Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Rates of Exchange

The day is cold, damp, and cranky to the point where you already know you are not going to be allowed outside for the afternoon recess, with its opportunities to do what you'd begun the habit of doing every afternoon.

Running in such weather was of particular joy, beyond the joy of erupting in rivulets of perspiration, taking in great gasps of air so cold you could feel the insides of your lungs protesting.  There was sure to be no running today, no recess.

Seeming to ratify this dread state, a late afternoon squall of rain began pelting the windows, slanting in the wind.  You were at best ten years old, too young by far to appreciate the implications of Mrs. De Angelo, your teacher, late thirties, one of the more consistent things about her being her slow, deliberate way of talking in order to gloss over the New York accent in her alto-register voice that wanted to say "arit-ma-tic," who on occasion called attention to a pronunciation of yours to your class mates.  "This is how they say it in Califor-ni-yeah," drawing out the syllables.

Those were days when being screwed meant no recess or having Mrs. Welstead to come in to present the music lesson.  There was little room for nuance then; things were what they were, in large part directly related to what you could not do or what you had to do because one or more adults said this thing was what someone your age did. Or ought to do. There was a certain romance to knowing you had a list of things you disagreed with, did only because you were told you were supposed to.  Didn't mean you had to agree or like

Those were days when an erection was still a boner, when that entire process seemed to sneak up on you, bringing results you could neither anticipate nor control.  Five or six years later, when the results were more matter of fact, you understood from the cause and effect of your Senior Problems high school teacher, Mrs. Josephine Davis, wearing a white angora sweater, and the effects of your fifth grade Teaching Assistant, Mary Cohen, wearing a white angora sweater.  You knew in high school that Mrs. Davis wore white angora sweaters with greater deliberation than Mary Cohen did.

Things were in flower all about you on that no-recess day, including your puberty and your literary ambitions, when Mrs. De Angelo sighed and said, "Well, I guess I'd better read to youse."

She opened a book and read.  "'Tom!'

"No answer.


"No answer.

"'What's gone with that boy, I wonder!  You TOM!'

"No answer.

"The old lady pulled her spectacles down and looked over them about the room; then she put them up and looked under them.  She seldom or never looked through them for so small a thing as a boy; they were her state pair, the pride of her heart, and were built for 'style,' not service--she could have seen through a pair of stove lids just as well."

As it so happened, a copy of that book, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,was on sale at, of all places, a nearby drug store, for twenty-nine cents.  In the rates of exchange and value systems of the time, twenty-nine cents was enough for one model airplane and four pieces of penny candy at Mr. Lieber's candy store, or two admissions to Saturday movies either at the Roxy, or the Ditmas, and seven pieces of penny candy.  With one more penny, you could purchase three comic books.

Memory fades on your net worth at the time but it reminds you, however much you had, that you needed to engage in negotiations where you were mortgaging the time and energy needed to secure that balance.  Since you do recall agreeing to "watch" or sit with Edward Beagle, while his mother went to a movie with friends, your best guess is that you were in for about three or four cents while lacking the twenty-five.

You were at the drug store just before closing time, and had the book shortly thereafter.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was by no means the first book you'd read nor the first book to have resonated for you, so you cannot account for it having spoken to you in that particular context, but after you'd stayed up most of the night, reading it, devouring its implications, you knew you had to find out the answer to a question that had begun to possess you.

The next day, you asked Mrs. De Angelo if Mark Twain had been able to make enough money from writing that book to live on.

She closed her eyes in thought, for Mrs. De Angelo, although blunt and outspoken at times, did have a fine reserve of thoughtfulness.  "He probably made enough to last for a while, but he probably had a lot more reasons for writing a book than wanting to live on the income from it."

From across the years, you remember Mrs. De Angelo for having introduced you to things you still live with.  From Mark Twain you learned the value of having friends with whom to have adventures and how, if such individuals were tied up with adult-based things, you could invent such friends, then call them characters.

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