My wife and I were 5 or 6 weeks into pandemic lockdown when the compulsive need for some serious house-decluttering took hold. Maybe it was that boxed-in feeling, making us hyper-aware of every little piece of extraneous debris within our walls. Or maybe it was just the need to bring order to what you can control when the world outside feels like it’s on the verge of collapse.
As summer stretched well past fall, I systematically — that is to say, randomly, totally captive to whim — worked my way through the boxes that had accumulated in our crawl space and garage over the quarter-century we’d inhabited our home: obsolete electronics and cables that had seemingly reproduced asexually in the darkness; records and tapes and CDs playable only on equipment disconnected from my stereo since the onset of the digital age; sports trophies and schoolwork and toys and clothes left behind by our two kids who had abandoned the nest; mementos of our own childhoods shipped to us by our parents when they, too, had undergone some long-forgotten crisis-driven housecleaning. All accompanied by the perpetual battle between my own impulses as a collector (or hoarder, depending on one’s perspective) and my wife’s more minimalist material requirements.
At some point in the purge I came across my stash of stolen goods.
Actually, it was just a box of old books, and only one of them was stolen.
And, yeah, I stole a book, which is incredibly anticlimactic, a sad concession of nerd bona fides. My apologies.
Still, when you’re a fifty-something suburban dad whose vices are limited to infrequent indulgences in red meat and the occasional extra margarita at dinner, the minor transgressions take on a little more heft in your memories.
The book came into my possession in the summer before eighth grade. It was 1979 — the summer of “My Sharona” and endlessly-repeated Mork & Mindy catch-phrases and my hometown of Chicago’s Disco Demolition… and the most miserable summer of my life.
As required per the unwritten rules of midwestern suburbia, my parents had shipped me off to sleep-away camp in the rural backwoods of Michigan. I’d attended the same camp the prior two summers and had a great time, but in the past I’d attended the first of the camp’s two four-week sessions. This year, scheduling conflicts had led my parents to enroll me in the second session instead. None of my old friends were there; rather, I found myself in a bunk full of boys who had grown up together, fast friends excited to be back with their buds, and they had little interest in incorporating the soft-spoken interloper into their tight-knit clan. Attempts to insert myself into their activities drew the same annoyed looks of exasperation you might see in a teenager directed by his mother to take his little brother to the mall.
Complicating matters further, it seemed like I was the only boy in the cabin not yet deep in the throes of puberty. Some of these guys looked ready to borrow the car keys from dad, while I could still hit the high notes when we sang Cat Stevens songs around the campfire. Being an undersized, late-blooming new kid who wasn’t terribly athletically-inclined to begin with didn’t exactly make me Mr. Popularity when it came time to choose-up sides for soccer or flag football.
I wouldn’t say I was bullied so much as ignored entirely. Hell, bullying would arguably have been preferable; at least your existence would be tacitly acknowledged.
All of that might have been tolerable were it not for the girls’ cabins on the other side of the lake. With the raging hormonal mass of dozens of pubescent boys and girls occupying the same acreage, the summer had all the makings of a PBS nature special, from the physical one-upmanship on the basketball court any time the girls were in sight to the lengthy efforts to perfectly feather one’s hair for the Friday night socials. Here as well I was at a disadvantage, the shy, bookish kid not quite ready to lock horns with the alpha-males over who got to be part of the dance-floor vanguard.
My counselors were no help. College-aged young men who sign up to spend their summers working at a co-ed overnight camp in the middle of Nowheresville are there for one reason, and tending to the emotional well-being of that awkward, socially isolated new kid is most assuredly not it. At the end of the day, I’d be dejected and alone, as my counselors snuck off to find a six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon at the local mini-mart before hooking up with the counselors across the lake.
I minimized my time with my cabin-mates by signing up for more solitary activities, like water-skiing, even if my floundering coordination meant falling on my face pretty much instantaneously upon the boat revving into gear.
But group activities were unavoidable. Like the dreaded day of intensive male bonding set to occur on a lengthy hike through a remote, mosquito-infested forest preserve.
Yet in a rare bright spot, we were hit with an unexpected thunderstorm shortly after the bus dropped us off. We took cover in the recreation center near the park entrance, compelled to kill time indoors until the bus could return later that afternoon. As the rest of the guys splintered into small groups, pulling board games out of cabinets or running around in the mud outside the building, I slunk off to the bookshelves in a distant corner, a motley collection of second-hand paperbacks presumably left behind by prior park visitors or donated by the local library.
One book in particular caught my eye. It had a trippy, eerily psychedelic cover illustration with a garish purple background, and the title — Ellison Wonderland, by Harlan Ellison — captured my imagination.
I wasn’t familiar with Ellison at the time (though he has since gone on to become one of my favorite short story writers); and, despite my inherent nerdiness, I was not much of a science fiction fan. Still, the stories inside were short, so I curled up on a bench and skimmed through a few.
In the first one, a guy discovers his neighbor is an alien commuter using Earth as a suburb, inadvertently following him onto the wrong subway car and ending up marooned on a distant world; given my mood at the time, this sounded pretty damn awesome. In the next, a darkly comic bit, a woman orders a fantastical do-it-yourself murder kit to do away with her slovenly husband, but her own neurotic perfectionism causes her to keep botching the instructions, with disastrous results. The stories were silly, maybe on the banal side (certainly compared to the intense, sophisticated work that came later in his career), but just about right for a wayward 13-year-old.
I don’t know how long we spent there that day. Time slipped away as I inhabited Ellison’s at times disturbing, at times droll universe. But eventually the bus arrived, and I had to return to the real world.
Despite my straight and narrow upbringing, I don’t think it even occurred to me that the book wouldn’t be coming back to camp. Indeed, having never so much as incurred an overdue fine from the local library, it was almost startling how obvious it seemed that I would be stealing this book, how second-nature the inclination felt. I intended to finish those stories. And I didn’t just want a copy of the book; I wanted this copy, with its well-thumbed, yellowed pages. There was something talismanic about the volume, the sense of power that it had over me in that moment. The urge had little to do with this particular collection of short stories; while the escapist nature of the stories certainly contributed, it probably could have been anything that happened to catch my attention that day in the musty rec center. It was the theft itself that felt necessary. With this one minor act of insurrection, I felt I’d be flipping off the camp, my neglectful counselors and cliquish bunkmates, the very fates who had conspired to send me there.
I sensed just the briefest twinge of hereditary Jewish guilt as I tucked the paperback into the back of my jeans, though one of the virtues of that summer’s uninvited anonymity was that I had little fear of discovery. I wondered briefly if the book might be missed, if its absence might be traced back to our visit, whether this transgression could result in the camp’s blacklisting from the park.
I fucking hoped so.
I slowly digested the rest of the stories over the ensuing days— after lights out, by flashlight, under the blanket, retaining the illusion that I was engaged in an ongoing act of rebellion. At times, that initial flash of guilt would return. What right did I have to walk off with the book that somebody thought was worth including among the forest preserve’s small library? What if some other kid, perhaps another summer-camp outcast, wound up taking refuge in the rec center, hoping to find solace within the pages of Ellison Wonderland, only to discover it had mysteriously disappeared?
But mostly I felt a giddy sense of triumph. I was almost eager for someone to ask about the strange new book with the funky purple cover that had mysteriously materialized on my shelf, beside the can of bug spray and the small tape deck with that one David Bowie cassette. I longed to impress them with the tale of my intrepid act of larceny.
Of course, nobody did; I remained no less invisible to the other guys in the cabin.
Still, something felt different. Maybe they couldn’t detect this new veneer of cool rebelliousness and self-assurance, but I knew it was there. And it manifested itself in the smallest of ways.
I finally managed to ski around the entire lake without falling, breaking up each day with an almost divine interlude of walking-on-water weightlessness.
I embraced my outsider status, bonding a bit with the quiet, musically-inclined boy in the cabin, the one who turned me on to Abbey Road at a time when I was only familiar with the Beatles’ red and blue-hued greatest hits collections.
And by the end of the summer, I even had a girlfriend (of sorts), a fellow second-session newcomer named Brenda who was having a similarly displaced experience, exacerbated by adolescent girl drama (which, having raised a daughter, I’ve since learned is far uglier than what boys can unleash upon one another). We maintained a chaste and purely platonic relationship, but, still, I was happy just having someone I could sneak off with after lunch to bitch and moan and unload on our respective bunkmates and counselors. We exchanged a few letters that fall, but it was strictly a summer non-romance, and I never saw her again.
I can’t say that one book was responsible; but screwing up my courage enough to say fuck it and stash the aging paperback down my waistband seemed to rebuild the self-confidence that had been eroded that summer and steel me for those final couple weeks.
A few years ago, during one of those periodic online shopping sprees most of us indulge in a moment of downtime, I decided to purchase a new edition of the book, one whose pages weren’t brittle and frayed and loosening from the binding as you turned them. But I haven’t cracked it open. For all my reverence for Ellison’s later work, those earlier stories haven’t aged well, and revisiting Wonderland never quite recaptured the magic of that day, curled up in the corner of a cavernous room deep in a distant forest, sheltering from the storm.
Yet even with the slick, virgin upgrade on the shelf, I couldn’t bring myself to cast aside the purloined original. It ended it up in a box in the crawlspace, piled alongside countless other tomes that no longer warranted inclusion on our bookcase but which I held onto in case the mood ever struck me to pull them out and give them another read.
By the time the pandemic winnowing forced my hand, appreciating that it no longer made sense to clutter up scarce interior real estate with books that had been stashed away untouched for years, some dating back to high school and college, I was much more amenable to cutting loose these remnants of time past. I ended up with a half-dozen boxes, hundreds of books, which I carted off to a local charity. I viewed it as an atonement of sorts for that summer of ’79, a donation more than making good on my earlier heist — though, frankly, the move had less to do with altruism than with marital appeasement.
But I kept that tattered, illicit copy of the book I’d quietly filched from the forest preserve rec center. For forty years, that lone act of rebellion, the willingness to commit a tiny yet wholly counter-intuitive act of resistance, had been a part of me, a layer of inner cool that had helped me develop a sense of assurance and self still undeveloped that one summer. It comprised a very small part of me to be sure — inconsequential, often forgotten — but, still, I wasn’t taking any chances.