Like so many dads, I find myself this past Sunday in an outlet mall with my elbows hooked around the back of a bench while my girls diminish my net wealth by the millisecond. There’s a heightened sense of urgency around back to school shopping this year for three reasons: the hurricane wiped out a whole week of buying, the first day of autumn came early and ushered in a chill that invalidated our shorts, and one daughter is obsessed with getting her look right as she steps into high school for the first time.
As they ping-pong between stores and the bags at my feet pile up, I can’t help but be envious at the choices they have at this age. Both girls are zaftig, just like their mom and dad were in their teens. Unlike them, I didn’t have much decision in clothes at a time I needed it the most.
We certainly didn’t benefit from the proliferation of cheap Chinese clothing or sympathetic designers that catered to plus-sized teens back in the Seventies. Then there was the small matter of budget: any extra money Mom and Dad had when I was growing up either got sent home to their parents in Ireland or toward a fund to spring us out of the cramped two-family house in Jersey City and into the suburbs.
When you were an irregular shape, you had two choices: the hand-me-downs from my older cousin Robert or the husky section of Sears. Like my brother Brendan, Rob had a wiry, athletic build, so my brother usually benefited from Rob’s clothes pile.
Vertigo was the best way to describe the dizzying effect the loud checkered patterns had when stacked next to one another on the racks at Sears. The Toughskin jean was the fabric of choice for your favorite fatty, according to the sadistic designers that thought putting loud patterns on a wide rump would look attractive.
I remember how well Sears touted the new line of Toughskins children’s pants as “The toughest of Sears tough jeans…lab tests prove it!” The pants were manufactured with a blend of materials, including Dacron Type 59 polyester, DuPont 420 nylon, and cotton. If the cotton part makes you think the fabric was breathable, think again. And good look trying to bend your knees in them the first few months after purchase!
To demonstrate just how tough the new jeans were, Sears launched a famous “Tough Jeans Territory” ad campaign in 1974, in which the department store constructed a trampoline out of the Toughskin material. Sears was so sure of the new line of pants that they were sold with a guarantee that children would grow out of their Toughskin jeans before the jeans wore out!
That was all my mother had to see. Durability was the most important feature for my mom because there wasn’t a lot of money to spend and the chore of trying to shoe-horn my flab into new back to school gear was the kind of torture she would endure but once a year.
Altering this tough fabric was impossible. Mom would either slice the fabric with industrial sewing scissors that left a jagged edge of a hem or she’d make a cuff by rolling the seem away from my shoelaces.
Through countless years of continuous overtime work at the NJ Turnpike, my father had finally saved enough to move one summer and when I stepped into my new suburban school that September, I was a sight to behold.
Two wires strained to pull the tombstone buck teeth back into a mouth, which was situated below the bowl haircut and just above the pillowy double chin. My pale flesh spilled like an albino muffin top over the unforgiving fabric, which resisted the flab avalanche with the aid of a thick white belt. Of course, I was the laughingstock of the school while my wiry brother assimilated by scoring countless goals with the soccer team.
I took a job on a lawn service one summer and lost weight, which allowed me to fit in. Today, I just try to fit into a plane seat because I now look like the thin lawn boy Mike if he had taken on water-bloat after his lifeless self was dredged from the bottom of a lake.
“I saw some nice shirts in there,” my wife said gamely, glancing over to the Guess outlet. I know better than to waste the energy to move from the bench. I know Guess makes those “slim fit” shirts, that have no tolerance for distended stomachs like mine. If they come up with a “husky” section, maybe they’ll get my business during the next back to school season.