The Reason For Witness Protection

Deep dark secrets are great until you confess them and risk of being held accountable. Who wouldn’t rather be ‘mysterious with a dangerous streak’ instead of ‘on parole’? But it’s time for me to come clean about bad choices made in my impulsive, reckless youth. I did things. I did bad things. I’ll tell you about it here but I am changing some details to protect the innocent (innocent = way super guilty).

I stole a book from a library.
In my defense, I really wanted the book and I was going to take it. Just hear me out before you throw away the metaphorical key to my imaginary cell. You’ll never take me alive, copper.

But first…some words about libraries. I love libraries. ALL OF THEM. The smell, the reverent hush, the solid reassurance of a multitude of filled shelves. The swagger in your step approaching the card catalog because your Dewey brings the decimals to the yard. Libraries-hands down-have always been my favorite places to go. I could, and did, spend hours in the stacks, letting looking for one book lead me to another book, another topic, another place. Sadly there was always a point at which the adult in charge would announce “Last call! You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here!” (to which my panicked reply was always “BUT MOM! I HAVE TO GO HOME WITH YOU!”)Libraries made sense to me. They were orderly. I never had to figure out which table had the cool kids, or get side-eye at how many books I was taking home. I don’t even know how many books it would take to get a librarian to give side-eye. Dude, don’t even try. You cannot flap the unflappable.

While it was deliriously thrilling to assemble a check-out pile, I also loved pulling random books off the shelf and finding a comfy chair for some reading time. (It’s VERY grown-up to read at a library. People like Katharine Hepburn did it in black and white movies so…)I would find a section I didn’t have a reason to be in and just peruse. I would grab intriguing titles and do a lap in the pages to see if I wanted to commit. My favorite place to do this was in the 800s/Literature and on the particular day that I found this particular book, I was in the 811s, American Drama. I was 9ish years old.

American Drama was always yummy and juicy and a good way to pass some time holed up in the stacks. I read plays by Arthur Miller and Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams. I’d never heard of Kaufman and Hart, but there was this little blue book with an understated title: Six Plays by Kaufman and Hart, from Random House’s Modern Library, published in 1942. There were some introductory essays that I skipped (whatever, you don’t look at them either) and I thumbed through, looking at the play titles. I settled on one in the middle of the book called “You Can’t Take It With You” and looked at the character’s names. Penelope Sycamore. HA. I was sold. Best first character name everrrrrr. That name was like a warm hug from your eccentric aunt, your dad’s sister that your mom didn’t like. I added it to my stack to go home with me.

I had strict rules for reading-can look at the description on the back, must read in order without looking ahead, never cheat by looking at the last page, always finish the book no matter what (anyone wanna hang out with me yet? Don’t I sound superfun?) but these rules didn’t apply to play collections. I started Six Plays in the middle, with the play that had so effectively grabbed my attention. To my pleasant surprise, I had me a book of comedies. “You Can’t Take It With You” was a little strange, a lot energetic, and very, very funny. Kaufman and Hart made every character interesting and dimensional and necessary-even the ingenue was more than a pretty face driving the romance plot. I read it through, then turned back to the beginning and read it again, saying random lines out loud just to delight in how they rolled off my tongue. Kaufman and Hart’s inherent genius is supporting a myriad of active, varied, explosive characters—putting SO MUCH into the script—with staccato, cascading dialogue that drives manic pace of the play with comparatively spare language. The resulting buoyancy is infectiously joyful and did I mention funny? Funny to read, fun to say out loud, fun to hear. I had to pay attention, because the good stuff flew fast and nonstop and it was all gold. (Yes, it won a Pulitzer Prize, so, you know, I’m aware that saying “This play is good!” is like saying “Water is wet!”)

When I found this book, I was unaware that George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart were kind of big deals. Like, the biggest American theater deals. George S. Kaufman was a member of the Algonquin Round Table. Moss Hart was younger than Kaufman by 15 years and was a natural storyteller encouraged into the theater by a beloved aunt. Apart, their accomplishments are mind-boggling but together they flat owned the 1930s when it came to American theatrical comedy. Six Plays spans that decade’s body of work.

I read “You Can’t Take It With You” four times in a row and finally moved on to another play. “Once In A Lifetime” was fun, but I met my new best friend, the sly and self-involved Sheridan Whiteside, in “The Man Who Came To Dinner”. I would give my right arm to play Sheridan Whiteside. (Hello, casting directors, the ultimate in stunt casting! A complete unknown with limited experience genderbending a beloved, iconic role! I’ll just sit here and wait for the avalanche of offers). The breathtaking wit, glamour, and flat hilarious intelligence of this play did me in. I knew that I could not live without this book.

I like to think that Mr. Whiteside, petty thief that he is, would approve of my next move. When it came time to return my most recent stack to the library (pay attention here because CRIMINAL MASTERMIND) , I hid Six Plays under my bed. At the library, instead of handing the books over the counter to the librarian to get checked back in, I put them in the book drop so as to not draw attention to The Missing Book. Then I constructed an underground lair and hired a bunch of henchmen.

You (not YOU, I’m sure) probably hid porn under your bed. I hid a book of comedic plays written in the 1930s. Can we agree that I’ve always been a sad, sad nerd? It took a few years, but in time I gained some maturity and a moral compass and my illegal gain started to nag at me. I possessed My Precious but I had victimized a library and thwarted who knows how many research papers. My relationship with libraries had been one way, my perspective one of “how can I be served”? When I stole the book, it was because I wanted to keep that delirious riot of an experience for myself. I had it wrong. One person does not make a riot. Riots are communal. You gotta invite everybody and make sure you have lots of confetti and silly string on hand.

I know you’re waiting for the happy ending punchline where I make good and return the book all those years later. HAHAHAHAHAHA nope. I never got found out and I still have that copy of Six Plays. I read it about once a year. The experience of finding a book that so envelops you that it becomes part of who you are, that it colors how you see the world, is an experience that I was afforded because I got to go to a library. Kaufman and Hart were there, just waiting to be found.Every so often, I’ll find a good copy of Six Plays in a used bookstore. I always buy it and take it to my local library to donate. It’s the most peaceful way I know to start a riot. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to field all those “The Man Who Came To Dinner” casting offers.

Action Items
Check out local theater companies in November/December-chances are there’s a staging of “The Man Who Came To Dinner”. You can also spend some quality time in your living rooms with the movie versions of all of the plays in this book. They will usually be in the classic movie sections of your favorite movie-obtaining service.
Support your library.

5 thoughts on “The Reason For Witness Protection

  1. Excellent morning read! Now I have to head to the library to check out “Six Plays” so I can read all of them. “You Can’t Take it With You” is one of my favorite old movies and am looking forward to reading that play as well as the others. Hope my library still has its copy.

    Like you, I had a love of libraries at an early age. I always imagined being one of the kids in “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” but getting stuck in a library overnight instead of a museum. That was my idea of bliss.

    I also kept (stole) a library book. (It’s like we’re twins!) When I was young, we lived in the middle of nowhere and had a bookmobile come twice a month to our area. My sister and I checked out the book “Lark” by Sally Watson so many times that at some point it made no sense to return it. So I still have it. Plastic cover, card pocket and all. I did feel bad about depriving other kids but rationalized that it was always checked out anyway. I do donate lots of books and fund lots of books projects on DonorsChoose. Just to balance out the universe.

    Liked by 1 person

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