In a crowded cafe, standing against the mahogany bar, a man blew smoke in my face. I politely requested that he move his cigarette to a slightly different position.
The Marlboro man, feeling the effects of his fourth or fifth beer, looked at me and sneered, "I don't like your hat."
Such is the abuse that those of us who insist upon proper headgear are forced to endure.
Indeed, the remarkable rise of prejudice against hats and hat wearers is one of the sadder facts of the second half of this century. After all, hats are a tradition with deep roots in American history. Where would we be without Washington's tricorn, Lincoln's stove pipe or Davy Crockett's coonskin cap?
But my personal nominee for the best American hat is the slouch. Its long and distinguished history hardly merits its current disfavor.
Made of soft felt with a high crown and broad brim, this most practical piece of headgear offers protection from rain, snow and summer sun. A slouch hat forms to most any shape and can survive even the roughest treatment -- such as when a hat hater sits on it.
Robert E. Lee, George Armstrong Custer, Teddy Roosevelt and Humphrey Bogart all favored slouch hats. Can such a diverse group of distinguished Americans be wrong?
Indeed, the slouch hat maintained popularity with very little change through much of our nation's existence. The plumed model sported by J.E.B. Stuart and his Rebel cavalrymen wasn't much different from the one worn by Dwight Eisenhower as a civilian. Ike, of course, preferred his without the feather.
Eisenhower's successor, John Kennedy, generally gets credit for destroying the hat's place in American fashion. Kennedy refused to wear one to his inauguration and -- so the story goes -- legions of American males took that as the signal to boycott their haberdashers.
In truth, the slouch hat had already begun to hit hard times. The mavens of fashion fooled with the basic design that made the slouch hat such a classic. The broad brim shrank to a fraction of its former self. Stiff construction prevented proper shaping to fit one's personality. Businessmen began appearing in silly creations that looked more like Alpine salt boxes than any respectable form of headgear.
Need proof? Consider the classic slouch hat of Bogart in "Casablanca." Now think of the dreadful inadequacy worn by Sean Connery in the airport scene of "Dr. No."
There are secrets to the successful wearing of a slouch hat. While they vary with individual taste, some guidelines follow:
1.) Wear your hat at a slight -- not exaggerated -- angle. An untilted hat marks you as someone who shouldn't wear a hat at all. Too much tilt puts you in the same league as "Louie from Phillie."
2.) When removing your hat, grab it near the pinch in the crown. Handling the brim will soon reshape your chapeau to look like it belongs to Ed Norton of "The Honeymooners."
3.) Never wear both reflective sunglasses and your hat. People will be suspicious enough of you anyway. By the same token, think twice before wearing a trench coat.
4.) Avoid hats that come in day-glow colors. John (Dress for Success author) Molloy will back me up on this.
Hats do have their drawbacks. My grandmother always claimed that wearing a hat will make you go bald. Today, considering my thinning pate, I wonder if she may have been right.
Some men don't become true hat aficionados until after their hair has already disappeared. Then, as Elton John and the Beach Boys' Mike Love know, a hat becomes the perfect device for concealing the loss. Confederate Gen. Joe Johnston reportedly grew so fond of this innocent form of cover-up that he refused to remove his hat even while sitting at the dinner table.
Another problem is that hats blow off in high winds. Few things in life are more frustrating than chasing your hat down the street.
And hats are easy to lose. Unlike mittens, you cannot affix them by a string to your sleeve. (If you could, that would also solve the problem of high winds.)
For several years, I affected a jaunty Irish walking hat. My wife loathed it. Nevertheless, she prevented me from forgetting it in numerous restaurants. Last spring, leaving a train in France, she failed to remind me. My hat continued on to Germany.
As punishment for this oversight, 70 percent of my body heat escaped through my head for the rest of the trip.
Recently that lost hat has been replaced by a new broad-brim model. This classic slouch hat would be at home in any detective novel. It's a beautiful hat and -- at $65 -- it is the most expensive piece of headgear I've ever owned.
The reaction has been mixed. My wife is tolerant, allowing that at least this is better than the other one.
At the office, coworkers giggle and say "What a nice hat!" The receptionist tells me I look like a gangster. My boss asks how much I charge for my girls. This abuse comes from a man who recently discovered purple shirts!
Still, there are those who appreciate class. Total strangers stop to mention they like my hat. Friends ask to try it on. When a sudden rainstorm strikes, I snicker at those scurrying for their umbrellas.
Best of all is meeting a kindred hat wearer on the street. We exchange knowing glances beneath our brims. Such is the brotherhood of the hat!