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The Light Brown Suit
You can't know
what it was like to walk through the streets of
Brooklyn in the thirties with five dollars in your
kick. I do. The world was my oyster, ready to be
slurped down -- ready to be eaten raw.
Five dollars was a lot of money in those days. It
was even a lot of money for people who had a lot of
money; but for people who didn't have a dime, it
was a fortune.
This particular five dollars, now folded neatly in
my worn leather wallet, was money earned, not found
or stolen. My first literary paycheck. More than
I'd earned as a temporary mailman or sweeping the
sawdust out of Trunz's pork store. All because R.
F. Eltinge wanted his research checked so he could
write an editorial for the Brooklyn Leader. In
those days staff editorialists were responsible for
the spelling of names and places and the accuracy
of their data. They paid nobodies like me to check
and validate such things as the spelling of
Mesopotamia, Luigi Pirandello and how many cubic
feet of hydrogen gas could be found in the belly of
the Hindenburg. His five dollars gave me the two
beer conception that a newspaper writer must earn
as good a living as a doctor. If Mr. Eltinge could
throw money like that around, he must be a
There were three of us in the Reference Department
in the sub-basement of the Brooklyn Leader.
Other than the boiler room attendant, and the mice,
we were the only living creatures down there. We
were one stop below the lowest level reached by the
elevator -- you had to go the last flight on foot.
We searched every editorial and feature article for
errors, particularly the errors that might lead the
Leader to legal problems. Ernie Bushwick was the
boss over Chick Weber and me. He gave me the least
important things to do because Chick was recently
married and scared to death of being fired --
therefore more dependable. I was a night student in
Community College and Ernie took a dim view of
college kids in the newspaper business.
Ernie was a grouchy old bastard. He'd been in the
reference business all his life and worked his way
down from the Times, the Herald Tribune and the
World Telegram all the way to the Brooklyn Leader.
He spent more years in the damp basements of
newspapers than any living man. It left him with
rheumatism, and he was girdled with copper belts
and wrist bands, he even wore a copper collar. So
when R. F. Eltinge peeled a fin from his fat wallet
and said to me, "Here kid, buy your mother a
bouquet of flowers," Ernie Bushwick didn't like it
When Eltinge left, Ernie cornered me. "You got no
right t'be takin' money under the table. You're
paid good money t'check his work."
"C'mon Ernie -- the man liked my work. It's like a
bonus. Didn't anybody ever give you a bonus?" I
knew that would rankle him even more.
There was something else about that five dollars.
It was small enough not to require budgeting
-- a little for this and a little for that, and
something to put away for the future. It was an
amount that could be blown away in one store, one
restaurant, with the vague promise of another five
dollars just around the corner. I might buy a book
with it. I might buy a ticket to see John Gielgud
in "Hamlet" -- I might even get myself laid. That
was something I hadn't done yet. I knew exactly how
much it cost and where to go, but I never had the
money to do it. Common sense prevailed, however. I
bought two shirts and a tie to compliment the
recycled suit my father gave me.
The suit is what this story is all about.
My father gave me his old light brown suit. He
hadn't only grown out of it, but he couldn't
foresee any future occasion in which he might
appear in such a suit.
"Here," Pop said, "I was gonna throw this away -- I
tried to give it to your uncle Fred but he didn't
want it .... you want it?"
"Can I try it on first?"
"Well if y'gonna be picky .... "
"I just want to see if it fits, that's all."
"If it doesn't fit, take it over to Max's -- he
owes me." Max was a Thursday night poker buddy of
my father's, he owned a dry cleaners on Nostrand
Avenue, but the biggest part of his business was
retrofit. We were in the depths of the Great
Depression and clothes were passed down from mother
to daughter and father to son -- never thrown away.
My father's flamboyant boasting about throwing the
suit away was a lie -- another way of acknowledging
that his only son needed something decent to wear,
and he didn't have the money to buy him a new suit.
Well, of course it didn't fit -- and even if it had
fit, it was the color and style of an era long
gone. I had seen faded yellow snapshots of my
father wearing this same suit as he pushed me
through the streets of Flatbush in a perambulator.
Max made it fit. Max could make anything fit. He
often said, "If it's too big I can make it fit. If
it's too small, we got a problem. The whole thing
is, you gotta have enough material to make it fit
-- kapeesh?" When he was done, I tried it on for my
"Looks better on you than it ever did on me." He
disappeared into the bedroom and returned with a
white straw hat with a floppy brim similar to those
worn by southern planters. "Here," he said. "Try
this on." It settled a little low on my ears.
"That's easy," my father said, "a little rolled up
paper in the hat band'll make it sit up a little
higher." He sighed. "Kids these days -- they don't
know how good they got it. I didn't have a suit
'til after I was married."
With my new suit and hat, I decided to invest the
five dollars in two shirts and a tie. Near Max's
tailor shop I found a haberdasher in a perennial
state of bankruptcy. He sold me two shirts and a
gold silk necktie. "I am squeezing, (he pronounced
it "skveezing) myself," he confessed, "nowhere in
Brooklyn will you find merchandise like this at
such ridiculous prices!"
I had to agree. The shirts were the latest thing.
Both were white, one with red stripes and one with
blue, each sported two detachable white collars,
which meant that the shirts could be worn almost
indefinitely before laundering. The tie was pre
knotted and could be clipped to the collar of the
shirt. With the black suede shoes I had rarely worn
because of their perishable nature, I thought I cut
quite a figure.
I studied my figure carefully in the full length
mirror in my parent's bedroom. Nothing seemed to
clash, the entire ensemble signified gentle
breeding and a quiet, yet not too humble suggestion
of a man with considerable literary gifts.
In the middle of the Great Depression, a part time
English Lit. sophomore of nineteen, dressed vaguely
in the style of a southern plantation owner could
not expect to walk through the streets of Brooklyn
unchallenged. It was not enough to have to watch
the sky for threats of rain and circling pigeons,
but I had to endure the wise ass remarks of my
friends as well as the bullies and hoodlums who lay
in wait for me. My sense of well-being was
constantly on edge, and I found myself checking my
appearance in store front windows to assure myself
that nothing had come undone.
Why did I put up with it? I'll tell you.
The five dollars had kindled a fire under me. My
mounting ambition had sharpened my awareness to my
low estate as an ignorant sophomore and an
apprentice in the Reference Department. On the
horizon I could visualize,
like some distant El Dorado, the Editorial Room of
the Brooklyn Leader. The
plan was to wear my elegant attire during the day,
then run home to change
into my corduroy pants and moth eaten sweater
before heading off to school. I
was sure the suit would get me out of the
sub-basement boiler room and into
the Editorial Department upstairs.
Clothes would make the man -- image was everything.
I would rush to the
phone whenever it rang, expecting it to be someone
wanting me upstairs. Down
in the sub-basement, Ernie Bushwick and Chick Weber
were dressed like tramps.
Ernie, with his copper bracelets and collars, wore
a black turtle neck
sweater, gray suede gloves to keep his hands warm,
and a green visor low over
his eyes. Chick, recently married and in constant
fear of being fired, never
took his overcoat off or his woolen watch cap
either .... he was ready to
leave at a moment's notice. I, however, looked as
though I had just blown in
from a party at Jay Gatsby's.
I waited in vain. Weeks went by, enough time to
actually require the
laundering of both new shirts. Ernie would shake
his head, and Chick, (who
went along with anything Ernie did) would shake his
head also when I
frantically dashed for the phone -- but every time
I was forced to mumble,
"Here, it's for you, Ernie." In the morning, I
would linger in the lobby 'til
the last moment before taking the stairs down to
the sub-basement. At night I
would be the first one out of the Reference
Department -- up the stairs two
at a time to the lobby again. There I'd tip my hat
smartly to those on their
way home. The girls would giggle at me and the men
would look the other way.
What had gone wrong? Was it the shoes, the hat
perhaps? Certainly not the
light brown suit and the striped shirts. I let a
month go by and reluctantly
paused to reconsider my game plan. Before setting
off for school one evening,
I checked myself in the full length bedroom mirror
just to see if anything
had changed, then I decided to go back and see Max.
Max did his tailoring in
the evenings after he got through with the dry
I didn't bother to knock, I pushed my way in to his
shop, and the little bell
above the front door seemed to chime a plaintive
"Max, I got a problem."
He looked at me sharply, "You vouldn't be kiddin'
me? It's a holiday mit you,
is it? You dressed up f'somethin'?" He was sitting
cross-legged on the floor
with a wedding dress in his lap. "You'll pardon me
for saying .... "
"It's an every day, Max -- that's why I'm here.
This is how I show up at the
paper every morning -- The Leader, y'know?"
"This is a paper? I read the Jewish Daily."
"Well, I thought the suit and the hat, and the
shirts .... I thought they
would give me a leg up on the competition. But they
haven't done that, Max.
People ignore me."
"I guess vat it must be, is that you look like
somethin' you ain't. You know
kid, I been now twelve years in your country and
vun thing I notice, no?
Nobody vants to look like vat they are." He held up
the wedding dress. "For
instance," he waved the dress like a flag in front
of me. "For vun day only
Manny Esposito's daughter vill look like a bride --
a month from now -- vun
month only, she vill be dressed like a scrub woman
with her hair tied up in a
rag. It's life, kid. Life is a costume party."
He got up slowly from the floor and arched his back
with a groan. "Vere I
come from. Ach! I could tell you things. There are
two kinds. Everybody looks like vat you call here,
the hobo, no? Either the hobo or the soldier, dot'z
all -- nothing is in between."
"C'mon, Max! Nobody wears a suit?"
"The Rabbi, yes .... he vill vear a suit. But even
the Chancellor vears a
uniform. But here everybody puts on a costume. Look
at you." He tilted his
head sideways and considered me. "You are .... let
me guess, Ja -- you are
the pitch man for a traveling carnival of Gypsies!
For the sake of
perfection, may I suggest a mustache?"
Max was nothing if not honest. I went home again
and dressed for school and I
checked myself out in the mirror once more. Damned
if he wasn't right! I
looked far more like myself in my old corduroys and
the moth eaten sweater
than I did in the light brown suit. I stepped out
into the chilly night with
far more assurance in myself than I had in a month.
I had only one regret -- the misspent five dollars.
I could have gone to see
John Gielgud, or maybe even -- well you know,
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