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The Light Brown Suit


Harry Buschman

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 millionaire.

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 at all.

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 father.

"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 cleaning.

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 note.

"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, gotten laid.

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