The Corduroy Pants

April 1, 2012

Spring cleaning time prompts an annual and usually fruitless trip to our storage closet to go through clothes with the goal of reduction in volume. Since I am cursed with a Depression mentality — which, unfortunately, may come in handy — I always envision a day when hard times will descend upon us and I’ll wish I would have kept this or that. Therefore, the get-rid-of-pile is always far smaller than it really should be.

As I dragged the hangers along their rod from the old gravy-stained button down white shirts and frayed flannels to the out-of-style or faded-from-wear pants, suddenly I saw them. A pair of corduroy pants. The sight froze me in my tracks and plunged me back in time to the seventh grade and the adolescent trauma of realizing that I resided in Fashion Hell.

This revelation came courtesy of one Jerry Hawkins during third period math class. Jerry was everything that I was not: tall, good-looking, muscular, and cool. He was a mainstay on the football team. He played electric guitar. And he was a sharp dresser.

I, on the other hand, was a walking thrift store nightmare. One example of this was my pants. At any given time, I had three pairs of pants that followed a planned progression. The newest ones would be for church or special occasions. The previous church pants, now quite “broken in,” became my school pants. The former school pants, now firmly in the beat-up category, turned into my play pants. This rotation was firmly ensconced by the time I reached Roy W. Brown Junior High School, and I had no reason to question its propriety or logic. That is, until Jerry Hawkins.

At the beginning of that particular school year, my school pants were a pair of brown corduroys. My mom was fastidious about keeping them clean and ready to go, but the fact remained that each day, there I was in those same corduroys.

Miss Pindar, our notorious math teacher, was a great one for having students come up to the blackboard to be berated and humiliated for our lack of expertise in front of the whole class. I sat midway back in the rows, a relatively safe haven in which to cower hopefully unnoticed, but still not immune to her dragnet. Jerry sat near the front, the province of the “bad boys” so Miss Pindar could keep on eye on him. When anyone was called to the board, an anxious silence fell over the room in anticipation of the impending lambasting. It was in this silence that I and my corduroys were found out.

“Donald, come up and show us how you solved problem four on last night’s homework,” barked the Voice of Doom on that fateful day. This didn’t bode well, for as usual, I hadn’t done last night’s homework. Faking a problem under Miss Pindar’s withering scrutiny was an impossible task, so I braced myself for the worst. I rose from my seat trying hard to control the shaking that sought to render my legs inoperable. As I slowly made my way to the front blackboard, there it was, the Sound. “Vipp, vipp, vipp, vipp,” the song of the corduroy pants as the fabric of each leg brushed against the other.

All eyes were upon me and my pants, all ears tuned in to the sound of shameful uncoolness. And no one was more tuned in than Jerry Hawkins. The few snickers bold enough to brave Miss Pindar’s icy scowl faded quickly, and I was left to bumble my way  through problem four and the searing criticism it provoked. I returned to my seat, eviscerated but relieved to be done, and again I was accompanied by the “vipp, vipp, vipp.” It seemed to echo throughout the room.

The hallway after Algebra class, usually a refuge from the fear of the classroom, became a nightmare. “Hey!” boomed Jerry, “Wheredya get the pants?!” This was the first of many cleverly crafted comments directed my way, followed of course by the chuckles and guffaws of his henchmen and hangers-on. “I gotta get me a pair of those!” This became a daily occurrence and prompted me to spend much time pondering strategies to escape his badgering and belittling remarks.

Eventually Jerry tired of  me and moved on to another target (some egghead with thick coke-bottle lenses, as I recall), but my self-image and confidence had been scarred by the experience. I tried to convince my mom to let me broaden my sartorial horizons, and she reluctantly acquiesced, perhaps realizing the fragile nature of my Junior High psyche at the time.

I never became cool or even what one would consider to be even mildly fashionable, but as I became part of the invisible masses in the large high school environment in which I found myself, it mattered less and less. And, as it sometimes inexplicably happens, my liability turned into an asset in the helter-skelter days of college in the 60’s.

In 1976 I happened upon Jerry Hawkins once again after not seeing him since high school. Jefferson Airplane had morphed into Jefferson Starship, and they were performing an outdoor concert in Central Park which I attended with some friends. As we walked along one of the paths leading to the Sheep Meadow, I saw Jerry, standing there by himself. From the way he was dressed, ironically enough, he looked a bit down on his luck. I didn’t approach him, and he didn’t notice me. I doubt that he would have remembered me anyway. I sometimes wonder what became of him.

My hand now hovered over the corduroys in my closet, unsure of what to do. My first impulse was to rid myself of this vestige of middle school crisis, but I decided against it. After all, as distressful as it may have been at the time, that episode did teach me a valuable lesson, and these pants were a concrete reminder of it. Besides, the fashion gods may just decide to anoint corduroys as the Next Big Thing. One never knows. But if that does turn out to be the case, I’ll be ready.


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