It was during the late holidays that the awful truth descended upon me with a sickening, incontrovertible finality. I was dressing for a party. I had on my blue broadcloth button-down shirt and my gray flannel slacks and my penny loafers, and I was gazing meditatively at the tie rack. Which tie will it be, I wondered: the "Baltimore Is Best" tie or the Santa Claus tie?
Then it hit me. I gasped, quite audibly, and stopped myself in mid-thought. The shock of recognition was almost too great to bear. As though my whole life had suddenly been revealed to me, I realized that the horns of the dilemma upon which I was perched defined me with greater clarity than any biography ever could. Quite simply, a man who at the age of 42 years finds himself agonizing over whether to wear a "Baltimore Is Best" tie or a Santa Claus tie -- that man is a preppy for life, with no hope of parole.
It's not that I hadn't known before then that I was a preppy; for years, long before "The Official Preppy Handbook" and the improbable emergence of preppy dress as a national fad, I'd known that I was a serious case. But I had no idea how much the preppy style was indigenous to the warp and woof of my tweedy life. My dilemma revealed the truth; a man shall be known by his neckties, and those two are as resolutely preppy as a pink-and-green Bermuda bag or a date to meet under The Clock.
In the days since that moment of divine revelation I have been pondering my preppish ways, and have concluded that they constitute a strain of rigid, reflexive conformity in a life that has otherwise been somewhat ostentatiously contrary. I have never belonged to a club, I have resigned from every professional organization to which at one time or another I belonged, I march quite deliberately to the beat of my own somewhat wacky drummer -- but I am a knee-jerk preppy if ever there was one.
Consider, for example, my place of residence, Baltimore. We chose to live there for a variety of reasons, ranging from economy to an agreeably old-shoe urban atmosphere to the Baltimore Orioles. We did not choose to live in Baltimore -- I swear it, cross my heart and hope to die -- because it is the preppiest city in the world. It wasn't until two years after we moved there, when "The Official Preppy Handbook" was published, that I learned the awful truth; my homing instincts, it seems, had simply pointed me there unerringly.
On the handbook's list of acceptable places to reside -- the National Register of Preppy Places, as it were -- not merely are three Baltimore neighborhoods mentioned, but so too is the entire city. I, of course, live in one of those neighborhoods, which happens to be within the city limits, so in effect I live in two certifiably preppy places. And this, by the way, is what the handbook has to say about my city's favorite sport: "By virtue of its very difficulty, lacrosse is limited to serious players. It probably wouldn't be prep at all, except that lacrosse players traditionally come from Baltimore, and Baltimore is very prep."
The odd thing about my preppiness is that, although I came by it honestly, I have never been comfortable in the world of prep, either as defined in the handbook or as experienced in my own life. I did six years' time in two boarding schools, all six of those years on scholarship -- and all six in absolute, exquisite misery. The experience of being a (relatively) poor boy in a rich boys' school can mark you for life, and mark me it did. It implanted in me a distaste for old prep money and the people who own it that will go with me to my grave; my feelings about these men and women with their smooth, bland faces and their empty, complacent minds are not fit to print in a family newspaper.
Yet no doubt I have more in common with them than I care to admit. I'll never get my hands on enough money to take it for granted, but I cannot imagine a world without madras. No kidding. This is not a preppy joke. This is Truth. With the possible exception of Harris tweed, madras in my judgment is the most handsome fabric conjured by man -- and indisputably the most comfortable. I own madras jackets, madras slacks, madras shorts, madras bathing suits, madras shirts (both long- and short-sleeved) and madras ties. If they made madras overcoats, I would own one. And what I want to know is: Why don't they make madras winter clothes? It's hell, having to go from October to April without madras.
If your father went to Johns Hopkins and your mother to Bennington, as mine did, then certain things are going to be true in your life even if you do not have the wherewithal to gain honest admission to Bailey's Beach or the University Club. One is that you are going to regard it as vulgar to wear serious trousers without cuffs. Another is that you will regard it as even more vulgar to wear pull-on shoes with a business suit. Yet another is that you will hold it beneath contempt to wear brown shoes with a blue suit.
I'm sorry. I can't help it. I can't turn it off. This preppishness is so deeply ingrained in me that most of the time I don't realize what's going on. Why, just the other day I misplaced my "Official Preppy Handbook." Where did I find it? On a shelf of books written by authors whose work regularly appears in The New Yorker -- the preppy's magazine of choice.
Three years ago I did a most un-preppy thing. I went to the Stetson shop on Madison Avenue and purchased a large, handsome, mildly flamboyant cowboy hat. For a year I wore it with immense pleasure, even on the Baltimore-Washington commuter trains. But then I learned that "Western wear" had suddenly become fashionable. That hat went right into the closet -- my distaste for the shifting winds of fashion is that extreme.
But when preppy suddenly got fashionable a year ago, did I put my seersuckers and corduroys and cable-stitches and cotton lisles and tweeds onto the shelf? Are you kidding? I hate the popularity of prep and I pray that it soon recedes, but as Martin Luther put it in a different context: Ich kann nicht anders. Heaven knows I resent all these people who have switched from double-knits to flannels, but I am not about to make an investment in polyester. This fad, too, shall pass.
And then I will be able to settle back into the comfortable anonymity of my monumentally preppy neighborhood, in a house located almost exactly midway between Jos. A. Bank Clothiers and Talbot's. Any doubts I may have harbored about the suitability of this domicile were dispelled just a couple of weeks ago, when the neighborhood newspaper held a contest to determine the house with the best neighborhood Christmas decorations. The winner -- this too I swear to be true, cross my heart and hope to die -- was a symphony in pink and green.
(P.S.: I wore the Santa Claus tie.)