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Sunday, April 07, 2013

The Overcoat

From the Thrift Shop Dept.: Perhaps this had something to do with growing up near Danbury, Conn., in the waning days of that city’s fame as a hatmaking center. Haberdashery was important to my friends and me during our teen years, and we promenaded through town in fancy cloaks and high hats, to the point where the police stopped asking what the hell we were up to. There’s no parable or moral intended in the tale below, but if you wish for more insight on the idea of the overcoat, Gogol it.


I DIDN’T GO TO COLLEGE in the autumn following my high school graduation. In terms of ambition, I was at loose ends. Too many career paths distracted me, none of them practical. I longed to make my living with theater, music, words. I’d starred in a couple of high-school plays; I’d gotten a toehold with a couple of community theater groups. I’d written the opening movement of a dreadfully mediocre piano trio, and knew composing wasn’t my forte. My violin playing was wretched, but I dreamed of putting together a program of the unusual songs I enjoyed singing. The New Yorker had yet to appreciate the genius of the stories with which I deluged the magazine.

Edward Steichen (sans overcoat)
Photo by Oliver Morris
I’d spent my first post-high-school summer working part time as a proofreader for the town’s weekly newspaper, which left evenings free to continue to socialize with the friends who’d soon be surrendering themselves to higher education. I was trying to convince an ex-girlfriend-to-be not to throw me over, a process hampered by my inability to communicate. What I did have going for me was independence, as my family had moved from Connecticut to Illinois before the year began, and I occupied the top floor of the large home of one my closest friends.

This changed dramatically in September. My friend’s father remarried. The house went on the market. My meager proofreader’s wages would buy me no lodging. I had nobody with whom to pal around. So I packed up and joined my family in Illinois, accepting a humiliating job selling shoes at a mall-based Sears.

The reason you can’t go home again, as Thomas Wolfe knew all too well, is that you’ve grown into your own patterns of behavior unmediated by parental or other family approval. After two months of top-of-the-lungs tumult, I returned to Connecticut – romantically, by train, with no place to stay, no job prospects, and very little money. After a few nights of couch hopping, I found a room in the home of a generous friend and a job, albeit part time, in a record shop. As soon as a desirable young woman presented herself at the classical-music counter to seek my advice, I’d have a new girlfriend. Things were looking up.

New England winters can be such punishing affairs that they’re treated with Yankee-tradition nonchalance. Given the nature of my move, I had no warm clothing, but I was a longtime customer of the town’s Thrift Shop, which kept me garbed in the kind of togs I’d never have been able to afford new, and which imparted an upper-class patina by virtue of being threadbare.

That’ s where I discovered a camel’s-hair overcoat one day. It was a silvery blue. I could tell by my first touch that this material was finer than anything I’d ever before worn. And it fit me. More or less. It was a tiny but short in the sleeves. It didn’t matter.

I can’t imagine I paid more than $15 for the thing, which was a good piece of change in 1973. More than I’d intended to spend, of course, but I couldn’t pass up something that transformed me so. This overcoat announced me as an aristocrat, one of the old-money scions of Fairfield County. This overcoat would attract that Prokofiev-loving maiden of whom I dreamed, confirming me as a man at least of taste, if not, when the truth were known, of money.

My landlords were a couple about my parents’ age, collectors of books and art who instantly saw the value in my new garment. It was one of them who discovered the little tag sewn behind an unobtrusive lining flap, a tag that read “Steichen.”

“Edward Steichen?” one of them mused. “He just passed away,” said the other. Although I wielded a Pentax K-1000, that workhouse of now-vintage cameras, and had gained darkroom experience developing and printing my black-and-white photos, the name was unknown to me. I was astonished to learn that one of the world’s most famous lensmen had been living one town away, in Redding, all these years, and of course I’d seen his iconic photo of Greta Garbo.

We decided that it was safe to assume that the late photographer’s clothes had been scattered, although this overcoat should have seemed far too fine to go the Thrift Shop route. Still; who knows who handles such goods.

I wore the coat even more proudly. I carried my camera whenever possible while wearing it. I probably took more photos during the cooler months.

Inevitably, the coat showed signs of wear, but timed it so that its shabbiness grew in proportion to my waistline. No longer could I button it across my gut, but I continued to shlep it from residence to residence, until it settled with me in a house my wife and I bought in Schenectady.

I’ve recounted elsewhere the story of my move from that city to a rural farm. In the summer of 1989, hoping to get out of Schenectady, Susan and I drove into adjacent Montgomery County and ran out of gas just outside the town of Glen. We walked into town and met some residents who told us of their efforts to oppose the possibility of a radioactive dumpsite being installed nearby.

I returned a couple of weeks later to interview these people for a Metroland article. With me was a photographer named Michael Ackerman, a 22-year-old on the brink, once he left Albany behind, of making a success at the Village Voice and parlaying that into international recognition. He’s now based in Berlin, has a slew of prestigious gallery shows to his credit, and is represented by one of Europe’s top agencies.

In 1989, however, he was a kid making his first visit to a rural area, and it unsettled him. “Where are the houses?” he exclaimed as we bumped along long, dusty stretches of farm road. “Where are the people? I don’t like this.”

But as soon as we got to one of the interview locations, he went to work, finding not just an appropriate image but one that captured the expansiveness of the area and the despair that settled in to so many faces. It was brilliant work.

I didn’t see it until a week or so later, when his photos were published alongside my piece. But it made me proud of my decision, before he left my Schenectady house, to fetch that old camel’s-hair coat from the attic and make a gift of it to him. I hope it helped inspire what’s been an impressive career.

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