“Talent borrows, genius steals” is usually attributed to Oscar Wilde, and occasionally Pablo Picasso. There is, however, no record of either one actually saying or writing this. T. S. Eliot, on the other hand, wrote, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” Theft and appropriation have always been artistic engines. In this issue, Kevin Young—poet, essayist, and anthologist—looks at how thievery is done well (Bob Dylan) and not so well (Jonah Lehrer). Mary Ruefle and Erika Meitner demonstrate the art of erasure, turning extant texts into ready-made poetry. Victor LaValle remembers the time he played at being a teen runaway in Times Square. Pulitzer Prize winner Adam Johnson returns to our pages, and to Korea, with his story “Fortune Smiles,” in which North Korean expat grifters try to navigate the laws and mores of Seoul. We sent out a call for short essays about memorable thefts, and it is an honor to have the call answered by the doyen of crime writers, Mary Higgins Clark, alongside Alissa Nutting, George Singleton, and Laura Lippman. Clark reminds us that, in Shakespeare’s words, “The robbed that smiles steals something from the thief.” Enjoy.
Current Issue #65
Fiction:Samantha Hunt, Kevin Barry, Matt Bell, Kirsten Bakis, Adam Johnson
“Say you love me, Sally,” Manfred whispered, running his hands down my sides. I could feel them, warm and rough, through the thin linen of my shift, but my mind was elsewhere. I was trying to see something through the hashish fog that blurred my thoughts: a blue-and-white vase, narrower at the bottom than at the top, like a broad-shouldered woman in a fashionable hobble skirt, with no head and an open, empty neck.
“Yes. Of course I do.”
I wondered which was worse: my inability to love him or my readiness to lie. I knew I was lying. Where my heart should be was something selfish and ravenous. It had always been that way. What was it after? Something bigger than a man, certainly.
As a child lying in bed in our rented rooms, I used to hear trains go by. When one approached, its light slashed through the flour-sack curtains my mother had made, first invading the narrow openings between them but then, as it got closer, blasting through the entire window, as if they weren’t there. When this happened late at night, I tried to keep from waking completely by squeezing my eyelids tight and putting my hands over my ears. But as the train passed the window the sound filled my body until there was no resisting; until there was not even an I to resist.
What I longed for was something like that. But more. Not only to feel the bed shake as my body dissolved for a few moments but also for the feeling to go on. I wanted to be inside the train. I wanted to be in the firebox, burning.
Sometimes after the train passed, as I lay in the huge silence, I imagined I’d been burned up. I felt myself disperse like smoke into the cold, star-pricked sky, and I wondered if what I wanted was to be dead.
I’d recalled that feeling six weeks ago, just before I met Manfred, the night Danny and I had a fight. Danny said the only thing wrong with a man forcing himself on his wife was that he shouldn’t have to. He said I was cold, that I didn’t love him, that maybe I didn’t deserve to be called a woman, or even human. Things got worse from there. I lay alone afterward, wondering if it was possible to pull each atom of my body away from every other atom.
I came to New York City instead. Nineteen years old, married for all of twenty days, my few belongings in an old leather suitcase, I walked half the day to get to a station where the ticket seller didn’t know me and boarded a train.
On my first evening in the city, I went to the Whittinger house to apply for a chambermaid position I’d seen advertised in the paper. I stood on the cold street and tilted my head back to look at the marble facade rising four stories above me, row upon row of windows. The sun had just set, the lights were on, and the huge house blazed.
Manfred’s hand stroked my hip. He was nothing like Danny, who looked nice enough but was blunt, insistent, and self-serving. Manfred’s hands made me feel like the things Danny said I wasn’t.
I would have done anything with him, but there was one thing I couldn’t risk: becoming pregnant. I had my job thanks to another maid getting thrown out on the street for that reason. It had been a great relief when I’d been sure, a few weeks after I arrived, that Danny hadn’t put me in the same situation, and I wasn’t going to take any chances now. Manfred didn’t like it, but he was good at finding other avenues to pleasure.
Even with my eyes closed, I couldn’t block out the miserable room we were in. It had become so familiar over the past weeks that I could picture it perfectly: the bare yellowed mattress, the scuffed walls, the flickering light from the candle stub guttering in an old beer bottle. We were in a windowless chamber nine blocks from the Fifth Avenue mansion I now worked in, behind a licensed hashish smoking parlor in the East Sixties. The floor was strewn with trash: newspaper, a board with a nail sticking out, bits of twine, a crowbar with flecks of something all over one end—rust, or blood. There were no bedclothes on our mattress, any more than there were pictures on the walls, or furniture, or draperies, or Ming vases on pedestals, or electric chandeliers shedding the harsh and glittering shards of light that rain down on the heads of the wealthy.
“I smell something burning,” I said, opening my eyes.
“It’s only the candle smoking,” Manfred said.
It was true. The flame rose high for a moment, crooked and sooty and crackling pathetically, as if it were clinging to life, knowing its wick was about to plunge through the last thin bit of wax and drop into the mouth of the bottle, into darkness.
“Let’s look at each other before it goes out,” Manfred murmured, pulling me close with one hand and lifting my chin with the other. His Walford Bodie–style mustache drooped on one side. In its perfectly waxed form, its stiff handlebars pointed upward like arms raised in alarmed surrender. Lopsided, it made him look like a cheap copy of his idol, who was a very famous magician. Manfred wasn’t: he had to pick pockets to supplement his income. He often tried to explain Bodie’s ideas about electricity, how it could be harnessed to work miracles, like healing afflictions and controlling minds. My father had had similarly convoluted theories about the interplay of mystical forces required to make a great singer, though he had given up trying.
But Manfred did have some power; when I glanced at his eyes, not completely hidden by his flop of oily hair, I didn’t want to look for too long. He said he could hypnotize people, and I believed him. His irises were unsettling, so light brown they seemed to glow. I tucked my head under his chin.
A few days earlier, in the library of the Whittinger house, I had discovered a pamphlet on a low shelf called How to Maintain Self-Control While Under Hypnosis. I put it into my pocket and took it up to my room. The trick, it said, was to concentrate one’s will, one’s sense of self, into some object or scene that was easily visualized, and hold it firmly in mind. This technique was supposed to be practiced while falling asleep before being attempted during hypnosis. I didn’t have to make a special effort to practice. The vase was my object of power. Two weeks earlier, Mr. Whittinger had come up behind me as I dusted near it and said quietly, “Be careful, new girl. That’s worth twenty years of your salary.” His hand brushed the back of my skirt. Since then, as I lay on the narrow bed in my tiny room on the fourth floor of the Whittinger house, I’d thought about it every night.
With my head down now, all I could see was a patch of dirty mattress, framed by my brown hair and Manfred’s pale chest. Then the candle went out.
“Never mind, we don’t need light,” he said, burying his nose in my hair. “Ouch.”
I felt his fingers against my scalp and realized he was pulling out a hairpin. He tossed it away and I heard its tiny clatter as it landed amid the other debris on the floor.
I’d have to find it later, because I needed every single one to keep my hair in place. The other pins lay on top of my neatly folded chambermaid’s uniform, in the corner of the room as far away from our sweaty bed as possible.
It was through that uniform that I’d met Manfred. I’d been sent to a seamstress to have it fitted. She also made cheap costumes for theater people, and Manfred had come to pick up his black cape after having the scarlet lining mended. As he was coming out of the doorway, I was going in. Our bodies bumped into each other, and some sort of red-orange explosion, blue-hearted like a gas flame, occurred inside me. For a moment I thought it was hate. When I came out of the shop he was waiting for me.
Six weeks later, it seemed as if this tiny secret chamber behind the hashish parlor, its air thick with smoke and animal smells, was my home, more than my little room in the Whittinger house or anywhere else I’d ever lived. And, as new as I was to men and the life of the flesh, Manfred’s hands, now cupping my shoulders, now sliding up my neck, felt like hands that my body had always known.
I didn’t love him. I couldn’t. He was a liar and a thief. But my body didn’t seem to care. It rose and fell for him like the tide for the moon.
Manfred’s hands were around my throat and his thumbs slid up under my chin, tilting my head back, and no matter how I tried to hold it in my mind, the vase, the beautiful vase, kept disappearing behind the brown clouds of hashish smoke and desire that always hung around him.
“I want it,” I said. It was difficult to speak with his thumbs pressed against my throat.
“What, then?” He put more pressure on, gently, hopefully.
“A thing I want to steal.” I tried to twist out of his grasp.
“Oh.” He let go of me. “I told you to steal the jelly spoons, and you did a good job. Now you’ve come up with something else on your own?”
“Well, yes. But I don’t think I can do it. It makes me too nervous.” I took his hands and squeezed them.
“I’m trying to say I need your advice.”
“I’m glad you still need something from me.”
“This is bigger. The jelly spoons were easy,” I said. “They were in a drawer nobody ever looks at. And they’re small and the Whittingers are so rich. It hardly mattered to anybody. No danger at all. Not like the things you do. Stealing people’s jewelry when they come to the stage door for your autograph. Taking that heiress’s diamond from around her neck while you were kissing her. How do you do that?”
“You know what I like about you, Sally? You don’t ask why. You ask how.”
“I know why.”
“Do you?” He squeezed my wrists.
“Because you can. You’re a good magician, and it’s the same thing, doing things secretly so nobody sees. Right in front of their faces. They think you’re doing one thing, but you’re really doing something else.”
He laughed. “That’s all true, except I’m not such a very good magician. If I were, don’t you think I’d make enough to support my bad habits?”
I wondered what those were. I knew about the opium, and of course the hashish. The woman with the diamond had been left behind in Nebraska. Were there more?
“Maybe you do it because stealing is easier? And more exciting.”
“Do you find it exciting?” Manfred asked. He was pressing my arms hard into my sides, pinning them there. “I do too.”
“Maybe that’s the problem with the thing I want to steal. It excites me. I want it so badly I can’t get near it.”
“Mm.” Manfred’s mouth was on my neck.
“The Whittingers are rich. Emma Goldman . . . ”
I had an image of my mother quoting her as she scrubbed the floor with chapped hands. Something about it being impossible to steal something that isn’t rightfully owned. My mother’s sense of injustice had always been background noise to me. We were poor; boys did things like throw mud at me, and worse; nothing would change that. Was it even worth talking about? But after I stole the jelly spoons, when Mr. Whittinger told me that little vase was worth five thousand dollars, it occurred to me for the first time that maybe things could be different.
“Emma Goldman.” Manfred laughed into my neck. “One doesn’t steal because it’s the right thing to do.”
“But—you don’t ever steal from poor people, do you?” I asked.
“What about people who love you?”
“But what about the heiress?”
Not that that theft had done him any good. He’d assumed the almond-sized stone was valuable but, because of its color, hadn’t realized it was a diamond—a famous one—until he got to New York and read about it in the newspaper. I suppose she didn’t trust him enough to divulge its true worth. But she won in the end, because it proved useless to him: none of his criminal friends were willing to fence it, and he’d had to hide it. He hadn’t mentioned where it was now.
“She didn’t love me. And she was rich.”
I suspected she had loved him. But she was rich. Probably nothing could really hurt her.
“I think about it all day. The vase.”
I had said it aloud, the name of my magic object of power, but nothing happened. Manfred wasn’t listening closely. He was licking my ear. “That’s good,” he said.
“That’s why I get so nervous,” I said. “See what I’m saying?”
“I start thinking I’ll fail. I panic.”
That’s what it was. I knew the panic would make me blind and clumsy. If footsteps approached, I wouldn’t hear them over my own breathing and the timpani pulses in my ears. If another servant entered the gallery I wouldn’t see him for the starbursts of fear and desire in front of my eyes. Even if none of that happened, I feared I would trip over nothing on the flat marble floor and break my prize.
“I need your help,” I said.
Manfred stopped what he was doing. “Why?”
“I think—” I paused. “I think I want you to hypnotize me,” I said quickly. “So I don’t lose my nerve.”
“Hypnotize me. So I can steal that Ming vase. The one that’s small and light and worth five thousand dollars.”
He let go of my arms then. I could feel his hand move, up near my head, and I realized he was twirling his mustache, which he did when he was unhappy.
“Why,” he said flatly.
“I want it.” I put my hands on his shoulders.
“You’re too new at this. You’d get caught. I’d never see you again.”
“Not if you hypnotize me. You can.” He kept twirling his mustache. “I saw you hypnotize that girl to walk the tightrope. The time I watched your show.”
He stopped twirling.
“She already knew how. She was a plant.”
“You said she wasn’t.” Her look of surprised surrender as her body softened under his stare did not seem like something a person could fake.
I dug my nails a little into his shoulders. “I think you’re lying now.”
I realized that if she was a plant, that meant he knew her. And that put a different light on that look on her face, the way she’d risen like a marionette at the sound of his voice. And maybe on what his other bad habits were. It occurred to me that although I didn’t know for certain which thing he’d said about her was true, I did know for certain that one of them was a lie.
“Make me believe I can steal the vase.” I dug my fingernails deeper.
Now he was the one to push my hands away. “Don’t do that,” he said. “I don’t like it.”
“Scratch me. And tell me what to do.” He grasped my hands very tightly.
“All right,” I said. “All right. Please hypnotize me. Is that better?”
“And if I could—if I did, and you did steal the vase, then what? Do you expect me to believe you’d come back to me?”
“Wouldn’t I have to come back to you? Wouldn’t the hypnosis put me under your power?”
I knew it wouldn’t. I wasn’t worried. Once I had the vase actually in my hand, I was sure nothing Manfred did would be able to eclipse it.
“I don’t know whether I could put you under my power. It depends on how receptive you are.”
“How receptive was the tightrope girl?”
“You don’t even want it,” he said. “You always duck away from my eyes. You’re afraid of them.”
“No. I’m not. I just . . .” I lost my train of thought as he put both of my wrists into one of his hands and lifted my chin with his other. We couldn’t see anything; it was pitch black. But that didn’t matter: I could feel he was looking at me, and that feeling, alive and eddying, like a current, seemed to travel all the way down the center of my body.
“You’d have to trust me. I don’t think you do.”
“I don’t think so,” I agreed.
“You want me to give you power, but then you want to run away with it and keep it for yourself.” He squeezed my wrists in his hands until they hurt, still holding my chin up. “Don’t you?”
“No,” I said. But a little thrill ran against the current, from somewhere low down to up in my throat. I could do that. I could do worse. What about that diamond? Where was it? It must be somewhere in our room, of course. In a hidden spot in the wall, or under the floorboards. Maybe inside the mattress.
Manfred said he couldn’t sell it. But once, on my way back to our chamber, I’d passed a back room from which a voice called out to me. I stepped in the door and saw a perfectly bald man, pale as a fungus, dark hollows around his eyes, lying on a pallet in the dim light. “You’re the Great Manfred’s girl,” he said softly. “I know about his diamond. And I’d buy it. He didn’t like my price. But only a madman would take it and if you deal with a madman, it must be on his terms. Perhaps you’d be willing.” I walked away without answering, but I had not forgotten.
“I’d be very angry if you did that,” Manfred said. “If you ran away.”
“I couldn’t. I’d have to bring the vase back here, to hide it until you can sell it.”
“True,” Manfred said.
“And I wouldn’t have a job anymore. So I’d need you.”
“Only until you had the money in your hands.”
The money and that diamond. But how could I find it? The vase would give me an excuse: to go to the room when he wasn’t there, to rip open the mattress seam with a knife. I could say I was trying to find a place to hide it.
“Do you really think I’d leave you just because I got hold of some money?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Would you?”
I could still feel him staring at me in the dark, now like a spotlight shining on me. “Of course not,” I murmured.
“Good.” His voice entered me like some thick, sweet liquid I could feel in my throat.
“Would you. Would you mind,” I began. I wanted to ask him to let go of my hands, but I couldn’t finish the sentence because all I could think about was whether he was going to kiss me, and nothing else seemed as important at that moment.
“Do you know what we have to do with that vase?” he asked.
“We take it, and also the yellow diamond I told you about, and go to my friend in Brazil. We’ll sell them there. And then we’ll be rich, and build a house deep in the jungle, where we’ll never see anyone except each other, and we’ll lie in bed together all day.”
I was surprised to hear him mention the diamond, as if he had read my mind. “Okay,” I said.
He leaned close to me, so close I could feel him kissing me, even though he wasn’t yet.
“Do you know the air is full of electricity, Sally?”
“You’ve said that. That’s what Walford Bodie says.”
“But do you know it?” He almost touched his lips to mine.
“You must use it,” he said into my mouth.
When I first met Manfred it seemed funny that he believed so fiercely in Bodie. But something gave him power. Maybe it was electricity he pulled out of the air.
“How? How do I use it?” I breathed. I couldn’t see the vase before my eyes, but that didn’t matter: he was giving me the secret I needed to possess it. I could have the secret if I would just yield a little bit.
“First you must feel it. You do that by becoming naked. Not your body,” he said, although he was, in fact, pulling the straps of my shift off my shoulders as he spoke. He pulled them a couple of inches down, and then stopped.
“Your spirit, your being, your essence must be naked to the air.”
“Okay.” I shrugged the fabric down another inch. “All right.”
“Your nerves must be bare to the world.” He ran his hands over the loosened fabric of my slip, under and around the curve of my breasts. “So you can feel everything. So you can sense every vibration, hear everything, smell everything, even feel the echoes of distant footfalls in your body.” I could sense his voice vibrating in his chest, almost see it, shimmering and deep, like the glint of fool’s gold at the bottom of a stream.
Now he was running his hands up my sides and back, and down my front, intently. “Then you know what others are thinking, whether they see you . . . ”
His mouth began to travel slowly over my torso. I imagined him forging paths in an uncharted wilderness. Not the homely woods I’d wandered as a child, but someplace hot and unknown, maybe Brazil. I tried to remember something—what? what were we talking about?—but my thoughts seemed to move in a deep green jungle light, and to keep getting lost.
“You can sense those electrical—vibrations,” he went on, his words divided by kisses. “Not by training yourself, but by forgetting—all that you are. You’re born able to feel everything, but the skin thickens—the senses dull. You must shed that.” I felt his hands everywhere now.
“Then you can have what you desire. Your vase.” Now his voice was like the blackstrap molasses mixed with whiskey that my mother used to give me by big spoonfuls for the vitamins, thick and sweet and bitter at the same time, making me feel soft and dizzy. I was back in my shabby town, in the rented rooms by the railroad tracks, where my father sang arias in the kitchen in a beautiful drunken voice. The tonic used to warm me and make my father’s songs sound as if they were coming from the stage of a real theater.
“You can bring it here. We’ll go to Brazil,” he said. “You want to do that, don’t you?”
“Yes. Of course I do.”
Manfred’s voice went on, but I became only half aware of his words, and now I was floating away from the rooms of my childhood, back to the uncharted jungle with the green light. I struggled to get hold of my thoughts, concentrated hard on an image of myself going to get the vase. I put myself firmly outside the door of my fourth-floor maid’s room.
It was completely dark. But that was good. I could feel, in my hand, the pillowcase, full of rags for padding, that I had made ready for carrying the vase. I moved through the cradling darkness of the hall and down the back stairs, past small windows fuzzy with a mix of moonlight and streetlight. Third floor, second floor, the celestial light fading and that of the human world strengthening with every step.
Then I felt it. The nakedness. I could sense every tiny vibration in the air. I was aware of the maids sleeping high above me, the Whittingers just beneath them, the menservants in the basement. Faint electrical pulses from their hearts, bursts of ghostly reddish confetti, dissipated in the atmosphere around me, moving and eddying, glowing and fading.
All the sleeping people were exactly where they were supposed to be. Only I moved through the house, and my heartbeats were not red and faint but firm and metallic and present, blue and black and silver.
I wondered if I were really naked. I looked down at my body as I descended the stairs, and though I didn’t seem to be wearing any clothes, I didn’t see the pale skin I expected. It had changed: it was sleek as silk, the color of steel. I stroked my arm experimentally and it was as soft as a snake’s belly, as if I had shed some of my humanity along with my clothes.
I emerged from the narrow stairwell into the wide, marble-floored front hall, filled with vibrating moonlight. I only had to take a few steps to the entrance of the room they called the gallery.
There, paintings of all sizes and from all eras hung so close together you could hardly see wall between them, from floor to ceiling. And here was the pedestal with the vase.
I stood before it for a few moments, wondering if there might be some trick at the end of my journey, some invisible tripwire, or some unseen watcher waiting, perhaps, in a secret chamber behind one of the paintings, looking out through pinholes in the eyes of a portrait, or blinking through the tiny cutout windows of some palazzo. I reached out my steely hand. I touched the vase. What a thing it was. Stalks heavy with blue fruit curved and drooped against a white background, their leaves gesturing like outspread arms of dancers: welcoming, helpless, elegant. Blossoming vines coiled around the top; there was a row of stiff, feathery leaves all around the narrow bottom. I closed my hand around it and gently raised it. It was so light and fragile, but I knew I wouldn’t drop it.
I was still for a moment, holding it, feeling the air. I stood in an eye of holy silence. It was haloed by something like fear. But inside that ring of sparks, closer to my body, hung a blue and luminous stillness. And I knew I was doing the thing I had been born to do.
I put the vase into the pillowcase. I now saw it was made of the same fabric as my curtains by the tracks, pale yellow flour-sack calico, with little green and blue blossoms on it. The vase was emitting light, so much it shone through the fabric, lighting up the gallery, the silent paintings of Grecian landscapes, the marble sculptures with their blank eyes. I clutched the bag close, trying to dim its light, and backed away slowly, every hair on my skin a tiny filament crackling and flashing, still inside my ringing pocket of silence. I watched, smelled, listened. I swept my eyes over all the room. I could see surprisingly well in the dark now. When I was satisfied no one had seen me, I turned and moved quickly toward the stairs that led down to the servants’ hall.
“Don’t just think about how you’ll take it. Think beyond that.”
Manfred had pulled the shift all the way down now—or up—or off—I couldn’t remember, but it wasn’t there, and his hands ran over my breasts and stomach.
The stairwell was utterly dark, not even one infinitesimally small particle of moonlight looping and drifting in the blackness, but I didn’t need light; I seemed to be floating down as in a dream where your feet don’t quite touch the ground. In the corridor below, faint illumination penetrated the closed curtains from the streets outside, and that was all right too; it no longer mattered whether there was light or whether there wasn’t. I wasn’t afraid of being seen, or heard, though I could feel the red heart-pulses more strongly here, because all the male servants were sleeping so close by. I felt their sleep, a dense, warm cloud, and I moved through it, not creating the slightest disturbance. I was part of it as a baby is part of its mother; the ichor of their dreaming consciousness circulated in my veins too.
Then I exited the cloud and crossed the big kitchen, the copper pans on the walls showing faintly in the moonlight from the windows, the rims of the eyes on the stove glowing orange from embers still burning inside.
On the other side of the kitchen was the old door that led to the cellar. I opened it and went down into what should have been darkness, but was now illuminated by the light coming from the vase inside the sack. The ragged, dripping walls and wet floors looked awkward and ugly as I moved through them, like things not meant to be seen.
Down in the cellar there was more walking, sounds of trickling water, of scuttling, of my breath moving in and out of my body. Of something dragging behind me, which I thought might be a tail. I wondered whether I was going deeper underground, whether there would ever be a way out.
“Come on,” said Manfred.
I wasn’t sure where his hands were. They seemed to envelop me as the cloud of sleep had, or to be part of some dreaming thing that I was also part of.
“Come on,” he said again.
Then there was a narrow brick stairway. I climbed up and up to a heavy door at the top. It opened to a tailor’s shop. I had gone under the street and emerged here. Gray headless dummies in half-finished clothes stood silently along the walls. It was just as Manfred said: I could feel their presence, feel what they were thinking. They were thinking nothing. They had being, but no consciousness. They were like stones. But such beautiful, beautiful dresses. A fall of ivory lace, translucent blue muslin, a steel-beaded hem, everything half finished but you could tell it would be magnificent. This was where I would come to get my first dress, when I had money. If I could wear dresses, if I was still human.
“Where are you?” Manfred asked, holding the back of my head, holding my face close.
“In the tailor’s shop.”
“Now come here. Come behind the hashish parlor.”
Along the cold streets, skirting the pools of light under the streetlamps, I heard everything: rats, mice, cats, scurrying leaves, even something slender and evil—a mink?—that I knew had its eye on the tomcat, just as the tom had its eye on the rat. But none of that mattered. The cold was so pure it almost woke me up.
“Keep coming,” he said. “Come on.” He seemed to be stroking the inside of my thighs now, but I wasn’t sure. His hands seemed to be in more than one place, or maybe time was collapsing on itself, the moments all piling up into one very dense instant that contained everything. “That’s it,” Manfred said, pressing his body down on mine.
I was aware that he was going to enter me, that he was waiting to see if I’d resist as I had before. It was hard to remember why I had resisted, but when I did remember, I knew it didn’t matter anymore. What if I did get pregnant and lost my job? I had the vase, and soon I’d have the diamond too. I wouldn’t want for anything.
“Okay,” I said. “Yes.”
More words came from my mouth after that, and from his, but our conversation devolved, the sentences and then the words wearing away, leaving only coarse syllables with blunt meanings, which we also rubbed and rubbed down to the stumps they’d sprung from, grunts and noises that weren’t language at all, and finally the atoms of our bodies communicated without our consciousness being involved at all, currents of odors and effulgences swirling and eddying in a boundary-less sea, full of meaning but with no minds to interpret or comment on them.
But just outside of that, a spark of my consciousness still lived, separate from him, sharp and bright. He had given me what I needed. He had given me the secret to success, and I could see that vase—just barely—high above our dark and smoky chamber. It was not blue and white as it was in real life, but gold and glittery, bright and far away, rising toward the clear upper air, so full to overflowing with hope that it shed sparks of brightness down on me.
Poetry:Timothy Liu, David Baker, Khadijah Queen, Matthew Zapruder, Erika Meitner, William Logan
TILL DEATH DO US PART
______MASS. FASHION, GROCERY ITEMS & ARTIFICIAL NODS TO RICHARD SERRA
THE EVIL OF TWO LESSERS
Features:Kevin Young, Ginger Strand, Mary Ruefle, Victor LaValle, Jillian Weise, Sarah Dohrmann, Jenn Shapland NEW VOICE
Mötley Crüe’s third album came out in 1985, when I was thirteen years old. Theatre of Pain was an enormous hit for the band; their transformation from sort of glam rock to completely glam rock was a success. I hated them, as was required for all boys who claimed to be true metal heads but their big hit single—“Home Sweet Home”—was secretly on repeat in my skull. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one of my friends feeling this way, because when Mötley Crüe came through New York City one of them asked if I wanted to go see the Crüe at Madison Square Garden. I did want to see the band, but even more than that I wanted an excuse to get out of my apartment, away from my mom, my grandmother, and my three-year-old sister. I didn’t want to escape for just one night, but for all time. I’d been planning to run away from home for months by then. That Mötley Crüe concert would be the best way to get it done without sounding off alarms.
Why did I want to run away so badly? Fuck if I know anymore. A thirteen-year-old is like a three-year-old as far as intense feelings go. Home was hell to me. My mother and grandmother had escaped Uganda and the murderous rule of two consecutive dictators, but somehow I found a working-class adolescence in Queens unbearable. Regardless of how ridiculous I might’ve been, I still lit out for the territory, as the old saying goes. I packed a book bag with two pairs of jeans and two T-shirts (it was August). I don’t think I even threw in a change of underwear or socks. I had twelve dollars and a handful of train tokens I’d swiped from my mother’s purse. I brought three issues of the Uncanny X-Men, a storyline about Manhattan being transformed into a realm of magic and barbarians. The X-Men, and a whole bunch of other New York–based superheroes, had to battle a wizard who wanted to do something generally terrible to the world. Much like my reasons for running away, that explanation of the storyline sounds profoundly silly now, and yet it spoke to me more personally than religious scripture when I was a kid. The X-Men had to fight their way through an odd, treacherous version of Manhattan. Wasn’t I about to do the same damn thing? In their way, the comics seemed more vital to my survival than the money or my clothes.
I told my mother I’d be spending the night at the home of my friend, who’d convinced his older sister to act as a chaperone. But that afternoon I begged off and told my friend I was calling out sick. He and his sister would have to go alone. I remember him giving me a little shit about it, but soon enough we moved on to other things. Then I went home, ate an early dinner with my mom, took my book bag, and waved goodbye. I remember my mother and grandmother sitting on the living room couch, watching television. Maybe my sister had already been put to bed. Both women were tired after a day of work and childcare so I don’t think they even looked up when I left. They expected to see me again on Thursday. They didn’t know—how could they know?—that they would never see me again.
I rode the 7 train from Flushing all the way to Times Square. I got off the train and expected someone to immediately clap me in irons. For my mother to appear with her look of exhaustion and exasperation and behind her my grandmother grumbling in both English and Luganda. But that didn’t happen. Instead I stepped off the train just like every other passenger and was fed into the great conveyer belt of the Times Square subway station. I didn’t move forward; I was moved forward. I felt impossibly young to be there alone but I doubt anyone took notice. I joined the rush. There were folks returning home from a late day of work and others who were on the early side of an evening of playing in Manhattan and then there was that third population, the lurkers. I don’t know what else to call them. These were the people who looked like they lived in Times Square. I’m not talking about homeless people, though there were plenty enough of them. I mean the folks who had full-time jobs just leaning against the walls of the station. People who weren’t coming or going but simply surveying. This third class of people treated Times Square like a natural habitat. I watched the lurkers and tried to school myself in that sneering swagger they shared. If I was going to live here then I’d have to act like I belonged. I wonder what I must’ve looked like to others as I tried to put on my Times Square Face. I doubt I picked up that smooth glower so soon. I’ll bet I looked like a kid who was smelling some week-old fish. Imagine a thirteen-year-old boy who might be suffering from Bell’s palsy.
Stepping out of the station into Times Square, onto the sidewalk level, felt like being dropped into the middle of the stories middle-school boys tell each other about their sex lives. Here were those stories made real in every other movie theater marquee and the glaring, glowing facades of the peep shows. Not love, of course, but not even sex, not fucking. Penetration. That’s what Times Square had on offer, penetration in all its forms. This shit was absolutely terrifying. When I’d been down in the subway station I still felt connected, somehow, to my home, to my family, in Queens. But up here on the famous strip of Forty-Second Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, I was adrift. I remember walking all the way to the corner of Seventh and Forty-Second, then crossing the street and walking back down the other side, all the way to the corner of Eighth Avenue, and making the circuit back up again. I never felt less scared—of the crowds, of the cranky traffic—but soon I became more comfortable. And besides, there was all this penetration to see, and I wanted to see it so badly. I didn’t have the courage, yet, to stand boldly in front of a peep show or one of the porno theaters (forget about going in), so I’d just pass by and glance, pass by and glance, pass by and bash right into people. I did this up and down Forty-Second Street. Eventually, I tried to imagine my life out here in New York City. Where was I going to sleep? How was I going to make any money? Soon a more pressing question arose: Where was I going to piss? This was the kind of thing they never addressed in the Uncanny X-Men. Where did mutants pee? Maybe one of their special powers was never struggling to find a bathroom in New York City.
This need drove me back down into the Times Square subway station. I knew there were bathrooms down there. I’d seen one when I was walking from the 7 train. I paid to get through the turnstile but figured I’d have to start sneaking through, hopping, if I was going to make a life out of this. It was ninety cents for a ride. It had been only seventy-five cents in 1983. My mother regularly complained about this. No matter the fare in New York, it’s always too high.
I went into the men’s room. It was about as wretched a place as I’d been in my life. There was a row of urinals to my right where some men stood peeing and others were openly masturbating. A small clump of stalls sat to my left and each door looked welded shut by grime. Long slow grunts played from at least one of the stalls, maybe more; someone was either shitting or getting fucked or maybe both at once. Being up on the street had been titillating and terrifying, but this Times Square bathroom was where I experienced true disgust. My face grew hot and itchy and my eyes watered and when I stood at the urinal to pee I tried to breathe through my mouth. Entering that bathroom felt like being hit with tear gas.
When I left the bathroom I felt off-balance and not ready to be out on the streets, strolling under those theater lights again. I wandered inside the station instead. I wondered what song Mötley Crüe might be playing in Madison Square Garden just then. A flush of condescension flowed through me as I thought of my friend at a rock concert with his big sister, the safety of it all. That’s what I thought I was feeling—condescension—but maybe it was simple envy over the easy pleasure of such a thing.
I didn’t go back out through the turnstile, didn’t leave the underground, but made the circuit to the 7 train and back around close to the bathrooms, close to the station exit, again. I was trying to make up my mind. I can see that now. Get back on the 7 and go home or leave the station and start my life as a runaway in New York City. I can’t guess how many times I walked that path. I became so lost in my own head that I felt I’d turned invisible. The people around me phased out, faded away. There was nothing in this world but me and my thoughts.
But of course this wasn’t true. I felt invisible, but I wasn’t unseen. The walls of the subway station were lined with lurkers and finally I met one of them. How many times had he seen me pass before he registered my presence? Twice? Ten times? It probably didn’t take long to recognize a lost child. He walked up to me and brought a hand to my right shoulder, lightly.
“Run your shit,” he said.
Now here’s the funny thing. I don’t remember the guy who said it at all. I remember his tone of voice, casual, almost conversational. In my memory he stands somewhere between nine and eighteen feet tall and his skin glows an electric blue. Here we have yet another example of the problem with eyewitness testimony. But I heard his voice and I can still hear it now.
Run your shit.
Weirdly, I don’t even know if that’s exactly what he said. The phrase Run your shit is so commonplace to me that I imagine it must’ve always been in use, but was it around in 1985? I don’t know. Maybe. It’s possible my memory changed not only his size and skin color but also his words. And yet I have no doubt about that voice. It’s the voice that makes me sure he couldn’t have been more than sixteen or seventeen himself. He sounds raspy and he’s not speaking all that loud, only I can hear him and it’s like he’s testing the phrase out. He’s tentative.
He said the words and I looked up at him and I knew what he wanted so I took off my book bag and handed it to him. Does this count as theft? He didn’t pull the bag off my shoulders. He didn’t show me a weapon of any kind. It was as if Times Square had decided to give me the easiest test it could fashion and I still hadn’t passed. How was I going to survive on the streets of New York if a teenager could disarm me with a veiled threat?
I gave him my book bag and he turned and walked away. He didn’t even do me the courtesy of running. I felt feverish with shame as I went down to the platform and waited for the next 7 train home. My mother was surprised when I returned. It was only 9:30 or 10:00. My grandmother had already gone to bed. I told my mom I’d had a fight with my friend and came back on my own. She was angry that the older sister hadn’t brought me. It felt disorienting to be in my apartment in Queens but to have been wandering such a different place—another planet—only an hour ago. In less than a year I started going back to Times Square, made a habit of it, one that lasted for the next two years. I gained and lost a lot more than a book bag and some comics, but that’s a whole other story.
For a collector—and I mean a real collector, a collector as he ought to be—ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects.
—Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library”
Here is a list of things you might find in 7B:
4. Funeral shoes (unworn)
6. Swizzle sticks
7. Board games
8. Socks (worn)
9. Handkerchiefs (used)
10. Pen refills
A library is not a list. A library is dirty, has smells. I know this because I interned in a special collections library. It’s a special collections library that happens to house, along with its First Folios and signed copies of The Waste Land, a larger assortment of socks than you might guess.
Personal effects generally arrive at the Harry Ransom Center’s loading dock on the University of Texas campus via happenstance. They get stuck into boxes of manuscripts and books for reasons unknown. They’re stowaways. That is why I’m so fond of them. Personal effects include items owned or worn that do not necessarily pertain to the recorded work of a cultural figure. They are objects that don’t fit comfortably into folders. Working on the seventh floor, where a sign by the elevator warns IF YOU FIND A BAT, DO NOT TOUCH IT, and especially working in 7B, the room that houses the personal effects collections, is not unlike haunting an uninhabited Collyer Mansion or Grey Gardens. It’s a place where things are housed, where they come to roost. 7B is a microcosm of the archive writ large.
It was in 7B, before my long afternoons itemizing and categorizing the socks of the dead and famous, that I began to collect certain stories. Stories about wanting and having, giving and taking, even stealing. I learned of a caper by a Texas football scion, which led me to a tale of a multimillion-dollar book heist. Yet as I poked and prodded into what began to seem like the dusty broom closet or unexamined under-the-bed of culture, it was my own relationship to objects that began to feel illicit.
· · ·
Not long after I finished my several weeks of training, I made a discovery while passing through the personal effects stacks. I don’t recall what brought me up there. Perhaps I’d been toying with Anne Sexton’s eyeglasses, or taking a peek in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s cabinet of “apparitions and dreams.” (He labeled one of the drawers “apparitions of dogs.” Imagine: so many canines from beyond appeared to Doyle that he had to allocate an entire drawer for them.) As my cart squeaked down the aisle, rousing the sleeping artifacts, a large box labeled “Einstein, Albert” came into view. I hadn’t heard of any Einstein materials in the personal effects collection. A closer look at the box’s label informed me that it contained the physicist’s molecular model kit.
I shifted my weight, eyeballed the box, quickly looked both ways. The Center has a set of Einstein’s notes on relativity—chicken scratch—that are kept in the vault. The vault, you’ll be glad to learn, is in fact a vault. Picture the cartoon lair of one Scrooge McDuck. Okay, smaller than that—more like a locker. Chalkboard gray, iron, with two handles and a pancake-size combination lock. And inside? Some would call it treasure. Others might just see a pile of junk. Old, musty, moldy (sometimes toxically so): other people’s junk.
I carried and handled and sifted through this invaluable cultural material, this stuff, all day long. When ink rubbed off a manuscript leaf, or when a page’s edges crumbled into literal dust that coated my fingers, I found myself thinking hard about the impulse to collect. To keep.
I pulled down the box labeled “Einstein” and began slowly unwinding the threads that wrapped its button enclosures. I was about to ever so gingerly lift the box from its archival housing (boxes within boxes are sort of a conservationist’s specialty, it turns out. There is an entire lab devoted to the making of boxes designed to hold other boxes), brazen background soundtrack playing in my head, when I thought I heard someone approaching.
My heart stopped for just a second. It’s extremely easy to scare somebody in a library, but why did I so often feel as though I’d been caught in the act when I was alone with a find from the collections? I was allowed full access to these materials, free range, and yet that feeling—it’s the same feeling anyone would get when discovered rifling through someone’s stuff. Actually, it’s the precise feeling I used to get when I snooped around the houses of people I babysat for while the kids slept, or when I snooped around my own house while home alone. Touching, looking became unique opportunities for access. And violation.
I come from snoopers. When I lived at home, my mom would go through my room regularly. She read all my letters and notebooks without permission, then quizzed me on their contents. As traumatic as her invasions of my privacy were, years later, I can’t help but understand the impulse behind them, to some extent. Going through other people’s stuff, or having it—borrowing clothes, books—makes me feel closer to them.
And then, too, there are the things objects tell us that their owners never would. Secrets. Now I wonder if I snoop in part because growing up queer in a Catholic house in the Midwest was confusing and lonely. I knew I was different but had no idea how or why. “I had no idea what was missing but felt the missing-ness of the missing,” to borrow Jeanette Winterson’s wording. My snooping has always felt justified, internally. Like research: How to Be a Person, Exhibit A. Our stuff tells on us. In objects lie the hidden habits of how each of us makes a life. I was rooting around in other people’s closets for signs of connection, community. Curiosity is itself a kind of stealing: internalizing an experience that isn’t yours.
The personal effects collections I processed—sorted, labeled, photographed, housed—contain the belongings of two of the twentieth century’s greatest writers, greatest female writers, greatest queer writers, two of my all-time favorite writers: Carson McCullers and Gertrude Stein. I started to fixate on, even to cathect, their belongings as I worked. They’re all I talked about in the office, at the bar: Have I told you about Carson McCullers’s llama statue? Yes.
So I guess this is a story about my obsessions. Obsessiveness. But it’s also about a young queer writer coming into her own. Getting close enough to her heroes to relate to their goddamn handkerchiefs. It’s about impossible intimacy, and about recognizing yourself.
The curator who interrupted my reverie helped me get the box out of its box and set it up on the table with the requisite velvet cushions to hold the cover open at an unstrenuous angle. All run-of-the-mill procedures for handling materials.
The process seems to be crucial for maintaining the specialness of special collections. Not just for the practical reasons, like protecting the objects from wear and tear, but for another purpose: the cushions and weights and meticulous housings insert an unspoken of but palpable barrier between person and thing. The first question most newcomers to the archive asked was if they needed to put on gloves. Most were disappointed and a bit unnerved when I told them they could use their bare hands. We want tools, gear, layers of dark velvet or pristine white cotton to protect the materials from us. There is a fear, here, of carelessness. But on the flip side, there is care. There is a desire to nestle the object into something soft and perfectly sized to hold it. It’s not for nothing that those velvet cushions that support a book by its spine are called “cradles.”
Before she left me to it, I heard the curator explaining something that sounded important, but I’d gotten distracted by a small blue ink doodle, possibly from Einstein’s own distracted hand, etched into the lower corner of the duct tape on the box. A spaceship? A smiley face? Totally illegible. Alone again with the item, I quickly set aside the stack of papers detailing what I presumed to be boring stats on provenance, acquisition, other library inanity, and dug into the model set. But my eyes caught a letter on personal stationery that had sifted loose from the pile.
I picked up the letter and encountered a Dallas woman named Cecilia Hawk, who wrote to the Ransom Center in the late 1980s. In her letter, she writes that after reading about “a missing page from Einstein’s papers in the Dallas Morning News”—a sheet of handwritten notes had disappeared from under a locked display case—she decided to offer to the Center “something that might be of interest.”
Hawk bought the molecular model kit at an auction in Atlanta, Georgia, for reasons unstated. Nothing in her letter makes it clear why it was significant to her, but her personal investment is unmistakable. So moved was she by the case of theft from the archive, just from reading about it in the paper—in my imagination she wears slippers and sits alone on a porch with fan in hand—that she donated her purchase, asking nothing in exchange but a receipt. John Chalmers, a former HRC librarian whom I had until this point never once heard of, wrote back to let Hawk know that the leaf of Einstein’s notes had been recovered, and charges had been brought against the “young man who appears to have removed it.”
Chalmers’s response takes on a sudden and unexpected emotional tenor—this is a librarian writing to a patron, remember—as he confides in Hawk that “during that rather difficult week, the reception of your letter about the molecular model in small measure gave me comfort.” He warmly accepted her donation.
Transference. That’s the psychological function at work here. It’s a combination of projection, ascribing some aspect of yourself—fantasies, desires, imagination—to the object, and introjection, taking some part of it unto/into yourself. For William James, this is the way objects (which, importantly, can also be whole people) become extensions of the self. Cecilia Hawk so incorporated Einstein’s molecular model kit into her person that her act of giving it to an institution was perceived by both parties as deeply generous. And for Chalmers, the kit was a form of condolence for a grievous loss that not just the institution, but by extension he, had experienced.
But the kit wasn’t Hawk’s to give or Chalmers’s to receive, not really. Its entire significance is bound up in its being Einstein’s. Something was being taken in this scenario; something was being stolen. I wanted to know what, but first I wanted to play with the thing myself. I wanted to open the box and hold its molecules in my hands.
The revelation of the theft left me with a bit of a buzz as I turned back to the kit, which consisted of small wooden blocks—atoms—in different shapes, organized by color. The item had a story and now I was invested. Attached.
One of the provenance letters suggests that Einstein requested extra types of atoms directly from the manufacturer; the basic set apparently did not meet his molecular modeling needs. The pieces had been neatly organized by color, which I instinctively took to be Chalmers’s doing; in current archival practice, such rearrangement constitutes a pretty serious breach, but in earlier eras it was common to adjust, fix, arrange, and reconfigure items upon arrival. The pieces in the box are blue, orange, yellow, black, green, dark blue, beige, and brown spherical shapes with rounded and flat sides. Each has several holes in it, into which brass pegs fit. I pulled out several atoms, distinctly aware that the fingerprints of the man who came up with relativity were all over them. I pictured him standing before a classroom, demonstrating the universe’s most fundamental truths with wooden blocks.
I was mulling over Cecilia Hawk and the missing notes, and wondering in an abstract way what would possess someone—that phrase—to steal from an archive. In my hand I could feel the weight of the tiny molecule I’d built—I think it was H2O—its particular heft, its smooth surfaces. My fingers closed around it. It occurred to me how easy it would be to pocket the thing.
I already felt a creeping guilt just doing my job. It was enough of an intrusion to handle these objects. Sliding my arms into McCullers’s nightgown sleeves to prop them up with tissue in their new housings? Adjusting the button fly on Doyle’s suit pants? Toying with Alice Toklas’s jewelry box? I was an intruder. How else could such proximity to traces of the radically ordinary—the dingy bottoms of McCullers’s socks, the faint smell of poodle that pervades the Stein collection—feel but radically intimate?
All vicarious experience is a kind of stealing, but living vicariously is a huge part of how we form our identities. We commit undocumented thefts continuously as we form a self. When you think about it that way, biography and narrative, the usual forms of interaction with famous cultural figures, are types of possession. Like unrequited love, unrequited interest and unrequited access are ways to own something or someone that isn’t yours. A line keeps coming to mind that I can’t track down: that you can understand something only without desiring it. It echoes in my brain, a refrain, but I don’t know if I have it right, or if perhaps it’s the other way around.
An anonymous tip-off led to the discovery of the single page of Einstein’s notes, now slightly water-damaged, creased, and tucked in a photo album, in the duplex of Samuel K. Royal, nineteen-year-old grandson of the late University of Texas football coach Darrell K. Royal. As in Darrell K. Royal Memorial Stadium, the 100,000-seat football megachurch down the street from the Ransom Center. No motive was given.
The district attorney at the time had this to say: “This is an invaluable treasure that belongs to the entire species of humanity and we are delighted to report to you that it has been recovered.”
Chalmers, head librarian at the time, had this to say: “This has wonderful elements of mystery about it.” He refers to the circumstances of the notes’ Houdini-like escape from a locked display case that showed no sign of damage or break-in. Royal was sentenced to five years probation and two hundred hours of community service.
Can anything “belong” to “the entire species of humanity?” The words belong and belongings share roots with both desire (longing, to long) and proximity (along, alongside). The funny thing about the Royal case is that the thief put the notes in an album. He made his own effort at preservation and conservation. And he opened them to the public. Ransom Center staff rumor has it that the anonymous tip came from a guest at one of Royal’s duplex parties, where he entertained partygoers with his prized Einstein possession.
After learning of Royal’s heist, I became fixated on theft, the possibility of items slipping away unnoticed. For a few months I played investigator—maybe I’d been watching too much Veronica Mars—and hunted down reports of theft from all the top archives. I came across the Smiley map heist at the Beinecke, the Poe hoarders at the Alderman Library. I found out as much as I could about the HRC’s security systems, which are a huge presence throughout the building.
Here is a set of facts and conjectures:
1. The Ransom Center’s security system underwent a complete overhaul in 2003, to the tune of half a million dollars.
2. At any given time you will find at least three armed guards on duty downstairs to protect the ca thirty seven million manuscripts inside.
3. The doors to this building are heavy.
4. Unlike the special collections at the British Library or at most other universities, the Ransom Center is a public archive. All one needs to enter is a photo ID and a brief orientation. This is one of my favorite things about it.
5. While one of the improvements to the building’s security features was to funnel all building users through a single entrance and exit point, there remain at least two other ways in:
a. A loading dock entrance to the basement by which materials come into the building.
b. An entrance to a tunnel—think about this—that runs under Austin to the State Capitol Building. Built in the 1930s, the system of tunnels totals six miles in length; public entry to the tunnel system is forbidden due to heightened security since 9/11.
6. In the basement, you’ll find several multimillion-dollar walk-in freezers that are used to quarantine collections when they arrive in their damp, crumbling, contaminated cardboard boxes from the garage or basement or attic in which they previously resided.
7. Floors four through seven are restricted.
8. If you ever read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, a chapter book about two kids who secretly live at the Met that is, not surprisingly, a long-standing favorite of mine, then you should know right now that it would be impossible to enact such a fantasy here. Which is not to say I haven’t thought about it.
9. The elevators to the stacks, which require a key-card swipe, stop running at 4:47 PM precisely. I found this out the hard way.
10. It may also be a violation to list these facts. To conjecture.
· · ·
I got good enough at playing librarian that I managed to coax a story about theft—something no one seemed eager to tell the nosy intern about—out of the steely ringleader of the Reading Room while sitting at the reference desk. The Reading Room is a glass fishbowl on the second floor surrounded by the writing desks of John Fowles and Edgar Allan Poe, plus a veritable army of busts. The busts are exclusively white male writers and artists whose collections the Center houses, with the exception of Dame Edith Sitwell and her glorious nose. I find her presence (and her nose, which arcs like mine but at an even bolder angle) immensely comforting. The librarian in charge has worked this desk for as long as anyone can remember and wears sweaters that coordinate with even minor holidays. She keeps a collection of windup toys at the front of her desk, which seems at first out of sync with both her personality and the room’s aesthetic. They are lined up neatly, but they are dusty.
Throughout the building there are nods to and parodies of the collecting and exhibiting of materials; on the fourth floor, outside the men’s restroom, you’ll find a locked case full of paper clips across the ages, each type sorted, named, and labeled. Sometimes I’m not sure what the precise difference is between the paper clips, or the windup toys, and the exhibitions downstairs in the galleries. Once we decide objects are worth collecting for reasons apart from monetary value, where do we draw the line?
I could ask myself this question. Sitting on my desk right now are several black binder clips that came home in my pockets after I processed the last installment of David Foster Wallace’s manuscripts. I was tasked with removing and discarding all clips, but I couldn’t part with them. Instead, I gave some to friends and academic advisors as quirky gifts, and kept the rest. The problem is that I can no longer tell, looking at the pile of clips on my desk, which belonged to him and which are just ordinary—that is, clips that already belonged to me.
The reference librarian told me her theft story in fits and starts as she swiveled around, printing requests, arranging materials to be reshelved, directing the library staff, always with an eye on the patrons. She mentioned several times how embarrassed she had been that she didn’t realize why a patron kept asking about the price of each book he requested. These requests included a copy of The Origin of Species that he put down his pants and walked out with one afternoon in 1988. As she told me how it was recovered at a nearby rare bookshop, her flinty look momentarily left her. The only thing her blue eyes conveyed was sadness. A sense of betrayal. Someone flouted the rules and to this day it flouts something personal, precious, and cherished in her.
In the Reading Room a kind of magic is at work. A conjuring. It happens every time patrons put in requests, summon materials from above or below to their tables. In my mind it’s Matilda-esque, objects flying from their shelves straight into a patron’s outstretched hands. It’s similar to what some visitors—very easy to spot when they arrive—are up to when they come in to do readings with Aleister Crowley’s tarot cards. There’s also something sort of erotic about it, all the touching. But there’s another kind of intimacy, too. The intimacy of texture. Of odor. Of atoms mingling with each other. In 1988, patrons were still allowed to have whole carts of books beside their tables. Now up to five books are delivered to them by staff. The reference librarian keeps a map behind her desk of where everyone is sitting at a given moment. Intimacy still exists between patrons and the books and papers they summon, but no one’s putting anything down their pants these days.
I started to write letters to the personal effects I itemized in 7B. I wrote them on the HRC’s yellow paper, on which I was supposed to be recording details about the collection for the finding aid. That’s one reason I’m not a librarian. And one reason the librarians started to give me some side-eye. You’re not supposed to have all these feelings when you’re working behind the scenes. Or if you do, I guess you’re not supposed to write about them. You’re not supposed to commune with the objects. That gradually became clear. It now occurs to me, at the distance of several years, what I brought to this job as a twenty-five-year-old graduate intern, and what gets me in trouble at most of my jobs: unlicensed perspective.
When I arranged an interview with a head librarian to investigate the Center’s history of theft more thoroughly, I—amateur gumshoe, lifelong snoop, bored intern—found myself in deeper than I intended to go. He met me in a windowless office off the Reading Room that contained nothing but a table, two chairs, and a silenced phone. I took excessive notes. I tried to ask “hard-hitting” questions.
He told me the story of a massive heist. Between three and four hundred books were smuggled from the stacks—the exact number can never be known. Some are still missing.
The magnitude of the theft is shocking, but I was probably even more shocked that no one had so much as mentioned it before. I now understand that its impact resonates in just about every aspect of the Center’s day-to-day policies. It is a matter of something more, something deeper than reputation or legacy. It is about possession and immortality, like the archive itself. Libraries, archives, and museums all find themselves at the intersection of materiality and the mystical. Perhaps this is why we’re so quiet when we enter them. As I listened to the librarian’s story, it dawned on me that theft, these actual physical slippages, are just interruptions to the collective body, the assembled self that the archive represents. A collective body that includes not only objects but also the archivists and conservators who care for them.
It was an inside job. Mimi Meyer, a volunteer working in book conservation, began taking books home with her sometime after she started in 1989. She was a trusted member of the Ransom Center’s volunteer force, but the librarian was quick to tell me that her skills as a conservator were seriously lacking. And despite everything, this seemed to be her worst offense in his eyes. In 1992, she was fired for a having a book in her office that she had not checked out.
The books she took were no pocket-size paperbacks. They were big books. Old books with signed bindings, gilt covers, calligraphed interiors. She sold most of them to dealers overseas, and the ones she didn’t sell wound up stacked all over the apartment she moved into in Chicago after leaving the Ransom Center, an apartment she shared with her boyfriend, none other than John Chalmers, who had remained the head librarian until 1990. They shared $400,000 in a joint checking account when Meyer was convicted. Chalmers was never officially charged with the book theft, but it was, according to the librarian, “inconceivable” that he didn’t know what was going on. The books were in his apartment. In all likelihood, he directed Meyer to steal certain books and helped to sell them. Yet he remains a member of the Caxton Club, a prestigious bibliophile association in Chicago.
Did the Einstein theft and its “wonderful elements of mystery” inspire Chalmers to make a mystery of his own? I’d like to know what was missing for him, what void he was trying to fill with books and cash. Chalmers had refused indignantly to let the guards check his briefcase on exiting the building each day, a policy that is still in place, a policy I abided by daily. He was fired by the director in 1990 for “incompetence.” The police found the books when they raided Chalmers and Meyer’s shared apartment in 2003. Meyer was already in prison on drug charges. The current head librarian spent much of his first ten years working with the FBI to hunt down the books and recover them from dealers, none of whom gave the books back readily. He keeps a list of the books that he knows are still missing, but it isn’t possible to know with certainty what has been lost. The librarian used the word “skullduggery” to describe the world of rare book dealing; he said this without a hint of irony, but with real anger, masking sadness.
I keep wondering: Was Chalmers’s goal simply to make as much money as possible on the black market with rare books? How did Meyer get involved? Or was it her idea? Was the heist a precursor to their romance? Did it fuel it? I think the apartment where they squirreled the books away is significant. The psychology of hoarding is almost indistinguishable from the process of collecting. Hoards are often intentional, organized, and used by their owners. Sometimes they’re shared, displayed. The main difference, according to psychologists of hoarding Gail Steketee and Randy Frost, is that hoarders’ lives are in some way encroached upon by their collections. “Hoarding is not defined by the number of possessions, but by how the acquisition and management of those possessions affects their owner.” The collections start to take over the collector. I think of Cecilia Hawk—that is, the Cecilia Hawk I’ve invented in my mind—and wonder if, perhaps, Meyer and Chalmers were just lonely. Loneliness is my go-to assumption for people who spend a lot of their time in libraries. Objects provide a kind of company, a constancy, that other people simply cannot. If I’ve learned nothing else from working with librarians, archivists, and things, it’s this fact. It’s what brought me here in the first place.
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Throughout its history, the Ransom Center, whose name seems more and more significant to me, has been viewed as sort of a renegade in acquisitions. The notoriously snooty British libraries in particular are resentful that the papers of so many of their national authors have been sent to Texas (the “of all places” is implied). Profiles on the center’s archive and its directors cite the practices of pirates or bandits as apt points of comparison. The Ransom Center perpetuates the stereotype in its promotional materials and its continuous snatching up of valuable collections.
And surely the imperialist motives of museums are well documented; amassing cultural goods is a colonial enterprise. Mary Ruefle, who fell in love with a shrunken head at a museum, an infatuation to which I can seriously relate, explains how this truth unfolds: “I can assure you my school did not teach what I now know to be true—that the museum I wandered in was built on rape and plunder and pillage and oppression and murder, that everything in it was stolen, that the very wealth necessary for such acquisition was stolen, wealth acquired by force of so filthy and unspeakable an evil our heads cannot fathom it and have no single word for it.” In Texas, some of the words for it are oil and football. I wonder if at the Center one of the words might be loneliness. From owner to archive to thief to dealer, the playground policy of “finders, keepers” rules the day. Acquisition is driven by power and money, yes. But it is also driven by desire for a certain kind of intimacy, a relation. Ownership is a relationship with objects and with the person those objects embody in the word’s most literal sense.
When trying to convince a writer or her family to sell a set of papers to the Ransom Center, the librarians emphasize, above all, the care those belongings will receive. They promise tireless attention. We will value these things as if they were our own. Watching librarians and scholars handle materials, hearing their stories of loss, witnessing their constant vigilance against the threat of carelessness, affirms my long-held suspicion that research, attention, and careful arrangement—the touch that allows everything to find its right place—are sure signs of unconditional love. There is satisfaction in housing, in placing. The books on their shelves, the manuscripts in their boxes, the personal effects nestled in tissue, and, on a larger scale, the security guards and heavy doors and card swipe elevators—all of these constructs hum with the energy of human devotion.
· · ·
The clothes are the things that stick most with me. Mentally, that is, spiritually, perhaps, but of course not materially. Sometimes I miss them, miss having them within reach. I can look at the collections online, can see the digital photos I took, and I can even call them up in the Reading Room if I want, but I don’t. I prefer to remember them as I encountered them, one-on-one. Gertrude Stein’s beaded sleeping cap, Carson McCullers’s pale green winter coat. In McCullers’s collection I found a gold lamé, magenta-lined jacket with the Saks tags still attached. It isn’t her typical style—she tended toward neutrals and primary colors, classic menswear silhouettes—and I wondered if the jacket was a gift, or if perhaps she bought it in a moment of trying to be someone else.
Closets are spaces to store our alternate identities. The objects and outfits in 7B expand and confound our oddly complete sense of the person behind a given proper name. They contradict what we think we know, surprise us, and in the process help us better relate to these unreachable people. There’s something queer in our relationship to objects, or some queer potential in the space of that relationship. A love and an attachment outside the bounds of the normal. And, to me, the quirks, the idiosyncrasies that a person’s possessions reveal tend to make them anything but normal. If you look long enough at your own knickknacks or keepsakes, you, too, might start to question the possibility of normalcy.
Ian Woodward, glossing Jean Baudrillard, says we project “our own feelings onto a particular object that we use in order to be who we are,” but that our need to do so comes from a psychological lack he describes as “cavernous.” In Baudrillard’s view it’s all very pessimistic, because the objects can never satisfy that need. But what if they can? What if our relationships with objects in fact act on us, make us who are?
On that afternoon I spent alone with Einstein’s model kit, I looked up at the personal effects shelves lined with meticulously labeled boxes and felt overwhelmed by the fact that it was all just stuff. And not even the Ransom Center’s stuff, but other people’s belongings crammed together in a room in the middle of Texas. Everything began to smell. The cold air began to reek of all these strangers’—dead strangers’—skin cells, pipe smoke, decay. The word ephemera took on a more desperate meaning. The highly systematized, rigid order the library tries to enforce revealed itself in that moment for the flimsy facade it really is, the shoddy but desperately maintained boundary between culture or knowledge or history and the basic physicality—the bodies—in which these abstract ideas are contained.
Why do we want to have these things? Why do we deserve access to them? Why does the institution want them; why do individuals want them? Why do we preserve them, touch them, catalog them, put them under glass, build gray, elaborate, eerily coffin-like containers for them?
Of course, there’s the issue of mortality. We want these figures—the owners of these objects—to live on in some way; we want to preserve materials against the effects of time because it is one of the few ways we think we might control time. Temperature control it, in this case. But I’m more interested in housing than in memorializing. An archive is a living thing, a community of imagined people who reside together and interact and change and confound through each new encounter with their belongings. It’s a big, strange family, and the people who work there perceive themselves to be a part of it. My strange intimacies with these collections, my daydream of donning McCullers’s suit or Stein’s embroidered vest—this is why I borrow loved ones’ clothes and never return them, the reason I snoop with impunity.
Maybe this desire for communion, for identity—the longing in belongings—is what Walter Benjamin means when he says that collection is a renewal, acquisition a form of rebirth. And isn’t it funny, the big lie at the heart of the enterprise? All of this stuff is ultimately just that. No apparatus, no matter how meticulous or expensive or careful, can protect a collection from the inevitable slippages, losses, thefts, whether the perpetrators be people, bugs, mold, disintegration, or time. Acquire it, collect it, steal it, hoard it, conserve it, preserve it, store it, house it, box it, hold it, wear it, but there’s just no keeping it.
I've Been Robbed:Laura Lippman, Mary Higgins Clark, Alissa Nutting, George Singleton
The plan was to tell you a lighthearted story about how my husband and I sometimes play Ned Nickerson and Nancy Drew, working together to bring petty thieves in our neighborhood to justice. Maybe the one about how he once trailed three young vandals who kicked in a friend’s car window as we watched from our windows. Or how we once saw two young men testing the back gates of the houses that line our alley. They were clearly up to no good and when they split up, one heading south, one north, I followed the southbound one, my husband the other, 911 operators on both our cell phones. When the men were cuffed and sitting on the curb, a neighbor cheerfully said, “Thanks to you, my sons saw their first bust today.”
Or maybe I could tell the story about how my family, fifty years ago and new to this city, left my sister’s and my back-to-school shoes in an unlocked car while we went to the library. The shoes were stolen. How funny, how quaint. Where did you come from to think that you could leave a car unlocked? the police asked us. Now I lock my car and try to keep it bare inside, or at least bereft of things that might entice someone to shatter a window. A handful of change can be enough. Once, someone took a juicy backpack from my husband’s car. We later scoured the alleys until we found my stepson’s Hebrew school textbooks, scattered by a very disappointed thief.
So, yeah, that was the plan. The crime novelist and the man behind The Wire dabbling as anticrime crusaders.
But the setting for all these stories—my hometown—is Baltimore, and I am writing this in the last week of April 2015, a week in which there have been riots and fires in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death while in police custody. There can be no lighthearted stories about playing cops, surviving the day-in day-out larcenies or getting young men arrested. Until today the city was under a curfew and Baltimore has become a symbol. But of what? The fire this time? The fire this week? Baltimore’s would-be nickname, Charm City, has always been semi-ironic. Now it’s in bad taste.
And yet we love our hometown still. Are we wrong to love it when we were never blind to its problems? My husband was the Baltimore Sun police reporter the entire time he worked there and he later spent a year on one of the city’s most notorious drug corners in order to write a book. My favorite beat as a Baltimore reporter was the so-called social services beat, which included poverty, welfare reform, homelessness, and juvenile justice. Once when I visited a state facility for juvenile delinquents, the student newspaper asked for an interview. To a question about why I was there, I said there was no ostensible purpose, no story planned. I was just getting to know the lay of the land. “Asked what she was looking for,” the student journalist wrote, “Miss Lippman could give no answer.”
That sums it up pretty well. I can give no answer. This week, I was asked to appear on television shows, write “think” pieces. I declined the invitations. Declined because I feel complicit. It wasn’t enough, all these years, to acknowledge there were two Baltimores. Really, many, many, many Baltimores, but two big ones. One that is doing fine and has people of all races. The other that is poor and black. It wasn’t enough to volunteer in a soup kitchen, as I did for eight years before my daughter was born. It wasn’t enough to donate money to Health Care for the Homeless or turn all the cash from my speaking gigs over to the Enoch Pratt Free Library. What would have been enough? Miss Lippman can give no answer.
It took Baltimore so long to come back from the riots of 1968. How will we come back from this? When will we ever dare again to call ourselves Charm City? I’m afraid that will happen only when another American city burns. And one will. This week, Baltimore is the face of our nation’s problems. By the time this piece is published, the media will be standing in front of fires somewhere else.
My city’s identity has been taken. Or maybe its true identity has been revealed. I can’t decide. But I remain, by choice, a Baltimorean. H. L. Mencken, who loved the city, once said, “A Baltimorean is not merely John Doe, an isolated individual of Homo sapiens, exactly like every other John Doe. He is John Doe of a certain place—of Baltimore, of a definite house in Baltimore. It is not by accident that all the peoples of Europe, very early in their history, distinguished their best men by adding of this or that place to their names.”
But how do we determine who our best men and women are? How do we change the conditions that led to the riots, the earned rage of being marginalized, forgotten, left behind? The curfew has been lifted. My favorite farmers market will be back next weekend and the Orioles will no longer play to empty seats. My family will go to a local restaurant, although I’ll probably take a pass on the Maryland wine. But how can we celebrate getting back to normal when normal clearly wasn’t working for so many of our fellow citizens?
Miss Lippman can give no answer.
Lost & Found:Michael Peck, Katherine Hill, Thomas Ross, Aaron Gilbreath, Paul J. Marasa
Readable Feast:Michael Ruhlman
About the Cover:Jakob Vala
In Loot Bag, Martin Wittfooth concerns himself with “the disquieting human habit of wanton materialism and the wastefulness that results from it.” Our avian cover model hoards a trove of stolen treasure in its beak: disposables such as plastic toys, aluminum cans, and fast food. Taking cues from Caravaggio, Wittfooth uses chiaroscuro to frame a dramatic intersection of portraiture and still life.
Wittfooth’s style is grounded in classic technique. He draws inspiration from the compositions and themes of artists such as Velázquez and Rembrandt. He also cites the dark pastoral paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, specifically his depictions of the Tower of Babel, as an influence. While Wittfooth’s practice is rooted in tradition, his concepts are contemporary. His work has a dystopian feel—industrial at times. Underlying themes of destruction and martyrdom run throughout. Anthropomorphized animals exist in the ruins of humankind as both victims and aggressors. They are a natural evolution of our wild nature.
But the Brooklyn-based artist doesn’t limit himself to the exploration of modern-day problems. He is also influenced by “the vast hopes and celebrations of being alive at this time.” He writes that “we are faced with . . . the greatest departure, disconnection, and confusion with the natural world [while] having the tools at our disposal to begin pointing the rudder toward reconnection.” It is within these dualities of destruction and evolution, classic and contemporary, that Wittfooth is able to render the human condition through wildlife-populated allegories.
You can see more of his art at www.martinwittfooth.com or on Instagram as @marsproject.