The Case of the Bar Mitzvah Suit

It Still Doesn’t Suit Me

February 1959: Twice assured that I had on clean underwear and matching white socks, my mother checked my fingernails. We were going to buy a suit for my bar mitzvah. My first suit.

Driving through the maze of neat ranch houses and pedicured lawns in our suburban Long Island development, I tried to describe the "Philip Gaynor Look" to my mother, but she kept her eyes on the road, nodding just like she did whenever my father told her stuff she already knew. For the record, Philip Gaynor was my best friend's older brother, a junior at Wheatley High.

As we entered the dark cool Eliot Shop off Northern Boulevard, I felt her cold fingers on my neck ushering me to the back near the dressing room. She was all business sorting through the rack, re-arranging the five dark sleeves from which I was supposed to choose one. My heart sank at the sight of suits my father might wear. I shrugged, eyes pooling.

"Try one on, just for size," she said. A salesman hurried over, baggy pants flopping over his brown shoes, "Just for size, young man. You don't have to get it."

I was old enough to know what they were doing, but too young to stop it. I knew then that I would end up with the same suit I tried on, so I tugged on the least old man-ish one of the five.  My mother said it was charcoal grey and very handsome.

The salesman held out the jacket like a matador holds a cape.  As soon as I was locked in, he jerked down the back, walked around to the front and tugged at the lapels, then the sleeves, then buttoned all three buttons despite my protestations that I would never button my jacket.

"Perfect!" he exclaimed to my mother. I was then handed the slacks and ordered into the changing room while the tailor was located. The slacks were two feet too long, baggier than my pajamas, and the crotch was located somewhere near my knees.

I padded out of the dressing room with a wad of grey material bunched around my white socks and a silly grin on my face, anticipating the howls of laughter when they realized their error.

"Gudt!" spat out the short, balding tailor, pins between his shadowy lips. He also wore baggy pants; his sleeves were rolled and his tie loosened. He said, "Get up there," pointing to the carpeted riser.

The man then put his stubby fingers through the belt loops near my hips and hiked the pants up just below my nipples. "Dat's not vere a man vears his pants, sonny--on your vaist!"

"But I don't--"

"You'll vear 'em dere," followed by another tug on the belt loops.

Next he slid the yellow tape measure from around his neck, pressed one end all the way up my thigh and slid the other down to my ankle making me bend over, a shocked giggle at this invasion of my private parts. "Straighten up, sonny!" he scolded.

I straightened up, turning for support to my mother who was then busy fussing with things in her purse. “Remember, ma?” I sputtered, “I want 13 inch cuffs?”  

“Vat?” said the tailor.  

“Thirteen inch cuffs,” I mumbled, “all the kids—“

"No!" he cut me off. "Dese aren't dunkarees, sonny. You vant to be a man, you dress like a man!"

He then solemnly scratched his hieroglyphics all over the material with a thin sliver of chalk and, when he was finished, took my limp palm as if we were shaking hands: "I'll make y'adeal, sonny. I'll make 'em 18 inches!"

At my bar mitzvah a month later I looked like I had gone up to our hot attic and slipped on something father wore to work--big padded shoulders, oversized pants up to my chest, and enormous cuffs that fell like living room drapes around my shiny black shoes. All day, which included the unrelenting demand for manly handshakes from smirking uncles and old men I didn’t know, I felt like a boy in a man's clothes. Not a vision of coolness like Philip Gaynor. That night I hung the suit in my closet, never again taking it off the hanger.

It is now fifty years after that still indefinable defining day of manhood. As a career teacher I have gotten by with the usual worn sport coat, frayed at the collar, colored t-shirt look.  As a writer I have eked by with considerably less.

  And in all that time--while high school, college, marriage, the births of seven children and twelve grandchildren have whisked by like telephone poles on a speeding train—I have only had occasion to buy three more "good suits"—a wedding here, a funeral there, a bar mitzvah somewhere.

One would assume that the events of one disappointing day in 1959 would be long forgotten amidst the greater, more soul rending, disappointments to follow in anyone’s life. Yet three times, separated by three decades, as I approached some generic men’s department in some non-descript mall somewhere, I instantly recalled the dizzying thoughts of the boy who once yearned for the suave coolness that a signature Philip Gaynor suit might bring to his fashionless life.

And three times, as I glared down at the least disappointing suit off another disappointing rack, I found myself blindsided by a salesman appearing from behind a curtain from my past: "Try it on ... just for size."

And so three times, moments away from my hand slipping into the cool silk inner sleeve of a suit that would never really fit me but I would buy, I heard the voice of that long dead tailor: “You vant to be a man, you dress like a man!"

Seat me at the head of the table, stand me behind a roto-tiller, place me underneath a sleeping baby, on top of a leaking roof. Let me read you a poem, plunge your toilet, rock you to sleep, yell at you for being out past curfew, hold you close, be your lover.  I have known enough of life and death, ecstasy and despair, the suffocating heat of love, the bone-knocking chill of loneliness to know my place as a man in this world.  

Put me in a suit, though, "Just for size," and I still shrink into myself, a little boy out in the big cold world.