Saturday, December 17, 2011

Do You Like Your Clothes? I Love My Clothes.

(Or, Digression Within Digression...)

Well after all, I just finished reading (yes -- all the way through!) Laurence Sterne's classic weird novel, 'The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman'.  Much of it being absorbed during October's power outage, me lying in bed and poring over the pages by candle light, as Sterne, writing in the 1770's, might have done.  (I especially like the chapter consisting, totally, of one entire page, completely black)  As this entire work consists of one digression after another, and since I'm so easily impressed, stylistically, by whatever I've recently read... digress away, I say...  (Like I've got a choice?)

John and I were having a lovely dinner, maybe these ten years ago, with Ralph Lee and Casey Compton, the heart and soul of the Mettawee River Theater Company, and with whom I worked, as an actor, many years ago.  Also on hand was their lovely young daughter, Dorothy, who was running about the art-filled WestBeth loft in her bare feet.  As we took our seats as the table, Dorothy turned to me.  "Do you like your feet?" she asked, all direct childlike seriousness.  "I love my feet."

I'm sure Dorothy promptly forgot this little exchange, certainly by the next day at least.   But I love that this happened for me.

This morning, in late 2011, as I dragged my sorry butt out of bed (terrible night -- congestion, alarming falling-asleep sensations, eventual need to resort to middle-of-the-night-Quil, which for me is akin to swallowing opium), I pulled on some relatively presentable garb, from the heap of things I collect on my side of the bedroom.  Which shirt to combine with... whatever I'd pulled on over my legs?  There were (only) a couple of shirts on the chair where I seem to drop garment upon garment (if you pile up clothing deep enough and long enough, and the pressure is great enough and the heat high enough, could you end up with a diamond undershirt?), but only one -- or perhaps two -- would do.

Well, I wore this cream/blue/black shirt last night, so it's still clean.  And I usually only wear the sad old drab beige/brown/green coarse-weave shirt when I'm working in the basement, because it's sort of become my work garb, and I don't care if I spill anything on it.  Then there's the lovely, autumnal orange-through-rust-to-coffee plaid shirt I bought at Daffy's while I was still working in Philadelphia -- my usual locale for the retail therapy I came to need during that stressful period.  (Point of departure for a digression?  Certainly.  But... not this time)

And then I thought about a game some rakishly witty summer acquaintances of mine used to play among themselves, years and years ago.  (I always felt especially stupid with these people, and I don't even remember their names any more.  The game, however...)  At any moment, whenever they were all together, someone would start:  'I bought this blouse at the boutique on Spring St.  My belt belonged to my neighbor, who left it behind when she moved.  My shoes...", etc., until the genealogy of every garment had been traced to point of origin.  Turn questioningly to the person on the right.  And so it went, around the circle.

My own version of this, of course, is much less precise, and I never impose it on anyone else.  (Well, not yet, anyway)  In my case, this genealogical aspect of my clothes -- most especially my shirts -- comes up when I open the closet to decide what to wear (imagine that?).  Or, when the seasons have changed, and either the summer or the winter shirts are up in the attic (and, truth to tell, there's a kind of all-season selection going up there, most of the time, in spite of the best intentions), I lumber up the stairs and paw through the selection on the rack.  I'm looking for... color?  Weight?  Pattern?  I see... thrift store in Pennsauken; aforementioned Daffy's; thrift store in Harrisburg PA, or perhaps it was Gabriel Brothers (aka 'The Stinky Store')?  Goodwill on Rte. 22.  Joseph A. Banks, on Market St., when they had that ridiculous two-for-one sale.  Or the Izod Store, at the Short Hills Mall -- making this long-sleeved pink-striped shirt one of the most expensive garments I've ever owned, and it was half off.  And on and on.

I wonder what it would be like, to arrange all these garments geographically?  What kind of quilt would that make?  (I already try to arrange them by color, but it's not as easy as it sounds)  Or perhaps, hang them in chronological order, by date of acquisition?  I think about an essay by Oliver Sacks, and the single wish of the main character (whose particular disability, of course, I've forgotten), which was to own one shirt for every day of the year.  In spite of the fact that this man had a daunting psychological impairment, I was still envious of this personal clarity, and the balance of luxury and rationality.  A wild wish that's still within one's grasp, perhaps.

One shirt for every day of the year?  Outrageous!  But then, is that any more unreasonable than folks who have garages full of antique automobiles?  Or collections of... whatever bizarrenesses people collect?  I like his idea, of an array of choices guaranteeing him an almost limitless expanse of choices, but still fitting within a human scale of time and place.  Plus, perhaps most important of all, a stopping point.  How much room -- how many more clothes racks -- would I need, to accommodate almost 400 shirts?  (How many have I already managed to squirrel away, to start with?)

And now, the digression, and its nearly obligatory swerve into a dark, sad past.

It's the summer of 1963, between my junior and senior years of high school.  Somehow (we already know that details escape me) I had blundered onto caddying, at a nearby country club, as my summer job.  In spite of my complete disinterest in the game, and my spindly build (my unofficial nickname, in the caddy holding pen was 'Stick'), I had managed to save up just enough money to go to one of the mid-level men's stores in the Olympia Park shopping center (all the rage!), and buy myself some new trousers, and maybe a sport coat, for the coming school year.

The trousers were especially important.  When I'd started high school, my step-grandfather had taken me with him, to a tailor shop on the east end of McKeesport, where I was measured for two pairs of made-to-order slacks.  One a dark grey, the other, deep forest green.  I picked out the colors myself, and when they were ready, they fit perfectly.  Even though they were a little heavy for the warm September weather, I still decided to wear the green ones to my first day of high school.

And the very first thing anyone said to me, on my first day, in this new school (miles from home, a half-hour bus ride down long winding western Pennsylvania roads -- no chance to run home...), were casually uttered, rather loudly, by one of the coolest kids I'd ever seen.  He looked me up and down.  "I didn't know they still made pants with pleats."  In the kind of tone one might use, to observe, "I didn't know people from your neighborhood still rubbed themselves with bacon grease."

I immediately sat down.  Other kids came in, the bell rang, and the torment of high school began.

No one need be surprised, then, that I instantly hated these trousers, and to the limited extent of my ability to make any choices for myself (in a house where the concept of 'boundary' applied only to entities of a geographic or political nature), I refused to wear them.  My parents, thinking only of how much these pants had cost, were equally, and more potently adamant that, oh yes you will wear those pants, or you know what will happen. 

So, I wore the pants.  Feeling like my midsection was in a spotlight from the moment I left the house in the morning, until I got off the school bus that afternoon, to walk home with my books in front of me, like a girl.
But now, three tormented years later, at the end of August, with school revving up and the all-important senior year about to start, I've got the chance to redeem myself, to some extent, at least in terms sartorial.  (One kid in this new high school -- we'd moved again, new school again -- drove a Jaguar to school; I knew how high to aspire)  My step mother drove me to the mall, to the store of my wildest aspirations, and I got... two pairs of trousers -- emphatically flat-fronted -- and a check jacket that looked good with both.  Alterations would be done in two days; I could have my new clothes a week before Labor Day.

It was only when I'd gotten these new duds home, and was unwrapping them up in the attic, where my brothers and I slept, that the proclamation came.  My father called to me, from the bottom of the attic stairs, to come down to the kitchen, and to bring my new clothes with me.  The nice mid-weight, three-season jacket, tones of tan and olive and grey, fitting like a glove.  The slate grey and charcoal green slacks, neatly cuffed and trim in the front.  ("I didn't know they still made pants with pleats.")

In the kitchen, my father and step-mother, aided by my Horrid Grandmother, who had wedged herself into a chair between the wall and the table, informed me that, because I'd given them so much trouble about wearing 'those pants your grandfather bought for you', they were going to keep my new clothes in their bedroom closet.  And if I wanted to wear them, I had to ask permission.

Here, imagine my own small equivalent of a page, all in black.  

And now, we will draw the curtain over that scene, and all that ensued.  Which ensuing events may be  revisited, perhaps, another time.  Suffice it to say then, that my 'issues' with clothing have deep and twisted roots.  We might find it odd, that my main sartorial focus has been with shirts, though, instead of trousers.  Jeans -- preferably black -- will do, for nearly every occasion requiring decent covering of the lower extremities.  Shirts, however, are another matter.  One for every day of the year..?

So.  Today.  I chose that cream/black/blue check, at first.  When I sat down at the computer though, with my cup of coffee here by my left hand, I realized that I might spill something on it, and it's such a nice shirt, still.  (Pennsauken Goodwill, I'm pretty sure)  So I changed into the work shirt (in case I need to go down to the basement, and glue something onto something else, and slop shellac over everything in sight), and then, daringly, I put that autumn one right on top of it.  Both from Daffy's, as it happens, I'm certain.  Ah.   

Do you like your clothes?  In spite of the way I sometimes treat them, in spite of the piles of them I seem doomed to leave everywhere, I love my clothes.  (Plus, now, I can wear them whenever I want)

©  2011    Walter Zimmerman

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