YESTERDAY ON THE SUBWAY I saw a brawny pony-tailed man making his own kind of art. Wearing a Michelangelo t-shirt (a celestial glimpse of the Sistine Chapel ceiling), a box of crayons poised on one thigh, he was hard at work on his coloring book. It turned out to be a woodland scene from a collection of fairy-tale illustrations, probably “Little Red Riding Hood” (when his stop came and he packed up, I saw the cover). He colored the way I did when I was little, lightly and discreetly, not using too much pressure, never slopping over the edges. His innocence and lack of self-consciousness were poignant.
My parents looked down on coloring books: not as bad as paint-by-numbers kits, but close. I adored them. They weren’t as risky and frustrating as inventing my own pictures, yet I got to choose from juicy Crayola colors with fascinating names like Raw Umber and Thistle, Burnt Sienna and Prussian Blue (renamed Midnight Blue in the 1950s, according to Crayola’s Wikipedia entry—a little late for an anti-Axis gesture, but never mind. Color is political: There have also been changes in crayon names in an effort to expunge racist assumptions; pink or peach, for example, is no longer synonymous with flesh). If you want to get fancy about it, I guess I was developing my palette.
I felt a kinship with this subway colorer. There is something touching about an adult who does not put away childish things. If we can read Harry Potter in public, why can’t we color or carry around dolls and stuffed animals? As long as we don’t behave like toddlers (no tantrums!), it seems to me entirely benign to borrow some of their pleasures.