Supermarket parking lots don't usually make me nervous, even if they paved paradise to put them up. Angry, perhaps, but not nervous.
Yet there I was, parked in a grocery store lot in Spartanburg. And there was the sign. An official, printed, metal sign posted by the city police department. "No loitering, overnight parking or disturbing literature," it warned.
I quickly assumed that the word "disturbing" was a simple typographic error. Surely they meant to say "distributing." Such typos are all too common in these whiz-bang computerized days of writing and printing without good old-fashioned editing. I thought how far we've come in 500 years, from Gutenberg's moveable type to Microsoft's moveable typos.
But then I paused. If a sign so simple was composed, duplicated and installed by the police department, perhaps it meant exactly what it said: No disturbing literature. Were they having a problem with folks disturbing literature in Spartanburg?
There wasn't a newspaper box to be seen. Had someone disturbed them? Had the local paper thrown in the towel and ceased to vend from coin-ops?
Or was there a deeper problem? Do Spartanburgians commonly heckle Shakespeare or Margaret Mitchell? Do they shout "Hamlet was a deadhead!" in crowded theaters?
Do carloads of hooligans stage drive-by raids, racing through college campuses laughing and hooting at the English professors?
Do upstate vandals re-shelve their own books at the public library without regard to call numbers or the alphabet?
I shuddered as a wave of apprehension coursed through me. Maybe it's worse than that. Maybe it is "disturbing literature" that is illegal in Spartanburg. Is it possible that locals must drive to Greenville to read Thoreau or Doonesbury? Do readers travel to Charlotte or Columbia to find a copy of the Enquirer or the Bible?
Do book clubs mail all orders bound for Spartanburg in plain, brown wrappers? And if so. Who decides what is disturbing? Is there any literature that isn't disturbing to someone? Do voters have a voice in the banning of troubling texts?
I looked around the parking lot and didn't see anyone reading anything at all. Had I driven into a print-free zone? Had television stations taken over local government?
I hurried into the supermarket and heaved a sigh of relief. Disturbing literature might be banned on the street, but it seemed alive and well inside. There was Vanna and O.J. and Liz and Lady Di, the 100-pound baby with two heads, stars and starlets drunk and in love and divorcing, and monster trucks, wrestling, Danielle Steele, horoscopes, detectives and organic farmers, a New Testament, the Wall Street Journal, crossword puzzles, losing or gaining 40 pounds in just 10 days, underclad girls in sports magazines and overwrought talk show hosts with wrung out guests.
I plopped a few of my favorites on the counter and checked out. Glancing through the plate glass window, I saw a police cruiser parked out front.
"Paper or plastic?" came the cheerful inquiry from the checkout clerk. I glanced furtively at the cop. Was he watching me behind those dark glasses?
"Paper," I said, "brown paper. Wouldn't want to do hard time for disturbing Spartanburg, you know."
C.L. Bothwell III lives in the other Carolina.
© Copyright by POINT, 1995
Last modified 6/9/95