Saturday, June 8, 2013

From the Archives - The Shirt


Introduction

I had forgotten all about this little story until today, when memory of it popped into my head. All at once I remembered the night it chronicles, and I remember writing it, and I remember how I was initially pretty pleased with it, and I remember remembering it, years later, and wondering if it actually sucked. So this evening I found it, reread it, and decided it’s worthy of albertnet. Enjoy please enjoy.

The Shirt – January 13, 1992

This guy has got the Shirt. To say it’s nice is not enough, because this is not merely the kind of die‑hard, go-anywhere, versatile shirt that I’m wearing. I happen to think my own shirt is just fine, but that’s only because I know almost nothing about fashion. I know enough, though, to know that this guy has got the Shirt and I don’t. His Shirt isn’t practical, it isn’t versatile, it certainly isn’t economical—and so it is probably chic. (If a friend of mine came over to my place dressed chic like that, I’d call him a chick and send him home to change. But I’m on someone else’s turf.)

With a strange reverence, I gaze at the Shirt, imagining the guy modeling it for himself in the full‑length mirror, deciding if it is to be the shirt for tonight. If he makes the slightest error in judgment, the evening is ruined. A shirt could as easily kill him as make him the center of attention. Before settling on this one he probably threw away—not just aside, but away forever—several shirts that have slipped quietly into fashion dysfunction (dysfashion?). And of course he never makes a mistake, anywhere in his outfit. He knows that the perfect Shirt requires the perfect pants, which begin with the perfect belt and descend lovingly down his legs, with perfect pleats and a perfect crease, down to crisp cuffs perfectly caressing the perfect shoes.

These shoes are the dope: the kind of extravagant Nigerian kid’s‑belly suede leather ones that you and I ignorantly laugh at in little shoe boutiques, whispering to one another, “What the hell are these shoes? And what are those tassels for?” until a salesperson approaches and says, with the most faintly masked disdain, “Can I help you?” We wish we had the nerve to say, “Yes, I was wondering how well these would hold up for bicycling. Would grease stains wash out easily?” but instead we apologize: “Just browsing. Well, see you later. Cheers!”

If I spoke the language of this party, I could perhaps bridge the cultural gap of my versatile shirt and strike up conversation, but alas I do not. The Shirt’s confident speech is laced with wonderful abbreviations like “CPA,” “MBA,” and “JD,” along with hybrid names like “Arthur Andersen” and “Deloitte & Touche.” As an outsider, I watch Rob, a gentleman I know through his sister, try to parley his distinctive belt buckle, high heels, and earnest patter into an important business connection.

(I do not ever wear high heels and am amazed that such a product exists for men. But then, there’s a lot about this world I do not grasp, and I instinctively know not to judge.)

“Do you know how I made my entrance?” the Shirt is saying. “I was at an important function, found a partner, and just tugged on his arm, just like this” (he tugs at the sleeve of Rob’s shirt) “and made my eye contact. I told him, look, I know what your company needs and I’ve got what it takes. Two weeks later, I was made an offer.”

Yeah, great, easy for you to say, you’ve got the Shirt! Rob fairly melts at this wonderful success story, his eyes probing the Shirt longingly, in real awe of his social prowess. The Shirt begins expounding the virtues of real conviction, not the assumed ambition that partners, recruiters, and personnel managers (the last resort) can see right through. Before my eyes, he is giving Rob in invaluable survival kit for the corporate world, and I only hope Rob can ingest it all at once. This is turning into an important party indeed! Two colleagues of the Shirt stand by, dressed very impressively but without that dear fashion perfection that would be so lucrative to their careers, their egos, their very beings.

As Rob begins the well-polished story of his own professional history, these colleagues fix their eyes on him as they would on a highway patrolman who just might be letting them off with a lecture: staring not at him, not through him, but towards him and at nothing. Rob deftly drops the hybrid name of his former employer, throws around some sophisticated business jargon, and then falls fatally into a crevasse by using some toxic phrase. I did not hear the phrase but it had something to do with phones. Rob realizes his mistake and abruptly stops talking. (He has been out of work for awhile and I sense that this isn’t the first time he’s cratered like this.) Unable to orchestrate an escape from the grave dug by his faux‑pas, he freezes up and almost seems to gasp for air.

The Shirt and his sidekicks deal humanely with Rob; soon the Shirt, after exposing for a moment his gold wristwatch, shrugs his shoulders, skillfully sending impressive ripples down the silk flowing over his chest, and says, “Well, fellows, I think it’s time to visit our favorite watering hole.” The sidekicks, who have long since stopped listening to anything said, shake slightly as if waking up from a light sleep, blink several times, and one of them says, “What?”

The Shirt grins. “Drinks, gentleman, down at Thomas Glintcock’s.” He shakes hands with Rob, emphasizing vice-like grip and eye contact, and says, “Be in touch now. Good luck.” He turns to me, having been introduced sometime earlier, extends his hand, and says, “Nice meeting you Darnell.” I fight the urge to temporarily confound his internal connection register by saying, “Certainly. I’ll contact you about that interview.” Instead, I flash my best knowing grin and attempt to turn the tide of our handshake so as to crush his hand instead of mine. It’s no good. Is this why they call it “the upper hand”? In pain now, I struggle to fathom who is supposed to let go first. It’s all so awkward, but also kind of exciting. Is this my first power handshake?

When the Shirt and his lackeys are out of earshot, Rob approaches his sister and me as he’s if a pro ball player meeting the press in the locker room after the big game. I can’t predict whether he’ll say “It was a good ball game and I gotta hand it to those guys, they really got the job done,” or “Did you see me out there!?” His expression is a mixture of fear and pride. Sure, he wasn’t flawless, but there he was, right in the thick of it, right?

My gaze wanders, though: I find myself drinking in, for the final time, the unmistakable prowess of the Shirt as he shrugs off a few more ambitious junior businessmen, having no more time to spread his success around among the little people. Rob is frantically recounting to his sister what he learned, and what his next step needs to be, and how she must find him a few more good connections and a few more important functions to attend. She replies, with splendid offhandedness, that she went to a basketball game with such-and-such person, who brought along such‑and‑such important partner. Rob chases down the shirt and gleefully announces this connection.

“Oh yes, James Masterson is a splendid guy. Very approachable,” says the Shirt. “How did you say you knew of him?” Rob mentions the basketball game. Flourishing a game-show gesture towards Robs’ sister, the Shirt says, with oily precision, “Well there you are! Go set it up. And good luck!” Then he is out the door, and with him the fashion presence I’d found so tingly.

Rob returns, and begins speaking far too quickly for me to follow him. I fix my stare in appropriate sidekick fashion and nod occasionally. Finally, he puts it to me: “What do you think?” Realizing my social inadequacy and total lack of business sense, I decide to just go random on him. “You know what I think, Rob?” I ask. “I think you should completely reinvent yourself professionally, and teach junior high school.”

Two pairs of jaws drop, as if these siblings were in a cutesy movie about twins. After a great deal of gasping, they simultaneously express their incredulity: “A teacher? What the hell for?” “Where did you get that?” This time my grin is unharnessed, uncontrolled, uncalculated. (I hope nobody saw me.) I put it to Rob that he could no more convince an Arthur Andersen partner of his love of accounting than convince a school principal of his love for kids. “I hate kids!” he snarls.

“Well, how much exposure do you have to accounting?” I ask.

“Two classes in college,” he replies.

“Did you like it?”

“No, I hated it, but that was just because of the teachers.” I ask him to explain his sudden craving for accounting, and beyond “business environment” and “social interchange with clients” he cannot. He leaves to get a drink, and I wander into the kitchen and read the cartoons posted on the refrigerator. Rob’s sister does not join me.

Ten minutes later Rob finds me, his sister trailing behind. “I have an answer! I have the answer!” he cries. His sister chides him for blurting this out so loudly, but I let it go, interested in his breakthrough. “I wanna learn!” he cries. “I wanna learn accounting and Arthur Andersen is the firm I want to teach it to me.” I am very disappointed with this shallow attempt at epiphany. “Sure, of course you want to learn,” I say slowly, “but why do you want to learn accounting? Why don’t you want to learn about, say, educating kids?”

We leave the party. During the drive our silence is broken by sirens. Three honking police cars weave through the traffic and disappear into the night. “I wonder what happened. Maybe there’s a riot!” Rob says brightly. I shake my head. “No, I’ll bet it’s something more routine. Just some cops doing normal cop things.” Rob says, “You know, if I hadn’t gone to college, I’d be a cop. That’s my second choice. Accountant, then cop. Well, maybe it’s not my second choice, but it’s definitely up there.”

I hold back a smirk: the evening may yet be young! “Well, you know—” I begin, but Robs’ sister cuts me off. “No more! Shut up! Just stop!” So we stop. It’s just as well: I’m suddenly exhausted, and I’ll bet Rob is too. I stare out the window and it occurs to me that, out there somewhere in this beautiful nighttime city, the Shirt is still going strong.

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