There was something more magical about thumbprints. There was something more real. Sure, autographs spelled out in clear (and sometimes not so clear) handwriting who that person was. But, a thumbprint was so much more personal. Even before the science behind fingerprinting established that your set of fingerprints is yours and yours alone, one could look at a thumbprint and see that it was unique. The way Jean Harlow's circles grooved so delicate and smooth. The way Jameson Adams' lines ran so deep and deliberate and Bessie Smith's grooves seemed to sing so deep and pure.
Hell, Ida B Wells' right thumbprint was different than her left thumbprint! Hell, so were Grover Cleveland's (and they were properly kept on non-consecutive pages from each other). Hell, so were (and are) everyone's thumbprints! There was even a personal story in Harold Lloyd's absence of a thumbprint.
And that's the way Allister explained his obsession to John Dillinger, seated at a table in the back corner of a small midwest diner.
Dillinger sat in the chair against the back wall so that he could see the whole expanse of the dining area and with a menu covering the bottom half of his face. But, Allister could see his eyes and his eyes just stared for a moment. Maybe longer than a moment. Two, three, four, five, six moments. Maybe twenty-five moments. Just a steely stare. It could have been thirty moments.
But, then, he finally spoke.
"How did you know it was me?"
"You're the only one dressed like a circus clown," Allister answered quite plainly.
"Damn that Willie Sutton," he said through gritted teeth. "He said I'd blend in. Still, you know, I could be any bank robber. Or any famous person for that matter. Hell, I could be any circus clown."
"But, you have an unusually tall forehead, Mr. Dillinger."
Allister had him cornered. Figuratively and literally.
So, John Dillinger did what you do when you're Public Enemy Number 1 and you're cornered. He said, "All right. I'm gonna make this easy for you. I've got a tommy gun on my lap. Just get up, get the hell out of here and don't look back and I won't shoot." Then, he made a cocking noise with his mouth. Allister was about to look to see if there really was a tommy gun. But, having seen John Dillinger make the cocking noise, he said flatly, "Mr. Dillinger, I was looking right at you when you made that noise and Tommy guns don't sound like that. May I have your thumbprint, please?"
"No! Look, I don't know who you are or what your game is. But, you're not getting my thumbprint."
"My name is Allister Cromley and I don't have a game beyond just collecting thumbprints."
"Now, can I have-"
It was a very assertive and decided 'No' and its pronunciation left a very assertive and decided tension at the table that was broken only by the waitress' delivery of John Dillinger's ham and eggs. "Thank you," Dillinger said to the waitress. It was an equally assertive and decided statement, but it was punctuated with a silly honk of John Dillinger's honkable red clown nose which was not present during the 'No' he gave Allister.
That brief moment gave Allister just enough time to recover from the initial failed opportunity. From years of thumbprint gathering, he had put together a solid plan of attack. The plan broke down like this:
Bait the hook.
Cast the hook out.
Wait for a tug.
Tug back to help the hook catch.
Sidenote: This is, of course, also what you do when you're fishing.
And, just like in fishing, sometimes the prey can sense the hook and you've got to rebait. So, Allister did. He said as casually as possible, "So, bank robbing, huh?" And Dillinger replied with only his steely stare.
The waitress returned. Allister ordered a coffee and eggs and toast. And, when she left, Allister rebaited the hook.
"Do you like movies?"
To that, Dillinger shot back quickly and (one should add) rather alarmingly, "WHO TOLD YOU THAT?!" He sprang to his feet, but almost tripping over his overly-large clown shoes, he quickly sat back down and feigned calm.
And Allister tried to explain that no one had told him. Not J Edgar Hoover. Not Melvin Purvis. And not any of the girlfriends Dillinger had known over the course of his lifetime (and Dillinger made sure by listing each and every one).
"People just like movies," Allister asserted, "so, I thought maybe you do, too."
"Oh, well, maybe I do, then...if everyone else does," reasoned Dillinger.
Allister opened his book to all the pages of thumbprints from movie stars. Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Paul Muni, Shirley Temple, Boris Karloff, Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell and Katherine Hepburn. He told him about how, when Allister asked Jimmy Durante for his thumbprint, Durante immediately removed his left shoe and gave him his big toe print. And he showed Dillinger how you could see the latent chemistry even in Fred Astaire's and Ginger Rogers' corresponding thumbprints.
Dillinger seemed to relive his favorite films through the lines in the movie stars' thumbs. Laughing at a particular wrinkle of Harpo Marx's, shedding a tear for a particular crease of Helen Hayes' and leaping back in fear at a particular scar of Bela Lugosi's.
The waitress brought Allister his eggs, toast and coffee. And he requested ketchup, which the waitress provided. All that time, Dillinger was mesmerized. Thumbprint after thumbprint took him out of his clown costume, away from his table at the diner and away from the constant stress of feeling like he had to run again. When, he got to last movie star thumbprint, he sat for a moment. He took a breath and passed his hand through his curly, red, busy clown wig. He looked for a moment like he would break right down and sob. Instead, honked his clown nose. And Allister thought he had him hook, line and sinker. There was a brief moment where Allister felt like he was about to reel in a John Dillinger thumbprint.
But, Dillinger looked at Allister and said quite plainly, "This guy I knew collected doilies. God knows why, but he did. Eleanor Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, Babe Ruth. You name the person, he had their doily. One day not too long ago he comes up to me-hadn't seen him in years, mind you-and he wants to know if I can get my hands on a doily from Ma Barker. As if that would complete his set. Hell, I don't even know if Ma Barker has a doily. So, I told him, 'No.' And, even if she did have doily and I agreed to get it, then what? Then, this guy's got her doily. So what? It's not her. The doily never took part in anything historically significant-even in the most shallow terms of historically significant. And, as time moves on, she'll be less and less remembered. Hell, I'll be less and less remembered-name three famous bank robbers from the 1830s. So, you'll have all these doilies that mattered so much to you and now they're just in some trunk with an overly-long story attached to them attempting to verify their importance, collecting dust when they could have been used to do what a doily does-what does a doily do anyway? Doesn't matter. So, you know what I told the guy? I said, 'why don't you stop wasting your time getting everyone else's and get your own damn doily?' I'm telling you that because, when you first asked for my thumbprint, I thought you were like that doily guy. But, looking through your book, I see it's a little different. There's something to a thumbprint, I get it. But, here's the thing. You still can't have mine. What's more, I'm gonna give you the same advice I gave the doily guy. Stop wasting your time collecting other people's thumbprints and go make your own."
Dillinger stood up quite abruptly and quite sturdily in his clown shoes and waved the waitress over. "Breakfast's on me," he said, punctuating the statement with a silly clown nose honk. He gave Allister's book back to him. Allister hadn't touched his breakfast. He had doled out some ketchup on his plate. But, the eggs, the toast and coffee remained untouched. Unlike Allister. Allister was stunned.
He clutched the book, thought for a moment and said, "Thank you, Mr. Dillinger." He had much to think about. But, until he had proper time to think, he did what he already knew how to do. He quickly flipped to a clean page in his book, grabbed Dillinger's right hand, plunged his thumb into the ketchup, pressed a tomato-inspired print into the book and sprinted out of the diner.