28 December 2004: Another day, another few stares at ye olde hat shop. I’ve been in this cramped spot for probably a decade. The hats don’t move much out of here, and there doesn’t seem to be much new stock coming in. Sometimes, less than twenty people come in. Still, at least I’m younger than the owner, a gentle and unlucky hatmaker who started plying his trade some time in the 1950s, just when men stopped having the savoir-faire to wear fedoras like me.
I’m gray, stately, with a flourish of bluejay’s feathers and yellow frizz stabbed into my band. My brim points down on you like an impertinent question. I’m sexy, man. Why don’t you take me home for some fun?
It’s cold today but not so cold to wobble into the shop with an overcoat on. Two guys come in, a chubby black guy and an older white man. The way the white man has his arm over the other man’s shoulders, I figured they’re gay, maybe from Oak Lawn. With the gays, a hat’s always got a chance—those folks have style. But no, it’s soon clear that white guy is a proud dad, and the chubbster a reluctant shopper. He wants a hat but doesn’t know what kind. He mentions something about liking Lester Young and doesn’t have enough sense to know a porkpie’s no good for his fat head. He tries on a few porkpies that are too small for him, a forest-green bowler that makes him look like a retard, and I try my hat-whisper, a seduction involving the right glare of light and oily musk.
He looks! He picks me carefully by both sides of the brim, and asks Manny how to put me on properly, how to shape the brim. Manny shows him—a brisk clasp of the left side of the brim with thumb on top and four fingers below, quick but soft downturn, and then gently running that grip around to the right side. “Now, you try it.” Walter—that’s the chubby’s name—does so, does it okay, doesn’t embarrass himself, and sets me on his head. We check each other out in the mirror. We look sharp but I’m not sure Walter knows it. I whisper up to the fluorescent light for a nice musty glow—a hard trick to pull off, but done. Walter smiles. Sixty dollars and a handshake, and we’re out into the Dallas afternoon. Free at last!
22 February 2005: My first test, and I’m okay so far. On a near-whim, Walter’s decided to be bring me to New York. He’s using a long-held desire to see Christo’s The Gates—he loved it, went through it three times; I just don’t understand his taste at all—in Central Park as an excuse to romp in Manhattan for four days. With me on his head, he’s seen the Frick, the Cloisters, dined at Second Avenue Deli, his first Balanchine ballet (I had to rest under the seat), two Jeremy Pelt Quintet sets at the Village Vanguard, stopped in at the Strand and Jim Hanley’s Universe, a night walk through Times Square after a four-course French meal. It has snowed, fluffy pancake-sized flakes, all week. I’m from Dallas, a city where people wear short sleeves in January. Flakes weigh down my brim, and Walter just doesn’t care. My felt is delicate. To be fair, I suppose I keep his head warm, but who told him to shave his head?
There’s no denying New York’s beauty in the winter, or Walter’s obvious joy in being here. Maybe he’s feeling free, too. Certainly, he likes Jackson, where we live, but I don’t get a sense that he loves it, and his pacing around his small apartment—about the size of the hat shop—leads me to think that Jackson stifles him at times. He’s had me for two months but hasn’t shown me off to his friends or around the town.
1 April 2005: Our first excursion into Jackson is a quick jaunt from the car to the office. A woman giggles but, then, she’s wearing platform shoes that were out of style during the Carter Administration, so screw her. A few co-workers give quizzical looks but Walter pretends to ignore them. He wears me out on his lunch break. I’m beaming.
4 July 2006: Honestly, I thought my owner had more sense. I know he likes the way I look on his head but I figured that, after last summer, he had learned the futility of wearing a thick rabbit-pelt fedora during a Mississippi summer. I guess not. We’re outside, at the annual BalloonGlow in northern Jackson, on a picnic blanket watching the twilight—or is it dusk?—seep in. A bad cock-rock band fifteen years past its prime is stumbling through another mediocre rendition of “Welcome to the Jungle.” The hot air is filling the balloons, slowly. The smell of greasy fair food—funnel cakes, corn dogs, turkey on a stick—swims through the humidity. It’s hot. Walter’s sweating. I’m starting to stink. Still, he’s wearing me, for Pete’s sake.
15 October 2006: Chicago is the greatest city in the world. Walter and I go everywhere—museums, the El, the University of Chicago co-op bookstore, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Robie House, Lincoln Park, Hyde Park, restaurants and restaurant aromas galore, the Jazz Showcase for a Dave Holland Quintet show. The air’s brisk, the walking meanders, and my owner hums a lot in the autumn breezes. If a publishing job ever opens up here, Walter will whisk himself here, and—given his smiles—I’ll be glad to join him.
15 October 2007: It’s been a few months since he’s last worn me, though he twirls me around his finger like a good-luck charm every week or so, so this is nice. It’s his birthday. We’re at a cocktail bar. He drinks a vodka martini. We people-watch and eavesdrop. Sometimes, I think these are my owner’s favorite activities. He’s ambivalent about me—he likes the antiquated fashion but not the attention I draw to him. He thinks people are laughing at him for wearing a hat, and he wears me to broadcast bravery against the snickers. I think he’s wrong but I can’t convince him.
27 December 2007: Chicago again, this time in the bitter cold, for a conference, and once more at the Jazz Record Mart. Walter’s about to spend $100 on jazz CDs. He’s happier than I’ve seen him in months but, then, I really haven’t seen him in months. This is a fun excursion, slip-sliding on the black ice and gliding under the Christmas lights and downtown, which is one big festival of light dazzle and car honks.
15 August 2008: I haven’t left my hatbox in six months. I’m snuggled in here with the hand-knit scarves, who make for good company, but still… I miss being out and about in the world. Occasionally, I hear a woman’s voice along with the cat’s meow. Good for him.
27 August 2009: Today, I’ve ridden from Jackson to Vicksburg, in a car with four folksinging women who passed along a shiny Taylor guitar with pickups and a bad attitude. The car lurched and swerved, 70 miles per hour, down the interstate. The women sang beautifully, haltingly, doing warbly vocal exercises and strumming that Taylor, which I swear laughed at me, because he was getting all the attention and the delicate finger rubs. I admit that I sulked.
At the Highway 61 Coffeehouse and Art Gallery, though, things started looking up. 7:20pm and the place was hopping and smelling like chocolate and thick velvet coffee fog. Why does coffee always smell so much better than it tastes? At least, that’s what my owner always says. How would I know, after all? I’m lucky I can see, I suppose. I don’t smell so good anymore—five years of sweat stains, dust-bunny remains, cat-head rubbing—I swear that cat thinks it owns everything, including my master, the slow reek of rabbit pelt. I’m earthy.
Maybe I look earthy, too. My brim is floppy, unshaped. My feather’s fallen out. The indentation on my top is crumpled and imprecise. The raincloud-colored band around my base still retains its sharpness, though, and my general gray coloring is strong. Too bad about the visible sweat stains around the base, and on my underside. I’m no Sidney Poitier of hats, not anymore, but I’m at least Bert Williams.
Sure, the guitar’s on stage flirting with the microphone and being altogether too fresh with the amp, and passing along hand-to-hand amongst the women. Walter’s fiance handles the neck and frets well. Before she starts up her next number, though, she fondles me, turns me upside-down, and passes me out into the crowd. Suddenly, I’m being passed around like the town strumpet, hands stroking me and setting dollar bills in me. I must have been felt up by over 25 people, and filled up with about 50 bucks. I love it. If this is ultimately my last purpose in the world, it’s a pretty pleasurable way to go. That guitar can eat its heart out.
6 September 2009: He’s writing. That’s nothing new—I’ve spent four years getting used to that keyboard’s clitter-clatter. A vodka martini’s at his left hand, and New Orleans old-timey jazz is on the speakers. Again, that’s normal. But I’m on his head for the first time, as he’s writing, and that’s new and it is fantastic. He keeps tapping my brim like the old friend that I am. I can’t read, got no idea what he’s writing. I hope it’s good.