It was September and with four boys finally back in school, my mother acted as if she had just been informed that her life threatening illness was in complete remission. Nothing fazed her – not the early autumn heat waves, suffocating smog or chaotic evening routines filled with school forms, bike bags, books, homework assignments and back to school nights. It was, as Andy Williams crooned, “the most wonderful time of the year.” In 1976, we were officially on our own. She had declared her independence, no longer rising with us at dawn – choosing instead to sleep in and get my youngest brother off to school at the civilized hour of 8am.
It was the first day of my freshman year and I needed to wear something that made a statement about who I was. Perhaps a new girl would notice me or an upper class cougar would choose to toy with my affections. As I looked at my pathetically worn periwinkle Hang Ten tee shirt with its signature footprints, I knew I must take a calculated risk. I considered the suicidal thought of borrowing my older brother’s Carlos Santana tee shirt – yet, this was simply too perilous a move considering that we shared the same high school hallway. I was desperate. I needed to showcase that this middle school caterpillar had emerged from his summer chrysalis to become a teenaged tiger-tail. It was in this moment of imminent crisis that I made the fatal decision to “borrow” one of my father’s pinpoint Oxford dress shirts.
My father was a hoarder. He literally possessed and stored every piece of clothing he had ever bought. His dress shirts filled multiple dressers and several bureaus. Each drawer was filled with a prime color palette of neatly folded and bagged 16/34 dress shirts that easily accommodated my adolescent build. My mother stirred softly as I tiptoed in to survey his treasure trove of Brooks Brother Oxford cottons. In typically twisted adolescent reverse psychology, I resented his surfeit of clothes. He had so much and I had so little. I also considered the low probability that he would even know that one of his sixty shirts was even missing. I was wrong.
My father had been the eldest of two sons by eight years. He took little interest in his younger brother and considered himself an “only child”. He inherited Midwestern frugality and understood the need to care for possessions to ensure they would last. The shadows of the Great Depression had only recently receded and the goal in any family of modest means was to get maximum utility out of any apparel, appliance, toy or equipment. When your shirt collars frayed, you reversed them and squeezed another two years out of the garment. Frugality was tough but at least as an only child, he never had to share.
When my father married and had four boys, he had no notion of how his organized, rational world would come unhinged. Life became a permanent freeway and he was living in its middle lane. He now seemed to understand why men died earlier than their spouses.
His home office became his castle and its door his portcullis. One could not enter this sacred chamber without knocking. At times, his door would be locked. One was forbidden to borrow a pencil, piece of paper, tape, scissors or any other item from this eight by eight man cave. My mother accepted his periodic self exile as a way for the “only child” to cope with the fact that he must now share everything. He loved his family but needed some place where he could work, protect his sanity and preserve a few precious possessions. He could not trust his sons to care for his things the way that he had been required when he grew up.
Weekends would find him justifiably ballistic as tools that he had wirebrushed and lubricated after each use were left to rust outside by a teen trying to fix a flat tire. He would see red as paint brushes were not cleaned as prescribed with turpentine and returned to their milk carton home – but instead discarded to harden like rigid punk rock mohawks. Bikes were routinely left on the front lawn and sometimes stolen. He could not fathom how this spoiled generation had so little regard for precious possessions. We were pampered, unappreciative, sloppy, and undisciplined ingrates who knew the price of everything but the value of nothing.
His biggest peeve was how we treated our Sunday clothes. He would turn five shades of purple when entering our closets to see blue blazers and clip-on ties cast on the floor with grey slacks crushed under items that had been tossed into the closet when we were ordered to clean our rooms. For an ex-Army officer, our disrespect for clothes portended disregard for other things – work, authority and responsibility. To add insult to injury, our indigence came with a price tag as it was often necessary to take our wrinkled finery to the local cleaners to be steam pressed. My father hated paying for laundering dress shirts and dry cleaning.
My mother had gone on strike several months back refusing to iron or press anyone’s clothes. She had done the math and realized that her domestic obligations were paying her less than minimum wage. My father was convinced that some labor organizer in the neighborhood had undermined her commitment to Home Economics. This was a time of women’s independence led by Gloria Steinhem and the “I am Woman“, communist Helen Reddy crowd. Outsourcing something as intimate as the care of his clothing to a third party that charged an exorbitant .50 per shirt was anathema to my father. (Mr) Delsandro, the drycleaner proprieter, might just as well be wearing pantyhose over his face and wielding a gun. He was engaging in highway robbery.
Delsandro did not like my father. My father intimidated him. It was not uncommon to enter the cavernous cleaners and find the front counter unattended. The drone of rotating dryers, the hot breath of steam and the chemical smell of dry cleaning would conspire to push any kid outside. Through the front window, I would watch as my Dad would rapidly ring the small bell indicating a customer had arrived. The owner would appear from behind a mechanized clothes line of hanging garments and plastic bags. As soon as he saw my father, his pace would slow – the way a dog moves once it has been ordered out of doors. He would endure the detailed list of my father’s demands and specific requests for mending, spot repairs and pressing.
My mother had recently issued another edict that was ostensibly part of a grander plan to prepare us for when we went to college. It required that we wash and fold our own laundry – including washing and ironing our own shirts. In life as in politics, it is an accepted fact that when simple systems try to regulate complex systems, unintended consequences follow. As our fresh supply of laundered clothes dwindled, we chose not to wash our own clothes as instructed. We instead began to steal clothes from our father and then slip the soiled goods back into his laundry hamper. None of us knew that the others were also swiping his tightie whities and tube socks. I did not realize it but my brother had also crossed into the valley of death and taken several dress shirts.
On a bright Saturday morning, my Dad and I were doing errands and made an unexpected stop at the cleaners. A young girl came out to the counter and asked if she could help us. “Is your father here?” my Dad sarcastically inquired. There was a pause. She glanced nervously behind her. “He’s busy in the back. Can I help you?” To the rear of the building, hiding underneath an endlessly rotating line of hanging garments, my father spied two legs. “I know you’re back there, Delsandro!” He shouted. The man’s legs were frozen. My father feigned a smile to the young teenager and spoke over her shoulder. “Please, tell your father when he is no longer busy that he needs to call me. I am now missing FIVE shirts!” My heart nearly exploded in my chest. How the heck was he missing five shirts? I had only swiped two.
Terrified that I would held responsible for all the missing shirts or would be implicated in the death of Mr Delsandro as my Dad stuffed him into an industrial dryer, I confessed to my mother that we had been stealing my father’s clothes. When she stopped laughing, she chastised me and my brothers ( who were not happy that I ratted them out ) for creating such tension for my father. She explained that he had been an only child and was very meticulous about his things. She told us each to wash and fold our laundry – the Catholic equivalent of five “Hail Marys” and three “Our Fathers”. Once again engaging her Solomon-like wisdom. my mother “miraculously” discovered the five missing shirts. She promptly took us clothes shopping and agreed to one weekly wash of clothes – if we consented to fold and iron our own laundry.
My father’s supply of undergarments and dress shirts returned to normal inventories. However, he still suspected that he was being insulated from the truth. After years of broken buttons, misplaced garments and too much starch, my Dad could never bring himself to apologize to the dry cleaner. However like Holmes and Moriarty or Batman and the Joker, these two men needed each other. While he could have patronized any other cleaners, my Dad seemed to delight in this strange game of cat and mouse with his Delsandro.
Like all adolescent recidivists, we continued to ocasionally sneak his clothes in times of crisis and lethargy. As we grew older and all wore similar sized clothes, we actually had the audacity to argue with him when he caught us that the clothes were actually ours. Dad finally broke down and lifted his leg on his entire wardrobe by writing “DAD” in indelible ink on every sock, pair of underwear and shirt that he owned. For years, my youngest brother thought “DAD” was a competing brand with Haines.
It is now decades later and my clothes are disappearing at the hands of thankless sons who covet my socks, gym shorts and tee shirts. I can now sympathize with the man who I initially wrote off as selfish and unreasonable. After chastising my oldest boy for stealing my shorts, he retorted, “they look a lot better on me than they do on you.” Like the endless line of garments moving methodically around the dry cleaners rack, life was repeating itself.
It’s just like the man said, “What goes around, indeed, does come around again.”