Growing up in New York City, I have vivid memories of seeing Broadway actors slip through stage doors in their cast jackets, like they were part of some secret club to which I hadn’t yet been granted entry.
Back in the day ─ the seventies, eighties and nineties, at least ─ cast members got these really cool varsity jackets, with their show logo embroidered on the back. Wherever they went, the whole world knew they had earned their stripes. They had made it to Broadway. It was a badge of honor I longed for … one of those cool jackets that said Cats … Annie … A Chorus Line … La Cage … Evita! Those jackets said it all. They shouted, “I was once a drama geek who couldn’t kick a ball, but I can do a Time Step and shuffle off to Buffalo. I AM somebody!”
I was thinking about that this week, probably because I’m in need of a jacket. We’re going up north for the holidays and, having lived down south for six and a half years of serious weight fluctuation, I find myself without anything warm to wear. I’m faced with making a jacket investment, and I’m wondering what I want that jacket to say about me.
You see, I recently realized that, throughout my life, jackets have always been a vehicle for sending the world a message. Granted, sometimes that message was false. My last jacket was a bright yellow Columbia ski jacket that would have you thinking I’d swished through every slope from Aspen to the Alpines. In truth, I was the loser who made operators stop the ski lift, because I was face-down in the snow, smack in the middle of where other skiiers were trying to jump off their chairs.
But I looked good. I come from a long line of people who believe that you don’t actually have to play a sport, as long as you look like you do. I was the chubby kid in the tennis whites and Arthur Ashe sneakers, eating Ritz Crackers and Cheese Whiz while I watched Dark Shadows.
I remember when I first got to high school, I wanted to be a cheerleader in the worst way ─ and not because cheerleaders always got dates on TV or wowed me with their agility. I wanted to be a cheerleader for one very simple reason: I wanted the jacket.
Midwood High School cheerleaders wore snow white wool bomber jackets with royal blue trim. And the back was like a walking billboard of cool: a blank white canvas with blue satin script spelling out “cheerleader.” It was hands-down the coolest jacket I’d ever seen (and the girls who smoked in it looked really bad ass!). I knew if I could just score one of those jackets, it would be a sign that I’d arrived in life: “Hey, look at me world! I’m no longer the chubby dork in the Girl Scout beanie and orthodontic headgear!” That cheerleader jacket would publically brand me as one of the chosen few.
But how was I going to get one? My mother always told me I was a bull in a china shop, and it became a self-fulfilled prophecy. Thank God the “Bump” became the rage on the dance floor in the seventies, because I could bang into people next to me, and they actually thought I did it on purpose.
For months I prepared to try out for the cheerleading squad. I practiced cartwheels in the basement. I stretched and stretched, trying to will my body down into a split. I stretched while watching The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. I stretched while waiting for the subway. If there was a bar, a bench, a ledge, a wall, I went at it, desperately trying to call forth my inner Baryshnikov. Nothing was going to keep me from that soft white puff of popularity.
And my hard work paid off. I will never forget that feeling of elation as my name was called as a new member of the squad. I got that jacket. And when I wore it with my Calvin Klein jeans, I was happening, if only in my mind.
Cheerleading got old after the first few games. I never did understand football. I memorized the cheers and followed whatever the captain did. But by senior year, I still didn’t know what any of the cheers meant, or what cheer we should bust out when. I understood the rhyme where we welcomed the other team. I understood when we changed the words to Queen: “We will, we will beat you.”
But when it came to things like, “Hold that line, block that pass, knock that quarterback on his ___,” I didn’t have a clue what that meant. Hold a line? That sounded like a fishing term. I know a pass is when one guy gives the ball to another. But I couldn’t for the life of me point out the quarterback. I just knew he was one of the guys running. And they were all running.
Hey, my dad was foreign. Football in our house meant soccer. Everything I know about football I had to learn from The Brady Bunch. I know to stand back if kids are playing catch in the yard, because you could get hit in the nose and it could swell so big your date will cancel. I know that football teams have secret playbooks that you can steal. And I know the teams have mascots, and the night before a big game, the players like to steal each other’s goats.
And that’s about it. I can do the wave, but the rest is a big blank.
But that’s not the point. The point is I got the jacket, and I looked like I got the game. And I walked down the halls of my high school feeling like I’d “arrived.” It was my first and only taste of Marcia Brady.
That’s the feeling I’d like to capture in my new jacket.
Last year, when I went home to New York, I had just finished my first half marathon, after losing weight and becoming a runner, so I busted out my, “Look at me, family. I’ve become an athlete” jacket that I got on clearance at the New Balance store.
This year, that jacket looks like a sausage casing, and I need to capture that feeling of having arrived wearing something else. I stink at sports; my inner Flo-Jo is on hiatus, recovering from a knee injury; and the closest I’ve come to making it on Broadway is renting a house in New Jersey 10 years ago from the guy touring as Javert in Les Miserables. What kind of jacket should I buy? Now I’m a humor blogger. What do they wear?
I could have a jacket custom made, with Erma Bombeck’s picture on the back. An Erma Bombeck bomber ─ a Bom(beck)er.
I could do my own version of the Les Mis jacket ─ a skinny provincial waif with my emaciated face, waiving a flag with Jenny Craig’s picture.
I could get a new cheerleading jacket with fancy satin words that say “Varsity Blogger.” Or how about “Varsity Dieter?”
I could do a Phantom spoof and have a jacket embroidered with my sleep apnea mask.
I’m open to suggestions.