reading crime

Two nights ago, I had one of my most unexpected subway encounters yet.

I was riding home with my roommate, yakking as usual, and holding on my lap an imprint tote bag that said “Soho Crime: So good it’s a crime.” (Naturally it was bulging with books.)

Across from me sat a 40-something man with a pushcart. He was listening to headphones and we didn’t pay attention to him and vice versa.

Toward the end of our journey, there must have been some kind of unprecedented lull in me running my mouth (weird, right?) because the man across from us took the opportunity to leap in.

“Excuse me, ma’am?” he said, in what was definitely an American accent. “Your bag. It says cream?”

I was confused. “Sorry?”

“C-R-I-M-E,” he spelled. “That’s ‘cream,’ right?”

“Crime,” I said. I was so shocked I wasn’t sure how to respond, so I smiled really hard. “It says ‘Soho Crime.'”

“Crime,” he repeated. “C-R-I-M-E, crime. And that word on top,” he went on. “S-O-H-O. That’s . . . ‘shoot’? S-O-H-O shoot?”

“Soho,” I said. I was smiling so hard my face hurt. “You know, Soho, like the neighborhood downtown.”

“Soho, oh, Soho,” he said. “Soho Crime.”

“That’s right!” My brain was a little slow in keeping up with my mouth. I was speaking to a 40-something American man who didn’t know how to read. I kept smiling. I didn’t want him under any circumstances to understand how shaken I was.

“And under that,” he went on, undeterred, ” ‘So good it’s a crime,’ ” he read out, clearly and slowly.

“Yes!” Maybe I sounded more excited than I needed to.

“That’s right, that’s right. You gotta sound things out,” the man told me, nodding. “Gotta keep practicing and sound things out.”

“Yes,” I said again. Luckily the train pulled into the station then, and my roommate and I wished him a pleasant evening. As we stepped onto the platform, my text-addicted eye swept over all the signs hanging in the train windows and along the ceiling banners. I thought about what riding the train each day must be like for this man, being surrounded by colorful information that means nothing.

My mind was completely clouded by this encounter. On the one hand, I was glad he wasn’t embarrassed about trying and asking for help. On the other hand, I couldn’t imagine what his frame of reference might be that he wouldn’t worry about being judged for not knowing how to read. That almost upset me more than realizing there are adults who cannot read–realizing that there are adults who don’t find it terribly abnormal to not be able to read.

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13 Responses to reading crime

  1. Heather says:

    It pains me that I understand this post completely. Unfortunately, I work with someone who has trouble reading and writing. He once asked me, with much shame, how to spell ‘car.’ What is most mind-boggling is that he works on cars every day, yet cannot spell the word for the very things he is brilliant at fixing.

    He explained to me (no, I didn’t ask) that he paid little attention in school because he was poor and just wanted to get out into the work force to help his family. I tactfully inquired whether or not he had considered that reading and writing would help him in the job he so wanted. He answered that it had never crossed his mind.

    I don’t know what I find more troubling: the fact that he was able to graduate high school (shoot, grade school!) without being able to read, or the fact that he *wanted* to graduate without such base knowledge.

    Yet, as I said, he is brilliant in his own way. I guess we all have our niche. I am happy he found his.

  2. Karissa says:

    I found this to be really affecting and touching. Perhaps he had no shame because he couldn’t. I forget where I was reading about a man who was like 70-something, who had never graduated from elementary school, raised a family, etc etc, and finally at 70, decided he would go back to school and learn to read. He sat in a classroom full of first-graders, but they all treated him pleasantly, the way one might with an older affectionate uncle or something. In any case, my first thought was that I think it’s great that he asked and was trying hard to learn to read. Maybe it’s just me, but my mind didn’t go immediately first to, How come he never learned to read, but went instead to, It’s great that he’s still trying. Who knows what his circumstances were, that led him to never have read, you know? But maybe the ever half-full person in me finds this story not to be really super sad, but really touching, because it seems to show how a person can persevere and continue to try, even for something as basic as reading.

  3. This shook me too. The idea of not being able to read…it’s terrifying. I volunteer at the local elementary school, reading to a student once a week on her lunch break. She has no interest in reading. Can’t seem to find the value in it. It breaks my heart. I don’t think anyone at home is encouraging her. Then again, she lives in an affluent town with programs like the one I participate in, so she will be one of the lucky ones. Whether she likes it or not, she will learn. But without that support, I could easily see her with the same fate as the man on the train.

    • …how can we prevent this for our own children?! can we brainwash them?! indoctrinate them?! HOW?!

      what happens if I have a child that doesn’t want to read?

      • WendycinNYC says:

        I don’t think it would be possible for you to have a child who didn’t want to read, save for any learning disabilities. It’s learned at home: reading to young children and having them see their parents read. I volunteer sometimes for a preschool program where many of the kids have never owned a book, nor had an adult read one to them.

  4. Christina says:

    There are more people who cannot read than we might think. Considering how much I love reading, it’s something that I find difficult for me to fully grasp sometimes, even though I know it’s a reality even in this day and age.

    Where I live, all kids have to write a language competency/literacy test at the beginning of grade 10. It’s basically a reading and writing comprehension test. If kids don’t pass (with 70%), they are allowed to take the test again the following year… but passing it is a requirement for graduation. If you don’t pass the test (and earn so many credits and do 40 hours of community service), you simply don’t get your high school diploma. Last year I had a grade 10 group who were preparing to take the test and one of the students asked if he could take his prep!article home. Students aren’t supposed to take them home, so I asked him why. He told me that he wanted to give it to his uncle so he could practice too. I must have looked a bit confused, because the student then added that his uncle was learning to read. At 47 years of age… this man was learning to read… helped in the process by his niece and nephew!

    I think it’s deplorable that so many adults are illiterate, yet at the same time I find it admirable to see adults who aren’t ashamed to be learning. Good for the “Shoot Cream” guy!

  5. Briony says:

    It’s scary that it’s even possible that people haven’t learned how to read. But then, I’m so happy to hear that people are trying to learn and to get better. That’s a good thing.
    That makes up for all the people I know who can read and spell perfectly well, but choose to leave messages on my facebook saying they’ll ‘see ya 2moz’. Or all the people who went to my high school and decided it was better to spell ‘the’ with an a – ‘tha’. I HATE LAZY SPELLERS!!

    Thanks for the comment on my blog too by the way 🙂

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