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Don't Let Go of the Coat

November 28, 2008

When I was a freshman, I got to campus a day early before Orientation started. Mom and I took the day to walk around town and dedicate ourselves to one vital task: buying a winter coat. This was, of course, in August, but my mother is Norwegian and believes (understandably) that one could not live without a good coat.

So, we strolled through town. The college and the town are literally built into each other, founded in the same year. There's no set point where the town "starts" and the college "ends": no wall, gate or door. In about 5 minutes, Mom and I passed a café, comic book shop, two hair salons, two banks, an ice cream shop and a dozen different restaurants - Asian Fusion, Chinese, Mexican, breakfast, classic Americana... but precious few clothing stores. Curious, we asked the saleswoman at Ben Franklin's, the town five and dime. She smiled at us and waved us down the street to Bead Paradise.

The store right next to the official college bookstore, Bead Paradise has huge glass windows and three sections: on the main floor, an upscale clothing and jewelry section; upstairs, an eastern section; and downstairs, a dirt-cheap vintage section. While my mother briefly dallied at the beads, I ran down to the vintage floor. It was gorgeous. Each inch was packed with discount dresses, skirts, rubber boots, leggings, hatpins and winter hats.

We ooh'd. We ahh'd.

In the back stood a wall of coats where my mother was waving her arms, saying, "It's you! It's you!" My mom is a hard lady to ruffle-up, so this behavior was pretty exceptional.

It was a good coat, camel-colored, made off a recycled fleece-type material. I walked over and tried it on. The sleeves were long, giving my fingers had a lot of wiggly-space. The inner lining had a shiny and very soft front layer holding back a small woolen layer, the thickness of an eraser.

We did the jacket's longevity by dropping it repeatedly on the ground, then jumping and stomping on it. I warmed my hands in the pockets. I popped the collar, buttoned, unbuttoned and re-buttoned. I rolled up the sleeves. We wanted something lovely that would last. I tried on other things, to test the waters, but returned back to the original.

Perfect. Twenty Dollars.

I've worn it nearly every cold day, for the past 3 years.

It's my defining piece, from when I was a gothic first year, to a shaved-headed sophomore, a harried junior and now, a senior. Whenever I've slept on one of the comfy couches of a dorm lounge, it's been my blanket. When I went camping on Fall Break, it was my pillow. I've used it as a towel, when my real towels were still in summer storage. I used it as a bandage when I've fallen on my face, the time I went "skating" on the ice in the Arb. I've worn it to see renowned speakers, like Michael Pollan. I've traveled in it, across the country, from New Orleans to Dallas, Poughkeepsie, Pioneer Valley and San Francisco.

Last year, the pockets wore away. By now, there are long rips at the side, making it look like a fashionable lab coat rather than something meant for wind, rain and snow. There are mud and salt stains on the edges and the cuffs are frayed. Worst of all, the inner lining, so soft and delicate, has ripped almost entirely away. The coat is just canvas now.

Last week, someone on my tour asked, "Is your coat meant to make a statement?"

I stared dumbly at her and burbled out, "Uh... Not really, no. It's like my skin now, y'know, I can't really not-wear it. ...Yeah." Which was potentially the weirdest thing I've said on a tour in recent memory.


So today, Black Friday, day of national capitalism, I went to buy a new coat. The vintage store in the bead shop has since closed, but most of its goods have gone to Ratsy's, the antique store just past the public library. Ratsy's has a more focused selection than the old vintage store, targeting '50s era Americana. Inside its homey walls lies everything from old-time Life magazines, wooden furniture, china, plastic dolls, and old Oberlin College yearbooks. Given my height, nearly six feet, and proportional hips, '50s Americana is not my era. But I did find a coat.

I love it. It's red, long, warm with unnecessary buttons and belt. The inner lining isn't as soft, which is probably good, and the overall material is hardier, a bit closer to wool. It cinches in the back, so I can look ladylike if I want. The sleeves are a bit shorter, so I'll potentially get less wear on them. It looks like it can take a few years of not-so-tender care, wherever I may be.

The owner, the eponymous Ratsy, was at the cash register and gave me a free toy! I also purchased: a hat and a present for Ma'ayan (who's a good friend of mine in real life, if this post didn't clue you in).

I'm keeping the original coat, of course. There's a lot of life in that bit of fleece.


Me and the coat, on a road trip to upstate New York.

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