I have a long, involved past with hand-me-down coats.
My best childhood friend was a boy who had a sister two or three years older than we were. Twice a year, white kitchen garbage bags would arrive in my living room, gripped at the bulging tops with twist ties. Being the recipient of such generous hand-me-downs made me feel like I was on a treasure hunt.
I don’t remember those earliest cast-offs, but I can recall some highlights along the way. A white coat of very faux fur, complete with hood, appeared somewhere around the winter of third grade. As a high schooler, when my sister worked for a university, I got first dibs on the things her students left behind at the end of the semester. A sparkling cocktail dress I wore in a school play. Polka-dotted wellingtons.
And a plain black wool coat. Ladylike. Mature. Boring. But it was free!
I didn’t realize the power of a new, expensive coat until my first birthday after college. I wanted a warmer upgrade to my plain black coat, which had a rip in the lining that I kept resewing every few months; my mother obliged. In early fall, Mom and my sister and I headed to Macy’s.
I probably tried on 16, maybe 17 coats before I found the winner: a classic pea coat by Guess. It was double-breasted, had a hood, and swung just a little around the hem. If you could fall in love with an item of clothing, I was head over heels.
The new coat had a rule: I wore it to work, the grocery store, the mall — everywhere but the bar. If I was going out with friends, the old black coat came out of the shadows. I wasn’t going to risk spills or theft. I wasn’t going to treat a new coat that way.
Until one night, I did.
We hit the town on a bitterly cold Saturday night to celebrate a friend’s birthday. “It won’t be that crowded,” I justified as I buttoned up. “Plus, isn’t there a coat check?”
Skip up to 1 a.m. as I frantically searched through a pile of coats on a table: all black, mostly wool, all nearly impossible to see in the dim light of a bar that had a tendency to project extremely violent films on the wall, regardless of the music selection.
It was gone.
I examined each tag, squinting in the light of the projector. It was definitely gone. I hurried home in the cold in just my shirt sleeves, teeth chattering the whole way.
As soon as the bar opened the next day, I swung by to harass the staff about its lost and found, but I knew the answer before she even opened the closet. There was one coat. Black. Wool. Typical. It only had half its buttons. But it had a Guess tag on the inside. Either someone had some major beer goggles last night when she grabbed for a coat, or she took the opportunity to snag an upgrade of her own. I heaved a sigh and took the old coat. It would have to do.
It mostly fit, the consolation coat, so I tried to make the most of it. I went to the craft store one night and spent 10 bucks on all new buttons to spruce it up.
“You can never tell my mother about this,” I warned my roommate as I sewed each button. “We can never tell her my brand-new coat got stolen.”
A month later, I went back to the same neighborhood with the same group of friends for a night of dancing. I wouldn’t have a worry in the world: I knew this place had a staffed coat check. The check tag in my jeans pocket felt like a safety net.
Skip up to 1 a.m. again. The bar was clearing out, but coat check couldn’t find my coat. A friend’s coat had gone AWOL, too. But when you check a coat, there’s often a sign that announces the facility isn’t liable for theft or loss.
I never thought it would happen to me, but I was down another coat. Two coats. Two months. I felt so defeated.
I could never tell my mother about this. We had worked too hard for my whole childhood to buy the things we needed most and get the rest from friends or yard sales. We drove cars until they nickeled and dimed us. We didn’t turn on the air conditioner until July. We were so careful to not let money get the best of us.
I was wracked with guilt. This foray into responsible adulting was a total fail.
I waited a few years before I replaced my old wool coat once and for all. I didn’t think I deserved to have something new. I thought I deserved to have a 10-year-old coat that was, by this time, missing a sleeve lining due to an incident involving my clumsy limbs.
But I finally did it. I stopped trawling thrift stores and talked myself into buying a new coat, for real. It would have all its buttons and wouldn’t need to be cleaned and the lining would be firmly in place. It would be mine. On the day I purchased my new charcoal gray, double-breasted wool coat, I was so proud that I asked the cashier to cut the tags so I could wear it right out of the store.
Maybe if I had lost a shirt or a pair of jeans, I wouldn’t have been so upset and embarrassed. (Actually, I probably would have been more embarrassed, with a more salacious story to tell.) But something about a warm winter coat can make you feel safe and protected. After I lost two coats in a row, I didn’t feel safe. I didn’t trust myself to take good care of myself. It was a quiet wake-up call, but one that haunted me for too many years.
I still have a back-up coat, one I picked out from the thrift store. But I seek hooks at bar tops or drape my coat over my stool before sitting down. I often find myself with one hand on wool, just checking to make sure my coat is safe and sound.
But I never did tell my mom. Until now. I like to think she’ll forgive me.