For two years, from ages eighteen to twenty, I was homeless. I hitchhiked around the US and Canada, sleeping on the streets. I have many posts worth of stories from that time period, but this one’s just about a jacket.
I stole it from a store in Seattle and have never felt too bad about it; it was cold, I couldn’t afford it, and I needed it more than they did. It traveled with me over the next two years through 40+ states – all I missed were Alaska, Hawaii, and some of those New England states you could knock out in a day trip.
It’s a hooded jacket, but not a hoodie. It used to zip up, but the zipper broke off a long time ago, as did the little mechanism at the bottom where a zipper is supposed to stop. It’s sort of a medium jacket – dark colors, midweight fabric, warm enough that you regret wearing it if it’s hot outside, but not insulated enough to keep you comfortable if it gets real cold. Good in the wind and rain, better than nothing as either a pillow or a blanket.
This has been my all-purpose jacket since then, more for the memories than for anything else. I could have gotten a less-shitty jacket, but it’s never been a priority for me, and at this point I’m just comfortable in it, like a hand that’s gotten real used to a particular glove. It’s been in a process of deterioration for a decade, arrested by various girls I’ve known who have taken one look at it, shaken their heads, and put a little of themselves into mending it. The stuffing pokes out of holes in mismatched patches, and there are little hearts in white thread inside in the sleeves.
For all of my life, nobody’s cared that I had kind of a ratty jacket. It’s been hung up on the backs of a million different chairs, sometimes slipping under them by the end of the day. These days it’s different. The kind of people I hang out with now that I’m a Successful Software Engineer™ notice. I feel self-conscious when I see it on the back of my chair at work now, the way I did when I showed up for a work hiking trip with nothing but a plastic water bottle when the rest of the team, without coordination, all had fancy backpacks with drinking nozzles and phone charging cords hanging out of the back.
“Is it a fashion statement?” someone asked me not too long ago, and I told them no, but now I wonder. Is it a fashion statement, to refuse to buy a better jacket just because this one’s still here? A couple friends have mentioned the jacket. The jacket’s gotta go, is the general consensus. They even know where I should put it – next to all my other sentimental bullshit.
I have a shelf with a bunch of items that would be worthless to anyone else but represent important things, trials or turning points or otherwise powerful moments in my life. The laminated remnants of my US Chess Federation card from when I was a teenager. My father’s ashes, in a fruity-looking tiny glass urn, the top piece broken off and lying next to it. The beanie my best friend was wearing when he died, with a stiff patch where everything that was him dribbled past as he was lying on the curb. A Jacob’s Ladder toy given to me at a renaissance faire by the first teacher to treat me like an adult. The jacket I traveled with through almost fifty states and two Canadian provinces seems almost destined to end up here.
At the same time, it feels, somehow, like a betrayal, in a way that putting those other things on the shelf didn’t. It’s such a small thing, and yet it feels important. “Snakes don’t regret it when they shed their skin,” I said to a friend when discussing this conundrum. “And you’re the snake in this metaphor?” he replied, unimpressed. He’s right, I guess – I don’t imagine snakes spend much time worrying about authenticity.
I bought a new jacket. It looks nice. It’s sturdy. It’s far more than I’ve ever paid for a jacket, but it’s still not that expensive. It suits my aesthetic. Probably I’ll wear it when next I need a jacket. But so far, it sits unopened in its packaging, and my regular jacket hangs on the hook next to my keys.