Clothes Make the Man


If the weather was fine, the photographer would line us up along two benches on the front lawn of Barclay School, the shortest standing on the bench at the back, another row of the tallest standing on the grass, and the rest of us sitting on the front bench. I am at the end of the front row, on the left. Bill Tsalakomenos beside me. Bill in white t-shirt and striped blue, red and white V-neck sweater.

Directly behind me in the photo, which I discovered last week while clearing out my father’s apartment, stands Dave Cohen. A tall pudgy southpaw, Dave would later pitch for in the Park Extension league to great acclaim, even if he was its worst hitter. Dave couldn’t have made it round the bases anyway, not if his life depended on it. But Dave had this huge windup, a sequence of lazy loops, feints and kicks from which the ball would unaccountably rocket home. The slap of the catcher’s glove, then a called strike, then the batter studying his shoes. We never understood how Dave did it. Dave in a checked shirt and grey wool flannel jacket and pants, the pants belted high and tight over his belly.

First row, second from right, sits Alexandra Soumias, whom I will one day marry. She’s wearing a white blouse and navy-blue skirt. Black strappy shoes, white socks, bare knees. In the picture, I don’t even know she exists.

The teacher is in the middle of the front bench, Miss Calloway. Tall bouffant, heavy mascara, pale pink lipstick. She’s wearing a lilac bubble blouse, which was a thing back then, black miniskirt, white nylons, black patent leather shoes with chunky heels. In other years, the teacher was sometimes positioned at the end of the bench, standing. If she was young and still enjoying her job, she might rest a proprietary hand on a student’s shoulder.

But if the weather was not fine, we would take the photo on the auditorium stage. Similar setup, but instead of grass and the leafy spreading maples that stood in front of Barclay School, a dark velvet drape would be hung in back. To one side, a tall arrangement of waxy white flowers. A small board in front indicating grade, room number and teacher’s name. The only thing missing, really, was a coffin.

As spring approached during sixth grade, my mother took me to Schreter’s, at the corner of St. Lawrence and Marie-Anne Streets, to buy a new suit for the class photo. An old man with a green tape measure around his neck served us. He smelled of mothballs and his hands were white and chalky, faint blue veins branching beneath his papery skin. He seemed vaguely familiar, and then I remembered seeing him at parents’ night, when I’d been recruited to check coats. The old man was Dave Cohen’s father. As he made a great show of wrapping the tape measure around my chest — “Arms up, young man” — I wondered what it would be like to have a father that old. He measured my waist, inseam and arms, noting the figures on a clipboard. Then Dave Cohen’s father selected a dark blue suit from a rack.

“Two pairs of pants, madam,” he said to my mother, holding up the suit where it would catch the light. “Worsted Scottish wool, tailored by Peerless. You couldn’t ask for better fabric and tailoring at this price. Two pairs of pants, madam. I recommend this suit highly. Do you like it, young man?”

“It’s alright,” I said.

“Madam, please let the young man try it on and then you’ll decide. Madam, this way…”

When I emerged from the fitting room Dave Cohen’s father was rubbing his papery hands together with enough energy to achieve ignition.

“You see, what did I tell you!” he cried. Standing behind me at the mirror, Dave Cohen’s father made pincers of his thumbs and forefingers to lift and resettle the shoulders. “What did I tell you, madam? Clothes make the man.” I thought he was kidding, but I could see in the mirror that he was dead serious.

“Two pairs of pants,” my father remarked when we showed him the suit. “You’ll outgrow them long before you wear them out. But, still, a good fabric.”

I wanted him to say more but he remained silent, smoking a cigarette. The suit was spread flat on the kitchen table, like a suicide beneath a window.

“What are these?” I asked, pointing to rectangles of spongy material sewn into the waistbands.

He thought for a moment, gently rubbed the patch. “These are so your shirttails stay tucked in,” he said. “Still, a good suit. Wear it well. Maybe I’ll take you to Eaton’s for a shirt.”

In the picture, everyone is wearing their best. The girls mostly in tunics and white blouses, the boys in button shirts and dress pants. Except for Dave Cohen and me. We’re both wearing suits.

By the time this picture was taken, I had been shopping with my father at Eaton’s and I’m wearing an open collar shirt, ribbon stripes of pale pink and sky blue. A gold ring pinches together a forest green and magenta kerchief at my throat. It was the style. We’d seen John Lennon wear something like it in magazines. I can still feel the silk at my throat, the thrilling secret caress.


Many years later, in late adolescence, an unhappy love affair drove me to the seaside shack my father’s family owned in Greece, where I moped up and down the beach for many weeks on end, raw and exposed, alone, wearing nothing but flip-flops and a blue bathing suit. Most days I lay on the shaded balcony and most nights I tossed and turned under a brown haze of mosquito netting.

The shacks lining the beach were all the same, built for cooking and eating below and sleeping above, in the open air. This way the sleepers could catch the cool breeze coming off the sea. In the afternoons I bowed to local custom and dozed for hours, my head lying heavy and dreamless on a pillow, drugged by the sound of surging waves, the insistent breeze and the unearthly dazzle of the restless sea, waves crashing and expiring, sighing in retreat.

As I said, this embarrassing interlude lasted for many weeks and I have no doubt that during this time I was a laughingstock in the nearby town. People still remembered the stern and unbending palikári who emigrated to Canada and became my father. But they couldn’t account for this weepy, wounded son. Three times a week, an older cousin brought food from my aunt and we ate together outside, on tiny rush-bottomed stools, listening to the sea and saying nothing. Afterwards we smoked for an hour or so, staring at the waves, and then my cousin would pack up the hamper, stow it behind his motorbike and return home.

The best I can say for that sad and desultory summer is that it improved my Greek. And that, in the grander scheme of things, it was mercifully short. For as August advanced, I discovered that I liked to drink beer and eat fried potatoes at the seaside restaurants, just like everyone else. The world was not so unfeeling after all. Thanks to the beer and fries, I gained weight. I unpacked my clothes and made friends with my cousin’s friends, until it was nearly time to go home for the fall. My plan was to return to Montreal and pick up where I had left off, maybe return to classes at McGill. My parents were becoming impatient — not that they ever said anything directly, mind you, during our weekly phone calls. But still, I knew.

And so, during these final days in Greece I spent more time in town. In the cool evenings, my new friends and I lingered at cafés in the agora to watch the girls promenade in their summer dresses, hand in hand, untouchable as queens. In our adolescent innocence and cruelty, we bragged about the things we would do to these girls. We unfolded tales of midnight rides on moonlit winding roads, long descents to the sea, then sudden violent fucks among the dunes, blood seeping into the still-warm sand below.

A week before I was to leave for home, my friend Vasili invited me for a farewell dinner, just the two of us. I put on a green Lacoste polo shirt and a pair of faded Lee jeans and hitched a ride into town behind a tractor pulling a load of watermelons. The farmer dropped me at the agora and, as he roared away, I began my climb to Vasili’s house, perched high on a hill above the town. It was hot and I was soon sweating through my clothes.

I found Vasili sitting in his whitewashed front yard, in the green shade of an arbour heavy with late summer grapes. He was eating figs from a blue ceramic bowl.

“Sit,” he said, pushing the bowl across the table. “There’s plenty of time.”

We ate the full August figs, purple and bursting with nectar. When we had finished all the figs, Vasili filled a glass of well water from a jug and handed the glass to me and I poured water over my hands to rinse off the sticky nectar and then drank deeply.

We smoked for a while and then went inside so he could show me his house and I saw, hanging on the wall behind his bed, a turtle shell the size of a large loaf of village bread. A shaft of late-afternoon sun slanted across the room and made the shell glow with a low fire.

“Just look at that,” was about all I could say.

* * *

We got on Vasili’s motorcycle and took a footpath down to the agora, weaving carefully between the rocks. When we reached the paved road, Vasili put the bike in neutral and gunned the motor, as if deciding which way to go. I held on tight and strained against the sudden acceleration.

It was still light as we pulled up at a seaside restaurant, some miles along the coast. When our first beers arrived, we ordered grilled fish, fried potatoes and wild greens, and put money in the jukebox. The place soon filled and some of the diners got up to dance on the hard-packed sand, as Vasili and I clapped and set out shot glasses on the ground for the dancers. We put more coins in the jukebox and asked the waiter to leave the empty beer bottles standing on our table, so we could keep score. After a while word got around that I would soon be leaving Greece and people sent over more beers and many of these people came by to clap me on the back and shake my hand.

Close to daybreak, we were riding fast and shivering through the cool air as we passed irrigated fields and orchards on both sides of the road. Vasili whooped loudly and I answered him the same way, as we tried to stay awake. Vasili swerved back and forth across the road to show that, despite all the beers he’d drunk, he was still in full control of his machine.

We turned onto a dirt track and bounced along for several hundred yards. Now that we had left the irrigated fields behind us, the air was warmer. Soon, under the weak starlight, the boxy shapes of the beach shacks came into view. Beyond them, the sea. Vasili killed the motor and we rolled to a stop.

His voice was startling in the sudden silence. “That turtle shell you liked. I’d give it to you, to take back to Canada. But I can’t do it. It was a present from my godfather, whose grandfather gave it to him, so… Besides, my father would kill me. But if you want one like it, I can introduce you to a guy I know. Maybe you’ll have it before you leave.”

A couple of days later, as I was packing my things at the beach shack, my cousin and Vasili showed up, along with a guy I’d never seen before. Foti was older than us, tall and athletic and strikingly handsome, with green eyes and long hair tied into a ponytail. He was carrying a canvas bag and was barefoot, wearing a bathing suit. We sat outside and he offered me a cigarette. We studied the sea for a while.

“I’m told you like beautiful suits,” he said.

“I’ve seen things like that only in books and museums,” I said, at once understanding his meaning. “The biggest ones were used as shields in battle, weren’t they?”

He laughed. “You read too many comic books, captain.” My cousin and Vasili, gazing out to sea, gave no indication that they were listening. “I can find you a full suit today,” Foti announced. “Won’t cost much, either. I’ll show you.”

He tossed his cigarette into the sand and began walking purposefully toward the dunes behind the shack. I was meant to follow. I looked at my cousin and Vasili.

“You coming?” I asked. They said they’d wait.

I found my flip-flops and went after Foti, who was putting on a straw hat he’d pulled from his bag. About fifty yards into the dunes, he turned right and I saw that he intended to cut across the wide finger of land that separated our small bay from the next one. This larger beach was less frequented and had fewer shacks because it was further from the road. It would have been easier to follow the shoreline, walking on hard sand, but Foti likely didn’t want us to be seen.

We walked for a long while, keeping well into the dunes, among waist-high grasses and wild lilies dressed in brightly coloured dragonflies. The dragonflies hovered and darted ahead, circled back and vanished toward the beach on our right. It was hard going and I was soon sweating. Foti kept a steady pace, his powerful legs churning the hot sand. Gradually he pulled ahead. I had spent most of the summer strolling or dozing on the beach, and was now short of breath. My heart pounded in my chest and spots danced before my eyes.

“I guess you find them in the sand,” I panted, when I finally caught up with Foti. He was standing on a rise and surveying the surrounding dunes and distant beach. “I mean, you find them in the sand if you know where to look.” I had a picture in my head from cowboy movies. Skulls bleaching in the sun.

“You have to know where to look,” said Foti, without so much as glancing at me. “That’s the main thing, captain. Knowing where to look. There aren’t many left these days. You’re lucky I came along.”

We walked on and I wondered how I could put a stop to this situation. If I gave him money to forget about the whole thing, how long before word got out? How ridiculous would I look, throwing money away for a walk in the sand? As I turned the matter over in my head, Foti stopped and pointed. Nothing but dunes and dry grasses and swaying columns of heat. Somewhere, the sighing sea.

“What?” I whispered.

“Why are you whispering?” he laughed, displaying strong white teeth in his handsome mouth.                                                                                                     

“What’s he going to do, run away?”

I followed him and, behind a large clump of dry grass, ancient yellow eyes regarded us. A pattern of mahogany hexagons, wattled skin the colour of stained parchment, and a slow majestic dignity. He was much bigger than the one I’d seen over Vasili’s bed. The creature turned a pitiless gaze toward the sea. Then began a slow retreat. Clawed legs folding into the openings. Clean lines, neatly mitred joints. Now, at last, just a shell.

“But he’s alive,” I said. “I thought…”

“You thought what? Well, you want him or don’t you? Speak up, captain.” I could hear the derision. He took a pair of knives from his bag, their blades wrapped in leather. A long curving one, like a scimitar, and a vicious little thing with a straight blade. By this point we had walked a long way and the sun was blazing on our backs and our heads were drenched and my heart was pounding with exertion.

“You can go back now, captain. Back to your friends. It’ll take time to clean and dry out. Vasili will ship him to you. What do you say?”

“How old is he?” I asked.

Foti snorted. “Ask him yourself.”


My father dressed formally every day of his life. Although, when I stop to think about it, I know this can’t be true. On his rare days off, when my uncle filled in at the restaurant, or when we went on vacation to Cape Cod, or caught an Expos game at Jarry Park, or when he just relaxed on Sunday afternoons, the TV on low, tuned to a nature show, a glass of beer resting on the coffee table, what was he wearing? Honestly, I can’t bring these pictures into focus. It couldn’t possibly have been a suit. But my father in a suit is what I remember best during all those years. Unimaginable in anything else.

But that was a long time ago, after all. These days he mostly wears a ratty grey sweater and pilly sweatpants. Every item of clothing is stained with food: dried oatmeal, egg yolk, smears of ketchup, mustard, gravy. Velcro straps secure his shoes, making it easier for the staff to “manage his needs.” I had to buy him two pairs of shoes. For some portion of his pride or memory remains intact, and so he hates having his diaper changed, especially by a woman. When I visit, the first thing he wants is for me to help him pee. He is so desperate that I wonder how long he’s been holding it. On days when I can’t visit, he’ll have a try at the bathroom by himself. Inevitably he’ll drench his shoes with urine, which is why the staff has asked for a second pair. Now there’s always a pair in his closet, drying out.

I help my father into the armchair and take off his shoes. I keep a polishing kit on a high shelf in his closet, and he sits in his stockinged feet and watches with interest. The shoes are of manmade material and don’t take the polish very well: the polish just sits on top. But I go through the exercise anyway and when I put the shoes back on his feet he looks at them for a long time.

Shortly after we have to move him into this place, my wife and I begin cleaning out his apartment. We make separate piles: the biggest pile for trash, then two more piles of linens and household things to give away. There is a nearly new microwave that he never mastered, which we’ll take home and decide what to do with later. A few more things to keep: school photos, family albums, graduation certificates — things I never wanted when I was younger.

While my wife fills a box with miniature Greek temples, souvenir shot glasses from Niagara Falls, odds and ends, I begin working on the bedroom closet. Suits, about a dozen or so, are lined up on the left. I remember each one, each suit occupies its own page in an album. The grey wool basketweave for spring and summer, the mid-weight blue worsted for fall. For winter there’s the charcoal grey flannel and the dark green Harris tweed that he must have bought on a whim, because he hardly ever wore it. For the most part the suits are in bad shape. I remove them from their wooden hangers, fold and carefully stack them on the bed.

* * *

Among all the men I knew while growing up, among the many uncles and friends’ fathers and neighbours I knew, only my father shopped for his own clothes. The other men had their wives buy their clothes and wore whatever was laid out on the bed for them. If they didn’t like what they saw, the wife returned the clothes to the store and tried again. This way, through trial and error, she soon learned what was acceptable.

Several times a year, my father and I would board the southbound Number 80 bus at the corner of Bloomfield and Jean Talon. The bus would turn east for a few blocks, then south on Park Avenue, lumbering past Greek, Hasidic and Italian shops. Past lunch places and doctors’ offices and travel agencies and the lone Chinese restaurant and two movie houses — the Rialto and the Regent. The bus would pause at the corner of Mount Royal Avenue. Here, I would imagine the bus gathering its strength for the long climb up to the hill’s summit, with its bronze lions on the right and ancient convent on the left. Then we’d pick up speed on the way down to Pine Avenue, past the point where Park Avenue ceases to be itself and becomes Bleury Street, and after that we’d well and truly be downtown.

I don’t think we ever exchanged a word during these trips.

We’d disembark at St. Catherine Street and walk several blocks west, past Morgan’s department store, to Eaton’s. We’d stroll through the men’s department, on the ground floor, looking for marked down items. I didn’t know it then, but our visits were timed with end-of-season sales. And so my father might pick up a white cotton shirt or silk tie. A chocolate brown sweater vest for next winter. Or a scarf lined with olive-green wool challis on one side, and on the other side, in Italian silk, a paisley salad of mustard yellows and poppy reds over a ground of moss green.

Sometimes when the prices weren’t low enough or the selection not to my father’s taste, we would return home empty handed. But we would always stop at a lunch counter on St. Catherine for a steamed hot dog, the accompanying fries drenched in vinegar and sprinkled with tiny crystals of salt. And that was it, that was our day.

* * *

Most of his suits, together with a black wool overcoat, fit into three garbage bags. One suit remains in the closet, on a wooden hangar. A black and charcoal grey check, single-breasted, of English worsted wool. Cuffed, flat front trousers. The Eaton’s label is sewn into the inside left pocket, the Park Place label on the inside right.

“Maybe you should hold on to that one,” my wife says. I had not seen Alex standing in the bedroom door, and it startles me. Alex is holding a small bronze owl, maybe considering whether to keep it. “You know,” she says gently, “we will need a suit…when the time comes.”

At first I don’t know who will need the suit, my father or me. Or what sort of time might be coming. But then I understand.

From my father’s dresser I choose a white shirt with French cuffs, Egyptian cotton, made by Denis the shirt-maker on Park Avenue. An extravagance. I find a pair of cufflinks, locate a black leather belt and black socks. The shoes, also black, are from Dack’s. The silk tie is a blue, white and black repp. I consider adding a polka-dot pocket square. But under the circumstances will that be too much? In the end, I also put aside a white linen handkerchief. I can decide later. I want him to look good.

My father never talked about his clothes, nor did I ever see him look into a mirror, except for a quick glance on his way out, as the taxi waited below our apartment, to make sure his tie was straight.

When I was very young my mother would sometimes take me by the hand to visit him at the restaurant, and before entering we’d gaze at him through the window, gaze at my father standing at the front of the restaurant, standing a few feet from the cash register, surveying the tables and the staff, always sure and dignified in his movements, hands folded in front of him. A man in a dark suit, waiting.

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