Q&A With Matt Mercier: From the Aquarium to Edgar Allan Poe

On stage at the Story Collider last October, Matt Mercier told an extraordinary story of a high-school physics love triangle (really!), which became one of our most popular podcasts. What he didn't say in that story (because it wasn't relevant) was that he worked for a while as the docent of the Edgar Allan Poe house in the Bronx. We couldn't let that rest, though, so I called him up to talk about his work there, and discovered an unexpected connection to science . . . in the form of an aquarium and Poe's version of the Big Bang.

Ben Lillie: You lived in Edgar Allan Poe's house for a long time.

Matt Mercier: Yeah, that was five years ago. I was the docent, the head docent and caretaker. I had to take care of the grounds. I'd pick up the trash. There was trash everywhere. But the main responsibility was to be the head docent. I had to give tours on the weekends—Saturdays from 10:00 to 4:00 and Sundays from one to five. So I would get up in the morning, just make some coffee—I lived in the basement—and I'd walk upstairs to the museum, which was on top, and yeah, just give interpretive tours of this very small—it's like a nineteenth-century farm cottage. There's the basement and then there's two stories above. So very sparse, a couple of pieces of furniture that were his: a rocking chair, a mirror, and the bed that his wife died on, at the age of twenty-five from TB. That was the main responsibility—being an ambassador to the neighborhood. So that was a lot of fun.

Poe was an interesting cat. He fancied himself a scientist in some regards. He wrote a text while he was living there called “Eureka.” It is absolute madness. It is his idea of how the universe is composed. So it's like a cosmology. And it shows you he was a raging intellect. I mean he basically came up with his own theory of the Big Bang. He wrote this in like 1846 or '47. And it's basically an explanation of what would become the Big Bang theory. I can't even begin to describe it, Ben, because reading it gives me a headache.

It turns in over on itself. His vocabulary's huge. And the sentences go on and on. It's a bizarre work.

BL: That's wild. You don't think of him as a science-y person, but he obviously had, well, large interests, but bits in his other stories as well.

MM: You couldn't call him a man of faith. Definitely believed in the spirit in afterlife of some kind. But I think he was more of a rational-minded person. And yet, he wrote these bizarre, gothic tales.

BL: How'd you get the job?

MM: Just sheer dumb luck and desperation. I was sitting in Dempsey's bar on Second Ave. with a friend of mine. I had just lost both my jobs. This was right after 9/11 actually. I was working for a documentary filmmaker. They left town. And I had an apartment and just could pay the rent, but then my friend said, “Oh, I heard about this gig up in the Bronx, and I think you'd be perfect for it.” Because actually, my first job, the first job I ever worked, was as a tour guide at the Mystic Marine Life Aquarium in Mystic, Connecticut.

BL: Ha! What's the main difference giving a tour of Poe's house and an aquarium?

MM: There are a lot more drug dealers in the Bronx than there are at an aquarium. I don't know, giving tours of anything is very similar. Because you get people who are literally obsessed with the facts. You get people who are obsessed with the facts, and they make a pilgrimage and they want to know all the details. They want to know what this is and what that is. So it's really, on a basic level, you're just trying to show people how things work.

BL: The aquarium, this was a high school job?

MM: This was in high school. It's interesting because the first thing I ever wanted to be in my life was a marine biologist. I actually wanted to be a marine biologist. I had my whole future planned out. I got this job because my parents were volunteers there, so I started working there during the summer. I had seal islands. I had beluga whales and dolphins. And I loved it. It was a great job to have, and I got to hang out with the biologists, with the shark expert. So if I'd had the aptitude to be a scientist, it would have been the perfect entry point. But I realized quickly that, again, the research always stymied me.

BL: What part of it? What would stymie you?

Scientists would perform these tricks with the dolphins and whales, and I thought that's what a scientist did all the time.

MM: Well, just the way I would read scientific journals and I couldn't use numbers and facts and graphs. I realized what people actually wrote about, what people actually had to do, like the meticulousness behind the observation. I thought, wow, this is really dull. Because at the aquarium, there was a lot of glamor. Dolphins and whale shows, scientists would come on and they would perform these tricks with the dolphins and whales, and I thought that's what a scientist did all the time. So I thought, I want to be a marine biologist, until I realized it was about taking samples and making logs and publishing in journals. I thought, I don't have the skills for this, or the patience for it. But now that I'm a little older, I can see there's a lot of similarities between writing stories and novels and being a scientist.

BL: I was going to say, you're a writer, and there's a large amount of meticulousness to that as well.

MM: Yeah. So it's just a matter of passion and aptitude I think. Because writing a story or a novel or even a short story can be extremely tedious, but if you know the end result will be something you proud of, then yeah.

BL: What's you favorite fact that you still remember?

MM: Beluga whales, they have round teeth. You can put your hand inside a beluga whale's mouth.

BL: You can stick your hand in their mouth and they don't bite it off?

MM: Yeah. Their teeth are round and they don't bite down. I would do that and people would be like, “Oh, my God! What are you doing?”

BL: Do you remember any particularly crazy scientist who came to Poe's house? I know you have stories about crazy people visiting the house.

I consider myself a rational person, but when you live there by yourself for a long time, your rationality starts to wane a little bit.

MM: There was a guy who wanted to perform a séance. He claimed to be a psychic. He showed up at my door at the last minute dressed all in purple. He had purple sneakers, he had a purple turban on, and he was from L.A. He said he had come all the way from L.A. to see the cottage, and he had to see the cottage. And so against my better judgment, I let him in. We had a bronze bust of Poe in the parlor, and he sat in the lotus position in front of the bronze bust. He started ohming, and he wanted to light incense, he wanted to call up the spirit of Poe. The thing about it was, I consider myself a rational person, but when you live there by yourself for a long time, your rationality starts to wane a little bit. And this guy had so much conviction, that I actually, for a minute, thought he's going to fuck with the temporal—something's going to happen. I'd been reading a lot of wormhole theory and stuff. I'd been reading all these books on metaphysics and whatnot. So I was not in my best mind. And I thought, he's going to open a portal or something. I was really out of my skull. Because he chanting Latin and all these languages I didn't understand. But he knew the languages. It was like he was not making it up. It was really spooky.

He eventually left because he asked me if his car would be safe. And I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “Well, I drove up here, and I'm parked out there on the concourse.” And I said, “Whoa. Do you have the Club? This is tough neighborhood. This is the Bronx.” He kind of freaked out, like, “Oh, my God!” I was like, “Yeah, your hubcaps are probably gone by now.” I just started saying to him, “You better go check your car. I'll wait for you,” and blah, blah, blah. And then as soon as he left, I just locked the gate and went back to the basement and hid. So I don't know, he was out of his mind. But I was out of my mind too you know. I lost all kind of rational thought for a while.

Watch Matt tell that story at a Moth StorySLAM:

BL: That's really interesting, because you're living for years in Poe's house and talking about it daily, more or less. And I guess that mentality seeps into you?

MM: Yeah, well, people said I started to look like him. My sideburns got kind of big. Really weird. When I took the job it was just a job. I had no investment.

The major turning point was there was a caretaker for the Walt Whitman cottage who showed up once. He was a real dick. He started grilling me about Poe and whether I knew my stuff. And he's like, “Yeah, I look after an historical house too. You might have heard of him. He's called Walt Whitman,” blah, blah, blah. And so I said, “Oh yeah, I've heard of Walt Whitman.” He was like, “Oh, really.” I never thought I'd be having a pissing contest with another caretaker. He was really trying to get my goat, and he made me realize, well I have to defend Poe. I can't just be a caretaker. I really have to know my stuff.

And historically, Poe and Whitman were both—well, they weren't really rivals because Whitman came into his own after Poe died—but Whitman kind of trashed Poe. Initially, he didn't feel like poetry should be dark. Then he rescinded that many years later after Poe was dead.

BL: That's fantastic. So you're re-enacting their rivalry later.

MM: I think I was aware of that in the moment. Like, wait a minute, this is really meta. We're really acting out an old battle here. He was saying, “I believe poetry should be beautiful.” I was like, “Well, somebody has to speak for the dark side.”

Matt Mercier is a writer and storyteller whose work has appeared in The Mississippi Review, The Brooklyn Rail, Glimmer Train, and The Raven Chronicles. He currently teaches at Hunter College.