We weren’t exactly swimming in money. My mother wore house dresses and blouses with rips in them. My brothers and I got hand-me-downs. Or clothes from Lu Belle’s, the local thrift store where the huge piles of rich people’s throwaways on long display tables were pulled at, and fought over, by dark-haired, barely five-foot-tall women who cursed in Italian. Working at Lu Belle’s must have been the job from hell.
How well I still remember the incredible shame I felt walking through the halls of catholic school wearing my brother’s clothes, which were always too big. Even the ones from Lu Belle’s never quite fit right. If I was lucky, I could talk Mama into taking them in with the sewing machine she had in her bedroom (which looked old enough to have been used by Betsy Ross). She was quick to the tuck-in, but hated the task of threading the needle from the spool (her eyes weren’t what they used to be). Sometimes she made me do it for her. Anything to make my pants fit better. Baggy wasn’t in back then.
It didn’t help when some other kid, who was fortunate enough not to wear someone else’s suit and tie, made some wise crack about what I was wearing. Talk about wanting to shrink into a hole in the floor or rearrange his face.
But nothing compared to the experience of being poorly dressed at the Saturday night dance in the high school gym. Ostracism was just an out-of-fashion jacket or pair of slacks away. Fortunately, by the time I started going to the dances in junior year, I had my own crowd, we didn’t follow fashion trends or care what we wore. It was the Summer of Love and I was a self-declared hippie, so I made fun of the conformity of the well-dressed crowd.
I even got a part in the Senior Show in which some of the guys pranced across the stage in drag. In an attempt to be funny, I made an appearance as a “hippie chick.” I got booed, especially by the Italian kids, because I looked like a "gavone." Derived from “cafone,” it originally meant a poor peasant, but in southern Italian dialects "gavone" has various meanings, all having to do with how one acts and dresses. It’s not a compliment.
All this came back to me yesterday as I waited for a hearing I was attending at City Hall. Most of the guys around me were dressed in suits and ties. Some of them obviously worked in City Hall so they were wearing expensive duds. Their outfits probably cost what I make in a week.
I was in black jeans and a tee-shirt. My jeans and jacket were from a thrift store, my shoes I got half-price at a sporting goods store.
For a brief instance, I felt like that ten-year-old gavone in catholic school in pants a couple sizes too big and worn mismatched jacket, standing in a hallway waiting for a class to begin and hoping like hell that no one noticed how shabbily he was dressed.
It only took a second to shrug it off, but it’s funny how some feelings just don’t want to stay dead, where they belong.