Tuesday, May 5, 2020

J. Crew catches fire.

     Maybe it was all the surgery—spine in summer, hip just before New Year's. Maybe it was just the time of life. A young man can sleep in his skivvies. An old man needs pajamas. Anyway, sometime in the fall my wife, who has good instincts about this kind of thing, ordered for me an attractive blue cotton pair of J. Crew pajamas. So light and comfortable I ordered a second pair in January. That way, I'd have two.
    Okay, not quite the life-long attachment of a Marshall Field's. But enough that when J. Crew declared bankruptcy on Monday, trying to deal with its $1.65 billion debt by shutting its nearly 500 stores, I thought sadly, "Oh gee. I like those pajamas...."
     That wasn't why I snapped the above picture back in January. It was that tag urging, in bold red, "KEEP AWAY FROM FIRE."
    There had to be a story there. I figured it had to be the sleepwear aspect and plunged into the arcane world of consumer safety. It was educational. The concern over burning pajamas is mostly related to children—that's why children tend to have form-fitting PJs, and not baggy ones like mine, so they'll set themselves on fire with less alacrity. Fire retardants were added, but they bring up an entire new set of concerns regarding cancer risk.
    I got about that far, then was sidetracked by the issue of Jarts—lawn darts. I remember them well from my Ohio youth in the 1960s. Remember watching the neighbor kids fling them about and thinking, "Those look dangerous..." What I figured out at 9 eventually dawned on adults. Lawn darts were initially banned in 1970 by the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission, but the companies producing them sued, and the things were winked at until 1988, when David Snow, the grieving father of Michelle Snow, a 7-year-old who died after a lawn dart thrown by her brother hit her in the head the year before, lit a fire under lawmakers. Sometimes all it takes is one grieving parent, at least when the topic is not guns.
    Speaking of which. When the lawn dart ban came up for renewal in 1997, a number of people wondered: why are lawn darts banned after a handful of deaths (and thousands of injuries) while handguns are sold so freely?  Good question; the answer has to do with soothing your fears with weaponry.
    Thus the pajama thread was completely lost. I let the matter drop until J. Crew went up like the Hindenburg, the first major retailer to collapse in our COVID-19 world, but most assuredly not the last. Sears, J.C. Penney's, the list of brown leaves quivering on the branch is long.
     I have to say, wearing pajamas still doesn't feel completely natural. I'll do it for a few days, then forget for a month, reverting to form. Maybe I'm not quite old enough yet. But that's coming. 
    In the meantime, the label is a handy reminder. These warning labels, needless to say, were fought by industry, though studies show that consumers don't seem to mind them, and almost a quarter said they would be more inclined to purchase clothing with such labels. Myself, I find the labels sort of cool, not to mention inspirational. I've interviewed several people who were badly burned, and they were surprisingly happy, just to be alive, and forgave themselves for the series of missteps typically required to set yourself on fire. I figure, if those people, having done that to themselves, can be happy and accepting of their lot, our doing the same for our unburnt state should be a piece of cake.
    In theory.



  1. "Okay, not quite the life-long attachment of a Marshall Field's."
    Oh, how true that is! My favorite robe, a red plaid wool, is around fifty years old. I used to have a tie like that, too, until an unfortunate encounter with chicken soup one Friday night. I'll bet that many, many, Chicagoans have something similar in their closets. How odd, this attachment to inanimate objects.

  2. It would have been nice if in 1948 there had been a fire warning on my Roy Rogers chaps that burst into flames when I got too close to the little bonfire I had started in a prairie close to my home on 78th Street. But it probably wouldn't have helped, as I could not yet read at the time, a few days before my 6th birthday. I certainly realized then as now that the whole affair was my fault, all the turmoil, all the pain, the weeks in the hospital, the stink that pervaded my house when I returned home, the delay in starting school, the effort to learn to walk again, all that was on me. But I didn't know I was supposed to forgive myself. I did manage to forgive my sister (tacitly) for stealing the matches that started my personal conflagration, but even though the scars are a daily reminder of my stupidity seventy some years ago, the notion that I should say, "Sorry, Tate, I spoiled the potential of a professional sports career and I hope you can forgive me," does not occur to me. Relatives urged my father to sue someone, but that wasn't and isn't our family's style. Glad, however, that I never took up pajama wearing, because I'm sure I would have lit myself up again smoking in bed, when I was in the habit of doing that kind of thing.


    1. Not to quibble, but Gene Autry chaps, actually.

    2. Wow, that's quite a harrowing tale, Tate. What a horrible ordeal that must have been. I hope this isn't too cheeky, but it might have come with a Trigger warning...

      I managed to make it through a childhood that included Jarts with no untoward incidents, but they certainly were risky. That tag on the adult PJs just seems ridiculous, though. Like the "coffee is hot" warnings on McDonald's cups after their lawsuit. Wouldn't it make more sense to put "Okay to be near fire" on whatever weird fabrics that might apply to? None of my clothes have tags like that, but I don't assume that means that I can safely toast my shirt like a marshmallow.

    3. Neil: Thanks for the correction. Roy Rogers was just a guess, though I can say without fear of error that it was a Mickey Mouse watch that my Aunt Anne gave me for my birthday. It probably did not survive my tussles with the ancient wheel chair I used as my walker for a while.

      Jakash: Actually, the most harrowing experience or at least that which I remember most clearly is the unending screams from a child in the same ward who had fallen from a tree and broke his arm. Indeed, I later played with matches despite the dire consequences, but never broke a bone until I was in my 20s.

      The fun part of the whole experience was an incident when the nurse gave me a red pill to swallow and I rolled it under my tongue and watched (without any pain or distress apparently) while 3 or 4 doctors (interns?) worked on changing the dressing on my leg. Afterwards, I spit the pill under the pillow, where the nurse found it and scared the hell out of me with her displeasure.


  3. I think the labels are there to mitigate law suits: "We told you keep away from fire!". I once noticed, on a can of hair spray, "do not spray on your face". I guarantee that someone thought, "gee, I can set my makeup with hair spray - that'll work", and then sued the company when they burned their face/eyes. Then there's the famous instructions on a Superman costume: "cape does not enable user to fly".

    But somewhere there's an unwritten rule that any product you really love will be discontinued anyway. Ask any woman about bras. You find one you love, and poof, one day they're discontinued.

  4. Lots of '50s and '60s stuff "for kids" that was dangerous besides clothing. Copper enameling sets, wood burning kits, Chemcraft chemistry sets. Cap guns. I got my folks to buy me a soldering iron and I soldered wires with lead solder. Oh boy. No permanent damage; could have poisoned myself, or burned down the house.

    1. I received a woodburning kit for my birthday when I was seven. My father immediately confiscated it and used it to make a bunch of corny decorative signs, including one that read "Sheriff's Office" for my bedroom. Mostly because I wore my Hopalong Cassidy cap pistols everywhere...even onto the school bus one embarrassing day. It was better to display the sign than to piss him off.

      Because we're now "at war", I've been re-watching the 14-hour Ken Burns PBS series about the Roosevelts, and have been re-reading "No Ordinary Time"--which covers FDR's third and fourth terms. During his stay in the White House, he never locked his bedroom door. This was related to his fear of fire, which he dreaded even more than assassination or anything else.

      That fear did not begin when he became a paraplegic at 39. It originated when he was very young and witnessed an aunt burning to death at nineteen, from an accident with a lamp. Despite his paralysis, FDR would practice dropping to the floor and crawling to the door, sometimes for hours at a time, in his pajamas.

      One might assume, after what he'd seen as a child, that he would avoid the wearing of any kind of nightclothes. But pajamas were the norm for male adults in the Forties, even those aged sixty and older. I have no idea what the norm is today. Everyone makes their own fashion rules now. I stopped wearing PJs at eighteen, when I moved into my first college dorm. Too many smirks and snickers and snarky remarks.


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