“I don't care what people think,” I countered.
“Well, I do, your mother does, so you're gonna have to start wearing new, nice shirts and pants. Because sooner or later those rags you insist on wearing are gonna disintegrate, and you won't have anything to to wear.”
“I don't feel right in new clothes.” I explained. “They're stiff and itchy.”
Mother said, “I'll wash your new clothes before you have to wear them, Dell. I'll wash your Levi's over and over again, so they'll feel old, and flimsy, like you like them.”
“You don't have to do that!” dad snapped at her. “No other mother around here has to do that for their kids. Hell, his new clothes'll be old before he even wears 'em, and I'm the one has to pay.”
I suggested we go to stores where they sold old, used clothes cheap, instead of mens and department stores. They had a few of these places in Compton in the mid 1950s. Well, dad really blew a fuse over this ploy, claiming it was a disgrace to have to dress me in second hand rags other people had worn when he was making a decent living. He and mother, both raised in the Great Depression and claiming to have worn rags and hand-me-downs, were clothes-horses, always shopping and appraising each other before going out and commenting on how good they looked. To me, they were embarrassingly vain.
Well, anyway, they compromised, so that mother got to wash my new Levi's three times before I wore them and the other stuff twice. This continued through high school, though I continued to wear holey T shirts and Levi's and Chinos and plaids until they were nearly disintegrated.
About this, dad said, “How do you expect to find a nice girl friend going to school in those goddam T shirts with holes in them, for God's sake?”
“I don't want any woman wanting me for my clothes,” I countered.
“Women don't like slobs,” he insisted. “Your mother was the most beautiful woman around, and she was attracted to me because I was well groomed and dressed well, had some pride about myself. Somebody who looks like a slob, is a slob. You're a slob.”
“I'm a sloppy dresser, dad, not a slob.”
“That's not the point. It's the image people have of you.”
He was partially right about this. None of the girls I tried to pursue in my awkward way in high school would have a thing to do with me, possibly not wanting to be seen with somebody who looked like a slob, possibly not wanting their parents to have to appraise a slob at the door before taking out their daughter, though I did finally somehow coerce a really pretty and socially accepted girl my senior year named Sherry to take a serious interest in me, even if she couldn't get me to go to the prom because I refused to wear a tuxedo. Her parents, of course, told her I was “low-class.”
We had a relationship with a future until, in college, she actually broke up with me and broke my heart because I “refused to change,” which meant clinging to my rags, as she sneered at the same old “tanker jacket” that had a pocket flapping down and a shoulder torn halfway off from horseplay with jock pals. The shame was, a few years later, with Hippie culture, I was in vogue, and hated it.
In the army, I had this great friend, John DeSimone, a gangster from the streets of Chicago, and a guy who really knew how to dress, and he always tried to get me to wear one of his shirts when we went out drinking and women chasing.
“It's gonna be tough getting you laid in those ugly rags you're wearing, Frank,” he told me.
“Well, I'm not a sharkskin guy like you, Dee.”
“If you can't get laid on your own, and I gotta do the talkin' and the dirty work, you could at least help me out by wearing something presentable, Frank.”
This was true. When Dee, who looked like an Italian matinee idol right out of Hollywood central casting and was a magnet to women, and I went out, I was not permitted to do any talking to women until he softened things up and gave me the go ahead with a nod. And so it was that Dee, instead of taking me to the PX, dragged me to a mens shop in downtown Verona (we were stationed in Italy) and forced me to buy a beautiful knit shirt and ended up indeed getting me laid.
Still, after my discharge, I once again resumed my bad habits, but by this time I was on my own and began buying all my togs at thrift stores, and at this point fewer people commented on my attire since I began dressing myself as a Southern California beach bartender in faded baggy OP shorts and faded baggy Hawaiian shirts.
But then I hooked up with Lita Colandrea, a flamboyant quatroon whose figure in thrift store high-fashion togs stopped men in their tracks. She pooh-poohed my wardrobe, though she liked my Hawaiians. Lita, a clothes rat-packer and astute thrift store maven, lived with me and took me on sprees to thrift stores all over the beach and into Santa Monica and even Hollywood. She had a knack for finding “little treasures” and began dressing me. When we visited my mother, she was absolutely flabbergasted at the progress Lita had made with my apparel, and it was always stuff well off the “beaten rack,” but which perfectly fit my personality. Lita and I would go to parties, weddings, to dinner, and people issued us flattering comments on our outfits. For the first time in my life I felt a smidgen of vanity. Our living quarters began to be over-run by a flood of purchases. I wore capes, a black velvet sport coat, slick European slacks, foot-length overcoats, white silk scarfs (no ties or ascots) and hats and caps of all manner, and especially fedoras and a Borsalinos donned by black pimps in the ghetto, including a red felt one with a wild feather that every gal I ran into and some guys asked to try on.
Soon I had about 50 hats and caps, all fitted and appraised and approved by Lita, who exclaimed, “Framklin, you are actually starting to look like you have some class. Do you realize how happy you're making your mother?”
I did. And it was a shame my father had passed away and never witnessed Lita's influence on me.
But then, Lita and I broke up, and as time wore on the togs we'd purchased together faded and had less meaning and I reverted to my old habits of going on my own to thrift shops only and and coming up with threadbare issues that drew derision. My mother was very upset at my break up with Lita, though at this time she had long ago given up hope on my being a well-kept married man, much less a classy dresser.
But then, moving north to the central coast, I met Miranda, who possessed a model's body and resembled Lauren Bacall and liked to “dress elegantly and look good.” She made me buy a shirt SHE picked out at a mens shop. Later, while she was working as desk clerk at a luxury hotel, she brought me home a very expensive blue silk shirt that some rich dude had left behind—a perfect fit. My sister tries to send me nice shirts for Christmas. When I visited her for the holidays and my brother in law, Bruce, wanted to take me to the black A.M.E. Church in downtown LA (with whom he works with impoverish minorities) for Thanksgiving services, he had to loan me a pair of long pants since I have only shorts.
At the church, in his ill-fitting pants and the silk shirt, I received warm hugs from beautifully dressed black women and handshakes from their men, a hit in my improvised duds, though I had no sport jacket like Bruce.
These days, most of my shorts and T shirts (all I wear these days) from thrift stores are in near tatters, but all I have to do to replace them is hit several thrift shops in Morro Bay, San Luis Obispo, Atascadero, Paso Robles, and even Cayucos to replace them. I try to channel what Lita taught me and cop Calvin Klein...Tommy Hilfiger...Ralph Lauren Polo...Banana Republic...etc., so that when Miranda and I go out, although my garb is faded and at times a tad ill-fitting, it's at least first class.