For the first time Ivy Style is proud to present an original work of fiction. This is not something from the heyday archives, but a contemporary work published here for the first time. Author bio follows the story.
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By Eric Twardzik
When hard work was valued and patriotism was a virtue, men wore oxford cloth button downs. My father wore one each day – coming home from the bank in tie and sport coat, returning from the bar with his tie undone and shirtsleeves rolled up, lying in repose at McMahon’s funeral parlor in his very best suit.
All his shirts were made by the same outfitter – Walnick & Sons at 37 Arrow Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts. He’d take me there on Saturday afternoons when I was a boy. It was infused with the smell of fresh leather, the sweetish funk of mothballs, and the aroma of pipe tobacco smoked long ago. The ancient Walnick father would be seated beside the revolving tie rack in his wicker wheel chair, covered with a tartan throw whether it was January or July. He would press a hard candy into my hand if I could tell him who the president was (Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson – then I was too old for stranger’s candy and he was too dead to give it).
Walnick & Sons is gone now, replaced by a frozen yogurt franchise flooding the street with cheap neon and young people in nylon jackets and torn, third-world denim. It looks like any other place where people wear cheap things and consume artificial substances, from Tokyo to Toronto.
Now, don’t take me for a snob. My family wasn’t cheap, but we were thrifty. There is an important distinction between the two. Cheap is acquiring something that is ill made and temporary from the day of purchase. Thrifty means investing in something of quality, and maintaining it for the longest period of time possible to avoid spending money on another purchase. This is why my father had the same pair of cordovan tassel loafers resoled bi-yearly for close to two decades. Or had my mother sew suede patches to the elbows of his tweed sports coats when they tore.
Take my shirt, the one I’m wearing now. It’s a Walnick & Sons all right, one of the last you’ll see anywhere. It was made for me in 1975, as I was preparing for my freshman year at Dartmouth (dad’s old school). It’s oxford cloth, weight 12.28 ounces, originally a chalky blue that’s faded to a more pale shade over time. It has a soft, unlined collar that is approximately three and three-eighths of an inch long – the Walnicks knew this was the length required to create the perfect roll. There is a back button on the collar, to better hold the tie in place, and a single chest pocket with a button flap closure. The collar is a button down, which I shouldn’t be required to clarify.
There was a “locker loop” attached to the back of the shirt when it was first made. But this was torn from the shirt by a girl I had been seeing, which was the custom of the era. For some time afterward she kept the detached string of cloth with her at all times, and during lessons at school she’d take it out and run it between her fingers absentmindedly, as if it were another pencil or eraser for her fingers to play with. But I’d watch her do it from the back of the room, my heart skipping each time the cloth was rubbed between forefinger and thumb, as if she were touching my own flesh. I do not know the present whereabouts of that locker loop, or the girl.
Of course, you can’t expect a shirt to serve for over four decades without some signs of wear, regardless of the quality of construction. The top of the collar has been worn nearly white with fraying, and I’ve taken to hand-washing it in the sink as I fear it won’t survive another wash cycle. Sure, it’s an inconvenience – the single room apartment in which I presently reside has only one sink, and I must leave it there to soak for some time. It also happens to be the only shirt I own, so the soaking must happen on a daily basis.
I should add that I owned many other Walnick & Sons shirts in my lifetime – but all have been felled over the years, by exploding pocket pens or rogue ketchup blots and a hundred other disasters of everyday life.
It’s a pity the shirt on my back saw so little of the campus life it had been made for. The time spent in its natural habitat was cut short that first winter break when my father’s illness began. I returned home to Cambridge and took a job bagging groceries to help my mother, all the while thinking of when I’d return to school and law books and finally revisit Walnick & Sons to be outfitted for a sack suit with brass buttons just like my father’s, but the day never came.
The old days and my father and Mr. Walnick have been in my mind lately because I received word (by letter, I have not lived with a phone for some years) from an old school friend that the Walnick & Sons label had been revived. I first thought that I must be the target of a practical joke. It’s been more than two decades since the shop folded, Mr. Walnick long dead and his sons nowhere to be found.
But subsequent letters told me that a global manufacturer had purchased the rights to the name and old designs with the intent to resurrect the authentic Walnick & Sons oxford cloth shirt. I used a computer at the library to investigate this claim, and to my surprise found it to be true. I even tracked down the manufacturer’s website, where I discovered a page filled with black-and-white photos of smiling young men standing by university buildings with books in their hands, as young and proud in their oxfords as I was.
I provided my measurements (unchanged since 1975, as I still consider athleticism a top virtue) and placed an order for a shirt – at, I must say, a substantially higher price than I remember every paying for the original – and waited. Though there was a dizzying variety to choose from, ecru and candy stripes and Easter egg-green, I chose pale blue, thinking of my old standby and its limited time left on this planet.
I passed the following week the way I passed all the others. The morning paper and a stroll, chess matches with the library computer, a baloney sandwich for lunch and instant noodles for dinner with Bach playing on the old wireless. Then the shirt arrived.
The first thing that struck me was the likeness. Its blue matched the shade of my old shirt exactly. Not its present-day faded shade, mind you, but the rich, chalky blue of the shirt when it was first worn by an 18-year old facing the best years of his life. The length of the collar seemed to be just as I remembered as well. And it featured a back collar button, box pleat and locker loop, as promised.
I felt joyous. I imagined being in the shop again, standing before its mirror while Mr. Walnick and my father looked on approvingly at the fit. I dreamt for a moment of lush campus quads and touch football with the sleeves rolled up, of sitting tieless at a pub filled with girls from town, of the heavy black gown and four-sided cap I never wore. Then I removed the old shirt and donned the new.
The buttons were all wrong. Rather than mother-of-pearl they were cheap plastic, shiny and in danger of breaking to pieces like lifesaver mints. Upon closer inspection, the cloth was different as well. It felt lighter, and thinner – perhaps only 10 ounces – and gave off a slight, reflective sheen that I find very unsightly. And the collar was lined and fused, a hard, stiff ring of cloth that was nothing like the soft, rolling collars I remembered.
I began to unbutton the shirt, slowly at first but increasingly fast as I made my way down the placket. I wanted to get this thing off of me, to go back to school, to fix this great mix-up and have life turn out just as it was meant to be.
A sharp pain shot through my back (it struck me then how old I had become, much older than my father had ever been) as I bent to retrieve my old shirt from the chair where I’d left it, neatly folded. It felt like something inside me had been disturbed, rearranged in an odd way, and that I must act now to correct it. I donned the veteran shirt again, and as I did so I noticed just how threadbare its collar was, and how prominently the sickly yellow of its ring-around-the-collar shown.
What I did next I cannot explain. But my feet carried me out the door and onto the street. I walked for upwards of an hour until I found Arrow Street, and reached the neon terror that had replaced Walnick & Sons. I stood in line until I received my cup of artificially colored, artificially flavored freezing goo like everyone else. When I at last sat down in a tiny plastic chair before a tiny plastic table and used my tiny plastic spoon to scoop it up, a clutch of blueberry topping escaped and rolled down the front of my shirt, streaking it with fluorescent purple juice.
Eric Twardzik is a Boston-based fiction writer and journalist. He writes regularly about men’s style for GetKempt.com. You can find him on twitter as @eric_twardzik, and if you see a 15.5 x 36 shirt anywhere, please let him know.
Image via O’Connell’s.