations to take pictures in the mall. Shit! It's a security violation, the Mountie said. Did he really think I was casing the joint? Did he really imagine that Maggie and I were spending our nights poring over maps and diagrams of the floor layout so we could tunnel into Sam Goody's and steal a bunch of CD's?

I mean, give me a fucking break.

So I only got a couple of pictures, and now I'm more pissed off than ever. Oh well. Here are the pictures I got:

This is where Walt Whitman was believed to have shopped for men's wear.

This is a bookstore that seemed to have run out of Walt Whitman books, since there wasn't a single Whitman book in this window. Just to be sure, I looked in the poetry section and was surprised to find a couple of copies of Leaves of Grass there. But why were there no signs or posters or arrows around the books? I suppose the owners didn't want too many people to know they were in stock -- there might have been a mad rush at the cash register.

Whitman is also believed to have bought pants in this store on occasion.

Whitman wore Khakis.

I wish I could show you more -- all these stores are by the front door, and I only got about a fifth of the way through the mall. After I got kicked out I was so mad I shot some pictures outside. Here's a sign outside an office building about a mile away from the mall.

You know, this shit just isn't funny.

It's time for me to move on to another 19th Century writer from New York. This writer was born the same year as Whitman, but while Whitman struggled as an unknown journalist until he became famous at the age of 36, this other writer was popular as a young man, and then lost his popularity. As a young man he wrote a number of successful, popular travel adventures. But it bothered him that he'd never written a 'serious' piece of literature, and so he destroyed his reputation by writing one of the greatest books of all time, after which nobody wanted to read him anymore. His career never recovered, and he died bitter, forgotten and impoverished. The book was Moby Dick and the first chapter of this book was called ...

Queensboro Ballads
by Levi Asher