From the Hunt Museum: It was under this dresser, in 1981…
“What…is…this?!” my mother sputtered, and even though my back was turned toward her, I knew what she had found. The blood drained from my face as a nauseating wave of guilt, shame, and fear came crashing down upon my senses. It was the horrible feeling of knowing that one has just arrived at the very beginning of a long and unpleasant ordeal, brought upon by oneself. I was, as I recall, an obedient and honest child with few exceptions (perhaps my memory is selective), and this rare transgression was downright felonious in comparison to anything else I had done. I chastised myself for my stupidity. Emboldened by a successfully executed illicit scheme, I had flown too close to the sun with my wax wings, and now there was nothing to do but plummet helplessly to Earth.
As is the case with many a tale of innocence lost, the path that led to my downfall was a long and circuitous route. It began nearly a year earlier, and it was indirectly set in motion by my freshly developed preoccupation with the Beatles. I turned 12 in the summer of 1980, when Paul McCartney’s Coming Up was getting frequent airplay. Having recently realized that a number of tunes that I liked were penned by the lad from Liverpool, I took the plunge and bought a copy of McCartney II. A month later while on vacation, I found discounted picture discs of Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road. The music was a revelation to me, and as I gained an appreciation for the Fab Four, I began to particularly hold McCartney in high esteem.
I entered seventh grade that fall, and when the holiday season arrived, I took note of the publicity surrounding a new release from John Lennon and Yoko Ono called Double Fantasy. The coverage was soon to explode in a media frenzy following Lennon’s death on December 8, which must have been right around the time the January, 1981 Playboy was hitting the stands. I remember this because I heard on the radio that the latest issue featured a lengthy interview with Lennon, who reportedly had said some rather caustic and uncomplimentary things about his former writing partner.
I know that I may be risking losing all credibility with judge and jury when I say that although I was certainly not averse to the more prurient elements of Hugh Hefner’s infamous periodical, my subsequent actions were motivated by my high interest in reading that Lennon interview. To that end, I began a relentless campaign of badgering my father to purchase the issue, promising him that I wanted it only for the article. Lennon’s death only bolstered my argument, as I noted the collectibility of the issue and its likelihood of selling out soon. Somehow, amazingly, or perhaps because he would be allowed to read the entire magazine (I cannot say), my father capitulated, and I still remember the magazine laid out on our dining table at one end of the family room.
There is a scene in Citizen Kane when a reporter investigating the death of the late millionaire is granted permission to read excerpts from the diaries of Kane’s guardian, a banker named Mr. Thatcher. Seated at one end of a long table in the Thatcher Library with a lone shaft of light illuminating his reading, the reporter is under strict orders to peruse only those pages pertaining to his inquiry. The same degree of security was effected for my reading of the Lennon interview. The magazine was opened to the start of the article. Paperclips had been inserted in several places so that there would be no chance of me accidentally stumbling upon pictorial content as I made my way through pages and pages of interview. I was to remain in full view of family members until my reading was finished, whereupon I was to notify the curator to remove the periodical.
I read the article, found it illuminating, and that was that. After this triumph of reason in parenting, I thought little more about the strange endeavor. At least I didn’t think about it for a little while. But my curiosity had been piqued. It was an awfully thick magazine. What, I wondered, could possibly fill the rest of its pages? Perhaps there were other articles that I would find similarly illuminating. Or other interesting stuff, who knew? I sensed that I held the golden key that would open the door to adult sophistication and cosmopolitan mores, if only I had the nerve to use it.
Of course, I did use it, embarking on a clandestine mission that revealed the hidden location of the magazine and afforded me a cursory glance at its contents. As I anticipated, I did, indeed, find the rest of the issue to be illuminating. The thing about entering the door to adult sophistication and cosmopolitan mores is that, once you cross the threshold, you can never un-enter that door. You may exit through the same door, but your brain still carries the memory of what you saw on the other side. What I had seen intrigued me enough that I thought I might learn a great deal more through further exploration of the topic. But therein was a thorny problem, as I was clearly stepping beyond the bounds of what was permissible and putting myself at risk of severe disciplinary action. Best to avoid it altogether. But then I didn’t really want to.
It was a great mental diversion that carried into the summer of 1981, when the idle hours and freedom from schoolwork allowed me to hatch an outrageous plan. How could I ever acquire the time to read an issue of Playboy from cover to cover? The answer was simple: I would buy one myself.
It took no small measure of bravado for a boy just shy of thirteen to even consider such a scheme, much less execute it. It was absolute craziness, like the most harebrained idea for busting out of Alcatraz. But I hoped that it was so crazy that, according to the old cliche, it just might work.
And so, on a hot and cloudless day in July, as my heart rate accelerated with every push of my bike pedals, I cycled a few blocks to a party shop, located just across the street from our church, no less. Before dismounting, I took off my glasses and deposited them in the ample bag that hung from my handlebars, a large compartment that I hoped would soon contain the most forbidden of treasures. Dispensing with my spectacles was akin to adopting a disguise, for I reasoned that it would make me sufficiently unrecognizable. With my heart pounding away, I grimly stared fear in the face and strode confidently into the establishment.
Behind the counter stood a burly man whose eyebrows raised as I approached. I had already done my reconnaissance work and knew precisely what to say. I cleared my throat, dropped my voice an octave, and inquired with deadly sincerity, “Do you have the August, 1981 issue of Playboy magazine?” There was a pause. “It’s for my father.”
This was, I felt, the proper strategy to obtain what I wanted. By mentioning a specific issue, I wished to convey that my father had some unusual reason for wanting to buy it, a reason that, if pressed, I would profess not to know. I tried to appear as disinterested as possible, as though I had been sent here many times before to get smokes for the old man, and this was just one more errand I was reluctantly running. Confidence was the key. Though my internal systems were processing an unprecedented influx of adrenaline, I was cool as a corpse on the outside.
“Two-fifty,” said the man, who never betrayed his own thoughts as I mechanically handed over the money. He placed the magazine in a paper bag, which I accepted as nonchalantly as I might have taken a sack of oven mitts. I turned my expressionless gaze toward the door and walked out into the brilliant sunlight, stashing my contraband in my handlebar bag and retrieving my glasses. Soon I was home and in my room, having successfully cleared the final hurdle of carrying a brown paper bag through the house. I already knew where my illicit booty was going to reside: under my dresser, which had a high enough clearance yet was so close to the side of my bed that no one could see underneath it. If anybody was going to find that magazine, they would have to purposefully stick their hand under there to do it.
And that, incredibly, is precisely what my mother did a few months later. My room was undergoing a thorough shakedown due to my inability to locate the stupid clip-on tie that I was obligated to wear to a school assembly the following day. Everything was getting torn apart. Why I didn’t make a show of sticking my arm under the dresser and declaring it tie-less is beyond me. Maybe I did, and Mom was double-checking my search. In any case, the jig was up. I had no defense. And like the Beatles sang, I was gonna carry that weight, carry that weight a long time.