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 If I might, I’d like to start this week’s installment off with a blatant, lazy and tired cliché: If the clothes make the man, then I’m slightly lower than worm on the evolutionary scale, somewhere between snail and rabies-infested muskrat.

I’m out here in New York now - and lord knows, you’ve heard enough about New York and Los Angeles and blah blah to strangle a person and his dog; honestly, are you people from Topeka sick of this urban squalor yet or not? - and people here care about such matters. I see these people with big jackets, collars the size of Rhode Island, zippers oh-so-inconspicuously zipped down to that strange area between the nipple and the navel, and I am aware that they are hip. They play the game well; they talk in abrupt, clipped tones, they have enough crap in their hair to make it look adequately metropolitan while appearing that they have nothing in there, they have pants with a bunch of pockets, never used. They seem to know what they are doing.

I, however, am stumbling. To my overwhelmingly untrained eye, there seem to be two camps. There is the we’re-so-not-trying-to-look-cool camp, the people who buy a Salvation Army-quality button-up shirt for $75 bucks, and if they’re asked, they say they bought it at the Salvation Army, of course. I must admit, I somewhat admire these people; they’ve come to a moment in their lives that they’ll spend their hard-earned cash on corporate thrift store specials, then lie about it and claim they’re above such frivolities. They’re comfortable with being at that point. They can look in the mirror at the end of the day and say, “Yes, I lie about the price of my clothes to seem like I am more gritty than I am, I care enough about such issues that I’ll get to that stage.” Anyone that adept at self-delusion will always rank high in my book, and I think I might even want to take lessons.

But then there are the “respectable” people, the ones who actually go out of their way to explain to me that “the order goes Banana Republic, then the Gap, then Old Navy. Lower than that, you don’t want.” They read the fashion magazines, they’re up on the newest trends, they even like that TV ad where people are jumping around and singing and dancing too quickly to figure out what they’re wearing. They’re people who will go to stores with 30-foot tall murals advertising jeans with a shirtless model cut off at the waist, so you can’t even see the jeans. They buy into the image, they play along with the game, and they never seem to question, well, what do I need all this crap for?

They know what a khaki is. They know which way the seams are supposed to face. They know that flat fronts are better than pleats, I think. They can tell you whether this jacket goes with these pants, that they saw Pacey wear this on last week’s Dawson’s Creek and that Pacey’s so sensitive and you have to buy this because Pacey’s so goddamned sensitive.

The way I talk about movies, or baseball, or writers who aggressively use footnotes, they talk about clothes. It’s an obsession with them, and they subscribe to Details (or they used to) and Cosmopolitan or even, gasp, Maxim. It’s easy for me to belittle their fixations, but it would be even more effortless for them to mock my memorization of Darrell Porter’s lifetime statistics or the grosses of the last 15 Woody Allen movies, so I’ll let it go.

Still, I’ve never understood it. I recently made an unwanted and whiny miserable trip with a couple of stylish friends to a new store in Manhattan called H&M. It supposedly has really cheap, really cool clothes that will make people think you paid more than $15 for those carpenter shorts that fade green when washed (my solution: just don’t wash ‘em!). The store is enormous, and because it’s new and this is Manhattan, the place was freakin’ packed.

The hunt was on, sharks with blood in the water. A madhouse. People scurrying about, grabbing this off that rack and that off this rack, swiping that last pair of pants out of someone else’s hands, then sprinting away. People were trying on clothes right there in the middle of the store, stripping down to their bra, pulling something on, switching, grasping what they could before some other motherfucker stole it, goddamned motherfucker. It was lunacy. I did what comes naturally and hid, lest someone confused me for a garment and rip me to shreds. I scurried to a small crevice next to the fifth escalator and read until my friends were done. It took two hours.

It’s not just a lack of interest; it’s a lack of any clue. I have a heavy rotation of maybe six shirts and five pants, which I mix and match with reckless regard for propriety. And the only reason they’re worn so often is one or two sensitive souls told me, “Hey, I like that shirt.” They might have been lying, mocking me. I’ll just have to trust them.

The sad thing is, I haven’t even bought any of the clothes in my primary rotation. In fact, scouring through my closet, it appears I own three articles of clothing that I came across and decided to buy on my own because I liked them. One is a “Clinton in ‘92” T-shirt. One is a Jake Plummer Arizona Cardinals jersey. The last is a cover of The Sporting News when Mark McGwire hit his 70th home run.

Everything else has been a gift. To be entirely honest, about 75 percent of my clothes were bought by my mother. I don’t know if she has any fashion sense or not; it does seem strange that I wear a lot of aprons and nurse’s outfits though. Ten percent were from relatives at Christmas (the only time a smattering of new stuff ever enters my wardrobe), and the remaining were the result of frustrated friends sick of me wearing the same plain gray T-shirt and beaten-up jeans every third day.

A friend dragged me to Banana Republic a few weeks ago and asked me, “So, what do you like? I’ll buy you something cool.” I’ve become quite good at this ritual. I just look down and wait for them to pick up something. “Do you like this?” I’ll smile broadly and say, “Yes, yes, that is the one, yes!” For some reason, it’s never enough. They always want to look around, find the perfect outfit. I don’t know why we can’t just pick the first thing we see; looks fine enough to me. But noooo, they’ve got to poke through the entire freaking store, picking up everything, asking me what I think, receiving the same “uh-huh” reaction, weakened each time. And eventually we pick the first thing anyway.

I had one of those Very Important Meetings the other night, out for drinks for one of those pseudo-business get-togethers I always imagined happened all the time in New York. It was not formal, far from it, but it was certainly vital for me to make a positive, lasting impression, for me to be mirthful and charming and witty and urbane and all that stuff they don’t teach you in the Mattoon public school system. I even combed my hair and everything.

But what to wear, what to wear, what to wear? I thought about the McGwire shirt, even considered busting out the old Clinton garb (might make me look politically active, or at least retro hip, or something I don’t know what), but I eventually settled on a blue button-up shirt (untucked) and a pair of jeans. People at work seemed to think it was acceptable, and nobody openly tweaked me. I was even to the level that I thought I looked cool - cool as I get.

I went to the meeting, fortunately held in a dark, smoky bar. Nobody seemed to comment on my clothing, which was good, because I arrived home afterwards, took off my jacket and walked into the bathroom. Right there, just above the left breast pocket ... hmm, it appears I must have eaten spaghetti recently. Large red splotch. Dried over like it had been there for a while, never adequately cleaned.

I’m sure they didn’t notice ... they couldn’t have ... could they? Nah.



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