Start at Zero
In the nine years since moving to this neighborhood, I had walked past the mom-and-pop children’s bookstore hundreds of times. Two or three times a year, waiting patiently to spot a new face behind the checkout counter, I entered to ask my question. I wanted to buy the silk-screened Harold and the Purple Crayon canvas hanging on the wall.
It was a faithful copy of the book’s cover, enlarged to four feet tall and three feet wide, little bald-headed Harold in blue footie pajamas, his purple crayon brandished from one hand like a benevolent sword, the other hand outstretched behind him with a child’s confidence that every drawing would be a masterpiece.
Over these years I had asked about buying the picture on some two dozen occasions, each time told no, it’s not for sale, it’s rare, a limited edition.
That I took no for an answer did not mean that I would abandon the cause. I had strategy, a sort of reverse-psychology approach. By attrition, I would wear them down: I would plant into their minds that the canvas they refused to sell was desired and, therefore, sellable.
Despite its location that had suddenly become bold when the corporate bookstore opened two blocks away, the mom-and-pop shop had managed to hang on. The shelves were relatively low to the ground, kid-reach-friendly, which limited the stock on display but produced, along with beanbag chairs and Jerry Garcia-David Grisman music, a distinctly neighborhood feel.
Recently, I passed the store and saw that my Harold and the Purple Crayon canvas was not in its place on the wall. Where some might have taken this as a sign of opportunity and others a sign of despair, I got woozy. My landmark on the avenue was gone. I was physically and viscerally discombobulated. My sudden vertigo sent my body against what I thought was a firm wall but was, in fact, the door to the bookstore, and that was how I literally fell into the situation.
I tumbled into the store, twisted my ankle, and dropped to the carpet. My ankle hurt. I said, “Yeow.”
A woman with a pencil tucked under her ear turned to identify the source of the soft thud and yeow sound. I imagined I looked to her like a man lounging on his side, his head tilted to read the titles of the spines on the lowest shelf nearest the front door, calling out his excitement at discovering an old favorite childhood story with the same expression that other men might use to show the pleasure of seeing a woman in a skimpy bikini.
“Finding everything?” she asked mechanically.
“Yeow,” I repeated and absently pulled a Babar book from the shelf.
“Yeow is right,” she said. “The Babar books. Written in cursive. Not for all kids.”
I returned the book, stood, and tested my gimpy ankle. Pain shot up to my ears and fell back to my foot. I decided against walking it off. Didn’t want to alarm the children.
I squinted at the woman. With the pencil behind her ear, reading glasses on a silver chain around her neck, and hair pulled severely into a bun not quite center on her head, she looked like a disgraced librarian.
“Harold and the Purple Crayon,” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “It’s in the children’s section.”
I was in a children’s bookstore. If I hadn’t been in such pain, this would have been very funny.
“Come,” she said, seeing my pain. “I’ll show you.”
“No,” I said. “The poster.”
“Yes. The poster on your wall. The canvas. The canvas that isn’t on the wall anymore.”
“Oh,” she said. “We took it down.”
“Yes,” I said, not wanting to ruin the sale.
“It’s not for sale. How much would you pay for it?”
“I have no idea what it’s worth. I don’t want to offend you.”
“Go ahead. You won’t offend me. Give me a number.”
I said, “I’ll give you twenty dollars for it.”
She said, “You’re crazy. That offends me. A hundred dollars.”
Good. We had negotiation.
I said, “I’ll give you seventy, cash, right now.”
My disgraced librarian stared at me, standing on one foot, balancing myself by palming a stack of Harry Potter.
She said, “Stop fingering my Potter.” She walked away, went downstairs, returned with the canvas. I gave her the cash and hobbled toward home with my beloved print.
* * *
As I limped down the sidewalk, I received glances and smiles from nearly everyone I passed. I knew they smiled at Harold and his Purple Crayon; the only reason they would smile at me, a man in pain, scowling, carrying an enlarged picture of a children’s book cover, was for the irony of seeing a scowling, limping man carrying a four-foot picture of a bald-headed boy in blue footie pajamas holding a purple crayon.
Their smiles began to work a calm over me. Maybe I was pleased that I had finally, through patience and persistence, made my purchase, or maybe the pain shooting from my ankle had adrenalized and altered my reality, but I had the distinct sensation that my canvas was transforming the neighborhood, rendering dead flowers vibrantly alive, transforming homeless men into graceful gentlemen in tuxedos, turning litter into art. Like a lush purple carpet unfurling, Harold and everything he represented was laying a way and a means.
A way and a means: This was what we reached for, this was what we strived towards, not always, but steadily enough that here, now, in the city, just past the cusp of a new and promising and dangerous century, it was a noble goal for our perpetually ebbing, flowing sense of hope, desire, fear, hope, hope, hope. A way and a means: for the reconnection to our memories of the drawings that propelled us in the first place.
At the intersection, I waited for the green light and began to cross. I was halfway across the street when a car angled sharply left, trying to make the turn and beat oncoming traffic. I noticed this happening with alarming frequency: the impatient left-turning driver preemptively hoping to speed toward the next red light.
As both a distant observer and an up-close pedestrian participant, I saw this phenomenon as an accurate reflection of the near-sighted poor instinct of bad decision-making and quest for instant gratification that had gripped our time and place.
The scene played out like it always played out. With pedestrians in the crosswalk, the left-turning driver was forced to wait, which stopped oncoming traffic.
The pedestrians continued to walk across the intersection, tossing curious or resentful glances at the driver, who tried now to make himself invisible by not looking at anyone or anything but the pavement past the people, where he wanted his car to be. Only he was in a boxy thing on wheels that weighed half a ton. Bigger than a person. How could we not notice?
In this case, the driver was a woman in a green SUV, on her cell phone, and her front bumper inched to a stop a foot from me in the intersection. I said nothing. Instead, I stood my ground, faced her, and held aloft my Harold and the Purple Crayon canvas above my head, as Moses, fresh from the rocky crags of Mount Sinai, might have held the tablets of the Ten Commandments aloft, hoping to stop what was now to him his people’s nonsense business with the golden calf.
I held my position as the light changed. Perpendicular traffic crossed the intersection and stalled. Drivers three and four places back, trained to believe that green meant go, started honking their horns. In my world, they honked not in irritation but in sudden solidarity with Harold, and their memories of Harold, and all the possibility he still represented.
I had created a small traffic jam. Reading, I reasoned, should give us pause, even if it was only reading an enlarged book cover in the middle of an intersection.
* * *
Claire sighed when she saw my Harold canvas. She had a way of showing that she wasn’t thrilled—not to say necessarily that she was upset or disgusted, just not thrilled. The bridge of her nose crinkled, like a boxer just after a particularly nasty punch, and produced a thick grouping of flesh that was surprising to see on such a petite woman.
Claire’s fleshy crinkle formed and disappeared. It always disappeared. That was her way. She registered, absorbed, and moved forward. Me, I held on. I was a pack rat of memory and emotion and things. And though our ways were so remarkably different, our combination was fairly balanced on the spectrum of getting along.
She sighed, I knew, because this was the largest manifestation yet of my obsession with Harold and the Purple Crayon. When she moved in, I gave her a hardback copy of the book, which joined the paperback copies I had used to woo her in English, Spanish (Harold y el Creyón Púrpura), and Portuguese (Harold e o Pastel Roxo). I was convinced that Claire equally accepted and endured my obsession. If there was to be any negotiation about the canvas, she would lose, even if she won.
What some called obsession, others knew as reverence. True, I had taken to quoting her lines from the story, but in entirely appropriate situations.
Twice a week, in the evening after dinner, Claire and I strolled through the park, which always was heralded by my reciting the first sentence of the book: “One evening, after thinking it over for some time, Harold decided to go for a walk in the moonlight.”
When one of us vented about trouble with our jobs, I quoted from Harold: “But he didn’t seem to be getting anywhere on the long straight path.”
When something went particularly well for one or both of us, the sentence “There was nothing but pie” seemed entirely appropriate.
For support and tenacity, I told Claire, “But luckily he kept his wits and his purple crayon.”
When I was feeling amorous: “He was tired and he felt he ought to be getting to bed.” I quoted that line a lot but stopped when Claire gave me her boxer’s nose crinkle and told me it had become a poor way to set the mood.
Not that I was the only half of our partnership with quirky obsessions. For example, whenever Claire sang the “Happy Birthday” song, she sent a modest royalty check to the estate of the people who wrote “Happy Birthday” because, she said, “it was the right thing to do.”
* * *
Here’s how I met Claire. We were sitting at different tables in the neighborhood café. Her phone rang. She had the same ring tone on her cell phone that I was thinking about using on my cell phone. I wondered who her service provider was. It was going to be beautiful. I imagined the romantic confusion of the two of us, not knowing whose phone was ringing.
I broached the subject to start a conversation with her, both of us smiling at the absurdity of the pick-up line, marveling at the power of words to dance around and through what felt like the pure, brilliant birth of a new galaxy in the universe.
* * *
Claire and I gazed at the canvas.
“I like it,” she said. “Especially that ice cream stain on the corner. Gives it character. Little boy, let’s hang it on the wall.”
When I turned the canvas to see if it had mounting brackets, a card fell out of the frame. It was a piece of paper, laminated. We read the words:
Start at Zero.
Dial left twice past zero, stop at 26.
Dial right, stop 2nd time on 71.
Dial left stopping first time on 50.
Claire said, “How ‘bout that.”
I said, “‘There was nothing but pie.’”
She said, “You do know what this is.”
I said, “I wonder how much money they have in the safe.”
She said, “I wonder if they care.”
I said, “Claire, this is proof that literature really isn’t about the money.”
She said, “What should we do with it?”
We sat on the couch, staring at our Harold and the Purple Crayon canvas, pondering our options. Destroy the combination to the safe immediately, before we committed it to memory. Return the card to the bookstore immediately. Turn the card into a refrigerator magnet. Return the card to the frame. Return the card to the bookstore with a notarized letter stating that we did not know the combination to the safe, that we shared the combination with nobody, and that if the bookstore was robbed we had nothing to do with it.
We hammered a nail into the wall and hung the canvas. We sat and gazed and pondered some more. None of our options satisfied us.
“Think bigger,” said Claire. “Start at zero. Then let’s push the envelope.”
We decided to rob the bookstore.
We decided that the owners undoubtedly had long ago memorized the combination and, therefore, didn’t need a laminated reminder.
We talked about how much better the heist would be if we brought a child to the bookstore for the sake of distraction, Claire asking if she could use the bathroom for a diaper emergency, needing my help, both of us working quickly, efficiently, hiding the cash in what the bookstore owners only would know as the relief of seeing us, the considerate customers, removing their kid’s stinky waste from the store in a black plastic bag.
Then we remembered that we didn’t yet have any children. We decided that making a baby for the purpose of robbing a children’s bookstore was not a very honorable reason to start a family. We decided that borrowing a friend or neighbor’s child for an hour was, at best, morally problematic.
We realized that we didn’t know exactly where the safe was located. Three days later, we decided to scope out the bookstore and figure the angles. I used a line from the book: “Harold knew that the higher up he went, the farther he could see.” Claire nodded in agreement.
I removed my contacts, put on my prescription sunglasses and a baseball cap and a fake moustache, and down the street we went, oblivious to how truly obsessed we were.
“Remember,” said Claire, “we’re just going to look. And if we buy anything, eventually we’d just be stealing our own money.”
“Hey,” I said, “I could get back the 70 dollars I spent on the Harold picture.”
Claire said, “Remember, it wouldn’t be stealing candy from a child. It would be stealing money from people who sell children’s books.”
I said, “We’d probably spend more time in jail if we robbed the corporate bookstore.”
“Hey,” said Claire, “don’t think like that. Think positive.”
Not until after we reached the bookstore and nervously, absentmindedly, walked the rows of books did I stop and exhale a ponderous, calming, relieving breath of air. That we wanted to steal money from the safe in a children’s bookstore wasn’t half as absurd as the thought that we actually had the gumption to do it.
A voice said, “Hiya.” I turned. The disgraced librarian stood in front of me, too close for comfort, even if we had been there only to look at the books.
“How’s that Harold and the Purple Crayon poster hanging?”
“Proudly,” I said, touching my moustache. “I’m surprised you recognized me.”
She said, “Well, you look a little different, but I recognized the limp.”
My ankle. The sting was gone, but I favored it.
“Of course,” I said.
She said, “Hey, I’ve got the book in German, if you’re interested. Harold und der Purpurrote Zeichenstift.”
This: I had revered that book since childhood. The way little Harold was able to draw himself into and out of difficult situations was a goal to which I strived in my own life. Maybe other books demonstrated a more thorough exposition of this worldview, but none more clearly, purely, or indelibly than Harold.
“The purple crayon dropped on the floor. And Harold dropped off to sleep.”
I bought the book in German. Claire and I walked home and talked about starting a family for all the right reasons.
Start at zero. Make your own life combination. Commit it to memory. If need be, laminate the combination onto a card, place it behind the frame of your favorite picture, and never, ever sell.