Standing behind her in the supermarket line, I could see the girl was pretty. Slightly built, her dark hair cut in a bob, she evoked an Asian Audrey Hepburn. Then I saw the scar. Perfectly straight, it bisected her upper arm about six inches below the shoulder of her sleeveless blouse. More than anything else, it was the color that hit me: Against her suntanned skin, the gash was bright purple.
Tough break, I thought, as the cashier scanned her saltines, her soy milk and her fifth of Jack Daniel’s. (I live in Hollywood; this is what passes for groceries among wannabe actresses.) Maybe it was the tabloids staring vacantly from the rack, but my mind jumped to the cause of the girl’s wound—a late-night car crash, perhaps, or a sledding accident involving a barbed wire fence. In my head, I saw the girl in the ER, bravely biting her lip as a handsome surgeon mended her bicep. I imagined the argument she’d had with herself: Dare I, or dare I not, go sleeveless ever again? I admired her for answering yes, purple scar be damned.
Then she turned to swipe her debit card. This is the moment in the daydream where you hear the screech of a phonograph needle yanked across vinyl or the screen goes black. Because suddenly I saw that the thick purple line wasn’t a scar at all. It was a tattoo—a tattoo of a little bald-headed boy in footie pajamas drawing a fat, straight line with a huge purple crayon. It was a tattoo of a boy I recognized, a boy whose name I had known almost all my life. Harold.
In that moment, I thought: Maybe there is a God.
There is a photograph of me, age two and a half, lying on my stomach on a quilted pink bedspread. I am wearing a white nightgown and resting on my elbows, a book propped open in front of me. I have raised my head to look at the photographer, and although I am not smiling, I am very happy. I know this for two reasons. One, I’m kicking my feet in the air. Two, judging by the picture of a hot-air balloon clearly visible on the page I’m reading, I’m two thirds of the way through my first favorite book: Harold and the Purple Crayon, written and illustrated by Crockett Johnson.
Originally published in 1955, seven years before my birth, the book contains just 64 pages, many of them with only a few words. But the story’s impact on me—on how I see the world—could not be bigger.
I was raised not to believe in God. I’ve never turned to any religious text for solace, for guidance, or to make sense of my life. But at the age of 47, I still seek out Harold.
He’s easy to find. Open the book, and he’s on every page. Plunked down in an all-white landscape with only his wits and his crayon, he is nothing if not resourceful. “There wasn’t any moon, and Harold needed a moon for a walk in the moonlight,” the book says. So he draws a crescent in the sky. When he needs direction, he lays out a purple path so he won’t get lost. By his own hand, Harold always saves himself.
For me, Harold’s story has been a parable about making your own way in the world. Harold’s teachings are simple. His hand is steady. You could call him my guru. But that’s not quite right.
I guess you could say I worship in the church of the purple crayon.