I've always been a comfort person, which is my positive spin on what people said about me when I was growing up —"Jack, you're such a slob!"
As is true about so many things, I simply was ahead of my time. Perfect example: the way people now dress for airplane trips. It's like they're attending a pajama party.
Having retired to Bluffton, South Carolina, where the weather is hellishly hot from April until October, it's only natural I'd be surrounded by people dressed more for comfort than display. But since Bluffton is just one traffic jam from Hilton Head, the casual dress here is tonier than what I observed the last time I was on an airplane.
THERE ARE embarrassing exceptions, though only those of a certain age may notice them. I say that because by the time people retire, they've become invisible to people under 25, particularly teenagers. I noticed this even in my 50s, working at the Providence Journal, which had a Dunkin' Donuts across the street. That's where I'd stop to buy my morning coffee (and a doughnut, of course). I'd stand at the counter, waiting to be served, but the young person on the other side of the counter would look right through me when he or she inquired, "Next?"
Understandably, that frosted me because, at six-feet-three, I'm taller than most people and difficult to miss. But the older I became — at this writing I am 84 — the more often I was invisible.
Which gets me to an incident involving someone who wasn't invisible enough. He was a customer on his way out of a nice Bluffton restaurant where my wife and I were having lunch. The man, probably in his 60s, was dressed in shorts only a couple of inches longer than Jockey briefs. He might as well have been wearing Depends. It was an unforgettable, appetite-destroying sight, one that caused me to remark to my wife, "He's probably a tourist from France."
To which she added, "And on his way to the airport."
THE MAN was proof dress codes are a thing of the past. For the most part, I'm glad about that. During my youth, for occasions that called for a suit or sport-coat, I drew the line at wearing a tie. I used the Ted Williams defense. The baseball player was an early hero, and he never wore a tie. He had some convoluted reason for an open collar — something to do with constricting his neck, I think — but if it were good enough for Ted Williams, it was good enough for me. That also was good enough for my mother, but my first newspaper boss wasn't buying it, and during my working life I accumulated a large collection of ties.
When I retired, I gave away almost all of those ties, keeping three for weddings and funerals. Otherwise, I figured to wear khakis, polo shirts and sneakers. Oh, and a sweatshirt, because my wife and I prefer a cool house, and set the air conditioning accordingly. Thank heaven for air conditioning; without it, no one would retire to South Carolina or any other Southern state.
There's one other thing about South Carolina — and, I assume, the other Southern states —and that's bugs, with mosquitoes and chiggers rating a special mention. It's because of those two pests that I wore Bermuda shorts only briefly after we moved here. I'd dealt with mosquitoes up north where I lived the first 62 years of my life, but chiggers were a painful new experience, and after my first three chigger bites, the Bermuda were abandoned, and I've worn nothing but khaki trousers ever since. And sweatshirts, because the longer I've lived here, the more time I spend indoors where it's cool, and I'm too lazy to take off my sweatshirt just to walk outside to the mailbox or to re-fill bird-feeders.
PEOPLE who see me out and about in hot weather kid me about my sweatshirt, and I respond by turning into Kevin McCarthy, the actor, not the idiot Congressman from California. I recreate McCarthy's best known role, but mine is a Bluffton version of 1956's "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." Like McCarthy's character in that film, I frantically warn folks, not about pod people, but chiggers and mosquitoes:
“Look, you fools! You're in danger! Can't you see? They're after you! They're after all of us! Our wives, our children, everyone! They're here already! YOU'RE NEXT!”
My wife, Linda (left), takes it a step further when it comes to protecting herself from these bugs, by wearing mosquito netting under a hat.
ODDLY — at least, I think it's odd — it's at a Publix supermarket that I witnessed the two most startling exceptions to this area's casual approach to fashion. The first was a young woman obviously on a break from her job at an office that either has a very strict dress code, or she was trying very hard to impress someone, or she recently moved here from Manhattan. In any event, she could have been a model for a magazine photo shoot highlighting extremely well-dressed office workers.
A few months after that, while attempting to fetch a shopping cart, my way was blocked by a young woman and her young son. The boy, who could have been as young as three or as old as six, was whining, on the verge of a tantrum; the woman obviously wanted the boy to behave, but seemed uncertain whether to put the kid in the cart, or take out the one bag of groceries she had purchased, and make him walk to the car. Additionally, she was fiddling with something, perhaps digging car keys out of her purse, though she was turned away from me, so I could see neither her purse or the bag of groceries.
Well, maybe I could have seen both if I hadn't been staring at the woman's legs and the short shorts she was wearing. Not only did her shorts look ridiculous expensive, probably costing more than I've spent on all my clothes since I moved here, but she had the best-looking legs I've ever seen. Certainly the best-looking legs I've ever seen at a super market.
Perhaps sensing there was a dirty old man gazing at her, she turned around, but I'd anticipated her move, raised my glance and greeted her with my experienced parent’s “been there, done that” smile, but her response was a “why are you looking at me?” glare.
Clearly, to this young woman, I was not invisible, much to my regret. I didn’t speak; I merely grabbed a cart and walked away. She found what she was looking for, picked up her grocery bag, and left. I confess, I paused for a final look at her legs as she led her boy to their car. Luckily, she didn’t turn around.
THOUGH I mishandled the situation, I was annoyed by her glare. After all, unless she has eyes in the back of her head, she never saw me looking at her legs. I thought she should have regarded my smile as a gesture of support for a harried mother.
Back home, however, I better understood her reaction, which was either annoyance or horror. All I had to do was look in the mirror. Then my wife reminded me how I tend to sneak up on people — she calls me "The Stealth"— and that the woman was too preoccupied with her son and finding her keys to notice me when I entered the corral. So when she turned to leave the store, she was startled to see a large old man grinning at her from six feet away, like I had wandered away from my caretaker and expected her to take me home.
Certainly I caught her at a bad time. Taking a child to a supermarket can be a trying experience. I'm frequently reminded of the time my wife and I were in the aisle of a Rhode Island supermarket in the 1980s with a woman whose son — probably about four years old — was standing in her shopping cart. She had stopped in front of the cereal section and when she refused to buy Count Chocula, the boy screamed, “I want everybody to know ... I’ve got the worst mother in the whole world!”
WHEN MISS Lovely Legs walked away, I wondered if I should have tried to explain myself, that I was having a flashback to when I occasionally took my children to the supermarket. My smile was a reflex reaction to her son’s restlessness. I thought parents of restless children appreciated supportive smiles.
Who was I kidding? What I should have done is ignore the woman, quickly grab a cart and get on with my shopping. All I was trying to do was justify behaving the way men aren't supposed to behave anymore.
But, damn! The woman really did have a great pair of legs. And a nice outfit, too, the kind you don't usually see anywhere except in magazines.