Gentleman in Distress

For a guy who once conceded nothing to Holden Caulfield when it came to abhorring the “phoney,” it takes a well-seasoned blend of irony and humor to walk around sporting designer-distressed boots, jeans and safari jacket. But I am over-seventy, a serene sail toward a gradual retirement from the practice of law hastened by the two M.I’s, which fell upon me within two months of one another and led me to open heart surgery, an experience that illuminated as effectively as thunderbolts hurled by Zeus the likelihood that I would have neither the energy or time to rack up such character-defining “worn” spots and “scorch” marks on my own. True, the red wine and dark chocolate I imbibe for cardiovascular benefit place legitimate stains within easy reach. True, my blood thinner gives my slightest nick a shot at heightening any fabric’s coloration. But with my rowdy ways laid nearly as deeply to rest as Janis’s and Jimi’s, and with Lipitor and Metropolol as regular benchmarks of my conversation as Mick and Keith once were; I feel entitled to some short cuts.

Clothes were not always important to me. Growing up in West Philadelphia, my mother bought nearly everything I wore. From Wanamaker’s to Korvette’s, she outfitted me for school and play as assiduously—and uniformly—as any Eisenhower-era mother sons of theirs. (I had occasional input, like the motorcycle jacket I lobbied for in 1955. But my hopes to align my thirteen-year-old, skinny, eye-glassed being more with Marlon Brando’s were dashed when—no kidding—our dog ate it.)

My father handled shoes in a manner that smacked of private just-us-guys rites, like Sunday afternoon western double-features or outings to Schibe Park. First, we frequented Meinster’s, on South Street, where customers could dose their metatarsals with radiation on a floor-display X-ray machine while awaiting service. Later, we progressed to a discount store on Mole Street, whose name escapes me, but which provided the white bucks, penny loafers, and desert boots which carried me through adolescence. (The Meinsters linger firmer in my memory because their son Bobby, whose madcap antics enlivened Hebrew school when we were nine, became the first of those to cross my life’s path to be jailed as a marijuana merchandiser; and accounts of his parents’ anguished efforts to free him from a Florida incarceration flared, like a car alarm, in my family’s conversation for years.)

The first garment I purchased on my own was a sixty dollar, brown suede trenchcoat, from Krass Brothers, another South Street establishment, in 1966. Their wares hung on iron pipes, in long rows, amidst 8 ½” X 11″ glossies of celebrity customers: Richie Allen; Joey Giardello; Danny and the Juniors. When I pointed out to one of the Krasses (Ben or Jack or Harry), who-knew-my-father-when, that it lacked a button, he ripped one off its neighbor and commanded, “Tell your mother, ‘Sew it on.’”

I savored the remark and delivery as much as the coat. It was a time for change, personal, social and political; and though my career path threatened to tack toward the conventional, I determined to stand apart.

My attention to clothes deepened the years (1970-81) I worked in San Francisco. The firm with which I was associated, that of the flamboyant trial attorney Melvin (“King of Torts”) Belli, was agreeably non-traditional; but I still dressed as if to inoculate myself against awakening one morning as transformed by my profession into a three-pieced, buttoned-down conformist as surely as Gregor Samsa had a cockroach. I became a connoisseur of sales. (Anything offering less than fifty percent off I did not consider.) I marked each year’s pocket calendar with the dates of the prior year’s best offerings of Cable Car Clothiers, George Good’s, Grodin’s, Hasting’s, both Magnins, I.and J.—all as gone as Mr. Belli and his four partners. They provided me with the distinction afforded by a “leisure” denim suit—Oy! the look in the judge’s eye I appeared before in that—a brown velvet number with the durability of Kleenex, an elk-hide shirt, a Jil Sander sweater that could have sheltered a Mini-Cooper.

The pinnacle of San Francisco fashion was Wilkes Bashford’s. Its prices, even slashed, narrowed my pickings. (To this day, I refuse to pay more for a single garment than the $600 my first car cost.) I broke my cherry there with a fedora that would have looked at home on Humphrey Bogart. (“Here you are,” the fastidiously groomed salesman said, sizing me up. “Don’t sit on it.”) Rust colored corduroys and a red-gold shirt followed.

Becoming a solo practitioner in Berkeley liberalized matters further. (“It’s nice,” I joked to a lawyer friend in Philly, “not to have to wear a tie to the office. Or shoes.”) But establishing a perpetually satisfying self proved not as easy as sliding a VISA card across a counter. A need for replenishment came as regularly as the seasons. So my holdings in leather increased by three jackets, one vest, a belted black overcoat (Not a good idea to wear to Schindler’s List), and, for my fiftieth birthday, jeans. (“You can never be too rich, too thin, or own too much black leather.” Didn’t Abraham Lincoln say that?) I took possession of half-boots patterned as miniature Andy Warhol soup cans, a pair of scarlet Prada low cuts with white piping. (“The salesgirl called them ‘accent shoes,’” I explained to my wife. “You can wear them with anything.” “Particularly,” Adele said, “if you’re going bowling.”) I own a sweater Jackson Pollock might have splattered, a red plush scarf with black teddy bears, baseball caps celebrating the Grateful Dead and Matthew Barney, a tie which is a montage of romance comic covers (“Sexy Love,” proclaims one dominant portion) and a Suicide Girls tee. I even sport a fishscale silver bracelet picked up at a Maui craftsfair. (You should hear the story behind that!)

My closet groaned as I kept once-shed skins within easy reach for emergency idiosyncratic tweakings.

“What the hell is going on here, Bob,” a puzzled reader may ask. “Why, after events that would have most people repenting their sins or pondering the meaning of the whole shebang, are you obsessing about clothes? When you meet your maker, do you think he’ll give one shit about what you’re wearing?”

Well, I would answer, if I meet my maker, an encounter about which, frankly, I have my doubts, you are right. She won’t care how I’m dressed. Until then, repenting for sins is certainly an option. (Why else would God have given us confessionals, Yom Kippur, and cattail whips?) Deeply pondering existence is another. (Why else bitter espresso, Gauloises, and Departments of Philosophy?) But fabric-filtered, rear-view recollections of the twists time had in store for legal titans, rag trade moguls, and pre-adolescent pals may not finish as badly out of the money as you think. My parents have passed on. So have garments that once seemed as crucial to my identity as my hair length or ability to snare offensive rebounds.

Clothes, to my present stage of enlightenment, seem a matter of art. Each morning, pieced together from socks to cap, I set out into my day, a six-foot-three collage, a portable installation of uncertain duration. When we dress, as when we paint, compose or scribble, we have the opportunity to cull our past, compress it with our present, and move an audience through the resulting vision. At minimum, we can ask those amongst whom we sit at the Wrench Cafe or stand in line behind at CVS to appreciate our being. And mindful of this wish, we become more apt to compliment theirs. The resultant bond of mutual smiles—though transient connections—are stones of grace to hurl into the teeth of an apparently uncaring universe.

That I have incorporated, twinkle-in-eye, the pre-abused into my presentation both captures what has happened to me and defies it. I am still here, I exclaim to fate. And I am going to enjoy it, you bastard.

From July, 2014