Tuesday, April 22, 2008

An Ominous Tap on the Shoulder

On the first day Peace Pilgrim started her walk for peace (see my previous blog "Wardrobe Watch"), she joined up with a parade going on in Pasadena, California, and began handing out printed flyers and talking to people. At one point a police officer put a hand on her shoulder. She assumed it was to admonish her and chase her off. Instead he said, "What we need is thousands like you."

I was especially amused by this story, because of being reminded by it that something like this had happened to me many years ago--albeit in very different circumstances.

I made a serious stab once at being a thief. It was when I was in my early twenties, and what I stole was an amazing, shocking-pink velvet bathing suit from Saks Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Two things prompted me to engage in this Borgesian perfect crime and make my own modest but indelible mark on thieving history.

I was reading, at the time, an underground book called "The Thief's Journal" by Jean Genet, a denizen both of French jails and exalted literary circles. Besotted with Genet's thieving bravura, to this day I can recall one of the most striking statements he made to his biographer, Jean-Paul Sartre: "They called me a thief, and so I became a thief." Genet somehow managed to frame stealing as a profound philosophical act, a reasonable option.

All of this was happening around the same time that I was invited by my then friends Lawrence Alloway, the English art critic and his wife, the painter Sylvia Alloway, to spend a weekend at their beach house in East Hampton. Off I went to Saks with another friend to purchase a new bathing suit. The luscious pink velvet one I found was so consummately gorgeous, I gasped, knowing absolutely that I had to have it. Nothing else would do. But that suit, needless to say, was priced way beyond my paltry budget at the time. In a strained moment of perfect ease, I decided to attempt my one and only ever "literary" crime, putting Jean Genet's thieving philosophy to the test.

My friend was aghast. "What if you get caught?" she asked. "It's not worth the risk." But I was undaunted, powerless to manage the desire that had overtaken me. Besides, from my reading, I knew the risk was itself the magic.

I happened to have with me a black attache case, into which I slipped the bathing suit. (This was way before department stores had surveillance cameras.) I told my friend we needed to leave the dressing room separately, and that I would meet her outside on the street. That way if anything bad did happen, she would not be implicated in any way. I also knew that once I was outside the door of the store, I could no longer be accosted. So I held my breath all the way down the elevator and only let it out when I got outside the door and reconnected with my friend. A feeling of exhilaration came over me, as we slowly began making our way back up Fifth Avenue, lost in the crowd. It was after we'd gone about a block and a half when I suddenly felt that ominous hand on my shoulder from behind.

"Oh God!" I thought. "I'm done for!." I turned around to face the music, and a man said, "Do you happen to know what time it is?" Impossible to miss the synchronicity here. And just for the record, Sylvia Alloway painted my portrait wearing that shocking pink bathing suit.

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