Sunday, August 28, 2011

Second Hand

Did the writer David Sedaris really get pubic lice from a pair of jeans he bought in a second hand store? Liina and I have debated it ad nauseum, and she says he’s lying. I say pubic lice are inevitable if you try on enough pairs of jeans.

Public lice, the tiny, six-legged critter — “crabs” as they're popularly known — are generally transmitted through the intermingling of pubic jungles during sexual intercourse. And though it’s more rare, they can indeed spread through contact with toilet seats, sheets, blankets, bathing suits, or even jeans.

Thanks to Sedaris, for years I shied away from second hand shops. But thanks to Estonia, recently I returned.

For reasons I should not disclose, I have the occasional need to wear a uniform. Whether one needs to appear to be an Army General, customs worker, medical doctor, airport runway technician, or American TV news cameraman, the second-hand shop USA Today near the Tallinn Väike rail station has an outfit for the occasion. It didn’t take me long to find the toxic waste disposal worker uniform I desired. It was even in my size.

But I discovered other treasures, too. There was a Mossimo corduroy jacket and L.L. Bean lined trousers for winter. Joseph A. Banks dress shirts were abundant in my size. Some were new, some were close to new, and each was something around five euros.

I took some comfort in the fact that David Sedaris never got crabs from a shirt. But just in case, I tried them on with a tshirt underneath, removed them as quickly as possible, and washed them in hot water at home before wearing.

USA Today piqued my curiosity. If the Americans were sending perfectly good Joseph A. Banks dress shirts, what might the Europeans be sending? This led me to Humana where I found trousers in my size, as well as several sport coats which were of higher quality than most of what you find at Stockmann. One of them fit me. And only ten euros. No kidding.

Two weeks later, wearing my new-to-me jacket, I saw my friend Alan at a party. I admired him greatly, not only because he was an intellectual who had tackled Estonian literature’s most massive translation project, but because, sartorially speaking, he had the disheveled professor look down pat.

Perhaps I am only trying to justify my own less-than-neat appearance, but if a man’s clothes have just the right amount of wrinkles, if his hair is such that he won’t get a job modeling for Supercuts, and if he isn’t completely drunk, then you know he is likely a man to be reckoned with, a man who cannot be bought and sold. “That’s a beautiful jacket, Vello,” Alan clapped me on the back. “You think the shop has one in my size?”

I told him I was pretty sure Humana didn’t, but said if the jacket would fit him then I’d give it to him right then and there. (I meant what I said, but I was safe; Alan was at least one-and-a-half of me.) Alan’s approval set me on an even deeper second hand course.

I admit that I first viewed second hand as a chance to reduce the burden of my annual provisioning trip to the west: fly out with no suitcases and return with your maximum allowance. (Why shop Estonia? Buy your stuff in the west, and the savings easily pay for the plane ticket.)

But while the seeds of my second-hand habit may lie in the fact that I’m a cheap bastard, they quickly grew into something Zen. Buying second hand offered instant relief from the burden of things.

If I decide I don’t like the pattern of my shirt, or if it’s slightly too long in the sleeves, then I give it to the Salvation Army. If my son throws up on my Nautica pants, so what? If someone praises my jacket or tie, I may take it off and give it to him in a grand, Gandhiesque gesture.

But despite my Zen level, there is the occasional trauma.

I recently bought a pair of jeans from Humana. I tried them on briefly in the store, but with Sedaris’ words in the back of my mind I removed them as quickly as possible.

When I got home, I washed them at the highest temperature and then proudly showed them to Liina. “Calvin Klein!” I told her, sashaying around the living room as if I were Carmen Kass on a Paris catwalk.

She hardly looked up from her book.

I preened in front of the mirror, tugging at the jeans. Something wasn’t quite right. The zipper seemed a bit high to allow freedom for urination, but wasn’t this how designer jeans were supposed to be? I recalled the credo of Fernando Álvaro Lamas: It is better to look good than to feel good.

The jeans hung in my closet for a week. For some reason, I could not bring myself to wear them. They did not look bad on me, certainly, but they didn’t look good, either.

One day, two gay friends were visiting, and I showed them the jeans and explained my reservations.

“These are women’s jeans,” Martin declared instantly.

“That’s right,” agreed Mattias, “You’re wearing girl’s jeans.” He snickered in an overly theatrical manner.

I was slightly offended. “Just because you guys are gay doesn’t mean you know shit about clothing.”

“Oh, yeah?” Martin countered. “Then why did you show them to us.”

“Look!” Mattias snatched the jeans from my hands and flung them open on the kitchen table. “You think you can get your tool out with that tiny zipper? No way, mister.”

“And look at the hips!” cried Martin. “They’re wide. For women. Are your hips wide, Vello?”

Mattias began prying around inside the jeans. “See? Size 14! Women’s.”

“I’ve tried on the jeans,” I said, “and they aren’t wide in the hips. And the sizing could be because they’re designer jeans. Also, they were in the men’s department.”

At this both Mattias and Martin howled. “Well,” shrieked Martin, “those clothing experts at the second hand store surely know!”

“Wear women’s jeans if you want then,” said Mattias, folding his hands across his chest in a case-closed gesture.

“No one will notice,” added Martin. “Probably.”

I took the jeans from them and told them they knew so little about clothing that they were going to lose their homosexual licenses. Later that night I scoured the internet for information on Calvin Klein size 14 jeans. Everything I found was for women.

I wondered if I might not give them away to some unsuspecting friend. But how Gandhiesque would the gesture appear if I didn’t take them off my own body to give them away? And wouldn’t someone have to first express interest in them? I might be waiting a very long time.

The next day, I quietly took them to the Salvation Army. “These are women’s jeans,” I told the girl working there, so she wouldn’t make the mistake of putting them in the men’s section.

She gave me a strange look. “Of course they are,” she said.

“I washed them, too,” I added. “Just so nobody will get crabs.” Then I turned on my heel and marched out the door.