He’d like to “juice” his earnings. He’d like to bulk up his savings accounts. He’s concerned that his savings will be “retired” before he’s ready to retire. He can’t afford to be exhausted before his savings are exhausted.

His attempted ascents to W-2 heights have been uphill, and grueling. His search for more lucrative employment is a “tour de chance.”

So, what he is not able to increase appreciably, he must not diminish unnecessarily.

And yet, economizing, while allowing him to feel (justifiably) responsible – even virtuous – can leave him feeling unheralded, inconsequential, even diminished. His kids give him kudos aplenty. Shouldn’t that be enough? 

It’s those damn red-carpet parades of glamour and glitz. Who are all those women – and girls – wrapped (burrito-style) in unwieldy bolts of silk and satin? Many look as if an ill wind had whisked them into a funnel of shiny cloth that had just been burped from the exhaust pipe of a garment-remnant factory.

Why isn’t he escorting one of those sequined and ostentatiously be-jeweled beauties? Why aren’t fiber-glassed starlets hanging on his mature arms, or walking with him, hand in hand, adoringly?

Okay, well, yes, his wardrobe and hair could use some performance-enhancing attention. But why do tight clothes, uncomfortable shoes, and fussed-up hairdos cost so much? Why can some go so over-the-top, while he is so close to the edge? And, by the way, who are all those scruffy guys in shinny black suits and skinny (and shinny) black ties? What “work” have most of them actually done? Shouldn’t what he does be celebrated on a red carpet, too? Okay, so he’s a bit bitter – and very very envious.

No surprise, no designer has sought him out in the hope of having him wear the latest ensemble or “collection” – to his next job interview.

A genial tailor has been repairing and re-rigging his shirts, trousers, and jackets for decades. The little tailor shop is like a boatwright’s shed, hemmed by hoists and gantries in a weathered ramshackle boatyard, tucked into an ancient cove, where gaff-rigged wooden boats are hauled up to be refitted and re-rigged; their seams re-caulked and their canvas sails patched before being sent back to waters now plied by sleek fiberglass yachts with towering Kevlar mainsails, massive Genoa jibs, and eye-poppingly colorful spinnakers, which, unfurled, demand to be photographed. They are the celebrities of the sea.

“Already, ‘dees’ shirt collars been turned before and already,” the tailor informs him with a smile that is confiding and consoling.

“De jacket, I got buttons, no worry, but lining, she needs a transplant.”

With another smile, which is accompanied by a shrug and a respectful re-inspection of the jacket, the tailor adds, “Lapels, dey need transplant, too.”

The job-seeker, the interview-seeker, the father of two, will do the math.

His recourse – his salvation – has been a thrift shop located in a very high net-worth community where the donations are top-notch. The women who staff the shop are all volunteers and thus there are no “airs” – no need to impress. The quality merchandise is all clean and in very good condition. As he works through the racks of dress shirts and business suits, he will note a raft of shirts and suits of the same size and from the same high-end retail establishment. These were the work-wear of someone who is no longer working; someone who may be gone to a permanent retirement. What did the man do? What kind of office did these shirts and suits command? How much did he make? What did he take home in wages and worries?

“Don’t take the blue double-breasted with the chalk stripes. Too 1920s,” says the woman who has brought out an armful of women’s coats. She laughs, “And the shoulders are padded into epaulets. You’d have to wear a carnation and a broad-brimmed fedora with that one. ‘Guys and Dolls’ and Damon Runyon. The theater company will scoop that one up.”

She arranges the new arrivals in women’s section and makes her way over to the men’s corner of the store. “The gray. Classic. Take the gray. Looked good on you. From the back, we saw how nicely it fit.”

The purchase-price tags linked to the thrift-shop labels and the jacket lapels are quite (very!) reasonable. The word “cheap” does them an injustice. They are “steals” and, frequently, the women note that the date of donation and color-coding on some make them eligible for further discounting. These are “no brainers,” for every dollar he spends goes to the thrift shop’s charities, which help women and children who are desperate beyond his encounters. He wonders what kind of husbands or boyfriends leave women and children destitute. He wonders what the abusers and abandoners wear; he wonders where they shop. He wonders if they are long gone – put away or just away.

With his repaired suit (of an era when clothes were made in the USA) and with his newly acquired suit (the label in this thrift shop garment also declares “Made in the USA”), he appraises his shirts, which are all-cotton classics. He calculates the cost of buying new non-iron versions (and the attendant cost of extra detergent and electricity for running the washer-dryer). He sets these sums against the expenses of having the all-cotton classics laundered (at a dry cleaner’s where the proprietor sees that loose buttons are secured, free of charge). In a way, the wash-’n-wear, perma-press shape-recovering shirts are made of performance-enhanced “steroided” fabric. No?

Aaah, but those enhanced washables would be contaminated by the mounds of his son’s hockey claddings, which pile up in the laundry room – impregnated with odors that do not occur in the great outdoors and which may be festering into elements not found in the Periodic Table. Does he want his dress-to-impress trappings sullied by the mere proximity?

He’ll do the math.

He has pared down. No cable, no satellite dish. He and his son follow football games through the real-time postings to free Internet sports sites. He’s done the math.

As to phones and phone service, the father, son, and daughter (who’s away at college) have locked in a family plan that is no longer available; that was retired six years ago. Every month, the phone company tries to lure them away from their flip phones. No way. No “apps.” He’s done the math.

He and this son have found “food bars” whose early morning trays of prepared offerings are worth stocking up on. They’ve done the math.

They have not replaced their old TV – an overlarge, overweight hulk that has a built-in VHS player. Two neighborhood libraries still have VHS tapes on shelves though, more and more, the videotapes are put out for sale – a dollar each. Hours of entertainment. They’ve done the math.

Even when watching an escapist action-adventure thriller meant to transport them to an imaginary time and place (appointed with superhuman determination and heroics), his thoughts migrate back to his own province of uncertainty, his “worryland.” While his resume doesn’t need an artificial boost, while his physical and mental endurance measure sufficient, while he is not irretrievably fatigued or despondent, a job offer would surely elevate his mood. Nothing artificial about that kind of stimulation.

His job searches are energized by fear of not getting the additional hours that will help him endure the costs of living. He’s lost some financial muscle. He wonders: Could it be that setbacks and disappointments are nature’s (or the economy’s) way of providing – psychologically – a human growth hormone?

Without making any demands, without any complaints, his kids are his motivators. Their injection of appreciation and celebration make for his steroid of choice. From them he gets what he needs and values most: performance-enhancing hugs.

About the Author

Joseph H. Cooper, J.D.

Joseph H. Cooper, J.D., teaches media law and ethics, along with film-and-literature courses, at Quinnipiac University.

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