Suburban Soliloquy

113. The Overcoat

It is autumn and now begins the conversion of Bucks County, Pennsylvania's landscape into a quilted patchwork of browns and yellows and reds. The nights are getting cold and soon the chilling rains will arrive. This is my favorite season. But then comes winter and I'm not prepared for it. There is the matter of my old overcoat.

When I was a young man, I tumbled into a deep unrequited love for a certain Kathleen, a great beauty who turned heads wherever we strolled, which was not comfortable for me. It wasn't so much that I was jealous, although there was probably that too, but it felt disruptive, as if she was knocking things over wherever she passed. The attention denied me the privacy with her that I craved.

She accompanied me one day into Manhattan to visit the Garment District, an area of several blocks chockfull of wholesalers, designers, and factories. My father sent me in to buy a couple of suits from a distant relative or friend in the business, I can't remember, who owned or supervised a manufacturing operation that took up an entire floor of a building in the heart of this bustling center. Everywhere were men pushing racks crammed with hanging items of clothing, people rushing with samples, papers, or carts of fabric. Trucks of every size shoved in and out of parking slots. We found the place and rode a freight elevator to the particular floor of my father's "connection".

Among the steady buzz and blurts of machinery, cutting and sewing, the scraping of hanging conveyors, the people shouting to be heard over the din, I tried on suits. But I didn't buy two suits. I bought one suit and an overcoat. It was a beautiful, double-breasted tweed overcoat that Kathleen thought unusual and said looked excellent on me. I hadn't been sent to New York to buy an overcoat, especially not one costing more than two suits, but in acknowledgement of Kathleen's superb eye for fashion and an unremitting need to be more appealing to her, I bought the overcoat instead of a second suit. My father was not happy with the bill that was sent to him.

Did I ever own an overcoat before that one? If I did, I don't remember it. I quickly came to love that overcoat. It became a constant companion whenever the weather would permit. I found that wearing it open it would bellow like a cape and gather cooling air about my torso. Best of all were the additional pockets; I discovered I had an affinity for pockets. And long after Kathleen was gone, the overcoat remained, until one day someone broke into the trunk of my car and absconded with it.

It would be a very long time before I got over the loss of my coat. I would readily and repeatedly fall in love with other women, but a good coat is hard to find.

One mustn't think I'm a fashion plate. I don't have a taste for bright colors, having for a long time preferred earthy tones like mud and rock and grey skies. I have never had the Duke of Windsor's svelte form - certainly a comparison lost on several younger generations. My taste in clothing has long been for hardy materials that might last a lifetime of wear. Not for me are the delicate silks and thin cottons of the moment. I wanted clothing with heft, to be a substantial armor against slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and the vagaries of weather. My fashion conscious friend Meg says I like things made from stone.

There was a brief affair with a full-length black shearling coat with brown fleece. It fell to the tops of my boots. It was mine for two winters, a massive weight and very warm. I used to walk my dog on snowy nights wearing a T-shirt beneath it. It stained too easily and when I folded myself into the driver seat of the car, it would bunch and wedge beneath the steering wheel. Ms Keogh, my more significant other, acquired it, and then our daughter, who I believe has it still.

Perhaps I would not have given up the shearling coat had I not found its replacement, a double-breasted coat of wool in a herringbone pattern of black and brown thread, tailored in the U.S.A. It is not unsimilar to the one I bought - err, had my father buy - thirty-six years ago in Manhattan. Like a cocoon, I put it on in the fall and wore it until spring, adjusting the number of layers beneath as the temperatures fluctuated. So it had gone on for years, a dependable friend I grabbed without hesitation to accompany me on any cold day. I never endured the ridiculously long time of indetermination before a mirror that the fashion conscious suffer - or at least those who must wait for them suffer.

My overcoat, old friend, bodyguard, a packhorse of pockets, has served me one too many winters. I find myself in a similar situation as befell Akakii Akakievich in Gogol's short story The Overcoat. Just as with Akakii Akakievich, my overcoat has worn out in the shoulders and back and will not serve another winter. In fact, there is a four-inch hole in the back. To continue to wear it would only have others regarding me as a seedy tramp.

The summer long I have been obsessed, where would I ever find a comparable coat to replace it? For someone who is not fashionable, I can get awfully attached to my clothes, but summer is no time for such a search, and tweed overcoats are not the fashion. I searched the internet and found a shop in Britain where such a coat could be custom-made out of Ghillie Green Harris Tweed, but Ms Keogh nixed it as too expensive for the risk, what if I found it wasn't well-made or didn't fit me after crossing the Atlantic? She wants me to have the alpaca overcoat we found in an upscale store in New Hope, Pennsylvania, the home of a former art colony, turned center for antiques, turned tourist trap, turned outdoor mall for the affluent. The coat is half-price on summer sale, a beautiful grey and uncommonly soft. But I think it is too fine for me. I'm just not a soft kind of person. I lean against trees of rough bark, brick walls, and rusty lampposts. The coat would be obviously dirty in a short time. It's not for me to dress in peach fuzz; it must be stone. This summer I've been talking about overcoats with my colleague at work, writing letters about overcoats to my friends. It is a compulsion. It has become this essay. The search goes on.

Bruce Bentzman

This essay is the most recent in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is available from Amazon, as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"