question came up at dinner one night. Can I have the car for
And thats 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.
Whats this prom thing going to cost? I wanted to
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
Hearing that sum, I felt an old eloquence rise within me. The sentiment
was mine, but the words were Henry Thoreaus.
A man who has found something to do doesnt need a new
suit to do it in, I quoted. Look though your closet. You
must have something thatll 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, Dads been reading Thoreau
again. I thought hed 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, hows 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
What are the other expenses? I asked.
Well, he said, theres dinner. I figure if
were stingy with the tip, we can scrape by for $60.
Appalled, I mentioned some of the benefits of Henrys 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 whod been ravaging his bean field, then devoured
the creature, partly for experiments sake.
Dad, he pleaded in that annoying teenage way, the
prom is only a week away. I dont have time to grow our dinner.
I dont have time to grow a corsage either. And I cant
walk into a restaurant and order purslane and woodchuck.
It seemed he wasnt coming around.
I added up the expenses. It was a distressing sum. I dont
suppose thats the end of it either, I said.
Tickets for the dance are $25. Then theres transportation.
Which gets us back to the original question: Can I have the car for
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 theyre off.
He growled something I didnt 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. Hed been able
to borrow a dinner jacket from a friend, and he already had an old
pair of tux pants hed 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 Id
feared a week earlier.
Did you have a good time? I asked.
Was it worth it?
A long pause.
Well, I guess.
Another long pause.
But Im glad I didnt pay any more.
The boy shows promise.