Old Clothes

L. Sprague de Camp was a science fiction and fantasy writer with a name you couldn’t make up. He also looked the part: tall, lean, with a goatee, you could imagine him fending off monsters with a sword. DeCamp went to Cal Tech, and, as an officer in the Naval Reserve during World War Two, collaborated with Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov on a radar-masking project at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Nothing much came of their efforts, but, having grown up in southern New Jersey and known some kids whose fathers worked in the Navy Yard, I enjoyed knowing that some of my literary heroes had briefly occupied a space near mine.

I had read some of de Camp’s work when he was just one of a number of writers in the book store’s science fiction section when, after the success in paperback of J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, he and fellow writer Lin Carter together dusted off and republished some of the older classics of the fantasy genre. and began to republish them as paperbacks. Because of de Camp and Carter, I read Lord Dunsany, Mervyn Peake and the founder of the contemporary horror genre. H.P. Lovecraft.

The books that really took off for de Camp and Carter were a series involving a crude, brawling, not-quite prehistoric oaf named Conan. Written by the long dead Texan Robert E. Howard, the Conan the Barbarian became even more famous when illustrated by Frank Frazetta, who imagined him as a body builder defending scantily clad damsels from ape-like ghouls and other nasty beasts.

When I found out de Camp lived in Villanova, Pennsylvania, I decided to interview him. I had written articles about science fiction previously for Philadelphia Magazine and others. The Sunday magazine of the Philadelphia Inquirer gave me the green light.

De Camp’s house was a Main Line mini-mansion on a very small plot of ground. De Camp was dignified and cordial. His wife Catherine drank a bit too much. When I mentioned that one of my favorite writers was R.A. Lafferty, de Camp lent me a book from his collection.

One thing de Camp said to me during the interview stuck with me: “When you’re a writer, you can wear out your old clothes.” Though he was elegant to English tweeds, he stated this with gusto, as if this were a perk on the level of having unlimited use of a corporate jet.

I should have identified this as the kind of posturing I’d heard from many in the creative fields, who mask the high degree of discomfort, insecurity, rejection, exploitation and low pay with self-aggrandizing bluster. But, as a person who considered himself a creative, and was certainly having his share of discomfort, insecurity, rejection and low pay, I found it all quite thrilling and, after our interview ended, resolved to wear out the few clothes I owned at the time.

As a fat kid, I hated shopping for clothes, especially that one dress outfit that every kid has to have. After a long, tedious hunt for baggy “husky” suits that almost fit, I’d have to wear the thing and stand in front of a three sided mirror while a tailor made strange marks on the cloth and stuck pins into strategic places. I hated the wool pants my parents preferred. They itched all the time.

In college, where everyone else was in blue jeans and flannel shirts, I had  “mod” department store duds. When these were devoured by dormitory washing machines. I was not sorry to see them go.

Later, while earning a whopping $25 and $50 for newspaper articles (I did earn more eventually), I had to buy clothing that lasted. I went through a “noir” period, wearing only black. I soon learned that there were many shades of black, some with more red, others with more blue, and that they faded oddly. I was slowly supplementing this with other colors and fabrics, mostly preppy earth tones in gabardines and corduroys.

I liked the idea of wearing the clothes out, instead of discarding them, as my more affluent acquaintances did when styles changed or they just got bored with “the look.” Fortunately for me, Ralph Lauren, capitalizing on the hippie affection for well-worn blue jeans, decided that clothing appeared to be lived in said more about the wearer than stuff that was fresh off the rack. So I just about fit in.

Then I found out something I did not expect: that it took a LONG time for clothes to wear out. And some fabrics felt better, like a comfortable shoe, as they aged.

I know have shirts in my closet that are older than my son. I have jackets and pants that hint at earlier fashion trends, but don’t look so out-of-date that I can’t pull them out occasionally, and enjoy the memories.

When I lived paycheck to paycheck, as many writers do, I had only one outfit for meeting editors, and a precious few for interviews, when dressing up, or down, can be a subtle way to encourage your sources to tell you what you want to know. For a while, I only had one pair of shoes. They got old quickly.

But I found that gentle joy in letting a garment become familiar, even loved. One of my hats cost $5 from a street vendor in Philadelphia–I bought it on a day when the wind was too cold on my balding head.  I have a shirt that reminds me of a hasty shopping trip in Quebec City when the airline lost my luggage. Another recalls a breezy night on a beach in Bermuda. A third was part of a survival kit given to me by Air France when weather stranded my wife and I in Paris. I have a few tweed jackets that made me look positively professorial when I taught at the University of Pennsylvania.

Faded, worn thin in places, they still feel good. They have become loyal companions, faithful friends.









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