The Ways In Which We Borrow
by Robb Todd
(pictured above: Bob Dylan in Rotterdam, Netherlands, June 1978)
There is trouble on the street tonight. Had a premonition that she should not go alone. She caught me stealing once when I was five. I enjoy stealing. It is as simple as that. It is just a simple fact. Because mutiny on the bounty is what we are all about. We are going to board your ship and turn it on out.
I knew the gun was loaded but did not think she would kill. Everything exploded. Blood began to spill. When I want something, I do not want to pay for it. I walk right through the door. Right through. All right? If I get by, it is mine, mine, all mine. I am no soft sucker with a parrot on his shoulder because I am bad, getting bolder; cold, getting colder.
Immature thugs imitate. The mature steal. When it is a bad heist, you deface what you take. When it is good, you turn what you snatched into something better, or at least something new.
"So, baby, here's your ticket," I said. "Put the suitcase in your hand. Here's a little money, do it just the way we planned."
My girl? She is one, too. She will go and get her a shirt and stick it under her skirt. She grabbed a razor for me, and she did it just like that. Terrorizing suckers on the seven seas, and if you have a beef, she will cap you in the knees.
"You be cool for twenty hours, and I'll pay you twenty grand," she said. "I'm sorry it went down like this."
"Someone had to lose," I said.
When she wants something, she does not want to pay for it. She walks right through the door. Right through it. It is the nature of the business. The sailors and the pilots, the soldiers and the law. The payoffs, the ripoffs, the things nobody saw.
Yeah, all around in my hometown, they are trying to track me down. They say they want to bring me in guilty for the killing of a deputy. But I say: "Oh ... now, now."
No matter if it is heroin, cocaine, or hash, you have to carry weapons because you always carry cash. There are lots of shady characters, lots of dirty deals. Every name is an alias in case somebody squeals. When we want something, we do not want to pay for it. We walk right through the door. Walk right through it.
"Mine, all mine!" she said. "It's mine."
We sat around the pile and laughed. We sat and laughed and waved it into the air. We did it just like that. That was why the sheriff always hated me.
"Every time he plants a seed," the sheriff said, "kill it before it grows."
The talented crook welds his plunder into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn. The untalented thief throws it into something which has no cohesion. So when freedom came my way one day, I started out of town. All of a sudden, I saw the sheriff aiming to shoot me. So I shot and shot and shot. If I am guilty, I will pay, but I swear it was in self-defense. Reflexes got the better of me and what is to be must be.
It is the lure of easy money. It has a very strong appeal. Perhaps you would understand it better standing in my shoes. It is the ultimate enticement. Snatching gold chains, nicking pieces of eight. Hey, all right? If I get by, it is mine. Mine. All mine.
"I'll steal your shit, homeboy," she said. "I tax you, boy. Waxin' all y'all squares."
+ + +
If pop music is now art and song lyrics are now poetry and great artists still steal, then the cento should be the superior form of the day. A cento is made by lifting lines from the writing of others, as above:
Someone whose name is difficult to recall once said that originality is the fine art of remembering everything you hear, but forgetting who said it. Doing that well enough can lead to a Nobel Prize, so honor the theft that helped earn the award and plagiarize the acceptance speech, too — but do not call it plagiarism. Call it borrowing. That is what Bob Dylan's fans do. He belongs to a rich lineage of literary pirates such as Eliot and Shakespeare, although the bard was not just a pilferer of plots. He gave us "critic," among many other words that we, too, borrowed without permission.
The heritage in America of stealing words goes at least as far back as Benjamin Franklin, and never stopped. Dylan was such a complete artist that stealing verse was not enough. He burglarized the work of others for his memoir, and even his paintings.
Theft in this nation began at its birth, in ways larger than words or images, and also never stopped. Perhaps there is nothing more American, and why so few care unless they do not like what the thief created. Or maybe it is because when you are pushed from the womb, it is always too soon to leave that perfect place. It can only be better inside a sentence — if it is a true sentence, not a lie, and even if it is stolen.
All of us are criminals. We take from others. So have your way with words. There is nothing in the language that does not belong exclusively to you, and thank everything for the heat of a person who takes you.
Robb Todd is a journalist and author in New York City. He has lived all over the country and was lucky enough to live in Hawaii twice. He also lived in Texas twice. And North Carolina twice. Actually, this is his second stop in New York City, too. He doesn’t do things right the first time.