The Day After Inauguration
On Saturday, January 21, 1989, the first day of the Bush era, I rode my bicycle to downtown Concord, Massachusetts, where I live, to buy two newspapers, The Boston Globe and The New York Times. It was the day after the President’s inauguration, a sunny day, and I looked forward to reading what those two papers had to say about an important day in our nation’s history. When I got to the drugstore where I buy those papers every morning, I noticed that the Times was not there — quite unusual. It was not a foggy or snowy day, nor was any strike in progress — so, puzzled, I asked the store’s clerk whether the Times was expected. He did not know — but it had been “a long time” since “this” had happened: the absence at 8:15 of that paper. I went home with the Globe, read it, set out again downtown, now in my car, to do various errands, and to check on the Times again. When I got to the drugstore I was told that the Times wouldn’t be coming: some unusual foul-up in the Concord delivery for that day. All right, I thought to myself, I can surely do without that paper.
I went about my chores, then remembered that the town’s library gets the newspapers through its own delivery network: even when the stores don’t have certain papers or magazines, the library will have them. I went there to stop and read. I do so once or twice a week anyway — far less expensive than subscribing to this and that publication. I entered the “periodical room,” sought out the Times, found the bamboo stick with the Times attached to it, but noticed it was Thursday’s edition, that of the day before the inauguration. There was something wrong. The daily papers are always there, ready to be read, by 11 A.M. I looked around, then went to the circulation desk. I asked a young man working there if “today’s Times” had come in. “Yes,” he said. I explained what I had just discovered. He went with me to the reading room, saw the same thing, and then told me what he surmised had occurred: “Someone took it — and substituted an old copy from the stack.” (A week’s issues of the paper are kept in a separate pile, available for those who care to go back in time that way. There are, too, microfilms of months, years of the paper.)
I was confused and irritated, but the young librarian had a clear notion of what had transpired, and was, I began to realize, a bit sad and bemused rather than angry or upset. He told me that he was “sure” that “someone” had decided to take the Times home — since no copies had been available in the local stores. That person had taken the trouble to connect a two-day-old newspaper to the bamboo poles, after removing from them the Saturday edition. I wondered why. The librarian gave me a look of slight surprise — as if I belonged, perhaps, in the children’s room across the hall. Then I was offered a lecture on stealing in the Concord Public Library, the home of Emerson’s books, Thoreau’s, Hawthorne’s, an institution that serves a quite comfortably middle-class population. Hadn’t I noticed all the “security” in the building — all the machinery meant to catch thieves? Newspapers and magazines, however, can escape the detection of that gadgetry — and so, they are “often” taken, not returned. The librarian did permit himself this moral disquisition, which I can offer word for word: “Someone went to the drugstore, as you did, and saw no Times. He came here, read the paper, and decided he wanted it. For some stupid reason he didn’t just take the paper. He went to the trouble of switching papers. I suppose he was afraid someone would notice the empty [bamboo] sticks. His mind doing tricks on him! A Raskolnikov! So, he made the switch and left with the Times. He didn’t care about you or anyone else. He didn’t care that now our microfilms will lack that day, unless we write to the Times and get another copy. All he cared about was his desire. And everyone talks about how safe these suburbs are. And in that police record you read in the weekly Concord paper, the only crimes are a few drunken episodes. If someone’s house is robbed — oh, that’s an outsider coming into the town! Concord’s people are all well-educated, respectable, and law-abiding.”
We talked for 10 or 15 minutes. He told me what he’d been told by some of the town’s storekeepers, including the owner of the drugstore where I buy newspapers as well as shaving cream, toothpaste, and such staples of contemporary living — the thefts that take place week after week: people who hide magazines or other objects under their coats, or slip them into their pockets; people who pretend to leave the right amount of coins on top of a stack of papers, but don’t do so; people who go to a sandwich shop’s counter and pocket tips left for the waiter.
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