The Joy of Having So Many White Hats to Vouch that You Would Not Steal a Thirty-five Cent Notebook

I was arrested once. In 1975. The arrest was legitimate—I inadvertently walked out of the University book store without paying for a thirty-five cent notebook. Unfortunately, I had placed the notebook in my pocket to make sure it fit. Odd kid thing to do. But that is what I did. Unfortunately, I did not remove it from my pocket as I browsed in the fiction section of the store. Unfortunately, I forgot I had it in my pocket. Unfortunately, it slipped my mind that the reason I had gone into the store was to purchase a notebook to jot notes on. Unfortunately I was sporting a beard. Unfortunately, this was 1975—on the campus of Brigham Young University where I was to begin graduate studies the following week. Unfortunately I had not planned to shave the beard until the day before classes started (since I would not be permitted to start classes otherwise). (Beards were a no-no at BYU back when there were rampant wisp-bearded hippies free-loving and rebelling and hooking thirty-five cent notebooks). Unfortunately illegal beards draw the scrutiny of bookstore flatfoots. And unfortunately I walked out of the book store forgotten notebook enpocketed and unpaid for. Further, unfortunately, a fellow stopped me, identified himself as campus security and hauled me off to interrogation. Unfortunately, the cops wouldn’t believe my fervent assertion that I was not idiot enough to steal a thirty-five cent note book.

You could say they had plenty of evidence otherwise sitting right in front of them.

My frustration at being accused and at my own idiocy was astronomical. But what was really, really on a star ship bound for Andromeda was that there was nothing I could do. I was detritus. Debris. Junk in the eyes of my captors. My word, always sacred to me, was less than dust on the wall.

Fortunately, my unfortunaties ended about there. Firstly, I was white, middle class, and looked a lot like the blond, blue eyed ex-Marine student cop who had hauled me in. I spoke the same accented and dialected English he and his buddies spoke. Also, I had undergradded at BYU, so knew people on campus who could vouch for me, including my employers and professors. Also, when the cops called my home town, they got a squeaky clean endorsement from Two-Gun Johnny, the draft board, the high school principle, and several prominent citizens who—if they did not know me personally—knew my family and their general goodness. In short everything about me—except the beard—was in favor of not prosecuting me for stealing a thirty-five cent notebook.

Let me put it this way, I wasn’t Stokely Carmichael or Rosa Parks or Jackie Robinson, or even some black dude from East St. Louis.

Which brings me to a side-story along the same vein. Three years before my arrest for pocketing a thirty-five cent notebook in the BYU bookstore, I was driving across the country to a job. I stopped in St. Louis to look up an old roomie who was not only from St. Louie but was studying medicine at Washington U., St. Louie. When I called the phone number I had for him, his mother answered. She told me he wasn’t home and that he was, at that precise moment, driving to a twenty-four hour duty stint at a hospital. So I asked her for directions to the hospital. Her response—I remember to this day as clearly as my name— “O, I can’t do that. That’s East St. Louis,” she said. I, homogenized child of the TV-riot-sixties, understood what she was telling me—East St. Louis was no place for a white boy to go in his 67 Mustang.

So, what do BYU Professors, and Provo, Utah, employers, and Two-Gun Johnnie, and an Ennis High School Principle, and the Madison County Draft Board, and Several Prominent Madison County Citizens, and a mother in St. Louis have in common? They were mentors to me in my youthful travels. I knew this then and appreciated their vouch for me. But what I came to understand in the forty-three years intervening between then and now is this: about all I had in common with Dude from East St. Louis in regard to mentors was a mother who warned me not to step into the ‘wrong’ side of town. Had he been in that BYU interrogation room, he would have been detritus. Debris. Junk. Period. His word would be but absolute dust sifting down in an interrogation room.

And there would be no prominelnt St. Louie citizens to vouch for him. There might have been an employer that BYU cops might listen to, probably a white guy who might say “Yeah, yeah, he worked here, didn’t give notice when he left. Didn’t take nothing that we could find.” And there might have been a teacher in one of the sewers East St. Louie called schools who could have said, “Dude? There’s millions of them. I don’t think he ever cut classes, probably. Didn’t know him that well. Probably he wouldn’t steal a thirty-five cent notebook though. Probably. You never know.” And there might have been a Two-Gun Johnnie that BYU cops would listen to. But once the Dude’s address in East St. Louie was mentioned, ole St. Louie Two-Gun would have said something like, “don’t know the guy, but all those East St. Louie n*s do is riot and steal thirty-five cent notebooks.”

Anyway, I was acquitted based on my vanilla good looks and the vouch of many from my vanilla Montana upbringing. I shaved my beard and fit right. I Started classes and went on to have a fulfilling, good, happy life. Thanks to all who gave me a lift when I needed it. If there is in East St. Louie a doppelganger of me, and if, in spite of walking out of a store without paying for a thirty-five cent notebook, he has made a life similar in success and joy to mine, then he is a better person than I am because he did not have the one thing I have always had. Though he may have had mentors, they were not people BYU ex-Marine Security guys or LA cops or St. Louie Two-Gun Johnnies would listen to.

I have had that.

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