A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
“I’m living with my cousin now in Union Beach. Not great, but her husband left her, and we kind of take care of each other now.” Molly’s hair was a wispy whitish-yellow, long and untrimmed. “I had this house all my life,” she told me, “but I can’t get that damned governor to give me what I’m due.” While she talked, she picked through the boxes on the sidewalk, the remains of what had been her home.
We talked about Jersey politics, about the Hurricane Sandy relief that got bunged up like a log jam from the mountains, the money stuck somewhere in Trenton and not flowing to the shore. She wasn’t angry as she spoke. It was more like exhausted resignation.
Why was I hanging out with her? Curiosity? Maybe. A sense of my own dislocation? Physically, socially, in terms of class? Literally, I was buying plates from her–she was selling what had not been destroyed–but I’d stuck around after giving her cash and stashing the box in the back of my old Subaru.
I had family who lived in Union Beach until they either died or all moved away. Union Beach was a lower and working class beach town, something I sensed even as a girl visiting Aunt Sissy and her extended family there. While my family had gotten out of Jersey City to Middlesex county, my mother’s sister, Mary, had stayed, but traveled to work as a maid in Rumson, and her sister Sissy, had moved to Union Beach, just north of Seabright and right on the ocean. Though being able to walk to the beach had seemed fabulous to me, there was a palpable sense of poverty, a bleakness, and unkempt and unmaintained-ness that, even as a girl, I sensed made this not a great place to be after all.
But I had spent some time in Union Beach, and half of the town had been underwater in the Hurricane, and so when Molly told me she had moved in with her cousin—to get away from her own destroyed Seabright house—in the equally blighted Union Beach, I couldn’t help but feel a kind of sympathy, as well as the irony: instead of being lifted from one class to another, which is the American Dream, after all, Molly had found herself moved horizontally from one shitty house in a lower class community to another.
Unlike the rich, with their multiple houses and great insurance, who, if their beach houses had been wrecked, were now being rebuilt with gleaming new counters and five star appliances. Or, even better, they were buying houses like Molly’s on the cheap and rehabbing them to flip at three and four or five times the purchase or renting to summer visitors.
For the Mollys of the world, there was no way up or out. Just over.
“No place to even put these planters,” she told me, moving some wheeled pots to the curb. “but I like to garden. It’s a shame.”
We commiserated about the gardening problems locally. Talked about the dying bees. The use of pesticides.
She puttered about the sidewalk moving stuff. This thing from this box to another, and so on. Checking her phone often for Face Book page messages.
That’s when I noticed the army pants. Thick green military wool. Clearly from one of the World Wars. I think American, but am not sure. It is something another person might research, compare linings, style and construction, stitching, but it isn’t the history or collectability that drew me to the pants.
The wool was scratchy and rough against my palm.
“Where did you get these,” I asked Molly.
She nodded for me to pick them up. In my hands, they unrolled to the ground, the cuff near my ankle. The man who’d worn these couldn’t have been much taller than me.
“You can have them,” she said.
It hadn’t occurred to me, but now I held them against my pelvis, the high waist against my belly, the button fly. “These are great,” I said. “Thank you.”
“They look like they should fit.”
I mumbled agreement. Something about the pants moved me.
It wouldn’t be until later at home when I slipped my legs inside them that I felt my body slipping inside someone else’s, as if their bones and flesh were still present, and I was pulling them on over my own.
When I buttoned the fly, and felt my hip bones settle in their sockets, a widening out happened, against what I normally feel, which is that I always want to make my hips appear as slender as I can. Instead, they seemed full and wide and supportive, and I felt as if my legs under me didn’t end in pretty feet or delicate ankles (which I don’t have, but always wish for), but somehow felt solid and competent and able to march far distances.
This is not what I mean, really. Not that I imagined being a soldier, not that I imagined being strong and masculine. Instead, I felt as if time slid sideways, that the boundaries between people and times were somehow porous, and that this rough textile, this made thing that clothed I don’t know how many people before me, was a kind of portal. Many bodies, many times.
I don’t care about the historical accuracy of place and time so much as a caring about a kind of emotional and empathetic residue. I am not the first to wear these pants, but I am likely to the last who will. And I do wear them every winter. And they are very warm indeed.
This is not unlike the houses, it occurs to me. Where once Lenni Lenape or Navasink Indians set up tents in warm weather, whites came and built houses, some summer estates, some working class modest homes, all looking for respite from the heat and mosquitoes inland.
All of those people having fragile bodies, all suffering, all beautiful in their suffering.
I couldn’t say any of this to Molly, and I never saw her again. I never told her the tomato plants didn’t do well that summer nor that I have given up gardening and just buy my produce at Sickles Market. My neighbors, lawyers, doctors, social workers have all seen me in my WW II army pants. They never say anything. They are wearing technical or ski clothing mostly.
We all feel self-sufficient. Each house with its own driveway, lawn, our lawn mower and snow blowers (or we pay others to maintain our lawns and clear our snow, the fact of having the disposable income to pay others to do that work for us a sign of our solvency). To be fair, most of my neighbors actually shovel, though increasingly they own snow blowers as more snowstorms happen in Jersey and with more frequency. Just as after Hurricane Sandy when household generators became the major Christmas gift that year from finance husbands to stay at home wives (inground generators for the big Mcmansions start at $10K), snowblowers have been hot items.
My husband and I don’t own a snowblower, and we have pretty much given up shoveling. The US mail won’t deliver if you don’t, but not much of interest comes by snail mail anymore anyway, at least nothing that can’t wait until the snow melts a day or two later.
But we do go out and frolic with the kids in the snow and talk to our neighbors and marvel at the trees—we have great trees on the Peninsula, beautiful oaks and sycamores and weeping beeches—and wander around a bit in a state of wonder.
That’s what those pants do for me; they make me wonder. Not just think and ruminate, but make me feel. Make me experience a state of wonder. That’s why I spent that morning with Molly. To stand inside a place and in a person’s presence in wonder, as well as in empathy. How our lives connect somewhere—Union Beach, our interest in gardening—and yet how they are so separate.
It’s why I know that self-sufficiency is a myth. Even if it were not about the issues of food production and sustainability, of economics and markets, we simply are not alone, not even in our own bodies, which are made of the same elements that everyone around us is made of including, even, ocean, and sky, things we take for granted and don ‘t think of as matter.
Things that have lived and then died.
Like whomever wore these pants. Maybe they died in war. Maybe not. Maybe they came home and had kids and drank whiskey and played poker and raised tomatoes and dogs and died of lung cancer because they smoked Marlboros their whole life. Or maybe they never married and lived until 90 volunteering in a local library. Who knows?
But someone raised the sheep that the wool was made from. Someone designed, assembled, sewed those pants, sold them, transported them, issued them to the first soldier who wore them. The pants, a body in them, traveled somewhere, made it back without a tear or without moth damage. They have been in drawers and boxes, they ended up in Seabright, and then in my befuddled hands and on my body.
Excerpt from My Life in Other People’s Clothes: copyright 2015 Laura McCollough.
— Laura McCullough