Henry Thoreau
Goes To The Prom

Rob Woutat


The question came up at dinner one night. “Can I have the car for the prom?”

And that’s how this story begins — simply enough, with a straightforward yes-or-no question. But there are no simple yes-or-no questions anymore. Not when a teenager is involved, and especially when Henry Thoreau comes into the picture.

“What’s this prom thing going to cost?” I wanted to know.

“I can buy the dinner jacket and tux pants, a pleated shirt, cummerbund and tie for just a few hundred dollars,” my son said. “The patent leather shoes are extra. I have my own socks and underwear.”

Hearing that sum, I felt an old eloquence rise within me. The sentiment was mine, but the words were Henry Thoreau’s.

“A man who has found something to do doesn’t need a new suit to do it in,” I quoted. “Look though your closet. You must have something that’ll do.”

“The object of clothing,” I added, still quoting Thoreau, “is first, to retain body heat, and second, to cover nakedness. You can do all kinds of necessary and important work without adding to your wardrobe.”

“Mom,” the boy called, “Dad’s been reading Thoreau again. I thought he’d promised to stop that.”

“Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes,” I said, “and not a new wearer of clothes.”

“OK,” my son said, “how’s this? I can rent the whole outfit for a lot less. Shoes would be a little extra.”

That sounded better. After all, only those who go to soirées and legislative halls have to buy new coats — coats they change as often as they change their opinions. But it still sounded extravagant to me.

“What are the other expenses?” I asked.

“Well,” he said, “there’s dinner. I figure if we’re stingy with the tip, we can scrape by for $60.”

Appalled, I mentioned some of the benefits of Henry’s sojourn at Walden: “It costs very little to grow your own food, even at this latitude. One can eat as simply as the animals, and still be healthy and strong. You could make a perfectly satisfactory dinner out of boiled purslane, lightly salted.”

He tried to protest but I cut him off, relating how Henry once harvested a woodchuck who’d been ravaging his bean field, then devoured the creature, partly for experiment’s sake.

“Dad,” he pleaded in that annoying teenage way, “the prom is only a week away. I don’t have time to grow our dinner. I don’t have time to grow a corsage either. And I can’t walk into a restaurant and order purslane and woodchuck.”

It seemed he wasn’t coming around.

I added up the expenses. It was a distressing sum. “I don’t suppose that’s the end of it either,” I said.

“Tickets for the dance are $25. Then there’s transportation. Which gets us back to the original question: Can I have the car for the prom?”

“The swiftest traveler is he who goes afoot,” I replied.

“Afoot!“ he cried. “My date lives 12 miles from here.”

“A date!“ I exclaimed. “No wonder this is so complicated.” I tried patiently to lead him to reason. “The man who travels alone can start today,” I pointed out, “but he who travels with a friend must wait till the friend is ready, and it may be a good long time before they’re off.”

He growled something I didn’t quite catch, then left the room.

In the week leading up to the prom he spent considerable time planning his attire and making arrangements. Then, when the whole affair was finally over, he sat down to tally the costs. He’d been able to borrow a dinner jacket from a friend, and he already had an old pair of tux pants he’d bought months earlier for $7. He rented the pleated shirt, cummerbund, and tie. He had to buy a corsage, of course, and the tickets to the dance, but for dinner he and his date had a $10 picnic at a waterside park. Toss in a few more dollars for gas and the whole evening cost him a fraction of his earliest projection. It still seemed extravagant to me, but it was better than what I’d feared a week earlier.

“Did you have a good time?” I asked.

“Uh huh.”

“Was it worth it?”

A long pause.

“Well, I guess.”

Another long pause.

“But I’m glad I didn’t pay any more.”

The boy shows promise.

TheScreamOnline regular Rob Woutat has contributed a wide variety of pieces to newspapers and magazines and to the National Public Radio affiliate in Seattle/Tacoma. He has written two family histories and a memoir and is now working on a novel. Please check the Talent Index to see his other work.
He can be reached at rwoutat[AT]tscnet.com.
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