Monday, April 28, 2008

Harper Lee

Today is the birthday of Harper Lee. She was the brilliant author of "To Kill a Mockingbird."

I have an autographed copy. And this is what she wrote:

To Henry:

For crawling around in the courtoom; for trothing five pounds off the author; for being your apple-cheeked, cheerful, loving self!

With admiration and affection,

Harper Lee
(Nelle to you!)

I imagine she wrote this to one of the child actors or perhaps the son of a director or crewmember from the film. I can't imagine anyone misplacing this book. But here's an essay-explanation of how I became the proud owner. (I wrote this about six years ago, while working at Trader Joe's in the mountains, outside LA. It was where I met Froggydadda, but that's another story).

A Found Jem

I work in a grocery store. It’s a thankless job of weekend stocking from five a.m. until midnight. We are open on holidays and full moons, attracting the moodiest of customers who want their cheesecake and Salt n' Vinegar chips, like an addict just released from doing hardtime. And if for some god-forsaken reason our warehouse leaves us short, we prepare for fifty-year-old temper tantrums and threats like, “Don’t make me go to Ralph’s,” or “I’m never shopping here again!,” as they fill their cart with cashews and colon-cleansing supplements.

I adore the children, ironically for their maturity. They are always thrilled with stickers and a cart ride through the parking lot. They, unlike their parents, say “thank you” and smile in line.

I had been in LA two months and was close to believing that every single person was rotten, when this woman entered my checkout line. It had been a terrible day of cranky old men with hair growing out of every visible body part except the top of their head… and I was in a bad mood.

She was friendly and this shocked me. I almost mistook it for patronization. After she was totaled and paid for, she smiled behind an overflowing cart and I suddenly felt like a good person who wanted to help another good person. I asked her if she would like a hand to her car, and seeing no one behind her, she agreed.

Leaving the job in the afternoon is startling to the system. It confuses night with day and work with fun. The sunlight was almost painful as it erased the fake environment I had become accustomed to for six hours.

The woman helped me load her bags in the trunk. I think it was a Volvo or VW, which assured me even more that she was cool. As I was about to leave, I noticed a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird crammed between the back seat and extra large eggs for $1.29.

“That is my favorite book!” I blurted out.

There is something wonderful about people who always have a book in the back seat. They can be trusted. I would hitch a ride with a total stranger with brilliant literature and Joni Mitchell on the radio.

She told me it was for her church rummage sale. I continued to drone on about how amazing Harper Lee was and how Scout and Jem were the heroes of all tree-huggin, cheerio eatin’, curtain climbers everywhere. And then she said, rather non-chalantly, “Well, it’s signed by the author.”

Okay, I’m a pretty laid back person who doesn’t freak out at the people on “The Apprentice.” I don’t even honk my horn in traffic unless there’s a dog in my path or swerving for a squirrel, but I almost wet myself in the grocery store parking lot, which is on a crude slant and would’ve caused an embarrassing spill for all our valued customers.

“Take a look at it,” she grinned.

Like the holy grail, I plucked the copy from it’s automotive tomb and opened to the preface, where before me was a handwritten note from Harper Lee to her friend, Henry. And it was as if I was reading a letter from Harper Lee to myself. I couldn’t help but personalize it. I know it’s egotistical, but we all in some way assume a writer’s word was written exclusively for the individual, rather than a collective audience. And maybe for that reason alone the written word empowers us to change the world and ourselves. It isn’t just a story, or just a play, just a poem. It’s a request from someone in tune with the rhythm of words, asking us to dance and sing in their story.

All I could say was, “This is amazing,” and “Do you know how amazing this is?” I was a deer caught in the headlights of a brilliant moment. I was shaking as I handed the hardcover back to her. And then I uttered something profound like, “That is so cool.”

She smiled or maybe she was smiling the whole time. I closed the door and turned to walk away, already thinking of how I would tell my sister that I touched a book that Harper Lee touched. The woman said “Wait,” and held the book out to me.

“This is your favorite book. You should have it.”

“No, no, no!” I was actually shaking my head as if she had just proposed to me and I was pregnant with somebody else’s child.

“Please, it would make my day to give this to you.”

Now all these thoughts were racing through my head. The first: I don’t deserve this just for throwing some groceries in her car. Second: I hope I double-bagged and Third: I could never give such a gift. These were humbling thoughts and my head continued to shake.

“Are you sure?”

“Take it.” She placed the book in my hands, smiled, got in her car and drove away.

I think I ran into the store. I had just won the literary lotto and had to tell everyone.

“Cool,” was the main response from the crew. Cool, I thought, cool? They had no idea. I told every customer who would listen and called my sister when I arrived home.

“What’d you do?” she asked.

“Bagged her groceries.”

“And she just gave it to you?”


That day extended throughout the week and my work seemed a little less tedious, the hands on the clock moved faster and people even in their tantrum state, hands in the air screaming, “Cheesecake now!” seemed funny and I loved them for being so completely human, capable of crude public acts and also capable of extraordinary kindness.

What an amazing gift that Harper Lee wrote this book, gave it to the world, to the woman who gave it to me. And I thank them both for their brilliant generosity and for making a bagger at a grocery store feel that my job and my presence in this world is important.


Beverly said...

Oh, FroggyMama, that is such a wonderful story. What a treasure. That is truly a keeper. By the way, you're a great writer!

Anonymous said...

How weird. While cleaning yesterday I found this exact essay that you had mailed to me years ago. I hadn't seen it or read it in ages. Now I check your blog today and see it again. We're so connected! Happy Birthday Harper Lee and best wishes to Henry, whoever and wherever he is.

Anonymous said...

okay...that is just plain terrific. great story. jcn

Anonymous said...

Why did this story move me so much? Your passion? It is a wonderful wonderful piece of writing E.

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