I am feeling quite sophisticated as I stroll through a fashionable Fifth Avenue department store looking for dress pants to wear to a soiree for my literary agent this evening. I am 49 years old, my book is about to come out and all I need is a proper pair of trousers to complete an ensemble of turtleneck and blazer. I positively reek of savoir faire as I approach a salesman in the men's department. "I am looking for dress pants," I say.
"What size?" asks he.
It is a question I loathe. "Thirty-four...twenty-eight," I reply, my voice trailing off in self-apology. I pray for mercy. Instead, he scans my legs to be sure they are long enough to reach the ground. "Twenty-eight?" he repeats, as if I have asked for the absurd, say, a sweater for my gallstone. Twenty-eight is not a pant length, it is an invitation to a roast — a number so shy of expectation that no self-respecting store carries it except as a gag or an act of charity.
"We carry nothing shorter than thirty," he says, standing no taller than I. "And what length do you wear?" I ask. "Thirty," he boasts, hoisting his pants clear up to his navel. Now he delivers the coup de grâce.
"Have you tried the boy's department?"
I recoil in horror. I am not, for one moment, about to mingle with some prepubescent schoolboys, tugging over a pair of dungarees. Out of the question. Am I not entitled to some shred of self-esteem? I'd sooner go to the party in purple knickers than show my face in the boy's department.
A moment later I find myself stepping off the elevator onto the third floor, the boy's floor, eyeing a rack of grotesquely colored pants and waiting for a gaggle of pimply lads to move aside and let me have a closer look. I knew I should have ordered from a catalogue. Let them wield the scissors and spare me this ignominy. A pair of "twenty-eights" should only arrive in a plain brown wrapper and be opened in the privacy of one's home.
For years I tried to wear a size thirty, pretending my Chaplinesque cuffs were not sweeping the streets. People mistook me for a half-melted candle. How is it at 5-foot-8 — near average height — I am held in contempt by the staff of every store I enter? Now, cowering in the boy's department, I hear the voices of adolescents cracking all around me. I wistfully remember at their age fearing that the pants might shrink too much. At my age, it is I who am shrinking.
I start to walk away when a salesman intercepts me. "Help you, sir?" he asks. "You want to help me? Stretch my legs," I mutter. Well, not out loud, but I was thinking it. Instead, out comes something equally lame. "I am looking for dress slacks for a boy."
"How old is he?" the salesman asks. "Forty-nine," I confess. "It's me." He stifles a laugh and checks my waist. "Thirty-four," he says ruefully. Now the final insult. "We carry nothing larger than a thirty waist."
Fine. Pants-wise I am forever stuck between floors, neither man nor boy. At this rate, the next salesman will suggest my place is with the circus. "Come see the creature with the twenty-eight-inch inseam — the incredible human baobab tree." Even now that I am willing to grovel, to do battle with sixth-graders for some miserable polyester pantaloons, there is nothing here for me.
A moment later I am back on the street, putting as much distance as possible between myself and the boy's department. I am resigned to wearing the pants I arrived in, a pair of wrinkled chinos, too long by far. By God's grace, this evening's party will be dark, and I may once again hold my head high — and my pants, as well.
By Ted Gup