By Dinah Lenney
Ingrate. My daughter the beautiful ingrate. It was supposed to have gone with her to college, to Boston. That was the plan, and she left it in her closet. Look here, my flight jacket, with the green ticket stub from the dry cleaner safety-pinned to one of the knit cuffs, which are brown and stretchy and ribbed, as is the waistband; guess I didn’t know any better when I was twenty-one, didn’t know I only wanted leather, all leather, nothing stretchy, nothing smacking of counterfeit. It was a find, a treasure, twenty bucks for a flight jacket in a narrow, basement shop on 77th St in 1978. Now—now I’d sniff—now I’d second-guess; now I haven’t the conviction to buy what I want, don’t even know what I want, can’t seem to choose, no joy in shopping anymore—but back then, oh my, I almost trusted myself. Now I’d turn up my nose at nylon or Banlon, or whatever it is; plus it doesn’t have one of those fake fur collars (and why is one synthetic suspect and the other worth salivating for?). Still. It has epaulets with snaps. More snaps on the flaps of the front pockets, and at the top and the bottom of the brass zipper, which has twice been replaced. Come to think of it, that stuff at the extremities is new, too, relatively-speaking; the original cuffs went years ago. Inside, the lining, a silk the color of a muddy cup of coffee, is frayed beyond salvation across the back of the neckline. The ancient label inside the collar says Fine Leather Wear, the L in red script and nearly invisible, superimposed over a bucking blue horse, Foster & Sons. Below that in block letters: Made in U.S.A.
My old flight jacket. So shabby I’ve had to stop wearing it; unbecoming for a woman of my age and station, married with children that is (a person who shows up to back-to-school nights and college information sessions), can't walk around in a jacket rubbed to raw, the sort of item another person might pull out of dumpster and keep in her shopping cart under the trestle at Sunset and Alvarado, where she lives because she lost her house (makes me think of that old refrain, There but for you go I...). Can’t wear it to work; can’t wear it out to dinner; can’t wear it to a black tie event with a little black dress—I’m just too old—can’t even wear it with jeans worn at the knees, which I also shouldn’t be wearing, don’t think I don’t worry about that, too. But imagine: I only figured out that my jacket was unrespectable—inappropriate—about a year ago; up until then it didn’t occur to me I needed something to cover my ass, something slightly more dignified. At which point I put my old friend in the back of the car to take to Good Will. Except I couldn’t part with it. Except Good Will wouldn’t have had it if I could. I brought it back to the house, laid it over the banister to be taken downstairs and hung in the dark of my closet.
But then: Eliza tripped down one day to ask where my leather jacket was and if it could be repaired. She pulled it out and modeled for me: my beautiful girl, who puts no premium on vintage, on cashmere darned at the elbows, on already-been-used—most especially on anything already used by me. And yet she wanted my jacket! It was cool, she said. Back into the car with me—with it—and over to the cleaners, where an Asian woman, herself partial to sequined sweaters, politely threw up her hands; couldn’t do a thing for it, she said, except to stitch it back together where the sleeves had come apart at the seams; and that for twice what the jacket had cost me a quarter century prior. I called Eliza from the counter to ask what she thought; it wouldn’t keep her warm or dry, after all, worn at the elbows to the thickness of a quality paper napkin. But she claimed she wanted it even so—and I was delighted; picked it up a few days later, all in one piece at least, draped in cellophane on a double wire hanger. And here it is. She left it home.
Thirty years ago, just out of college, I bought this jacket in that tiny junk shop, which means it was already soaked in secrets, reeking of the past, but who knows whose. I lived on Second Avenue in a sixth- floor walk-up. Waited tables at a comedy club on First, and dawdled my way down the two long avenue blocks to work, squandered my afternoons in the side-street storefronts, where I picked up old linens, handkerchiefs, mismatched glassware, costume jewelry, and ancient sheet music that might or might not serve as audition material (ballads were easy, but I was always on the look-out for a new up-tempo, sixteen bars nobody had ever heard before). June was hot, and July was hotter and August was the worst—nearly didn’t make it through August—didn’t know who I was or who I wanted to be, didn’t know how to live alone, how to feed myself, how to get through the long days till the night shift. Then came September and the smell of autumn in my nose, and even though, for the first time in memory, I wasn’t going back to school, I took comfort when the wind picked up and the temperature dropped. Must have been then, in September, that I found the jacket, in excellent condition, and just the thing to get me through the winter months, along with a white silk scarf (a single tea stain on the under side), and a black felt fedora.
And this I remember: I’d only had it for a week or so when my parents arranged to take me to dinner at the Cookery downtown, to catch Alberta Hunter, whom I wanted them to hear, whom I’d heard myself a half a dozen times, though I couldn’t afford it, though I had no business paying the cover, much less the minimum; I, with nothing in my fridge but a box of Wheat Thins, a six pack of Miller, and a jar of grey poupon. A blustery evening, and I put on my new old flight jacket and caught the subway at 77th and Lexington all the way down to 14th Street arriving at the restaurant somehow elated and unreasonably proud: That I knew my way around? That I had a job, an apartment, and a great, big dream? That I’d found myself a leather jacket, better than new, for twenty dollars even, no tax because I’d paid cash? My stepfather couldn’t get enough of my goings-on, whereas my mother was mildly irritated to think I was on a first name basis with the maitre de: “A person of your means, Dinah,” she murmured in disapproval, as he showed us to our ringside table.
We ordered, what? My favorites? Shrimp cocktail? Skinny fries? Stuffed mushrooms? My parents were buying—as they’ve done so many times before and since—and I sat between them, a celebrity for the evening, in spite of my otherwise dubious status in the world. I must have been desperately lonely, though I wouldn’t have said that was what ailed me at the time; but I remember now, as if I were eavesdropping—a stranger watching from a table in the corner—that I talked from the moment I sat down and right through the New York cheese cake; first, about my new purchase, which they’d admired right away; then, undoubtedly, about my job in the club; maybe about the smells and sounds that wafted up six flights from Second Avenue, about auditions at the Ansonia hotel and how I might want to do summer stock, about wanting to go to acting school; and yes, I was making my rent, and no, I wasn’t working too hard, I’d get by. And then—much too soon in all likelihood, since I was on a wonderful roll, such a relief to talk and talk—out came Alberta, well into her 80s, greeting me as if we were friends, blowing me a kiss with a bejeweled, brown hand. She started her set, strutted and swayed in place, one foot tapping, fingers snapping just off the beat -- and when she turned her head to wink at us now and then, her old earlobes were so long and so heavy, they followed behind her.
It’s only now—because I have a son who brims with news, revelations, observations, exuberance—that I have a real sense of the way my parents listened that evening; the way they’ve listened so many times before and since. I didn’t know what to do with all that stuff back then—to be an actor is to wait for permission to pour your intensity into a role, and the opportunities are few and far between. I didn’t understand that I had the wherewithal to buff the daily to a high sheen all by myself. My impulse was to take to the stage, to shout to anyone who would listen; to throw up every thought as if it would catch momentum, take on a life of its own, spin out into some pattern that signified. Signified, what? Meaning, import—inevitability, I guess. I must have supposed that if I talked loud enough—if I projected—my path would be revealed. Truth is, all those words flung every which way—they mostly evaporated, how not? More like soap bubbles than balls, or plates, or whirling batons. Meanwhile, I only pretend I know what we talked about that night—what I talked about—in truth I don’t really remember. How can I? It's not like I wrote it down.
But one moment stays absolutely true and clear, as if it had only just happened: Was it towards the end of the set? Was it the encore, perhaps? I want to say it was. Alberta stopped swaying, stood perfectly still at the mike, and sang “The Glory of Love.” And when she got to the bridge, Ron reached across the table, over my plate and glass, without looking at me, and took my mother’s hand.
As long as there's the two of us,
We've got the world and its charms.
And when the world is through with us,
We've got each other's arms.
You've got to win a little, lose a little,
Always have the blues a little.
That's the story of, that's the glory of love.
In that instant, I felt silly and extraneous and young; as aware of my parents as they were suddenly oblivious to me; two people in the middle of a sustained and exclusive conversation—I just happened to be there, just happened to get a glimpse and a glimmer of a panorama that I couldn't have understood fully, not at the time. Isn’t it funny, if not for that one moment—between them—I’m sure I wouldn’t remember the rest of the evening at all. The beginning of my life—and the life of a second-hand flight jacket—underscored for all time with a single image that had nothing whatsoever to do with me.
Dinah Lenney wrote Bigger than Life (University of Nebraska Press) and co-authored Acting for Young Actors. Her essays have appeared in The Kenyon Review Online, Water~Stone, AGNI, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and elsewhere. She teaches in the Bennington Writing Seminars, the Rainer Writing Workshop, and the Master of Professional Writing program at USC. (updated 12/2010)