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The Unspin Room

Letter: Sometimes we steal from others, as time steals from us all

I was only a boy, lonely as a boy, and alone in a foreign land.

Thanks to early language lessons, playing hooky to sneak into Francois Truffaut movies and ignore the subtitles, and occasional practice chats with my mother’s best friend, Mimi, I could speak passable, slangy French. I didn’t say “oui” for “yes,” I said “ouai,” as in “yeah.”

We didn’t have much money, but my resourceful mother had found a summer exchange program in which I was to hone my language skills while living with a French family and, in turn, teaching English to their son. Air France bore me away one fine June day, sporting a V-neck navy sweater my mother had purchased at Best & Co. for my stay in Annecy. Had I stuck to the straight and narrow, what a different course I might have run.

It happened that, along with her linguistic gifts, I had inherited from my mother sticky fingers, and a craving for small, shiny objects. That was how I possessed a tiny Lilliput French-English dictionary that fell from a bookstore shelf straight into my pocket, alongside a penknife I’d lifted somewhere, and my mother’s fancy matchboxes. An alternative-world boy scout. I was never comfortable doing this, but psychically these objects filled a hole not only in my pocket but in my heart, where loneliness trickled down like a relentless mountain rivulet to a valley.

My host family’s son had a prized possession in an old silver dollar. He said the previous summer’s American kid had gifted it. It may have been true. I suspected otherwise. Their son clearly shared my light-fingered habits, as I learned when he wanted bonbons on our strolls to town. We had only enough francs from his mother for the loaves of bread she sent us for, but somehow on our walk home his pockets would produce sweet candies and melting chocolate; he shared these treats with a look that demanded it stay a secret between us. “Bien sur.”

On my last day in Annecy, before heading to the airport, I slipped into his room and plucked the silver dollar. Returning it to America, I told myself. All the way home, it burned a hole in my pocket. I knew shame — that day, and ever since. Bob Dylan said, “Steal a little and they throw you in jail, steal a lot and they make you king.” I knew then that whatever people stole on a grander scale — corporations, politicians, societies — a far worse thing was to take something from another individual. A coin today, a heart tomorrow, “losing my religion” as the song goes.

Karoly and Picasso

A 1949 Polaroid of painters Fredric Karoly and Pablo Picasso in conversation. While living in France, the author's family met Karoly. The Hungarian painter gave this Polaroid to the author's mother, and gave the author a pouch of historic coins that became the backbone of a collection.

One evening, my mother’s friend Mimi came to dinner with a date, painter Fredric Karoly. Hungarian by birth, he had palled around with Pablo Picasso after the war. As we got to know him subsequently, he gave my mother a new-fangled Polaroid of the two artists together. I suppose he wanted to impress her, and I suppose he did. My mother had taken me many times to see Picasso’s intense “Guernica” at the Museum of Modern Art. Knowing his pal Karoly, I felt the heat. The vitality of proximity to greatness stuck with me and colored my career. Twenty feet from stardom, as the movie called it, my job was often to oversee others’ work. A footnote to fame.

Doubtless to impress Karoly, I showed him my silver dollar. Some time later, on Christmas Eve, our doorbell rang. It was the painter, holding a felt pouch that resembled Santa. Karoly handed it to me and departed with “Joyeux Noel.” Inside the pouch were coins liberated from Germany as the Allies had advanced. Some coins were ancient, hand-stamped and off-register. They became the backbone of a collection I assiduously assembled. The silver dollar had a home.

Some years later, in an emerging adulthood that had cast me in the mold of young-writer-living-in-a-garret, I came home from toiling in the Time-Life factory on Sixth Avenue to find my fifth-floor walk-up apartment broken into. Among the missing were my father’s prewar Leica camera and my coin collection. There was one person who knew where they were hidden: the shifty-eyed superintendent from Marseilles. He had enough time and access while repairing the radiator and other upkeep to case the joint. I knew from neighborhood lore that he was crooked as a boomerang. He could ship the rare Continental coins back to his native port where they might be unloaded safely and profitably. I hoped the silver dollar would find its way back to Annecy.

Joni Mitchell sang in “The Circle Game” that “We’re captive on the carousel of time.” The butterfly effect of a wing-flap. I never reported the burglary. After all, where would I begin? In stolen moments such as these, I have built a life.

Dalton Delan can be followed @UnspinRoom on Twitter. He has won Emmy, Peabody and duPont-Columbia awards for his work as a television producer.

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