For many years now, I have gone to bed each night as a 34-year-old and awakened in the morning to be greeted by some white-haired geezer staring back at me from the other side of the sink. This stranger has kept on aging while I have steadfastly (stubbornly, some might say) maintained my youth or, at least, my youthfulness. I don’t recognize the son-of-a-bitch in the mirror who brings no joy, and I wish he’d leave me the hell alone.
But he won’t. He is as insistent as he is annoying.
I understand that I am not alone in this matter and that it is a phenomenon (is there a better name?) that besets most men approaching dotage. We stumble along at an imagined and more desired age until a reflection in the morning light proves us otherwise. No amount of rage directed at the dying of the light will save us.
A few weeks ago I followed my regular nighttime routine of retiring to bed as soon as Stephen Colbert had completed his litany of Trump jokes. It’s fitful going these days—tossing and turning before reading the same 20 pages as I did last night and the night before that—drifting off to a sleep interrupted a couple of hours later to answer nature’s rude call. Morning keeps irregular hours these days. On the day in question, however, I arose around 6:15 and soon found myself staring at a 68-year-old guy in the mirror. Overnight—without consult or permission—my true age had doubled.
I grumbled at him and gave him the finger.
If there’s one thing American advertising has promoted without letup is the idea that we don’t have to grow old. Like most advertising it is, of course, a lie. But the creams and lotions, hair dyes and weight-loss programs, the preponderance of exercise machines and the care-free runs on the beach keep hope alive in the search for the impossible.
“Forever Young,” promised the Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan, 78.
My quest of the apocryphal, I decided, would be superficial and therefore begin with a serious assessment of a wardrobe in a sorry state. My fashion sense dates back to my youth and has not kept up with the times.
Like many boys in the Eisenhower Fifties, I dressed in pants that had an elastic waistband and no fly. Mine were usually corduroy and had prophylactic knee patches. The cuffs were rolled up or down in accordance with my height, frequently leading my father to ask if I was expecting a flood. My shirts were subtly colored tees with neither message nor team affiliation. Because I had flat feet, I wore thick-soled orthopedic shoes that were black leather and weighed a lot more than the high-top Keds my classmates wore.
Clearly, I qualified as class nerd (though that word had yet to be coined), for which I compensated by quoting Henny Youngman (“Take my wife, please,” I deadpanned near the swing set) and telling Myron Cohen stories (“So bring me the fly,” says the baker, “and I’ll give you a raisin.”). What else was I going to do on the playground? I had a well-developed Yiddish accent and shoes that were not made for active play.
Dungarees are what my mother called blue jeans and I wasn’t allowed to wear them. She believed that they belonged solely within the purview of farmers which we certainly weren’t, unless you consider growing marigolds in flower boxes as farming. I was intrigued by the name she gave them and at some point I began wondering if that name had anything to do with its root: dung. And if so, what does “aree” mean?
Blue jeans became my casual, go-to pants when I started buying my own clothes. They were cheap, durable and even looked good with a sports coat or blazer, provided you could pull off such a look. Then, of course, came the inevitable weight shift of middle age. As the belly extended, the rear end ebbed accordingly; blue jeans became ill-fitting—baggy in all the wrong places.
Until moving to Montana twenty-seven years ago, I wore a suit almost every day. My wife says I would change from wingtips to sandals on weekend beach days, but still wear the suit. I don’t recall that. I do remember bringing my briefcase, however.
I thought about going back to wearing suits and started checking online for outlets since the stores where I live only sell jeans that fit men 34 years and mostly younger. I found a suit that struck my fancy until I saw the price tag of $7,654. Granted, it was marked down to $1,700 but my thoughts about wearing suits again abated. After all, I once paid just $500 more than that sale price for a brand-new car.
Then I discovered that there are many companies which have started little clubs to keep today’s gentleman well-dressed for any occasion. Like Dave’s Fruit of the Month Club, the garment dealers send you a new outfit—complete down to the shoes and belt—every month. I’ve never had a dozen pairs of shoes at one time, which is what you have at the end of the club year. And who needs 12 belts? Even if you win a buckle for sitting atop a bull for a full eight seconds, they don’t give you the belt. Just the buckle.
I did go so far as to fill out one of the application forms for a company called beingfleeced.com. A survey asked if I was used to spending on “$50-$100, $101-$200 or $201-more” for casual blue jeans. Two things jumped to mind, 1) I’ve stopped wearing jeans, even the casual ones, and, 2) jeans used to be cheap, especially the casual ones. If there was a third question, I’d ask what defined “casual.” If any of my rancher friends are wearing $201 blue jeans, I want their farm subsidies to stop.
Then the survey asked which stores I frequented. I recognized some of them as being in places I rarely get to—like Milan, London and Paris. I can’t imagine why Costco, Goodwill and Ross Dress for Less weren’t mentioned.
I decided to forgo the club route and go for whatever kind of look I could assemble with chinos and tees, albeit not the body-clinging black tees that muscle-bound TV news correspondents wear these days. For the record, Roger Mudd would not have worn such garb. If you’re wondering who Roger Mudd is, you’re probably wearing designer blue jeans.
I found out that some of those t-shirts are made from merino wool and cost about $60 each. I then found out that not only are they expensive, you can apparently wear one every day for up to a month without washing it. For some reason, I just don’t find that to be much of a selling point.
For many years during the Awkward Era between the Big Bands and Rock n’ Roll, I shopped for my clothes at a place on Chicago’s Maxwell Street by the name of Smoky Joe’s. I’m not sure who their target audience was, but all of my musician friends shopped there. It was the only place on earth, I’m sure, where a 16-piece band could get outfitted with turquoise lamé tuxedo jackets off the rack. What wasn’t lamé was usually sharkskin or sequined. Everything they stocked at Smoky Joe’s was shiny, including the gang colors sold from the backroom.
A couple of doors down was Flagg Bros. There you could buy what we called “Puerto Rican fence-climber” shoes in every color under the sun. You could also get high-heeled, blue-suede Beatles boots.
So, if you happen to notice some old guy climbing a fence in your neighborhood in a shiny suit coat with pointy-toed patent leather shoes, pay no attention. It’s just somebody running away from that stranger in the bathroom mirror.
Photography by Courtney A. Liska