I’ve never been to a tailor before. Like most younger men, I buy my clothes off the rack and they hang on me as they please. When they no longer fit, I reason them no longer fashionable and they get bagged up and delivered to the Salvation Army. One man’s throwaways are another man’s threads. In twenty years, some college student will wear my sport coat ironically.
But the tailor is an anachronistic image in my mind. I picture him short, Jewish, possibly Italian, balding—a nebbish who wears his tape measure like a tie and mumbles from the pins in his mouth. He is curt and frustrated when I don’t spin the right way or can’t answer the question, “Which way do you dress?”
My father has lately taken to cleaning his closets and the garage. There were dozens of suits, coats, and sweaters—all much too large for me and not quite old enough yet to make them vintage. I’ve resisted most offers but decided to take him up on what he called his favorite suit—a gray, wool three-piece suit from the Majer Clothing Company. I thought it had potential.
“You could take it to the tailor’s,” he reminded me.
I’m vaguely aware of the existence of a tailor or two in my hometown of West Chester, Pennsylvania. It’s an older town, a college town, the county seat, and while lately its old town charms have been taken over by coffee shops and banks, there are a few tradesmen left in town. There’s a storefront that still promises shoe repair. I imagine when the college boys stumble by, the cobbler and the tailor sigh heavily.
It was mid October when I decided that it was time to finally bring the old suit into town and get it tailored. I had already taken to wearing an old ring of my father’s—a gold band with a tiger’s eye stone that belonged to Uncle Will, my father’s uncle, a bachelor. I recently had it repaired by Stuart, my dad’s jeweler. (I wonder if he knows the tailor and cobbler.) While the ring is a bit flamboyant, the suit is more cautious. But perhaps, tailored just right—to my exact dimensions—it would take on a new life.
Being a teacher allows you to get started on these sorts of errands before everyone else is rushing around, so it was only 3:30 when I drove up Gay Street, looking for a place to park. I didn’t know where a tailor was exactly, but I was certain that I had seen one somewhere in the center of town. I would walk around until I found one.
Driving into town, there is always the possibility that I might see my father’s car parked along the main drag, signaling a cocktail pit stop on the way home. So I wasn’t surprised when I saw his car outside Tecca, an Italian bar and restaurant that was the new home to Billy Guthrie, the town’s best bartender. Billy has poured my dad’s drinks for nearly thirty years, from La Cocotte to Vincent’s. If not my dad, Billy would certainly know the tailor, the cobbler, and maybe even have a favorite haberdasher—whatever they do.
As I found a nearby place to park in the shadow of the courthouse, I grabbed the old suit from the backseat, slung it over my shoulder as I’ve seen men do, and made my way into the bar.
It was a good entrance. Here I was: my father’s son, donning Uncle Will’s tiger’s eye ring, a favorite old suit slung over my shoulder, sauntering into a bar while most of the working world was still staring at the clock.
It was quiet. There was no music playing and there, sitting alone at the bar was my dad. No other patron in sight, not even Billy.
“Hey, there you are,” I said. “I was just coming into town to find a tailor for your suit here.”
From the hallway, Billy strolled back behind the bar and poured a drink for me. I had a beer, my father some Tanqueray on the rocks, with olives. I spent a moment admiring my beer, its amber color, the lacing the sunlight revealed. My dad twisted his glass on the bar and straightened the coaster. It’s comfortable just sitting with my father. Like many other father and sons, we’ve spent hours quietly sitting in each other’s company. Years of watching baseball, long car trips to the shore, interminable church sermons, all prepare you for the unspoken bond between a father and a son. Drinking allows the same quiet space.
“What was on your bill today?”
“Well, I finished pretty early,” my dad responded. A senior judge, my father had managed to clear his cases out by 11 am. “I spent the rest of my day writing my obituary. I got up to 1987.”
What is the proper response to that really? Having just turned 70, the statement didn’t derail me. I knew my dad had already planned out his finances, obviously, and even knew what hymns he wanted sung at his funeral. So my first two reactions had to do with the writing assignment. What would that be like—writing your own obituary? Did people even do that? Write their own? Is that something you’re supposed to do? Certainly you’d want the opportunity to tell your own story, not have someone from the Daily Local News butcher it, misspell your daughter’s last name, forget you were stationed in San Antonio—in short, get your chronology wrong. I can understand needing to wrest control from a stranger. Maybe this was part of getting your affairs in order. Getting up to 1987 isn’t a bad day’s work: 47 years in 4 hours. I would have been 15.
All I managed was, “What was that like?” I preempted his response with a suggestion. “Must feel good to write it all down like that.”
I don’t remember his answer, but he kindly agreed with my estimation.
We ordered a second drink when Oliver came in. I’ve seen him in other bars around town. He has a round, soft brown face and always wears a hat—a soft velvet fedora. He’s a fashionable man in his sixties—someone who certainly knows how to find the tailor. He probably even owns a shoehorn.
Pleasantries were exchanged. Billy made sure I knew Oliver’s name. He poured him a beer and Oliver turned to me and asked, “How are things going?”
“Can’t complain. It’s 3:30 in the afternoon and I’m sitting in a bar having a drink with my dad.”
He considered that quietly for a second. “Wish I could do the same.” He took a slow pull from his drink. He turned slowly back to me and looked me in the eyes. “Wish I could have a drink with my dad. That’s a good thing. You should hold onto this. Hold on to him.”
“I’ve got him,” I said grabbing my dad’s elbow. “I’ve got him right here.” We let the moment go. But Oliver sank into some quiet reflection and ordered another drink.
My father got up, as the Army had taught him to say, to hit the head, so I tried to settle up my bill, but he had already taken care of it. When he returned the men agreed on what tailor I should take the suit to. It was just around the corner: Parisian Dry Cleaners. I left the men to their drinking, slung the suit back over my shoulder and walked east down the street.
Parisian—that’s a good proper name, I thought—European, old world, sophisticated. I re-centered the tiger’s eye ring as I opened the door to the tailor.
It was quiet in here too. No music, just a slow machine whoosh from the back room. Two Korean men were working quietly. One got up to welcome me; the other buried his head in some stitching.
“I’d like to get this suit tailored.”
He placed me up on a wooden step that he slid out from under the counter. He whisked his tape measure out from around his shoulders. He asked no questions, just quietly took down my measurements. That is until he got to the crotch.
“Oooh,” he laughed. There, smack dab in middle of the crotch was a burned out hole. It was the color of rust and about the size of, if a depression era tailor or cobbler was estimating, a half-dollar. Clearly, it was from a cigarette, back when my dad smoked, when the world smoked, when men smoked in their law offices, ashing into waist-high pedestal ashtrays.
“Can you fix it?”
“I could take some fabric up from the pant hem.”
“Let’s do that.”
He finished his measurements, took my name and number, and I was out the door. I reached my car and found a parking ticket. I grabbed it off the windshield and without looking, lightly placed it on the seat next to me and drove home.
At a four-way stop sign, I closed my eyes for a second. I wondered if I fit into the world of tailors, cobblers, bartenders, jewelers and judges. I wondered if I was old enough for gold rings and three-piece suits. I wondered if men were quiet because they had nothing to say or no one to talk to. I wondered if their work was enough.
Later at home, after I finished feeding the dogs, they stood and looked at me blankly: man’s best friend.