Day 14: Adventures of an Overcoat

I have no heirlooms. I inherited none of the things my mother or father had inherited. My mother had a dining room buffet where she displayed the collection of Steuben glassware she had been left by my grand-uncle, the crystal decanters and fruit bowls and olive dishes that were rarely, if ever, to be seen on our table. When she died, my sister-in-law picked those up, as she did a few pieces of Art Nouveau furniture that my mother had also been bequeathed by the same uncle.

I didn’t make a fuss. I lived across the Atlantic anyway; hauling it back to Europe would have been a bother. The only thing I took back home was a ribbed ceramic bowl that my mother used to serve the gravies that accompanied her Sunday roasts. The bowl figures in my earliest recollections, so it must be nearly as old as I am. I practically never use it. I’m too afraid of breaking it.

Atget, Magasins du Bon Marche, 1927

Eugène Atget, Magasins du Bon Marché, 1927

Thus, unlike most people I know, I own nothing older than myself. Except for the tweed overcoat. I had bought it when still a graduate student from a thrift shop in Cambridge that stocked the high-quality, if highly conservative, coats and jackets and blazers that have clothed genteel New Englanders for decades and that the same New Englanders, with their horror of wastefulness, sent to the shop when the time came through death or separation or ripe rotundity to get rid of it. The shop was the place to go if you were a college student with a need for more formal clothes but without much money or sense of fashion. The labels often read Brooks Brothers and J. Press, though the only label to be found on mine said, Reine Wolle. It made me wonder whether its previous owner had been some German intellectual or physicist who had escaped Nazi Germany and come to teach at Harvard. I don’t think the coat was that old. Judging from the cut and the supposition that it had been in the previous owner’s possession for some time, it must have been first worn in the 1950s. Which indeed makes it older than I am.

Of the clothes I brought with me from Boston, this is the only one that remains. I’ve taken reasonably good care of it and it’s still wearable, if now somewhat out of fashion, although it has seen years, particularly at the zenith of the whole Ralph Lauren neo-preppy-ism thing, in which it was very much in fashion. Curiously enough, in the intervening years I have acquired and given away another, ridiculously expensive overcoat. But this one remained.

I’ve worn the coat it every year since I first bought decades ago. If it could talk, it could reconstruct a fairly decent trajectory of my life from college onwards.

Talking coats are the stuff of children’s stories now, but they were the kind of narrator one would find in the so-called novels of circulation that were popular in the 18th and 19th centuries–stories told from the perspective of a thing or animal. These it-narratives offered an unusual perspective on an increasingly commercial society in which more and more objects changed more and more hands. Not surprisingly, many of these narratives are told from the point of view of a coin: there are the adventures of a silver penny, a sovereign, a rupee, a Scottish guinea note, and a six-and-nine pence. Or they are told by objects that change occupants, things like hackney coaches and the very modern for the time air balloon. But they were also books like The Genuine and Most Suprizing Adventures of a Very Unfortunate Goose-Quill, and The Memory and Adventures of a Flea, as well as adventures of pens, thimbles, pin cushions, dolls and the particularly striking—because of its suggestion of the frequency with which it was used—whipping top. (For those interested, there’s a four-volume set of these narratives published by Pickering & Chattoo. Some of the individual tales can be found online in Google Books in a poorly scanned facsimile.)

Coats had adventures, too. In 1762 a book was published entitled The Adventures of a Black Coat, containing a Series of Remarkable Occurrence and entertaining Incidents, that it was Witness to in its Peregrinations through the Cities of London and Westminster, in Company with Variety of Characters, as related by ITSELF.

The book begins at the end, with the black sable coat, now old and “curtailed by the degrading scissars of the botcher,” being joined in his solitary wardrobe by an unblemished “gay white coat”. Sable is moved to rehearse to young White the vicissitudes of his fortune so that the young coat may profit from his misfortune. He then sets out to relate the series of “conductors”—so he describes the men who have worn him—whom he accompanied on their way through the city to their (often unhappy) fate: a theater-struck Irish footman, a young man with aspirations to enter the service of a “man of distinction”, a confidence man—the alacrity with which the coat changes conductors is astonishing.

Sable is not only a careful, if at times naïve, observer of human frailty. He is also a coat with feeling. He speaks of the dull apathy of neglect when he is left alone, unworn and unwanted in the closet, a fate worse than “the tormenting needle of the botcher.” He recounts his anxiety that he may be too large for the “young gentleman of graceful appearance” who is thinking of buying him, and describes how he contracts every thread in his fabric to clasp the young man better.

My coat didn’t change conductors much. I can’t be sure of the previous owners, but I suspect it was just one. But there are peregrinations and characters enough to fill a small book of tales.

I’ve worn it for work and play, over a suit on business trips to London and with jeans and a crew-neck sweater around my somewhat distressed yet still funky neighborhood. It’s not as versatile as the second oldest thing I own—a pair of vintage army-issue Bundeswehr combat pants that I’ve had repaired at least three times and worn to London galleries and Berlin parties and bird-watching hikes i Michigan—but it has taken me places.

I remember wearing it to my therapist’s office—I was still in graduate school at the time—if only because I couldn’t immediately figure out where I was supposed to hang it, and my indecision at the moment seemed to me one of the reasons I was there in the first place. I remember that I was wearing it one very cold evening waiting in line outside a fish restaurant on a Boston pier; I was with Mark and Annette, who would ask me later that evening over dinner to move in with them. I don’t remember what we ate but I remember the overcoat because I had been carrying a flask of bourbon in a pocket in the overcoat so that we would have something to warm ourselves with while waiting. It seemed to me at the time a very man-of-the-world thing to do, the kind of thing that Mark would do but very much out of character for me.

I wonder if Mark could sense that I had never carried a flask on me. If my coat could talk, he could have told Mark how uneasy I felt having it with me, how I would slip my hand now and then into the pocket to right the flask up from its side, running my fingers around the neck to see if any liquid was leaking out. It would have told him how desperately I wanted him to like me.

Though it doesn’t talk, my coat incorporates too much memory for me to discard. I don’t wear it much these days nor does it afford me pleasure when I do, though very few clothes do that now anyway. And it would be a handsome coat on a more graceful looking conductor. But utility and pleasure and beauty are not the only reasons we keep things. Memory is another. Perhaps memory is the strongest of all attachments.

So I don’t give away the coat. The combat pants would be just as hard to lose, as would my mother’s gravy bowl. I look around the house for another thing that I’ve had for a long time and find a silk rep tie I had brought with me when I first moved here. Dark-blue with an alternating silver-red diagonal stripe. I had got it from the Andover Shop in Cambridge, the kind of place where people bought the kind of clothes you’d find in the thrift shop where I had found my coat.

It seems very small and inconsequential next to the coat and discarding it feels like an act of cowardice. But it’s the best I can do right now.

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