Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Sport Jacket (or: "The Nigerian Ambassador Composed His Features")

I was headed for an awesome trip via frequent flyer miles to Spain and Morocco (I've started recounting the food side of the trip here). Spain to play some jazz gigs (a nostalgic return; up until the mid-1990's, I used to tour all the jazz clubs there two or three times per year) and Morocco because an old bass player friend had been appointed as the Belgian ambassador, and had invited me to come hang out at the residence...and also play a couple of gigs (including one where we'd literally rock the casbah in the old part of Tangiers).

I'm not really a dresser-to-impresser, but I needed at least one good, hip sports coat to wear on stage in Spain and during my stay in the embassy in Rabat. So I went shopping, starting at Nordstrum's Outlet, which I'd heard offered Nordstrum's quality at deeply discounted prices. The place was indistinguishable from other low-end retailers, ala Marshall's and TJ Maxx, and so was the clothing. None of this stuff had ever been anywhere near an actual Nordstrum's; the whole operation's a sham. Sure, I could buy a $72 blazer, but it was the cheapest crap imaginable.

I've now invested 45 minutes in this quest, and my trip is one week away.

So I hit up Macy's, where I found a bunch of $150 blazers, all of them so unhip that my own hipness was sucked out of me just by standing near them. This is what assistant branch managers wear for prime rib night at the second best steakhouse in some suburban hell. Not quite navy blue blazers with nautical buttons, but close to it.

Now I'm ninety minutes into the quest, and my trip's five days away.

So I headed to SOHO, where I tried Uniqlo (imagine Ikea - and Ikea quality - for clothes) and Original Penguin (Uniqlo quality at thrice the price). At those shops and others, the XL size jackets were so skimpy I was ready to hightail it out to a Big & Tall Man shop (I'm 6 feet and 200 lbs....not slender, but, geez, no Chris Christie). Shiny and skinny, these jackets were apparently designed for European pimps.

Ted Baker is for people who blithely shrug at paying $650 for a jacket. Such people can go to Ted Baker, and, yep, they've got lots of $650 jackets there. Nice, and nicely tailored. But for that price, I'd expect "wow", and this is not a place for "wow", it's just a place to blithely drop big money on merely okay jackets. Except: everything has a horrible obtrusive Ted Baker logo sewn in. Jesus.

I'm now at the four hour mark, and the trip's four days away. And, again, I really need a nice sports jacket. I can't show up at the embassy looking like something the cat dragged in. Effort is required. One peril of being fifty is that you need to try twice as hard for half the result.

In search of a genuinely great brand at serious discount, I tried Ina Men, an upscale consignment shop, where I fell in love with a $130 Prada cotton jacket exactly one size too small for me. With only 3 or 4 jackets of any given size, it's suit roulette, and I lost.

Five hours, four days from departure.

Figuring that Prada was my thing, I innocently headed into their shop, where I threw off the room's suave vibe for the ten minutes I spent wandering around, disoriented by the absence of inventory and posted prices. I grubbily rooted around a couple jacket linings for price tags (I'd never before realized that I move Jewishly), and, reading all those digits, nearly fell over dead on the floor.

Six hours, three days.

Someone suggested I try the sales rack at Sak's Fifth Avenue. I knew the name, of course, but didn't know where the store was or what it was about. But I ascended six or seven escalator levels to be greeted by a men's department saleswoman whom I regaled with my tale of jazz gigs, homecomings, embassies, and casbahs. She agreed I needed the perfect jacket, and snatched from some unseen corner a radiant, creamy hunk of fabric which she glided onto my body in a single buttery-smooth motion. Woosh. I stood there, blinking into a mirror, realizing that I was wearing exactly That Jacket. Saleswoman grinned approvingly. She'd nailed it.

All that remained was the trivial matter of cost. I asked, she answered, and I wormed my way out of That Jacket with distinctly ethnic haste. I asked to be shown the sales rack, and was obliged. But after That Jacket, everything else seemed like remainders. My memory may be distorted, but I recall one jacket missing a left arm, and another being made out of sandpaper.

"You know," the saleswoman confided in her low voice - suddenly just a tad more ethnic (Puerto Rican in her case), "if you buy That Jacket, it will serve you well for many, many years. It will save you from needing to buy a succession of cheaper jackets, none a shadow of the quality of this one. And you'll look sharp as a tack at your performances, which means one less thing to worry about."

I had, at this point, spent seven hours on this frustrating quest during the busy lead-up to my big trip, and didn't have an acceptable jacket anywhere near my sights...aside from That Jacket, in its radiant creamy perfection. That Jacket was quite obviously the jacket. And while I'd be spending more on this garment than any member of my family had ever spent on a single item of clothing since the dawn of the Leff line, the saleswoman had a point. Buying once and right is better than consecutive half-assed struggles. And I needed a goddam jacket for this trip and was completely out of time.

All the blood drained from my face as all the money was drained from my bank account. My stupor was interrupted with a follow-up question: Would I like a pocket square? Uh, sure. Yes! What do I look like, a farmer?

I was shown a gorgeous $150 pocket square, and instantly understood the trap I'd set for myself. That Jacket could never really fit into my life, because I don't have That Shirt, Those Pants, Those Shoes, Those Socks, That Belt, and That friggin' Pocket Square. Gathering all those items together would amount to a mortgageable undertaking. And even if I managed it, then what would I wear on, like, Tuesday?

I decided to stop the train right then and there. I spoke a few sentences never before uttered in Saks Fifth Avenue. I said it a bit too loudly, and everything around me froze into shocked tense silence:
I can't buy this. I've spent all my money on the jacket. I have nothing left.
Hushed astonishment all around. Another salesmen who'd been standing nearby murmured something into my saleswoman's ear. The charade over, the spell broken, she spoke to me in full-out Puerto Rican, with coarsely borough-ish body gestures, telling me, with genuine warmth, not to worry. They had one for fifteen bucks in a drawer somewhere which they could iron up and make look nice for me. She actually said the phrase "make look nice for you". Also a Saks first, I believe.

In a state of deep sticker shock and buyer's remorse (really more like buyer's crippled nauseated paralysis), I left the store, having left That Jacket for sleeve adjustment with the oily, aloof, patronizing tailor who'd taken one look at my sneaker/shoes and decided he abhorred everything I stood for.

So I got to Spain and found out that the gigs hadn't materialized. No problem, I'd play around informally and build back my reputation; that's how I did it the first time, plus I had a great time with my many friends there. I did show up to sit in on my bassist friend Nono's gig in That Jacket, and as soon as he spotted me, he started laughing uproariously. "Leff, what the fuck are you wearing?" he asked between peals of hysterical giggling. I snarled at him, figuring I'd fit right in when I got to Morocco.

A few days later, I found myself encamped at the Belgian ambassador's residence in the Moroccan capital, a glamorous, sprawling villa with indoor palm tree terrariums, designed by a fellow who'd clearly been instructed to whip up something resembling a Bond villain lair. That first night, there'd be a diplomatic reception, and I'd be supplying the music (with my ambassador buddy on bass). I had no intention of glad-handing diplomats; my plan was to stick with the musicians. So as the hour rolled near, and I was finishing preparations - kicking equipment cables out of sight and adjusting music stands - I took one last walk across the residence to grab my horn, moving swiftly to avoid the influx soon to arrive.

As I passed through the main hallway, the first guest was arriving. The Nigerian ambassador was a bit early, still slightly discombobulated from the process of coming out of his car, snapping shut his cell phone, and adjusting his tie. It was an unguarded moment; he figured he had three or four footsteps before he'd need to get fully into character. But then I crossed, some twenty feet in front of him. He didn't have time to fully survey me, but, on sheer instinct, the Nigerian ambassador composed his features.

The Nigerian ambassador composed his features.

I'm not normally a person who inspires much in the way of feature composing. I'm more the guy you mistakenly hand off your overcoat or car keys to, or, at least, go have a beer with after the caviar tasting. So having the Nigerian ambassador bloom radiantly into solicitously smiling "show time" in my presence was just about the strangest possible thing. It was, of course, That Jacket. I instantly understood why people buy such jackets, why they spend those sums. And I saw what an idiot I'd been to walk that road, because I'm not one of those people. I don't yearn to be someone for whom features are composed. More than that, I didn't like it. So I just kept walking. You're mistaken, excellency. This may be That Jacket, but I'm not That Guy.

I played well, but it goes without saying that I spilled some food on the jacket that night. Not a big conspicuous splotch, just a deeply demoralizing and world-crushing little dab of color on the sleeve (a few weeks later the Mexican kid at my local dry cleaners took a Brillo to it and got it out, no prob). It's safely in my closet, to which I've considered adding a lock. And I think I probably won't ever take That Jacket out again. The lesson cost dearly, but it was a hell of an interesting insight I never would have otherwise received.

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