20 September, 2012

Another Man’s Boxers: A Sartorial Lament

The inaugural washing precedes the inaugural wearing, always. If the article must be dry-cleaned, then the inaugural wearing will have to be postponed even longer. I will wear nothing straight off the rack. There’s no telling how many bodies have slithered through, nor how many hands have felt over a garment before my own. Washing also removes that intolerable starchiness, the telltale creases of articles that came in a package, and the whiff of plastic that all new clothing seems to carry.

Before the inaugural washing, there is a procedure to be followed — a preparation. Pockets must be checked for slips, collars for stays, folds for pins, hems for tags. I abhor labels, inside or out, and take great care to undo the stitching that affixes them, regardless of whether I bought the articles from a department store, a punk shop, or an upscale fashion boutique. My standards are uniform; I am very particular about my clothes. And yes, I recognize the apparent contradiction in paying $190 for a designer shirt, only to strip it of its fashion-house identification within moments of taking it out of the bag. It might even seem a tad rebellious — an act of protest against materialism, albeit a conflicted one, since I did buy the thing to wear — but all it is is an equal aversion to the scratchiness of clothing tags and the concept of becoming an uncompensated walking billboard.

Why buy designer clothes if I’m not interested in showing off a label’s name? I choose clothing solely based on whether it meshes with my personal aesthetic, and if I could do that by shopping exclusively at, say, Old Navy, I’d be fine with that. Unfortunately for my bank account, the clothes that tend to fit my self-image best can be a little spendy. On the ultra-rare occasions when I flip through a men’s magazine, like GQ or Esquire, my eye is only ever drawn to ads for military-inspired Burberry coats and the rock-and-roll schoolteacher look of the latest Belstaff line (yet indifferent to the presence of Ewan MacGregor therein). When I spot an item, in these magazines, that I fancy myself wearing, a glance at the retail price almost always sends me into sticker shock. It’s my haute couture taste versus my notoriously thrifty ways. Then, of course, there’s the further complications of black.

Waiting with a limo driver outside of a downtown Chicago bus depot, when I was twenty-two (a mildly amusing anecdote that will today go untold), I was asked, “So, are you in a band or something?” Calf-high Doc Martens, velvet trousers, a ribbed T-shirt, an ankle-length autumn coat — I suppose strangers should have been forgiven for mistaking one black-clad lad for the drum-machine programmer in some goth-industrial group. More often than I got the band question, though, I received disapproving looks. These generally failed to register. I only recognized the glaring physical difference between myself and Average Joe, ahead of me in line at the bakery, when he wouldn’t stop turning around to check that I was maintaining a safe interpersonal distance. Piercings, eyeliner, and occasional black nail lacquer didn’t help me blend into the crowd, either. So it was: I was a weirdo. At least I stayed true to myself.

I’d begun experimenting with my wardrobe palette shortly before my abduction by the state. Colors still tended to freak me out — wearing them felt somehow vulgar and false — but I had a handful of shirts in my closet that didn’t: one in a mute red, one in bluish gray, one in deep burgundy. I was becoming very comfortable with charcoals. The ties I donned for work constituted my most garish peacocking. A week’s worth of Brooks Brothers white button-downs hanging beside them were further proof of my assimilation efforts. Then, pow, all choice was taken away.

I spent more than a year wearing short-sleeved orange jumpsuits with “DETENTION CENTER” stenciled on the back, along with pinkish T-shirts, boxer shorts, and socks that, the previous week, had been worn by someone else. The tags in them could not be taken out, nor could the tang of cheap industrial laundry detergent. The scratchy collars and waistlines couldn’t distract me from my fretting about what festering lesions or microscopic parasites the clothing’s last wearer might pass along to me.

Then I arrived at prison. I was given a uniform — three of them, in fact, all in gray. It felt so good to be out of the jumpsuit, with its eye-searing color, its lack of pockets in which to relax my worrying hands, its baggy midsection that I unnecessarily grabbed to keep from sagging every time I stood up. The prison uniform’s battleship gray was a relief, too. I knew some prisons issued uniforms in blue, some in white, some in green, some in tan. I knew also how much wearing any of these colors would depress me, as daily reminders of how far outside of my element I was being forced to live. Gray doesn’t deserve its drab reputation; I was actually happy about this chromatic bit of compatibility. It almost made up for my continued deprivation from long sleeves.

Better still, the prison clothes were issued to me. They even had my name printed on the pockets, below my assigned DOC ID number. It would be my responsibility to keep them in good condition, to wash them, to not lose them. No one else had worn them, and no one else would. The clothing situation could have been so much worse. I was even allowed to remove the tags, first thing.

Years went by. Those uniforms have been replaced, piece by piece, many times since. There are schedules that dictate how long each article must be kept — boxers and socks, six months; T-shirts, a year; gray pants and shirts, three years — and I have mostly exchanged my old for new as those time frames allow. Financial cutbacks changed things. Staff who issue clothing here may now hand over an allotment of used T-shirts as likely as they might new ones. Ditto for gray pants, gray shirts, and underwear. Going to trade in my fraying, worn-thin items, I have thus far been lucky to get replacements that are still stiff from the box. I’ve hung on to a number of clothing articles for longer than most would. I have no desire to be given pre-worn boxers.

About the boxers, it’s tempting to joke, “There are many pairs like them, but these are mine.” Except they aren’t mine. They belong to the state of Missouri, the same as gave me a number that I wear because the rules here demand it, but to which I lay no claim. I wear these cheap white boxer shorts because there’s no alternative. If I’m ever handed a pair someone else has worn, I suppose I’ll wear those, too, for the same reason. For now, I’m trying to make the pairs last that I’ve already got. There’s no way for me to know if my next clothing exchange will yield more unworn stuff, or if my luck will hold. This strategy is a gamble, like a game of roulette. I hold tightly to the hope that I’ll one day soon have the option back to bet on black.

07 September, 2012

A Poem I Didn’t Write but Wish I Had

Science Fiction
By Les Murray

I can travel
faster than light
so can you
the speed of thought
the only trouble
is at destinations
our thought balloons
are coated invisible
no one there sees us
and we can’t get out
to be real or present
phone and videophone
are almost worse
we don’t see a journey
but stay in our space
just talking and joking
with those we reach
but can never touch
the nothing that can hurt us
how lovely and terrible
and lonely is this

* * * * *

This poem is one of the 150 or so that I keep filed away in a folder of my favorites. Every week or so, when I return for one reason or another to the folder, I never fail to reread “Science Fiction” — it resonates with me that much. Its message about the singularity inherent to human existence, particularly in our wired Western culture, is one thing, but these lines of Murray’s have another layer of meaning for me, which comes with the limited meaningful contact I have with the world outside these prison walls. I know more, perhaps, than Murray intended to convey about “how lovely and terrible / and lonely” it is to literally stay in my space while reaching out. I try to express this as succinctly in some of my own poetry. Whether or not I succeed isn’t this post’s subject, though. I just want to share with you what I think is a very good poem.