Sunday, August 8, 2010

13 days to Bar Mitzvah: in-between sizes

Right now, I would estimate that the Jawa stands about five feet, three inches tall. That's the same height as Harry Chappas, the shortest man to ever play regularly in the major leagues. Eddie Gaedel doesn't count.

Chappas was a shortstop who played 72 games for the Chicago White Sox from 1978-1980. He was a career .245 hitter, but appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in March of 1979, due mostly to the relentless promoting of his team owner, Bill Veeck. (Veeck is also the man who, as owner of St. Louis Browns, sent the 3'7" Gaedel to the plate to face the Detroit Tigers in 1951. Briefly the starting shortstop for the White Sox, Chappas was quickly demoted, reportedly after missing a "stop" sign while rounding third base during a regular season game. Veteran Don Kessinger took his spot. Harry was demoted, returning to the majors only briefly before completely flaming out in 1980.

A decade later, the Orlando Sun-Sentinal reported that then 33-year-old Harry Chappas was living "in Coral Springs with his parents and (spending) much of his time fishing for bass in nearby canals while sorting out his future." Six years later, Chappas was living in an SRO hotel in Florida, about to begin vocational school.

After spending several fruitless hours yesterday at Brooks Brothers, Macy's, Zara, the GAP, Nordstrom and Banana Republic, I have only one question for Harry Chappas. It does not concern his experiences playing baseball in Italy or the terrible motorcycle accident that shattered his leg, ending his professional career and any hopes he had of one day joining the Professional Golfer's Tour.

My curiosity where Harry is concerned is limited. I want to know one thing. It's the same question I'd ask my Great-Grandfather Henry Tillis and Lou Gehrig's dad if either were alive today: Harry, after you completed vocational school in Florida in 1997 and began looking for a job, where did you go to buy a suit for interviews? Because I know you didn't go to Brooks Brothers, Macy's, Zara, the GAP, Nordstrom or Banana Republic.

I can't speak for South Florida, but here in San Francisco none of the stores named above keep on hand any mens suits smaller than a size 36. Harry, being the same height as the Jawa, probably wears a 32 or a 34. After yesterday I have my doubts that either size actually exists. In hindsight, our chances of finding a men's size 32 suit yesterday were the same as they were of seeing a unicorn. Were Harry buying a suit in San Francisco in 2010, he'd have to face an unpleasant reality: the children's department.

If you're out there today, Harry, and have turned things around to the point where a suit is an integral part of your wardrobe, here's a bit of advice: find the Bloomingdales closest to Florida. There's one in Miami at the Falls Mall (8778 SW 136th Street), which shouldn't be surprising, since it's a New York-based department store and Miami is full of ex-patriot New Yorkers.

If you go to Bloomindales, you will find, hidden in the basement along with housewares, a perfunctory children's department. If you're looking to completely outfit your tot, you will be disappointed. Unless the love affair you had with Ralph Lauren products while in high school during the mid-1980s (see below) continued into the present, you are better off finding an Old Navy for everyday wear. Poor Harry probably knows this; even money says he's been buying graphic tees up on the third floor at Old Navy for the past decade.

But if Harry, or Great-Grandpa Henry, or Heinrich Gehrig need a sharp-looking suit, one that is neither solid black or solid blue, not haphazardly strewn across several display racks where it is forgotten and eventually violated by someone needing size 16 dress pants but no jacket, not festooned with oversized shoulder pads so that when donned, its wearer takes on the appearance of a cast member of MTV's "Jersey Shore," then Bloomindales is the right place. For there, proudly displayed apart from the Ralph Lauren section and the pink skinny Levis are several racks of Joseph Abboud boys' suits.

Ironically, yesterday Bloomingdales was an afterthought, an 11th-hour brainstorm tacked on to our Bataan-like downtown shopping march at the last minute, just as we were ready to trudge home and order a second sober blue Nordstrom suit online -- to match the one the Jawa wore throughout the 2009-2010 B'nai Mitzvah season. Exhausted, short-tempered and hopeless, we were checking every single men's store downtown, since as far as we knew, only Nordstrom and Macy's had children's departments. We simply had no other choice: the Bar Mitzvah is less than two weeks away.

Already we'd nailed down a semi-casual Saturday night outfit, which featured a green Polo shirt whose significance hit me just now while folding laundry. Crank the clock back to the fall of 1981, when the just-employed and determinedly social-climbing me, with a pocket full of cash from my new job at Baskin-Robbins, set out for the Santa Ana Town & Country mall with one goal: to buy a Ralph Lauren Polo shirt.

Back then there was no "vintage" look, no "athletic fit." There was just the status implied by the simple, perfect logo: the rider on the horse, polo mallet drawn back, ready to strike. It was the culmination of a journey that began the year before, when I realized that a simple polo shirt was worthless -- or even counterproductive, an article of clothing that actually made you look worse, not better -- unless it bore the sewn-on alligator label of Rene LaCoste's Izod brand.

My mother is not a frivolous woman where money is concerned. In 1981, her track record included a yearly outlay of $15 for tennis shoes. Anything more came out of our birthday money or anything else we could scrape up on our own. In 1981, a Ralph Lauren Polo shirt cost $30, the equivalent, in our house, of two pairs of shoes.

The first one was red and smelled like Polo cologne. I brought it home and looked at it for the rest of the day, then proudly wore it to school the following morning. The skies did not open. Kris Erickson did not suddenly decide to go to Homecoming with me. The change was imperceptible, invisible to the rest of the world, but I could tell. And here the Jawa gets his first Polo shirt at age 13, begrudgingly, since as he says, "I'm just not a person who cares what they wear."

He's lying, by the way. Over the past month, he's worn a yellow t-shirt that says, "Six Flags" across the front at least 11 times.

Poor Harry Chappas; living in his efficiency unit in Florida, probably by now a licensed air conditioning repair specialist with little use for a nice, three-button summer weight suit. He's probably better off for it. It's bad enough that Bill Veeck treated him like a very tall dwarf. Nobody wants to see a 52-year-old man trying on suits in the boys section of Bloomingdales.

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