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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Does Early Shoplifting Lead to the Writing Life?

      When I read this piece in the current New Yorker I was transported back to sometime around the tumultuous year of 1968, to a department store most likely in Manchester, New Hampshire. I remember that I was wearing a brightly decorated but mostly yellow big kind of hippie shirt we called "a smock" that had two big pockets right about where your hands hang. Big pockets are handy for your hands and for impulsive shoplifting.
     I remember that I was out of eyesight of my mother, which wasn't unusual or particularly terrifying in those days, and I was browsing through a big counter of odds and ends heaped there, typical merchandising in the old five and dimes. I wasn't much taller than the bin and was leaning in to get a better look. I was touching things, and looking at them, I'm not sure why. And that's when I came upon it...
     I picked up a little palm sized Spanish / English dictionary. My heart started beating faster. Touching it felt life changing. I thought about the fact that I was starting school, and only spoke one lousy language, which suddenly seemed pathetic. A serious scholar should speak several languages I thought, and I knew I'd better bone up real quick. I also noticed my handy hippie pockets and how perfectly the little book slid in there. I started working on my vocabulary as soon as I got home, and my mother who didn't seem to notice most things I did, noticed. "Where did you get that?" she asked.
       I replied then much as I still do now when overwrought with guilt, by bursting into a weeping heap while choking out a snotty confession. She said I had to tell my father which was about the worst punishment conceivable and I had to wait hours til he got home to do it. He put me in the car and made me give it back to the befuddled store manager, though Dad did help me with the confession there, probably to bypass the aforementioned histrionics.
     That was it. I was not presented with my own dictionary like Patti Smith. And I never learned to speak more than Sesame Street Spanish, even when I took it in high school. I still speak only one lousy language, and it still seems pathetic to me. It sure would've come in handy when I was in Spain a few years ago. Instead I got to bumble my way through the country with the patient help of the bilingual Spaniards. They had to help me, I didn't have a dictionary with me.

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