Disclaimer: I do not own the characters or the poetry.
Please note, these are actual excerpts from the poem, but they are not necessarily presented in order. I strongly encourage you to read it if you never have; it's online at Bartleby (though that version is different from the Library of America version I've used here).
He had bad days when it seemed like he would never understand the world he'd woken up in. Those days came often enough, though usually he could push the alienation aside and focus on the familiar, the routine, the comforting. But some days he could not bear the 21st century. Then he would retreat to a quiet place and brood until the feeling passed.
On one such day he sat staring down at the East River. From a distance, things didn't seem quite as new and jarring. There was the river, the Brooklyn Bridge; there was the harbor, and Lady Liberty. He concentrated on the slate-colored water far below and tried to ignore anything younger than himself. It worked until the door opened and someone younger walked in.
"Oh! I didn't know you were in here," Pepper said. Steve felt irritated at being interrupted, and then felt bad about feeling irritated.
"Sorry," he said shortly. "I'll get out of your way."
"You're not in the way. How are you?" She was no fool, and he knew the question was deeper than the answer he'd intended to give.
Instead he found himself saying, "I'm an old man in a new world. I don't even recognize my city anymore."
She was quiet for a very long while. When she did speak, her words were unexpected to the man who'd long since grown to hate pity. "Do you like poetry?"
It was enough of a surprise to force him to finally look at her. At that moment he saw the woman Tony loved: patient and kind and intelligent and strong. So although he didn't understand why she'd asked, he answered truthfully. "I haven't read much since I left high school."
"A good poem can work wonders," she said, just as cryptically as she'd asked the question, and left quietly.
It was no surprise to find the small book, wrapped in brown paper and tied with string, on his desk the following day. Unwrapped it was a used hardcover titled Leaves of Grass. Steve vaguely remembered it from his school days, reading "O Captain! My Captain!" and thinking it—and Walt Whitman himself—laughably maudlin. Maybe he'd think differently now.
As he flipped through the pages, looking for the poem, they opened to a slip of paper acting as a bookmark. On it was Pepper's neat handwriting.
Whitman wrote this in the 19th century. He had faith in the city he loved and its people.
Steve removed the bookmark and sat on his bed, facing east, and started to read "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry."
What is it then between us?
What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?
Whatever it is, it avails not—distance avails not, and place avails not,
I too lived, Brooklyn of the ample hills was mine,
I too walk'd the streets of Manhattan island, and bathed in the water around it,
I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me,
In the day among the crowds of people sometimes they came upon me,
In my walks home late at night or as I lay in my bed they came upon me,
I too had been struck from the float forever held in solution,
I too had receiv'd identity by my body,
That I was I knew was of my body, and what I should be I knew I should be of my body.
Halfway through the poem and he had to close the book and cry.
Too many days he saw only what he had lost, what was missing from his previous life. Too many nights he felt the ghosts and the ice crowd around him until he was numb. Too often he mourned for what was no longer there with him, and in doing so ignored everything that remained.
He had always been defined by his physical self, and felt alone in it, alone in his weakness and alone in his strength. Never had anyone else told him that they felt defined in the same way (and he would not have believed it if they had), but he believed it now. And yet there was no sadness in the words. If anything the speaker seemed at home in his body, like it was an equal to his soul, like both body and soul had importance.
What gods can exceed these that clasp me by the hand, and with voices I love call me promptly and loudly by my nighest name as I approach?
He would dismiss his teammates and friends in favor of those he'd lost. He would brood and wish for things to be different, when the things he had at present were wonderful. He acted childishly and his friends indulged him. It took a dead poet to set him straight.
We understand then do we not?
What I promis'd without mentioning it, have you not accepted?
What the study could not teach—what the preaching could not accomplish is accomplish'd, is it not?
Whitman saw the Brooklyn ferry pass into the Brooklyn Bridge, and he did not mourn. He would have celebrated the change, lauded progress, and known that in the future, long after he'd died, New Yorkers would still stream from Brooklyn to Manhattan and back. What a man he must have been, thought Steve, to be so joyously anchored in his own present and to look so far ahead—to recognize the New Yorkers to come as his relatives and friends and lovers, familiar despite the years. He would not have let the calendar dictate how he felt and how he reacted.
Steve read the poem again, standing in front of the window, the city below seeming more like home. Tomorrow he would go and cross the bridge, the book in his pocket, the words in his heart.
Closer yet I approach you,
What thought you have of me now, I had as much of you—I laid in my stores in advance,
I consider'd long and seriously of you before you were born.
Who was to know what should come home to me?
Who knows but I am enjoying this?
Who knows, for all the distance, but I am as good as looking at you now, for all you cannot see me?