On a recent Friday evening-when I should
have been on a date or seeing The Royal
Tenenbaums again, or, at the very least, sitting alone in my apartment
listening to the Knicks lose to Indiana or Charlotte or whomever it is they
lose to these days-
I found myself at Brooks Brothers.
actually been glad that my plans for the evening had fallen through so I could wander
around the warmly lit mahogany corners of the store on 44th and Madison, where
the company has held camp since the early part of the 20th century-though, I
will say, the glassy openness of its more modern counterpart on Fifth Avenue
would have served me just as well. I had, after all, been to that one the day
The truth of the matter is
that I’ve been spending a lot of time-and by natural consequence, money-in
Brooks Brothers lately. There hasn’t been a week since October when I haven’t
gone in at least once. I make adjustments in my schedule to go to the store
before meeting someone for drinks. The closet in my den is filled with blue
shopping bags. And I’ve begun pricing items-groceries, DVD’s, bottles of
whiskey-in relation to a button-down shirt or merino sweater or striped tie. I
don’t always buy something. But I’ve bought enough to have to borrow money from
my father to pay off my Brooks Brothers charge card.
If brought before a jury, I’d liken my situation to the one that Esquire writer Daniel Voll once found
Nick Nolte in. Desperate to fix what had gone wrong in his life-cocaine,
amphetamines, booze-he’d decided to inhale ozone and inject his body with
vitamin B12. Like Mr. Nolte, I am a man trying to undo the damage.
My condition began in the summer of 2000, when I traveled to
Buenos Aires to meet up with some guys I had gone to school with. These were
guys who’d moved to San Francisco to consult or toil for Goldman Sachs or
broker deals for dot-coms. While I had spent three years working out of my
apartment, starting and restarting the first paragraph of a novel, they were
making and spending lots of money. I had kept with the rugby stripes, flannel
and battered khakis I’d worn through college. They had found the dark-hued,
no-tie, unbuttoned-collar looks of Kenneth Cole and Armani.
As soon as I stepped off the plane in South America, I felt
largely unacceptable. Well, unacceptable to a group of guys that would go out
to a nightclub pretending to be the founders of eBay. For my part, I played a
writer who owned a share of the business and consulted on the company’s
magazine-which I suppose was pretty close to the truth. I was a writer. And I
had agreed to look over their business-school essays.
“They played this at my Christmas party,” one of the guys said of
a song as a couple of girls listened on. “You were there, right?”
“Which one?” another replied. “The one in New York or the one in
I was envious of them-of the brazenness they showed in lying to
the girls, of the way they carried themselves in their own clothes. Standing
there in my borrowed shirt and pants, I was dumbstruck by the sensation of
having missed something, of letting something important pass me by-whether it
was the dot-com bubble or the bonus bonanza or the advent of Club Monaco.
Against all my natural rationale, I decided to play catch-up.
Back home, I quickly acquired six pairs of black pants (96
percent cotton, 4 percent Lycra spandex) from Kenneth Cole, a series of V-neck
black shirts and tight-fitting ribbed tops and multiple “de-linters” with which
I began to spend anywhere between 15 and 20 minutes every morning going over my
“You’re going to look back on all of this and laugh,” said an
older friend who knew better when I showed up at his apartment looking like a
brown-is-the-new-black mannequin from a DKNY store.
A year later, and just a few days after Sept. 11, that same
friend and I and his girlfriend sat around my dining-room table in Brooklyn.
They’d been forced from their apartment three blocks from ground zero and we
had begun what turned out to be a month-long bender. Now we were in the midst
of what, in retrospect, seems a rare, succinct, sober moment. We were looking
back on all of it.
“Whatever you want to do,” he said as we sipped our coffee, “you
should go ahead and do it.”
I suppose that same conversation happened everywhere, with
everyone, in those days. And we all stepped away dizzied and enlightened, as if
finally being able to gain passage to some new truth. We made promises to ourselves-to
no longer be so sarcastic, to stop seeing bad movies, to throw off flacking for
celebrities, to do something that mattered. This kind of great earnestness
wasn’t a bad goal; it just wasn’t a very practical one.
I just wanted to do stuff that felt right. I had little idea what
that meant, but I knew it entailed not putting myself in places where I had to
lie to feel accepted. It also meant that I could no longer wear clothes that I
felt foolish in.
As I have imagined it after Sept. 11, and in light of recent
events in Argentina, that disco where it all started is now gone. (If not, I
imagine its current occupants are playing out a technofied 2002 end-of-empire
scenario-listening to Daft Punk beneath strobe lights while all around them a
nation goes hungry and its streets continue to burn.) But I was still left with
its effects: an impostor wardrobe.
On a Saturday morning, I piled
every piece of wannabe clothing I regretted buying into a corner. It sat there
while I tried to decide what I could possibly do with it. Who could I give the
clothes to? Used men’s wear, circa 2000, is not the easiest thing to hand off,
and throwing it away felt just as hard. I finally stuffed it all in a drawer,
which I haven’t opened since.
The first time I walked into Brooks Brothers, the fabric just
seemed steeped in steadiness and intelligence. As a boy, I had desperately
wanted to grow up to look like tweedy, 6-foot-8 economist John Kenneth
Galbraith. But genetics and all allowed me to settle for a more realistic
(read: shorter) goal: Michael J. Fox’s bookish, tie-and-sweater-vested
character Alex P. Keaton. I had always thought, “I could do this, I could be
None of this makes great empirical sense. Dressing in a certain
way to feel a certain way is actually pretty dumb. And it’s entirely possible
that I’m still just pretending to be someone else, but I don’t think so. Yes,
I’ve gone too far; but only because I’d swung so far the other way.
I guess I’d been waiting for a sign that I was an adult, and now
I had gotten it. There just wasn’t any room for tight-fitting black tops.
Many button-down Oxfords and wool sport coats later, one of my
former eBay partners called with a dilemma. He was looking for a black leather
jacket. It had to be nice, but not too nice. Not like the one another cohort of
ours (the C.F.O., I think) had bought which turned out to be too nice for him
to wear outside the apartment.
“Why do you need one of those?” I finally asked him.
“You know,” he said, “for going out. When you go out, doesn’t everyone
wear a black leather jacket?”
I said, “no, not really”-so grateful to have left the corporation.