Sunday, September 8, 2013

Spare shirt

    Where is the line between preparation and excess of caution? A matter of opinion, no doubt—a jack in your trunk is essential, one of those emergency hammers to break your window should you find your car submerged in a pond, perhaps a bit too far. The prudent office worker keeps some antacids in a drawer; an escape rope, however, seems more an expression of inner fear, and the money used to buy it might have been better spent on the helping professions.  
    Sometime in the hazy past, years ago, I hung a spare shirt on the back of my office door. So long ago, I can't even speculate why. I don't think I brought it down intentionally, as a precaution, against the day when it came in handy. I brought it down for some other purpose, long forgotten, didn't need it, and decided to keep it there until I did.
     And the years went by. 
     It gave the place the air of professionalism. I thought of Nixon, sweating through his shirts, of businessmen at the highest levels changing in their hotel suites for their next high stakes appearance. I never needed a fresh shirt but, by God, if I ever did, I had one, right there and ready, just like Ronald Reagan.  It lent my cluttered newspaperman's office a certain executive feel. At least in my own whimsy.  
     For a long time. Lately, however, the shirt seemed to reproach me. The shirt was a lie. I never needed it. I am not an executive. I would never need it.  The shirt just stared dolefully at me, unnecessary, superfluous, symbolizing an excess of caution, its arms akimbo, questioning me. I thought of taking it home where at least it might be useful someday.
     Then a few Thursdays ago, reclining in my chair, reading the computer while taking a hearty sip of Starbucks black coffee, a generous gulp of joe slipped from between the loose lid and the cup lip and splatted itself on the front of my yellow Oxford shirt. Not a few discrete drops either. It looked like someone had taken a turkey baster of java and squeezed it against my chest.  Hard. I jumped up, alarmed, and my eyes locked on that spare shirt. Aha. My view of the shirt shifted, my appreciation of it magnified. I  stripped the drenched shirt, cast it aside, and put the new one on, momentarily wondering what people passing my office would think ("Steinberg has gone around the bend--he was changing clothes at the office. Must be trouble at home.") Smiling, congratulating myself for my foresight, if that's what it was. Some people are ready for all exigencies, they have life figured out and, at the moment, I was one of those people.


  1. Now, the $64 question - have you brought in a new "spare" shirt for future emergencies?

  2. No, not yet. If history is any judge, I have about five years before I'll need it again.

  3. Great story...And the photo is one of your best to date. Not the shirt, but the view of the landscape through the barn door or whatever that is. Where were you anyway?

  4. Thanks. Sawmill Creek Bridge, on Highway 114 in New Brunswick, Canada.

  5. How can you definitively say that having the shirt in your office left you prepared. Could it be that having the shirt in your office prevented you from going to the store and buying a new favorite shirt, or that having the shirt allowed you to let your guard down while drinking beverages and thus facilitated your spilling of coffee? I certainly don't mind you deciding to think it helped you--after all, the difference between a fulfilled and bitter person can simply be a matter of perception--but I would rather you said you thought the shirt helped you, not that the shirt definitively helped make your day better. It is of paramount importance that we, every once in a while, step back and appreciate the ambiguity in the world.

  6. Hmmmm ... let me consider how to reply to that. I suppose a simple, "Thank you for writing, son," would be cowardly. Okay, I never say the shirt "definitely helped make" my day better. What I do say is, "my appreciation of it magnified." Which seems pretty mild, almost ambiguous. Sometimes, with readers I am not related to, I'll observe, "I'm busy enough reacting to what I do write, without also responding to what you make up for me."
    Though I get your point. Being forced to buy a shirt has its value. Once, when silk shirts were in vogue, before you were born, I came downtown in workout clothes, planning to go straight to the gym, then dress for work. I brought a dry cleaning bag on a hanger holding what I thought was a black silk shirt of mine, but turned out to be a black blouse of your mother's. So I slipped on a jacket and headed over to Michigan Avenue and bought a shirt that I wore and loved for years. So you are right, not having a spare shirt could have led to an even better day, fleeing into the arms of commerce in a stained, wet shirt. Or maybe not. I stand by my blog as written, though I appreciate, as always, your ceaseless efforts to improve and educate your father.

  7. I keep a spare shirt (OK, TWO spare shirts - one button down and one polo type) and a spare pair of shoes at the office. I once came to the office in a black suit with one black loafer and one brown loafer. CURSE my habit of buying the same shoes in multiple colors! I went out and bought a pair of black shoes that day. Unlike your successful shirt purchase, I was never very happy with those shoes. They turned out to be a bit tight, and I never managed to wear them for a full workday again. Hence the spare shoes in the office... I have never used my clean shirts, but I have, on more than one occasion, left the office wearing my spare shoes.


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