Thursday, July 3, 2014

Shopping Spree

The brain is a mysterious thing
About three pounds
Pinkish gray, meatloaf shaped
Containing our entire worlds
Which sometimes get out-of-whack
Over the silliest things
Like mine did yesterday.
So much so that I have to pause
and ask.
Am I really going to tell this story?
Yes, because it might help you avoid the night I had
And maybe, in telling, I can find a way to render it
Less embarrassing.

So on Wednesday....

First, background.
My older boy is going off to college in the fall.
A different climate.
He'll need a new wardrobe. Californian clothing.
Pastel colors. Light fabrics.
Which his mother set busily to collect
at Kohl's, and Filene's Basement, and the other discount outlets
we usually patronize.
But as summer progressed, I began to stew.
A boy also needs expensive stuff.
A few pricy things.
To boost the old ego.
I know I did.
Not something plucked off a pile,
not something second-rate, sagging on a plastic hanger.
Not something overlooked, damaged, left behind
Something new.
Something fancy.
Something bought with care, amidst wood, aided by an attentive clerk.
Something special. 
Enter Brooks Brothers' 50 percent Off Semi-Annual Sale.
The newspaper ad caught my eye.
Brooks Brothers.
Classy. Elegant.
Abraham Lincoln shopped there.
John F. Kennedy.
Why not us too?
I knew my wife, frugal, guarding our hoard of pennies, would not approve.
So, trying to smooth the way, I did some groundwork.
Called her upstairs. Spoke to her, softly but emphatically.
Explained the psychological value of a really expensive shirt
Maybe some summery shorts.
"Set a budget," she replied.
So I stretched my mind to the limits of excess,
and figured ... $200.
I would blow $200 at Brooks Brothers to send my son off to college properly.
The boy was willing
It seemed a plan.
Meet in Millennium Park after our respective jobs.
He's working, downtown, at 18.
Fine boy.
And we stroll up to Brooks Brothers,
we enter a fantasy world, clubby
Pants with turtles on them.
We held up shirts.
We run our hands over fabrics.
I subtly guide him. A Madras shirt perhaps,
Very California
Plucked, not coincidentally, off the "Two for $99" rack.
And since we'll need a second to qualify,
this blue and white striped Oxford.
Plus shorts, powder blue.
We fall under the care of Bradley.
A sharp young man himself.
Politely helps us into the dressing room.
The lad looks good in his Madras shirt.
Ditto in the Oxford. The shorts go with them both.
Bradley puts a dimpled blue searsucker jacket on him.
Only $398.
"No thank you," we decide.
Ditto for the white Stetson straw hat
So now we're checking out, two shirts, shorts,
$192 total.
Just under our budget.
I sign the Mastercard, the successful and generous dad.
Our boodle goes into the matte black Brooks Brothers bag.
We hit Michigan Avenue.
6:03. Just time to make the 6:19.
Hop into a cab.
My hand snakes into that luxe Brooks Brothers bag.
As if acting on its own volition
Two shirts. One $55. One $65.
Not two for $99 at all.
My first wild impulse is to order the cab to turn around.
Figure this out.
But we'd miss the train.
And alarm the boy.
Happy with his transaction
It's only ... $21 more.
Eat the $21.
In for a dime, in a for dollar....
We just make the train, running. 
And so I try to go about my evening business.
Push the thoughts aside.
Yes, I should have checked the receipt,
but I was out of my element.
Out of practice.
I had never been inside Brooks Brothers.
Always check the receipt -- a good lesson for $21.
A bargain.
Let it go.
Easier said
Than done.
Every time I walk away from the thing.
It hops up and
circles around to meet me..
This echo.
This phantom.
Hi! Miss me?
I keep thinking of the story in the New York Times that morning.
Walgreen's perhaps moving its corporate headquarters overseas.
The great titans of wealth, amassing more.
Already rich.
Yet relocating around the globe, maybe, to save another 10 percent.
As opposed to little me, timid mousing myself into Brooks Brothers
Dragging my elder son.
Not managing to save anything at all
While trying to be something I'm not.
And disguise him as something he isn't.
To rub a little of that luster off onto our shabby lives,
so he can pretend to come from a fancier place than he does
with the genuinely rich swells he's going to encounter.
Both of us, lured in by 50 percent.
That I did not in fact get.
Through some kind of accident
The sort of thing that happens to me
A lot
Life seemed one long rigged game
That I naturally lose.
Pick a shell! It's easy.
It looks so easy
For other people
The incident sat there.
And vibrated.
A high pitched sound
Something like a shriek
Something like a sigh
I laid awake at 2 a.m., knowing it was nuts,
the whole thing nuts
discussing the whole nuts thing with my wife,
again; she, patience itself.
This big Brooks Brothers gaffe sitting on the foot of our bed.
Giving off a smell
A sound of wasps
And 3 a.m.
And 4 a.m.
"This is crazy," I thought, feeling genuinely crazy.
When you meet insane people
And realize with horror they're locked
On a single triviality
This must be how it starts
I'll end up with a shabby sandwich sign
marching back and forth in front of Brooks Brothers...

Eventually we slept.
The thing sat there, smaller
But still there.
Morning! Miss me?
I dressed—no Brooks Brothers here—went to work
Shabbily in my Kohl's chinos
But took the sales slip with me.
A plan.
Not ambitious.
I would call Brooks Brothers
And ask them to explain
Because I wanted to understand.
That's all.
What happened?
Maybe each shirt was two for $99
But not paired with each other
That must be it.
I wanted them to explain it.
So I could understand.
I figured I had bought that right
For my $192
Brooks Brothers opens at 10 a.m.
I phoned at 9:15, thinking I'd get them early.
Again at 9:45.
Again at 10:05.
Got Allen.
Or Alan.
I didn't have him spell it.
He called up my purchase record.
No problem, he said, apologizing for the inconvenience. I'll make a price correction.
He took my address to send the receipt.
And that was it.
I had never thought of that.
Never imagined it would go that way.
I thanked Allen.
Or Alan.
The sour chemicals in my brain drained away.
The thing that had tailed me for 12 hours.
Suddenly it seemed very clear
All my anxieties
My kid leaving for college before his dad got rich
My squeaking through a world where  my ship isn't even a smokestack on the horizon
Never mind coming in.
The bills that come faster than the paychecks.
And still trying to be something I'm not.
All of those concerns tap-dacing on my head
At 3 a.m.
Unwilling to leave.
Ignoring my request that they please leave
Gone now on their own
All so clear.
We are creatures of emotion and status, yearning and disappointment.
At least I am.
And I hope you too.
Otherwise I'm going to look really stupid.
Our brains are electrochemical mush that can do the oddest flips for the oddest reasons.
When I told this all to a friend of mine,
she mentioned something her mother says.
"The hardest rains are over soonest."
Meaning, sometimes a cloudburst will drench you,
and the stronger it is, the sooner it passes.
The clouds part and the sun comes out again.
Boy that feels good.
I had forgot what feeling good felt like
Quickly too
Knew that it would pass, and tried to hurry it along.
But these things work on their own sweet time
While it was there at two
and three and four a.m., 
it seemed as if it had always been there
and would always be there.
Over a few shirts, and twenty bucks.
To a guy who bought a house, a car and once
watched autopsies for eight hours
I hope that isn't crazy, that it's just human.
It seems very human to me.
Which true, at times, is very close to crazy. 
That's my story
And I'm sticking with it
Sometimes the big problems are easier to than the tiny ones.
Solutions are always there; usually involving waiting
Of course the Brooks Brothers folks took care of me.
How could I not suspect they would?
I never imagined it.
Only good business and I hope someday I feel flush enough to go back.
Nice stuff.
Quality material
I almost have to go back, someday.
Dust myself off, get back on the horse.
Thought next time
I'm checking the price on that receipt before I leave.


I got a lot of feedback from this piece, but the most apt came from my cousin, Harrison Roberts, who shared this line from Thoreau, in the passage where he warns about endeavors requiring new clothing: "Our moulting season, like that of the fowls, must be a crisis in our lives."


  1. I scored a couple of like new Brooks Bros shirts at a thrift shop in Winnetka for the excessive price of $2.50 each, last fall.
    Then I saw a Brooks ad in the paper. They were having a sale on men's shirts. Regular price $98. Sale price, three for $225.
    Did I go, of course not!

  2. I know the feeling very well. I go from Macy's with my 20% cards to Kohl's (where I only shop if I get the 30% card) to Good Will where I check the labels.
    Barbara Palmer

  3. I have spent ludicrous amounts of time over what should be in a first aid kit for a dorm room. This is last minute parental cramming. Nice shirts will shield him from mean people when you are not there, mine will never suffer injury or ailments if I pack hydrogen peroxide.

  4. Ellen, hydrogen peroxide is BAD for injuries. Better to pack a tube of Polysporin (every dermatologist I've had over the years has said Polysporin is good/Neosporene is bad). Janet

  5. My daughter bought me a suit recently at 40% off and had it shipped to me from San Francisco. I brought it downtown for the free alterations and got charged for them anyway. Brooks Brothers seemed too elegant a place to haggle over a few bucks, but to be honest about it, my life has been the classic "easy come, easy go," the latter especially.

  6. I am in line at Little Louies in Northbrook years ago. (previous owners, old building when they had paper plates taped to the walls with menu items and prices on them) I am waiting to order and looking at the paper plate by the register that says "Motz. Stix $0.77 , 3 for $2.40. The owner asks me what my order is. Back then, he wasn't quite as bad as the Soup Nazi but he expected you to have your shit together. I pointed to the Motz sign and said did you know it's cheaper to buy them individually? He said "That sign has been up for 5 years and you are the first one that noticed." "Do I get a free order for noticing?" "No! Do you want to order or not?" Does this apply to the Brooks Brothers story? I am not sure. Moral of the story, LL has good hot dogs.

  7. Don't you get a reciept *after* you pay? I always check while I'm still in the store. Grocery stores, especially, often have items ring up incorrectly. And I WILL go to customer service for that 25 cents. Oh yes I will. Someone's got to teach them a lesson, and that person is me. It's hard being me.

    1. Good point. I adjusted the last line to reflect reality.


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