Friday, April 8, 2011

#139 - The Wrong Right Jeans

The Wrong Right Jeans

4/8/11 (#139)

All the cool kids wore Levi's jeans.

I was in eighth grade, at my second Junior High School in two years following my family's relocation to Maine. I was the new kid, and like most new kids — and like so many eighth graders — I wanted nothing more than to assimilate, to disappear into the crowd, to not feel like I was being assessed and summarized by a class full of kids who had known each other since they were sticking rulers into paste pots in kindergarten. And that assimilation wasn't going to happen in rust-colored corduroys. Even if they were Levi's cords. Levi's blue jeans were the invisibility cloak my 12 year old soul dreamed of.

Now to put this into perspective, my parents gave me everything I needed. I always had a few new outfits at the start of the school year, I was able to play little league baseball and hockey and soccer (with hand-me-down gear, but that meant it was already broken in for me), there was always delicious food on the table at dinner time. But my folks had four kids, so we couldn't have everything, and Lee and Wrangler were more affordable jeans. My mother was incredulous when I expressed my disdain for Wrangler - wasn't Wrangler a brand name? Weren't they better than the ill-fitting denims available at Zayre and Kings? I'm sure I seemed like an ungrateful little cretin when I lamented that, no matter what they were, what they weren't was Levi's.

"Bill," my mom assured, "anyone who judges you by your pants isn't a friend worth having." Thanks mom. Straight out of the Parenting 101 handbook. Mom was an adult - how could she understand what it felt like to be the new kid? I was exhausted by feeling alien and out of place, and all she could do was utter meaningless lies like "no one is paying any attention to your pants." Of course they are — I AM, so why wouldn't they? I resigned myself to a lifetime of lunches at the misfits table, eating brown-paper-bag sandwiches while the cool kids ate school-lunch pizza in their cool jeans and planned their fabulous futures.

That was my reality until the day my mom came home and flopped a stiff pair of denim pants onto the bed - LEVI'S! I was ecstatic, quickly slipping into the rigid fabric, buttoning them up and feeling like a changed man. I couldn't wait to go to school the next day, imagining the nods of approval from boys who barely acknowledged me the previous day, hoping one of the blooming eighth grade girls would notice all the wonderful qualities about me that had been hidden by my corduroys.

The next day, I proudly donned my new jeans, strutted to school with newfound enthusiasm, and was delighted when the guy at the locker next to mine remarked, "Hey, new jeans." It was just as I had imagined, and it was happening as quickly as I had hoped. I replied with forced nonchalance and overt brand-dropping, "Yeah, I just got these Levi's yesterday."

"Are they red tag or orange tag?"

I quaked at the question, unsure what it meant but concerned for the possibilities. "Turn around," he said, taking a peek at the small brand tag sewn into the stitching of the back pocket. "Yeah, orange tag. I prefer the red tag." And as I walked to class, I quickly learned that all the cool kids preferred red tags. The tiny tabs on everyone's pants suddenly shined like tiny LED christmas lights, and less than 10 minutes into the school day, I felt foolish for trying so hard to fit in and for failing so completely, the inflexible fabric scraping the flesh of my legs as the orange tag scraped my psyche.

I don't know how much I actually learned that day, but I look back on it as a milestone, my first glimpse behind the facade of "cool": even if you buy a ticket, the ushers at the door can call it out as a fake. It also showed me that those ushers are assholes, guarding the gates to a club I no longer wanted to join. My mother was right: If the test of my worth is based on a 1/4" tag on my back pocket, I had no desire to pass that test. My Lee jeans never felt so comfortable.

I'm sometimes reminded of this when I attend music shows in Portland or stroll on North Mississippi, seeing the meticulous effort some people put into their exterior identities. The self-concious haircuts, the skinny black pants, and vintage t-shirts and white-plastic sunglasses seem to serve as beacon calls to others of the species, a preliminary filter to sift out anyone who supports chain restaurants or network television. I'm probably wrong — I prefer to imagine they're all thoughtful folks who judge their fellow citizens by the content of their character, not the cut of their coat — but to me, it all looks like red tag Levi's, and I outgrew those many decades ago.

My daughter is eight, and I know there's nothing I can do to save her from learning this lesson on her own. At this moment, she has no awareness of clothing brands, and judges every outfit on color and comfort - the only true measure of a good wardrobe. I hope that remains her focus, but I know that once she hits junior high, her concern with the tag is going to come, another of those heinous rites of passage that occur as we try to figure out how to live in our own skin. She's probably going to want her generation's version of Levi's, and if my current budget is any indication, I'm going to have to buy her something else and assure her, "anyone who judges you by your pants isn't a friend worth having." She's going to look at me and think, "Sheesh, dad, you have no idea what it's like to be a kid."

Of course I don't. What could an adult possibly know about that?

©2011 wpreagan