The Reason I Write

Author, Artist, Etc.

Jon Penfold

Why did I become a writer? Boy, do I have a story for you…

I must have been in first grade, or was it second—makes no difference either way; I was a young boy: wild-eyed, enthusiastic, curious, carefree, stubborn, and overly rambunctious (not much different than the man I am today, some might argue). My entire class piled in a big yellow bus for a field trip to the zoo. From our tiny hick town—where the cows outnumbered the kids twenty to one—we journeyed the thirty or so miles into the BIG CITY. Now, thirty miles may not seem that far to the average American adult, but to a child who grew up in the boonies, we may as well have been traveling to a strange, faraway world, like Neptune, or Guatemala, or Aspen, Colorado.

While most of my fellow classmates fought over the coveted aisle seats—for that was where the banter, laughter, horseplay, hijinks, and rabble-rousing all occurred—I considered myself more than lucky to be trapped on the “inside” seat, where a world I had seldom seen in my young life passed before my eyes; the only thing between me and it, a scratched-up rectangle of glass. (How those windows always became so severely scratched was and still is a mystery to me; perhaps the buses were being used to transfer feral cats to the incinerator on the weekends?) Regardless, (or irregardless, for those of you who subscribe to the use of double negatives) what was happening outside that window was more exciting than anything on television at the time (not counting MacGyver and Quantum Leap, of course). Gravel roads turned to paved streets and paved streets turned to four lane highways. Barren fields gave way to rows of cookie-cutter houses and rows of cookie-cutter houses dissolved into century-old homes built in the style of Victorian architecture; and in the distance, the skyscrapers and high-rises, built of brick and steel and glass, climbing over the horizon like the fingers of a giant metropolitan God. Oh, what a scene! But those weren’t even the most interesting of sights…

The People! Yes, the people, they seemed to be everywhere, walking on tiny concrete paths that ran parallel to the automobile-infested streets; concrete paths known as “sidewalks,” an oddity that didn’t exist in our hobunk town, which saw only ditches, guardrails, and barbed-wired fences lining our roads. The people, they had skin the color of chocolate, the type up until then we only saw projected on screens, and never in our “neck of the woods” so to speak, where 99.3% of our ancestors were from Northern Europe, with the exception being the one family of Italian heritage, whose sons all the girls swooned over because of their “exotic” skin tone. But now, compared to the urban dwellers outside my window, with their genuine black hair—not dark, dark brown—these descendents from the Mediterranean boot suddenly seemed as ordinary and pasty white as the rest of us. 

After thirty miles and what seemed like seventeen hours, we finally arrived at our destination: The Buffalo Zoo. (Not a zoo filled with buffalo, unfortunately—come to think of it, I don’t recall seeing a single bison that day—but rather a zoo in the City of Buffalo, a midsized municipality in the rustbelt of Western New York, at the time best known for its chicken wings and Super Bowl losing Bills; now, only for the chicken wings. Go Bills! Go Bills?) We all piled out of the bus (if we piled in, we can most certainly pile out, can’t we?) and as is custom in totalitarian regimes such as elementary school, formed a straight line to make our way through the entrance gates. As each student in front of me muscled their way through the turnstile, my anticipation grew—this was the ZOO! after all, a magnificent place where any human being, for just a couple dollars and change, could come within a few feet of wild animals, some having been shipped from faraway places, like Africa, or Guatemala, or Aspen, Colorado. But within a dozen or so steps of entering this inner-city-safari I had so built up in my mind, my enthusiasm deflated faster than a set of bald tires over a strip of traffic spikes.

The animals that stood—or more likely, sat, laid, slept, or moped—in front of us were anything but wild. They looked weary, worn, beat-down, and desperate, like inmates in a maximum security prison, sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. There was nothing that resembled a smile on any of their faces—even in animal terms—or the slightest hint of hope in their eyes. If they could talk, I’m positive they would have uttered phrases like, “Please shoot me.” Or, “Put me out of my misery, I’m begging you.” Or, “For the love of God, what is wrong with you animals?” Immediately, I realized that I despised zoos (a sentiment that I still embrace today).

The main attraction that season was an albino alligator—“One of Only a Few in the World of its Kind,” or so they claimed—that traveled the country, visiting zoo after zoo, like some sort of circus sideshow. At least at a circus, though, it would have been out in the fresh air, or at the very least, far below the high canvas ceiling of a ginormous big top. But here, at the zoo, inside the Reptile House, it had only a small room, not much bigger than my parents’ kitchen, with an even smaller swimming area, which could best be described as a large puddle, not much different than the kind automobiles were accustomed to swerving around on the gravel roads back in our hillbilly town.

The chatter amongst us children was quickly hushed as one of the zoo’s “experts” started spewing out facts; things like, “an alligator’s chances of being born with albinism are about 1 in 100,000.”  When it was time for the Q and A segment of the tour—being a curious kid and all—I was the first to raise my hand. “Don’t you feel bad,” my high-pitched prepubescent voice asked, “about keeping such a large animal in such a small cage?”

“I can assure you that this alligator is more than comfortable with his current living arrangements,” the expert explained. “Any other questions?”

Before any of the other students could raise their hands, I blurted out, “But how do you know how the alligator feels?”

“Because I’m an expert.”

Besides immediately losing faith in anyone who referred to himself as an “expert”—a sentiment that I still embrace today—I didn’t feel as if my question had been sufficiently answered; so I asked another. “Wouldn’t he be better off in his own natural habitat?”

“The truth is, the majority of albino alligators don’t last more than twenty-four hours after being born in their natural habitat. He’s actually extremely lucky to be in captivity.”

“How could you possibly know that?” I shot back, thinking about the Italian brothers in my school and the already explained infatuation with them by all the girls, and how this alligator, with his own exotic skin color, would certainly receive similar attention from his female counterparts. “With the rarity of one being born in the first place, how can you be certain that he would only last…”

But before I could finish my thought: “Look kids!” The expert pointed at the alligator, “He’s getting into the water!”

While the other children pressed their faces against the large glass viewing area, elbowing each other to get the best possible angle of the eccentric beast bathing inside, I slyly slipped out the backdoor of the Reptile House.

I’d had enough! Enough of the albino alligator; enough of the “expert’s” claims; enough of the zoo altogether. I walked past the elephants and the giraffes, the lions and the polar bears, through the gift shop, past its key chains and snow globes, its magnets and postcards, and out the exit doors. After all, everything I had seen on the way to the zoo had been much more fascinating than anything I had seen inside.

I scurried through Delaware Park, across the rugby field, heading toward the baseball diamonds. As I scampered through the largest field of green I had ever laid my young eyes on, I found three white golf balls, and like a child during an Easter egg hunt, deposited each one into the left pocket of my cargo shorts, much to the chagrin of a cluster of adults in the distance, who waved their shiny sticks toward the sky and filled the open air with foul words—the same type of vulgarities that would have earned me a seat facing the corner at school or a mouthful of soap at home. This obnoxious yelling only made me run faster, through a tunnel beneath an expressway, by a lake empty of boats, a graveyard teaming with souls, and south down Delaware Avenue.

Soon enough I was lost: a small child in the big city—a place where I knew nothing and no one, in no particular order. Now, most children’s instincts would have been to panic, but I was much too smart for that; knowing that the Earth was round—a fact that we had recently learned in science—I realized that if I simply continued to walk in a straight line, I would eventually make my way back to the zoo. So that’s what I decided to do. But then, I heard a voice.

“I wouldn’t go much further if I were you.”

I looked to my right to discover a house built of brick, three stories high, with arched windows and a small covered porch on its far left side. Alongside the front door, hung the numbers 4 7 2, vertically, in large bronze castings. On the stairs leading to the stoop, sat an old man, his hair wild and white, with a mustache and suit to match. “I’ve been waiting for you,” were the next words out of his mouth.

“For me?” I asked, somewhat confused.

The old man turned his head left, then right, before settling his eyes back on me. “I don’t see anyone else around, do you?”

I turned my head left, then right, before settling my eyes back on the old man. “Do I know you?”

“Not yet.” He put a cigar in his mouth and lit it with a match. “But you will.”

Now, most children’s instincts would have been to panic, but I was much too bright for that; knowing that elderly men almost always suffered from chronic arthritis—a fact that I had recently learned from my grandfather—I realized that I could simply run away at any time and there was no chance this old geezer would ever catch me.

“You don’t need to run away.” A cloud of smoke poured from under his mustache like steam from a locomotive. “Take it from me. I ran away twice. There’s not much satisfaction in it, even as a recollection.”

What was this ancient man talking about? I needed to find an excuse to leave. I remembered the golf balls in my pocket and pulled them out. “I’m sorry, mister,” I said, “but I have to return these.”

“Oh, those guys have others. Plus, golf is a good walk spoiled. You did them a favor, Jon.”

“How do you know my name?” I didn’t think about saying the words; they merely flew out of my mouth.

“I already told you—I’ve been waiting for you. Jon Penfold, right? If that doesn’t sound like a writer’s name.”

“A writer’s name?”

“Yes. You are a writer.”

“I am?”

“Aren’t you?”

I had to think for a moment. Was I a writer? I suppose I had written things down before, but never anything I would share with anyone else.

“It is no use to keep private information which you can’t show off.” The man raised his big white eyebrows.

Was he reading my mind? “But my teacher caught me writing in class once and said that I shouldn’t waste my time with silly stories; that I should concentrate on my studies.”

This made the man chuckle. “Don’t ever let schooling interfere with your education.”


“No. There are to be no ‘buts’. You want to be a writer, don’t you?”

I suppose I did, I thought. “I suppose I do,” I said.

“Then you must remember a few things. Are you ready?”

I nodded my head.

“Good. First: Never argue with stupid people, they will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience. Got it?”

“Got it.”

The old man flicked the ash of his cigar off to the side of the stairs. “Second: It’s easier to fool people than to convince them they have been fooled. Do you understand?”

“I think so.”

“Lastly: Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones that you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” The old man took a long drag from his cigar. “Any questions?”

“What should I write?”

“What should you write? WHAT SHOULD YOU WRITE? Write what you want. Write what you know. Write things that will make people laugh. Write things that will make people cry. Write things that will make people think. Write things that will downright ruffle people’s feathers. Sometimes you’ll tell nothing but the truth. Sometimes you’ll flat out make things up. And sometimes you’ll combine the two, like you are right now. And when all else fails, write what your heart tells you. You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.” The old man put his cigar out on the steps and stood up. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go.”

“Where are you going?”

He slowly shook his head as he headed toward the door. “To write, of course.”

“Wait!” I pleaded. “You never told me your name.”

The old man turned toward me and smiled. “My family calls me Sam, my friends, Clemens, but most of the world knows me as Mark.”

He stepped through the entrance, shut the door behind him, and within a blink of an eye, the house was gone—the entire complex: the bricks, the arched windows, the covered porch—transformed into an A-framed carriage house. As you can imagine, this freaked the hell out of me, so I took off, full-speed the way I came, North up Delaware, past the graveyard and the lake, beneath the expressway, by the baseball diamonds, through the largest field of green I had ever seen—where I dropped the three golf balls in proximity to where I found them—across the rugby field, back in the exit door, through the gift shop, and into the zoo. I immediately began searching for my classmates, but couldn’t find them anywhere—not at the lion cage, or the monkey house, or the elephant lands. Now, most children’s instincts would have been to panic, but I was much too intelligent for that; knowing that you should always look for something at the last place you saw it—a fact that I had recently learned on an episode of MacGyver—I returned to the Reptile House, and I’ll be damned if they weren’t all still there, just as I had left them, their faces pressed against the glass, trying to get a better look at an alligator of a different color.

And that’s why I became a writer.