By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, January 25, 1941.
“The funniest thing,” said Jimmie Frise, “is the effect the uniform has on men.”
“I’d be as proud as a rooster,” I informed him, “if they’d let me back into it.”
“I don’t mean that,” explained Jimmie. “What I mean is, some of the finest looking men, the minute they put on uniform, look like tramps. And some of the dowdiest looking men of my acquaintance, as soon as they don uniform, turn out to be Adonises.”
“It’s perfectly simple,” I explained. “The uniform is standardized. Thus, the guy who could cover up his physical imperfections as to shoulders or legs by choosing artfully tailored clothes is shown up in his true light when he puts on uniform. And many a man who is physically perfection has never had the taste or the money to buy the clothes that would show him off.”
“Besides, in uniform,” said Jim, “you can’t slouch around. I think good appearance is mostly a matter of tidiness anyway. It isn’t the quality of the clothes. It’s the way you keep them.”
“The reason I wear such loud clothes,” I confided, “is because I am really so shy. I want people to look at my clothes, rather than at me, see?”
“Who ever would have thought of that?” cried Jim. “I bet you were a funny looking soldier.”
“Before I got to France.” I admitted, “my size kind of caused a snicker. I was only five foot two and seven-eighths. And I only weighed 106 pounds and 11 ounces.”
“You have the fractions,” said Jim.
“A man my size always has to use the fractions,” I pointed out. “But once I got to France there were no more snickers. I am told that plenty of big 200-pound comrades of mine used to say their prayers at night in the trenches and ask God to make them little like me.”
“I guess small men are handiest in war,” agreed Jim. “But suppose you had been a private soldier. How would you have got a uniform to fit you?”
“I was a private soldier,” I informed him. “For six weeks. By that time they couldn’t find a uniform small enough, so they made me a lieutenant and told me to go and buy my own uniform.”
“So that’s why so many famous generals are small men,” exclaimed Jimmie.
“Listen,” I said, “do you realize why I have worked so hard all my life? Do you know what boiled me full of ambition to make money? Just the fact that in Toronto street cars my feet do not touch the floor when I am sitting on the seats. So I just had to have a motor car. You have no idea what a spur it is to be a runt.”
“You don’t wear high heels,” remarked Jim, studying my boots.
“No, sir,” I assured him. “When you are a shorty, the trick is to pretend you don’t care. The smartest thing to do is to wear clothes that accentuate your shortness.”
We’re All Self-Conscious
“What the heck,” scoffed Jimmie. “Who cares how big you are? Anyway, who looks at you?”
“Oh, we’re all self-conscious about something,” I declared. “Big men are often more self-conscious than little men. I once had a big man six feet four and 300 pounds of muscle tell me almost in tears about how self-conscious he was. He said every time there was a dog-fight or whenever a drunk made a scene on a street car, everybody looked at him in expectation. He is scared of dogs and hates drunks. He is just a big, shy man. Yet whenever there is any trouble, the whole world looks to him to make a hero of himself.”
“By George, I never thought of that,” said Jim.
“He said he got so he was scared to go out, scared to walk the street, scared to go anywhere,” I described, “for fear of some trouble arising that everybody would expect him to deal with because of his size. That’s being self-conscious.”
“Nobody would ever expect you to jump in and stop a fight,” agreed Jim.
“And that’s why, if I do jump in, I’m a heck of a hero,” I explained. “You don’t know what an awful temptation it is to a little man to jump in and be a hero. That’s what makes us self-conscious. Self-consciousness, after all, is just fear. What we are scared of makes us self-conscious. If I am scared of being poor, I try to look rich. And if I am scared people will find out I am rich, I try to look poor. Life is very complicated.”
“It sure is,” admitted Jimmie. “But the good old uniform makes life a lot simpler for a great many of us. Personally, I wasn’t a bad looking soldier.”
“You’re one of those men, Jim,” I confessed, “who looks the same whether he is in a business suit, a pair of overalls or a nightshirt.”
“I wore overalls,” said Jimmie, “the first 16 years of my life, around the farm. And I’m proud of it.”
“So you should be,” I stated. “In fact, one of my Christmas presents this year was a suit of overalls. $2.95. I bought them myself and sent them up to the house anonymously.”
“What the dickens do you want overalls for?” demanded Jim.
“They are the greatest things in the world,” I informed him, “for fishing, rabbit shooting, gardening and pattering around the car. They are warm. They keep rain off you. They keep you clean. But, most of all, they have a curious psychic effect on people like me. My ancestors all wore overalls. And the minute I put mine on, I suddenly feel capable. All my city-bred helplessness vanishes. This past month I have learned more about the engine in my car than I ever learned before. Why? Because I had overalls on. And my mind seemed to work.”
“Such stuff,” said Jim.
“It’s a fact, Jim,” I assured him. “Clothes make the man. Dress up in a tuxedo with a white stiff shirt and light evening pumps on and you suddenly are infused with a feeling of elegance. You walk with conscious pride. You are witty. Your tongue grows nimble. Your whole being has a swing and a lilt to it.”
“It’s a fact,” admitted Jimmie.
“Put on your oldest clothes,” I continued, “a little ragged, a little skimpy and bulged at the knees, and you feel lazy and dopey and listless. When I put on my overalls I suddenly feel mechanical. I go all artizany. I seem to feel strong muscles in my forearms and my hands get rough.”
“Hold on, hold on,” begged Jimmie.
“I am filled with a sense of capability,” I insisted, “of knowledge of hammers and saws. I can pick up a hammer in my ordinary business clothes and I go all kind of helpless. With overalls on, I can pick up a hammer and feel as if I had been born with a hammer in my hand.”
“You’re a Jekyll and Hyde,” said Jim.
“We can all be Jekyll and Hydes,” I declared, “with a few changes of clothes.”
A Man in Overalls
“How would you like to give me a demonstration of this miracle in your overalls?” demanded Jim.
“Any time,” I assured him.
“Well, it’s like this,” said Jim. “Last November I put the storm windows on without washing them. The family was at me every day and I kept putting it off on account of the deer hunting and one thing and another.”
“One of the things I don’t feel like,” I interrupted, “is putting on storm windows in my overalls. It only applies to the mechanical arts, like engines, carpentering and so on.”
“Wait till I explain,” said Jim. “So one Saturday, when the folks were all out, I got the urge and put the storm windows all on. But it seems I should have had them washed first. The family, which wanted me to put them up so badly, hadn’t washed the windows. They were going to do that whenever I got in the mood to put them up. So there was an awful row.”
“If it’s done, it’s done,” I assured him.
“No,” said Jim; “they were pretty bad when I put them up, but they’re worse now. They’ve got to come down.”
“If you put them up without help,” I inquired, “why do you need a man in overalls to help you take them down?”
“Okay,” said Jim, “okay, if you don’t want to lend a hand to a friend. And this is wartime, too.”
“Storm windows are silly, Jim,” I said. “You should have your house insulated.”
“Okay,” said Jim, “okay. Never mind.”
“It would only be to put my overalls on,” I said, “if I did lend you a hand.”
“Like a fool,” said Jim, “I broadcast all over the house that I would take the windows down and wash them myself. If it was just to take them down I wouldn’t ask any help. But when they came home and found I had put them up right out of the cellar, all dusty and grimey, I announced that I would take them down and wash them.”
“Aw, they won’t hold you to that,” I protested.
“Oh, yes, they will,” replied Jim. “You can’t brag around my house.”
“Well,” I said.
So we quit at 3 in the afternoon and I went home and put my overalls on. I keep them in the attic closet, where I can go and try them on now and then when none of my children are around. I have also worn them quite a bit working on the car, shovelling the snow, putting up some new bird feeding houses in the yard, and anything I can think of. They are my most exciting Christmas present, even if I did send them up anonymously.
They give you a nice, broadlegged feeling when you get them on.
“You look better than I’ve ever seen you look,” declared Jim when I walked down his sidedrive in them. “You look kind of … natural.”
“Thanks, Jim,” I said. “I knew you wouldn’t kid me.”
Jim got a pail of hot water, a chamois, some rags and a scrub brush. We carried out the stepladder and started on the front living-room windows. Jim would climb up and unbutton the window and pry it out of the frame. Then I would draw the bottom out and take hold and lower it down. In overalls, you grab hold of things with your arms and chest, in a most businesslike fashion, because the more dirt you get on your overalls, the better they are.
On that same principle, I took the lead in the washing of them, because a little soapy water splashed on my overalls would only increase their beauty.
“Well,” said Jim, “you’re right. I never saw such a change in anybody in my life.”
“Here y’are,” I said, with a rowdy, window cleaner air. And I handed him up the beautifully polished window and he slipped it into the frame and I banged it home with a good strong, rough hand.
The Magic Garment
We had got pretty well along with the front windows when the elderly lady who lives right opposite Jim came across the road and up the walk.
“I suppose,” she said, “you’ll be all day at this job?”
“We won’t be done before dark, ma’am, “I assured her.
Jimmie came down off the stepladder and joined us. He didn’t have overalls. All he had on was his old fishing clothes.
“Can you do mine starting tomorrow at 8 a.m.?” she inquired crisply.
She was so sharp and businesslike, I thought Jimmie had certainly got on the most amiable relations with his neighbors.
“And how much,” she inquired shrewdly, “do you charge? Is it by the window or by the hour?”
I looked at Jim to let him in on the joke.
But he was just standing staring at the lady with a puzzled frown.
“Well, usually, madam,” I said, “we charge by the window. We measure the window in square inches, and…”
“Nonsense,” said the lady, very choppy; “I have it done each year, the whole house, for $6. I’ll give you $6 and no more.”
“What do you say, Jim?” I hedged, feeling he should be in the neighborly fun.
“Well, aw, ugh,” said Jim, changing position and standing more squarely in front of the lady so she could get a look at him.
She glanced at him briefly, but looked at once back to me as though I were the one to deal with.
“I’ve been watching you,” she said, and you certainly do a good job. My windows don’t really require a second washing at this season of the year. But I have decided that you do so thorough a job I will have you do mine. Come. When will it be? Tomorrow? That will suit me best. And I will pay $7, seeing it is winter.”
“Aw, er, wuh,” said Jimmie, smiling broadly and opening his coat to show his business collar and shirt underneath.
“Well, ma’am,” I said, “we are busy tomorrow, but we’ll give you a ring the first day we’re free. How will that do?”
She looked at me impatiently.
“Very well,” she said. “Make it a good clear day. But I suppose you know your business.”
So I wrote down her name and telephone and she walked back across the road, stamped the snow off and went indoors.
“Well,” said Jim, “I’ve lived across the street from the lady for 10 years. I know her as well as I know you. She knows me as well as you do.”
“She thought you were my helper,” I said. “She practically brushed you off.”
“She certainly didn’t recognize me,” said Jim.
“People never look at faces,” I stated. “They just look at clothes.”
“Then any little embarrassment I have felt,” said Jim, “over washing windows here on my front lawn has been wasted.”
“Precisely, Jim,” I agreed. “If any neighbor happened to notice us working around your house they’ve just said to themselves, the Frises are having something done, and forgotten about it.”
“It was your overalls,” cried Jim.
“The magic garment,” I exulted.
So we have arranged that when the lady across the road calls Jim’s house to get the names of the window cleaners who did such a thorough job the family will give her the telephone number of the first window cleaning outfit we found in the book.
And we hope they wear overalls when they arrive.