The Baystate Objectivist

The Baystate Objectivist

Friday, September 17, 2010


For some reason straight people like to think that gay people have special codes or clothes they wear to alert other people that they are gay. I think it makes the straights feel safe, that they don't have to worry about who's queer because they can tell just by looking. It makes them nervous to think that an athletic he-stud or a glamorous sex-kitten might be queer as a three dollar bill. In the dark days of the past when it when it was genuinely dangerous to be open about sexuality maybe you needed certain subtle symbols that only other gays would know, but that hasn't been true in a long time. The truth is that gay people are just like any other people, and generally act and dress the same as straight people, unless of course they're just playing up to stereotypes for fun in order to mess with the heads of the straights.

That's not to say that there won't always be fashion trends among subcultures. When I was growing up the hot clothing item for gay guys was the baseball cap. Almost no one wore baseball hats on the streets in those days, unless they were on their way to play on a baseball team, and it was sort of an insider gay thing to wear one. But as they say, if you live long enough you'll see everything come back in style, and I have lived to see the day when almost everyone wears a baseball cap, as it has become our unofficial national hat. Although it's lost its status as an item of gay chic, I still wear a baseball cap most days, in that stubborn way most of us have of clinging to the fashions of our youth, even as the hair beneath my hat turns grey.

Oh well, better grey than gone.

Sometimes people buy me baseball caps as gifts. Recently someone gave me a rather unique Pink Floyd baseball cap. Of course there is nothing particularly special about an item of Pink Floyd clothing, as they've been selling them since at least the early '70's. What was unique about this cap was that it looked like it was manufactured many years ago. The Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon logo was scuffed and the cloth of the bill was worn ragged in several spots. The black color was faded as if it had been exposed to many years of washings and rainstorms.

Yet the truth was that the hat had been purchased by my friend at the Hampshire Mall the day before! In fact, when I flipped the hat over, I could see on the inside the clean virgin cloth of a hat that had never been worn! I realized that the hat had actually been manufactured to look old and beat up on purpose. Since then I've learned that clothing that is meant to look worn out on the first day you wear it is actually a new fashion trend. Or new to me anyway; look at these allegedly ultra-trendy jeans promoted in a January trend alert.

The trend alert explains:

The vintage/worn look has never been so in. Everywhere you look, you can find a pair of distressed jeans, cut offs, tees, and even tights! While many people opt to ‘distress’ their clothing themselves, many retailers and designers have caught on, and started to make their new clothing look not so new....

According to the trend alert there are also strict rules for wearing new clothes that look old:

The distressed look isn’t for everyone, and can be done completely wrong. There is a fine line between keeping up with a trend and looking like you just rolled out of a garbage bin. Its important to remember that sometimes less is more, and never wear something with a massive hole in it or more than one distressed piece of clothing at a time.

Only one high-priced rag at a time? So if I'm walking down the street wearing my raggedy hat, then I am a true fashionista, but if I wear it with a pair of old jeans then I am suddenly just a bum. Sheesh, with the subtle, hard to follow fashion rules of today no wonder the popularity of nudism is rising.

And don't assume that this fad has anything to do with trying to save money in these times of economic stress by making old clothing seem fashionable. It actually costs EXTRA to buy your clothes already worn out. My scuffed and faded Pink Floyd hat retails for almost $25 dollars, which is about an extra ten bucks to buy it looking like it was rescued from a dumpster!

I realize that some of this is just the silly randomness of fashion. In fact, there is something humorously reflective of the general affluence of our society that we can afford to pay extra just to look like we can't afford new clothes. Tattered hats, ripped t-shirts and holey jeans - hey, it costs a lot of money to look that broke!

Yet I can't help but see in this fad something more disturbing. It's part of a modern phenomenon I first became aware of with the arrival of the national chain Applebee's Neighborhood Bar and Grill.

The food at Applebee's isn't bad, at least not as national chains go, but I remember thinking when I went to my first Applebee's, "Can you really mass produce a neighborhood bar?" I have to say that I share many sentiments with this person's review of a Applebee's in California:

I'm probably opposed to Applebee's as much on principle as I am on the generic food they serve. It really upsets me how these huge national chains are homogenizing our country, erasing all of the regional character that used to differentiate one city from the next. What really gets my goat about Applebee's, however, is how they try to cultivate the false image of a long running family owned neighborhood hang-out joint. You can see this in their obnoxious TV ads and in the sometimes fake local memorabilia that they use to decorate the interior of their restaurants. To the uninitiated, all of the local crap on the walls would seem to lend an air of authenticity to the place, as if it had been a local icon for years and years, when in fact most of the items are likely to pre-date the chain restaurant's existence.

In the Springfield neighborhood of ol' Pine Point where I grew up, we had a genuine neighborhood bar appropriately called The Pine Point Cafe. Here's a picture Jay Libardi took of me outside the joint in 1993.

As you can see, architecturally it was nothing special, really just a cinderblock box. Inside it was just as plain, decorated with nothing but electric booze advertisements and some faded pictures tacked up of drunken evenings from long ago. It was indeed a hard drinking place, where the only barriers to your consumption was your wallet, as no one was ever asked to leave as long as their money held out. If that meant you got so drunk that your friends had to help you home, then that was okay, because it was easy to sympathize with that, Pine Point being the kind of neighborhood where everyone seemed headed toward a tragedy, or getting over one. Everybody knew everyone else, and they sorta cared about everybody else, and that made it a place that was special from anyplace else you could go. I have fond memories of the Pine Point Cafe that even my alcoholism couldn't erase.

The Pine Point Cafe did not have corporate backing. It would not have made an appealing setting for a national TV advertisement. It was not fashionable to say that you went there. Actually it doesn't even exist anymore, unpaid taxes and neighborhood do-gooders having finally forced its doors closed several years ago.

But that dive was real in a sense that I don't think an Applebee's could ever be. Or a pre-tattered Pink Floyd baseball cap. Because no matter how much you pretend that the Applebee's is your oldtime neighborhood bar, or that your tattered cap is the treasured relic of your years of devotion to a classic rock band - deep in your heart you know that the Applebee's just opened last year and that you bought your hat at the mall last week.

What the Applebee's and the hat are meant to be are substitutes for something that's supposed to be authentic in our lives - places and things that reflect memories to be treasured - and the fact that so many people need commercial substitutes for those places and things, in numbers sufficient enough to support a restaurant chain and a line of clothing, says something about the way we live today that is sorta sad.

A pumpkin sale in front of a UMass frathouse yesterday afternoon.

Recently I walked a bit of the Knox Trail in Holyoke. It is a beautiful stroll through the New England forest.

This waterless brook bed illustrates what a dry summer it's been.

Pulaski Park in Northampton continues to be the canvas for a chalk artist. Whoever it is I hope they keep it up. That's a lot of work for something that will only exist until the next cloudburst.

out the bus window on route nine.


Mary E.Carey said...

Great post, Tom! Love the photos of the pumpkin sale and chalk art.

Anonymous said...

Tommy you write like a master!

Tim said...

Tom, I love that distressed stuff. I had a couple of thos Grateful Dead shirts. One was tan with brown collar and piping on sleeves with SYF logo in brown. Looked very late 70's. On a hiking trip in 05' when it was pretty new, one of my friends asked when I was going to throw it away! Pretty realistic stuff. Anyway, good topic. Did you know The 99 does that local/retro BS too? Pictures of the Classical girls basketball team circa 1981, and all that crap? Real phony. Food is about as exciting as Applebee's too. The whole world is turning into these psuedo old time joints, with none of the charm. CVS, Wallgreen's etc, etc. YAWN!

Jeff Hobbs said...

Great post, great photos. No one documents the Pioneer Valley as well as you do.

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