A few years ago, I wrote a piece for The Millions called “T-Shirts I Have Known,” in which I eulogized shirts that, throughout the course of my life, I had outgrown, discarded, or somehow lost track of. As I said then, “In exchange for [our t-shirts’] service — absorbing our sweat, airing our interests, starting our conversations — the least we can do is offer them tribute,” and I still believe that’s true. Though my first instinct is to consider such things in a tongue-in-cheek way — after all, they’re just shirts, for Christ’s sake — the truth is, they once meant something to me. The clothing we wear is a highly personal thing. And when I think of my old t-shirts, as silly as it sounds, they seem like old friends whom I’ll never again get to see. Here, then, are three more of my dearest short-sleeved companions.
“Mattingly 23” (1988-1990)
As a child, I was a devoted fan of the New York Yankees, and though the team spent most of the ’80s and early-90s stumbling through the lower reaches of the American League East, it still claimed a number of stars: Rickey Henderson, Dave Winfield, Ron Guidry, Dave Righetti. But to my young mind, none was greater than Don Mattingly, their quiet, mustachioed captain with the gorgeous home-run swing.
On one of my first trips to Yankee Stadium, my father bought me a navy-blue t-shirt that featured the team’s white interlocking “NY” on the left breast and the number 23 in thick block letters on the back. Above the number curled that beautiful surname, the one that represented excellence and gold gloves and heaps of RBIs: MATTINGLY.
If a t-shirt is a way to tell the world the sort of person you are and the sorts of things you like — certain bands, certain teams, certain multinational corporations — then “Mattingly 23” represented my introduction to such communication. Until then, I pretty much wore whatever my mother had hung in my bedroom closet. The t-shirt as personal declaration had never occurred to me. But when I put it on that day at the game — surrounded by hundreds of others who were wearing the very same thing — I felt the odd pleasure that comes with the knowledge that you are not only stating your case, but being understood.
I certainly didn’t think of it in such terms at the time, but “Mattingly 23” marked a minor turning point: it made me aware that something as trivial as clothing might mold others’ perceptions of me. This would be made painfully clear once I entered middle school, where a poorly-chosen outfit could confer pariah status and possibly wedgies. But on that summer day, those perceptions were all to the good: the other fans at the Stadium could see, with a glance, that I was part of the tribe. Thanks to my shirt, I belonged. If only those Yankees we’d cheered for hadn’t wound up in fifth place that year.
“Big Johnson Erection Company” (1990-1991)
To an 11-year-old desperate to inflict damage in the arms race of seventh-grade sexual obnoxiousness, “Big Johnson Erection Company” was a cotton nuclear bomb. The shirt’s back featured a cartoon illustration of a nerdy everyman, flanked by eager, big-breasted women and, in the background, a mass of construction equipment. “Big Johnson Erection Company: When we get it up, it stays up,” read the ostensibly clever slogan. It was talking about penises, you see.
The shirt — and the seemingly dozens of others that proliferated at the time (“Big Johnson’s Gym: Hang With the Huge!”) — now seems numbingly stupid, a potential signifier of our decline as a species. But to someone feeling his first clumsily amorous stirrings, Big Johnson shirts were a brilliant revelation. They dredged all the repulsive horniness from my preadolescent mind and splashed it across shirts that I could actually buy, for $12.99, from that sketchy place at the mall. “Big Johnson Erection Company” was more than a shirt. It was how I announced my regrettable eligibility as a viable sexual being.
It should be noted that, following the shirt’s purchase, it took me nearly two years to actually make out with a girl.
“Let’s Bury the Hatchet!” (1987)
Each year, the church I attended as a boy held its annual rummage sale — an occasion for me to enter its sepulchral “toy room” and sift through the detritus of worn board games and mangled Barbie dolls in hopes of finding some discarded gem: a G.I. Joe figure, a Transformer, a bag of Matchbox cars.
But I rarely found anything of value at the sale — that is, until 1987, when I discovered a treasure unlike any I’d ever imagined: a white t-shirt with the words “Let’s Bury the Hatchet!” emblazoned upon it in big black letters. Beside the motto was an actual rubber hatchet, roughly the size of a real one, that had been made to look as though it had been embedded in the wearer’s chest. To complete the effect, a painted-on bloodstain oozed from the grievous “wound.” It was incredible: violent, funny, bizarrely three-dimensional. I had to have it. Somehow, I persuaded my mother to pay the necessary dollar for the thing, and then I began to plan.
On my first day of third grade, I wore a plain blue-green sweatshirt to school, with “Let’s Bury the Hatchet!” tucked securely into the bottom of my backpack. I had taken care to hide it beneath my Trapper Keeper and notebook, as if smuggling in a brick of some potent Schedule 1 narcotic.
Towards the end of the day, I asked permission to get something from my backpack — one of my new pencils, or maybe an eraser — which hung in the cloakroom. My teacher, Mrs. Benjamin, said that I could go, and I hurried in, my heart beating. Suddenly alone, ragingly aware of my classmates and teacher just beyond the door, I took the t-shirt from my bag and switched it with the shirt I was wearing. I returned my backpack to its hook and reentered the classroom, covering the hatchet with both hands. Once I was safely seated at my desk, nervous and exhilarated, I took my hands away.
In my memory, awareness of the shirt spread slowly, then quickly blossomed into full-blown chaos. The kids closest to me were the first to see the hatchet and the blood, and they began to look at each other, tittering and pointing. I tried to act as though nothing was amiss — as if I had not, in fact, been savagely attacked in the cloakroom just a few seconds before. I kept my eyes ahead, apparently fascinated by whatever Mrs. Benjamin was writing on the chalkboard. Finally, annoyed by the burbling disruption, she turned to seek out its cause, and found it soon enough: a brown-haired boy in the center of the room, trying to suppress a grin, a fucking ax sticking out of his chest.
She roared at me to get back into the cloakroom and put my other shirt back on. Immediately. Most of my classmates were giggling, which was enough to ease my disappointment over the brevity of the prank. The entire episode had lasted just a minute and a half, if that. Perhaps because it was the first day of school, Mrs. Benjamin didn’t punish me, and my parents never found out about what I had done. But the incident did claim one significant victim. For years afterward, “Let’s Bury the Hatchet!” hung sadly in the far reaches of my closet, unwearable and unworn. Its rubber ax became stiff; its cotton gathered dust. Eventually, I outgrew it altogether and was forced to throw it away. Yet “Let’s Bury the Hatchet!” had served a noble purpose: it had made my teacher angry. That fact alone was well worth my mother’s dollar.
Image Credti: Flickr/jambina.