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From rags to riches to rags

March 5, 2010

In Yiddish, the word for rag is "Shmatta" - a word I've always loved for a bunch of reasons.

First, it has a neat sound, with its "sh" beginning and that double-t (which is apronounced with a super sharp "t," as Shmah-Ta, and never, ever Shmadda).

Next, it can be used literally or figuratively, referring either to an actual rag (as in, "Gimme a shmatta so I can wipe up this mess, willya?"). Or it can refer to a piece of ragged clothing (as in, "You mean you're going to calling hours wearing that shmatta?").

We have these same uses with the English word "rag," but "shmatta" has a further, ironic usage.

Say, for example, I just spent a fortune on a custom-designed and tailored suit and I run into you the first time I wear it. You're completely knocked out by it - as I'd wanted you, and everyone else, to be.

"Where-where-wherever did you get that gorgeous suit?" you manage to gasp.

"Oh, this?" I say, shrugging. "Just some shmatta I found in the closet."

Now let me tell you about my favorite sweater, which is the n'est plus ultra of shmattas - and not in any ironic sense.

I've no idea where I got it, other than in some thrift shop. I know that because that's where I get all my favorite clothes. And why not? Let's get real: Buying new clothes is not only expensive - it's also no fun. But getting a screaming deal on some fine threads that keep me in The Style To Which I'm Accustomed not only gives me the je ne sais quoi I'm famous for, but it also reinforces my joy of once more pulling a fast one on the free enterprise system.

And ultimately, it's an act of patriotism, giving my money directly to an American independent business person, rather than sending it to the U.S.'s garment district - now located somewhere in China, Mexico, Sri Lanka or the like.

My philosophy of clothes shopping can best be summed up by Listen's, a great thrift shop in White River Junction whose motto is, "Friends don't let friends buy retail."


The search

Anyhow, as for my sweater? The poor thing has not only seen better days - it's seen better decades. At this point, the cuffs are hanging by a thread, literally; the armpits are air-conditioned, and what isn't frayed is stretched and sagging.

I made a concession to its sad state by not wearing it in public, but a month ago the brutal reality hit home - I had to replace it.

I was walking by a mirror when out the corner of my eye I saw a weird figure. I turned and looked full on and suddenly realized that weird figure was me. I also realized it didn't make me look merely ragged and forlorn, but criminally insane as well.

Once the shock subsided, I realized it was Time. Still, knowing it and acting on it are two different things. I knew I was going to get a new sweater (that is, new to me - not brand new) I just wasn't ready to do it.

A few weeks passed as I underwent my grieving process and finally NS-Day had arrived. It was a Wednesday morning and I was off to the Budget Box to score my new threads.

As I went up the walkway I spotted a small sign on the lawn: "Today Only: Everything Half-Price!"

Ah-ha, I thought, not merely a sign, but a sign from On High which was only appropriate for a thrift store connected to a church.


The find

When it comes to sweaters I have one ironclad rule - they have to be wool. And that means 100 percent wool. As far as I'm concerned, wool is the miracle fiber and to mix it with anything else is not only counter-productive but a travesty as well.

At one time my fussiness was no problem since almost all sweaters were 100 percent wool anyway. But now it seems most are either acrylic, a wool/acrylic mix, or - if you can believe it - cotton. A cotton sweater? To me a cotton sweater is as absurd as wool lingerie: Neither one serves its intended purpose.

So there I was in the BB checking out a pile of sweaters atop a rack. They were slim pickings indeed. There weren't many of them, to begin with, and all of them were either acrylic or cotton.

Ever philosophic, I gave a manly shrug and turned to leave and as I did, what did I see hanging on the wall? The Grail, that's what!

It was a gorgeous Irish fisherman's sweater - all wool, brand new, even made in Ireland. The original price was a pittance, but with a 50 percent discount it was highway robbery. I snatched it, handed Ollie Forth my money, and then diddy-bopped out of there before they realized what a killing I'd made. There may be honor among thieves, but I've never seen it. I've never modeled it either.

So now my sweater problems are over, right? Wrong.

All I did was trade in one sweater problem for another.

See, as beautiful as my new sweater is, it's no replacement for my old shmatta, precisely because it IS new and beautiful. You don't think I'm going to risk snagging it, spilling coffee, soup, or spaghetti on it, or otherwise messing it up, do you? Of course not.

Thus my new sweater won't hit the informal comfort level of my other sweater for years - if ever. In the meantime, its wearing will be restricted to the usual highbrow events and affairs of state I'm known to frequent.

And until I do find the replacement?

Well, my shmatta sweater, while mortally wounded, is still a ways from its decease, so I'll wear it on the home front.

My "dilemma" shows the two different worlds of sweaters.

It also shows why, ultimately, I've got the best of both of them.



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