Suburban Soliloquy

127. Shirts

These days they are doing a better job of sewing buttons onto the shirts I can afford to buy. Are they exploiting Asians to have them all sewn on by hand or have they finally developed a machine that does a better job? It used to be the threads weren't knotted or interlaced. I’d look down at my belly and see the end of a thread sticking out. What could be more inviting? I’d pull it and find there was little friction holding the thread in place. It would unravel in a fascinating, alternating manner and quite suddenly nothing was holding the button. The button would fall away.

In those days, I used to sew the buttons back on, if I hadn’t lost them. I don’t really know how to sew, but would secure the buttons with knot after knot, the stitches bulging like scar tissue. I used carpet thread. Often peeved with the necessity of the task, I would, in an expression of contrariness, sew on a discordant colored button. In time, the buttons I sewed on might crack or break, but they never ever came off.

My mother has known me for over half a century. She claims to have known me all my life, but I can’t remember that far back. She probably has known me longer than anyone else. You’d think, by now, she would know me better.

I only ever buy long sleeve shirts. My mother cannot stand my wearing long sleeves on hot summer days. When we walk together, arm-in-arm, leisurely taking in the shop windows of Manhattan or admiring the campus of Princeton University, she will make a point of rolling up my sleeves. I don’t ask her to roll up my sleeves.

It is my experience that to be cool on a hot day, I just open the cuffs, maybe fold them back once, so they don’t hang over my hands. As I stroll, the opened cuffs catch the air and the swing of my arms pumps the air up my sleeve. My mother comes to what in her view is my rescue. She rolls up my sleeves to bare as much of my arm as possible. The carcinogenic sunlight against my skin makes me hot, even burns. The rest of my arm is trapped behind the fold, no longer reached by the air and sweating profusely. Many years have gone by and I’ve said to my mother perhaps 832 times, more or less, “mother, please, don’t roll up my sleeves.” Each time my mother responds, “but you look too hot with your sleeves rolled down.”

Summer is coming. We will again go strolling together and she will again roll up my sleeves. We will repeat our well-rehearsed lines and two minutes later I will roll my sleeves back down.

It used to be my mother bought me my shirts. Even after I was an adult and no longer living at home, she had occasionally bought me shirts. My mother did not care for my drab fashion sense, which one might call conservative with regards to my shirts. My preference has been white Oxfords, but sometimes I bought shirts the color of stone, heavy fabrics, especially twills. My mother wanted me to wear vibrant colors. She could not stand seeing me in heavy cotton shirts on hot summer days. She bought me colorful shirts of thin fabric made in India.

I hated them. The colors were the least of it for my mother actually has good color sense. What I hated was the lightness of the material, the thinness. Because it was light, it had no drape, also I did not feel protected. Those shirts didn't reflect my personality, which is a bit rough. Because the fabric was thin, it had a degree of transparency that robbed me of privacy. I didn’t want people seeing my nipples or the folds of fat above my belt. Oh, sometimes I would show a little of my hairy chest out-of-doors, but when I sat down to a meal, if only for concern to the sensitivities of those sitting opposite me, I would just as soon not have my chest visible. And the worst of it was how readily the fabrics tore, especially at the seams. Those shirts never lasted very long, never outlasted one season.

Ms Keogh, my more significant other, also does not care for my tastes in shirts. When we go out together, I allow her to pick out the shirt she wants me to wear. I mentioned to her that shirts were becoming the subject of my essay. “You’ve been wearing pretty much the same clothes ever since I met you twenty-five years ago,” she said. “Apparently, it’s the same things you’ve been wearing since high school, a button-down collar shirt and jeans.” Actually, when I was in high school, we weren’t allowed to wear jeans. “I can’t understand,” she added, “why you wear a button-down collar shirt when you don’t wear a tie.”

The reason I prefer button-down collars, and I’ve told Ms Keogh this 416 times, more or less, is because I can’t be bothered with ironing. When my shirts come out of the dryer, the collars don’t necessarily lie flat. Button-down collars secure their appearance without ironing or dry cleaning.

“You’re very old fashioned in a lot of ways,” Ms Keogh tells me. “But the pieces don’t fit together.” I’m more odd fashioned than old fashioned. I dress with pieces of my father’s generation, the 1930s and 40s, mixed with pieces of my own hippie 60s. “Then there is the problem with tucking in your shirts, it just accentuates your large abdomen. You should wear your shirts out.” But enough of what Ms Keogh has to say, she can write her own essay.

There is this recession. It has me thinking of the Great Depression of 1929 and how much better off I am compared to my counterpart then. I have a long closet filled with shirts on hangers. I could wear a shirt a day for a month without doing a laundry. I have two or three shirts that have never been unwrapped. I have two shirts with wing-tip collars and pleated fronts for when I wear my tuxedo, although now that I think of it, I probably couldn’t get into them anymore. The times have changed. No one has their worn collars or cuffs turned to save money. We buy a new shirt. It might be I have no money in the bank, that we live from paycheck to paycheck, but when I count my shirts, I can feel comfortable. I can lose my shirt, I can give you the shirt off my back, and I could do it every day for weeks and still have shirts left.

This essay is the most recent in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any
comments or suggestions,
the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is available from Amazon,
as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"