Lexington, Virginia has very few faults, but one that’s glaring is the lack of places for a guy like me to buy clothes. To be fair, I’m big, unusually big even, with both height and girth, and, well and if you must know the truth, kind of stumpy legs and a weirdly flat butt. So it would make sense that it’s difficult to find clothes in my size. But that’s not really the issue in Lexington. No, in Lexington the issue is that, if you’re a man and you want to wear clothes, there’s Walmart and, well . . . not much.
And let’s be frank folks: excepting Fruit of the Loom and sweat socks, there ain’t much I’m buying at Walmart.
So you can imagine my joy when I learned that Hong Kong is to shopping what Mecca, Heaven, and Disney World are to religious fanatics who love helium-sipping mice. No more on-line ordering for me! No more shoes that were half a size too small or shirts that looked great on the screen but hung like a door frame off my chest. No more funky fabrics that tried to pass as cotton or pukey greens that make you eyes ache. No more trips to the post office to return all of this junk to L.L. Bean and Eddie Bauer.
Eddie Bauer. Brrrggghhh.
No. Now I would buy at Armani and Versace and Gucci and bunch of other really fancy places that I’m not even sure sell men’s clothes—or any clothes at all, for that matter. But never mind: I was going to be a clothes horse.
Except for the part where I wasn’t. Because when I got to Hong Kong, I discovered that what they call “Large” we call “Pre-teen,” and what we call “XL” they call “tents.”
Seriously, nothing fit me. Even on the rare occasions I was able to track down XXL, I’d have to get someone to help pull the damn thing off after I’d gotten it stuck half-way over my nose. So I was screwed: pretty much a year in one of the most fashionable places on earth, and I was going to have to wear the same three pairs of khakis and four L.L. Bean polos over and over again.
And then in January, one of the other Fulbrighters, a native Hong Konger, sent the rest of us an e-mail offering to introduce us to his tailor. “It depends on your size,” David wrote, “but a good summer weight suit will usually run about $900, Hong Kong.”
“But you don’t wear suits,” Ellen said when I told her I was going to Central to pick out material.
“Who cares,” I said. “That’s, like, 115 bucks, US. For that price, I can buy it and use it for a handkerchief.”
I wasn’t really sure what to expect from a Hong Kong tailor—or any tailor, for that matter, since I’d never been to one before, unless you count the guy who tried to force me into the baby blue tuxedo before my senior prom. I suppose I pictured a pretty civilized affair: myself standing in the middle of a room lined with mirrors and paneled oak. A gentile Chinese man in shirt sleeves and a vest would take down my measurements, barking out figures to a bespectacled assistant scribbling in a notebook. Nearby, two or three other customers would be milling about, sipping tea maybe as they fingered bolts of pin-striped material.
In the end, I was at least right about one thing: my tailor was indeed Chinese.
Other than that, the experience was pretty much exactly what I hadn’t imagined: taking an elevator to the fifth floor of a non-descript marble building off of Queensway Road East, I stepped across a hall that looked as though it were designed for the easy removal of bloodstains, and into a windowless room roughly the size of a fat man’s coffin. Two of the four vinyl-paneled walls were covered with aluminum shelves bearing dusty bolts of cloth. Above them, hanging from an exposed steam pipe, were suits and shirts and trousers waiting to be picked up. In one corner, a customer with receding hair and glasses was trying on a suit behind a waist-high wall.
Two harried looking Chinese men pushed their way through the 9 or 15 customers crowded into the small space. Along the far wall was a low counter holding an ancient cash register and twelve thousand photograph-sized books full of wools and pin-stripes, linens and seer suckers.
I froze in the doorway, unsure of how to proceed. Eventually one of the tailors—a stooped, dark-haired man with big ears—paused as he stuck pins into a spotty-faced Chinese youth, glared at me and said, “What?”
“I—um—“ I glanced around. I could see my friend David and two or three others from the group, but all of them were busy picking out materials.
“Pick up or measure?” the tailor barked.
“Pick up,” I said, then realized what he meant. “I mean—measure!”
He gave a grunt, rightly figuring me for some high-maintenance moron who was going to eat up his time and profits. Gesturing with his head, he led me to the counter covered with samples books. “Look!” he said, and walked away.
It was overwhelming. I mean, there must have been 100,000 samples on that counter, organized in not ascertainable manner. I flipped through a few of the catalogues, fingering materials, trying to find some colors that I liked. Already I missed the simplicity of Eddie Bauer, the four predictable choices on each page, the friendly associate at the other end of the line waiting to answer all of my stupid questions. Eventually, though, I managed to find a charcoal gray mid-weight that I sort of liked. Holding my place with one finger, I went over to where the tailor who loved me so much was holding a yellow-tape up to a college-aged Malaysian dude with long shiny hair that he couldn’t stop touching.
“Um,” I said, holding up the book like Oliver asking for more.
Tailor man glanced at it. “Out,” he said. “No more.” Then he went back to his tape measure.
Shuffling back to the stack of samples, I turned more pages, pinched more materials. Eventually I came up with two or three I didn’t hate completely, and waited until my man was free to measure me. He seemed to approve of my choices—or at least not hate them completely—and demonstrated his approval by jamming his tape measure up my groin as though I were a goose being placed on a spit.
I kept my mouth shut as he measured me, afraid he knew of even more creative ways to torture me. When he got to my shoulders, though, I managed to stutter out a request that he not make the area around the arms too tight.
He stopped what he was doing and peered at me through his glasses. “What?” he barked.
“The-the-the shoulders,” I said. “If they’re—I won’t—too tight and I can’t wear them . . . “
“Hmmmpf!” he said, and went back to his measuring. Four more minutes and a few questions more—“Pleats? Three? Side pockets? You sure?—and I was back on Queensway Road, blinking in the sunlight.
This is the point, of course, where more likely than not, you’re waiting for me to say something like, “It was all worth it, though, once I went back and tried on the first custom-tailored suit of my young life,” or, “I’ve never had pants that fit that well, before, or since, and I don’t expect ever to,” or at the very least, “I went back in, punched that guy in the face, and torched the place.”
But alas, such was not the case.
I went back a few weeks later for a fitting, leaving again slightly dazed and confused. And when I returned finally to pick up my one suit and two pairs of pants, I just wanted to grab the clothes, pay, and flee. He and his assistant, though, insisted that I go into the “changing room”—e.g., the cupboard in the corner—and try on my new suit. I did, coming out in my stocking feet to stand in front of a floor-length mirror.
I looked—how can I say this? Old.
It wasn’t the bald head, mind you, or the increasing abundance of gray in what little hair remained. Or even my ever-growing dim sum belly.
No, it wasn’t any of those things. It was the rise.
Now for those of you who have know idea what I mean, “rise,” is the length of material between your, um, groinal region and where-ever it is you situate your belt. Why they call it “rise” is something I’d rather not discuss at the moment, so suffice to say that on some pants—say, trendy jeans—the rise is rather short, while on other pants—say, those worn by immensely fat men whose bellies need their own seats and an extra-large popcorn at the movie theatre—the rise is roughly the size of, say, Wyoming.
Anyhow, the pants I was wearing now, standing in front of the mirror at the tailor in Central had a rise that was, shall we say, rather nostalgic. Think Charlie Chaplin, perhaps. Or Johnny Cash way back in the 50s, dressed smartly in black with a cowboy shirt and the top of his trousers somewhere just under his armpits. Or any of the lead characters from Revenge of the Nerds.
I mean, these pants had Rise, with a capital “R” and italics. I could have pulled those suckers over my head, unzipped, and eaten pizza through the crotch, that’s how much rise these bad boys had.
My tailor stood beside me, hands on his hips. He met my eyes. “Okay?”
I glanced back at the mirror. I looked like Harold Lloyd, with less hair. Then I looked back at the short, large-eared Chinese man standing beside me. He was small, yes, and old, yes, and kind of scary in a way that men who know what they’re doing always are. But right now, he was also smiling a little, proud of his work.
“Yes,” I said. “Okay.”
Back at our flat in Tai Po, I went into the bedroom and tried the suit on again. Strolling out into the living room, I held my arms out for Ellen to see. “What do you think?”
She glanced up from the floor where she was playing with Jamie. Her eyes roamed over the gray flannel, following the lines from cuff to cuff, crease to ankle. Ellen cares deeply about many things—her kids, her family, her work, books, art, politics, even me sometimes. But clothes, to her, are generally little more than a nuisance, something to be acquired as quickly as possible and washed as seldom as acceptable.
“That,” she said, “is a beautiful suit.”
It took me a minute to get my breath back. “Really.”
She nodded. “Really.”
I stepped back. “What do you think of the pants?”
She glanced down. “They look great.”
“You don’t think they’re old man pants?”
She looked again. “They look comfortable.”
I did one of those dorky, lean back and suck in your gut moves, trying to get a look at my own outfit from a distant perspective. “Huh,” I said.
Padding back down the hall, I considered this. Back in the room, I took off the jacket and stood before the mirror, giving the trousers another look. Ellen was right: they did look comfortable. What’s more, their lines were classic, the pleats graceful, the creases sharp, the cuffs perfectly sized. I took a few steps, back and forth, watching myself from the side. The pants moved easily with me, nowhere too tight, nowhere catching or sagging or twisting unpredictably.
“Huh,” I said again, still looking in the mirror.
And then I did what any reasonable man would do: I took those trousers off, packed them up, put on my blue jeans, and headed back down to Central to order three more pairs.