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  • From COLLAGE:The Memoirs of Ezra Jack Keats1
  • Ezra Jack Keats (bio)

My Life in Crime

I could draw some pretty good pictures. Just ask the kids on my block—or my mother. Or Mr. Gordon, the candy store man. But what does a guy do with the stuff? I copied a postage stamp from my modest collection preserved in a blank homework book. It came out looking pretty dull, so I decided to create my own stamps—oval, triangular, elongated. I put into them palm trees, tigers, giraffes, and other exotic creatures who inhabited a fabulous world out there, far, far from Brooklyn. With my sister's manicuring scissors, I cut out the serrated edges. To give them a touch of authenticity, I carefully copied the cancellation marks and then smeared the stamps with my dirty fingers.

I decided to impress the guys on my block and picked Cross-Eye Bubble, who had the most coveted collection in the neighborhood and was considered to be a first-class stamp connoisseur. At the last moment I was overtaken by doubts and decided not to show them in the bright light of day. So I invited Bubbie into my dimly lit hallway and displayed the dazzling additions to my collection.

"Wow," Bubbie gasped. "Where da hell did ya get dese?"

I don't know what possessed me. "A sailor cousin a' mine brought them back from a trip around the world," I said modestly. "A real great guy. He gave 'em to me."

"Wanna swap?" he looked at me hopefully.


He ran home and returned with his fancy embossed stamp album. I struck a bargain with him. Three of his rare ones for one of my masterworks.

"No," I explained. "I wanna keep the rest. I might get a betta deal. Listen, my mother needs me. See ya."

His hands trembled as he inserted the stamps into his album. "So long, [End Page 58] Bubbie!" I called as I dashed upstairs, locked the door and ran to the window to peek through the curtains. What had I done?

Out in the street in the daylight, Bubbie saw that he'd been taken by a lousy forger. Bellowing like an ox he made for my hallway, flew up the stairs and banged on my door, yelling foul curses at me, my father, my mother, my sister and my brother. "Yer whole family stinks," he yelled, and promised to inflict on me every physical torture known in the neighborhood. "—And I'll make ya eat dem in front of all da guys, you bastid!" Shaking violently, I suggested through my bolted door that we talk it over. He kept banging and yelling. I slipped the stamps to him under the door. He ran down the stairs cursing. Looking out the window, I saw him disappear around the corner.

Later that day when I dared venture out, I found my beautiful stamps torn to bits, scattered outside my door.


Black, ominous clouds drift past a ghostly lighthouse, which withstands the churning waves dashing against it. Droplets of oily black ooze from the clouds and drip slowly down the sky, past the horizon, over the sea, and off the canvas.

"I don't know how to stop it," I cry, sweeping a paint-stained rag across the painting.

"Hold it," my mother calls. "I'll be right there."

At my side she gasps. The canvas is an angry swirl of murky grays.

"I messed up again! I'm no damn good! I quit."

"What's the matter with you? Even the greatest artists in the world had trouble like this. You'll do it over right, you'll see!"

"Sure—that's easy to say!"

She casts a glance at the kitchen clock, hurries over to a closet piled high with folding chairs, over-size pots, carpentry tools, and a rusty sled. She reappears with a painting of a three-masted sailing ship plowing through a green sea, its billowing sails reaching high into the sky, done on burlap with house paint and a few tubes of oils the local house painter had given me.

"Tell me—who painted this...


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pp. 58-74
Launched on MUSE
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