Sometimes, you have to go for the sartorial gold

ROGER SIMON

October 18, 1991|By ROGER SIMON

My father always bought better shoes than he really could afford.

Since he never wore his good shoes to work, they would last for years and years, and so the purchase caused no great hardship to the family.

Like a lot of men of his generation, he associated a good pair of shoes with a certain social standing. On weekends he would take his good shoes off their shoe trees -- my father is the last man I know actually to use shoe trees -- and take us on walks through the neighborhood, feeling like a man of substance strolling around his estate, heirs in tow.

Some things you don't inherit. I look down now at my shoes: a pair of black Reeboks that I wear to work every day. Come to

think of it, these are also my good shoes.

I did inherit, though, my father's affection for the single luxury item that makes you feel like royalty each time you wear it.

I found mine on my first trip to Europe in 1970. I had emptied my bank account to buy a student fare ticket, stayed at youth hostels and lived for weeks on french fries.

The day before I was to fly home, I visited Harrod's in London. You probably have heard about it: the luxurious goods, the attentive staff, the pheasants hanging from the ceiling in the Food Hall.

I wandered up and down the vast, echoing aisles and finally found myself in front of a table heaped high with cashmere scarves.

Today, you usually do not find cashmere scarves out on tables. You find them behind the counter or guarded by men with pistols on their hips.

But 21 years ago, a cashmere scarf sold for . . . what? I wish I could remember with certainty, but I can't. It could not have been for more than $15. I would not have had more than $15.

I did not know then that cashmere comes from Tibetan goats, I only knew that when I touched one of the scarves to my face, it was inexpressibly soft and the only choice remaining to me was which color to buy.

I didn't want a white one, because I didn't want to look like a flying ace. And I didn't want a red one, because I didn't want to look like a university twit. So I picked one of deeply hued yellow.

To me this said what good shoes said to my father: I was, even though young and jobless, a man of substance.

I hung onto that scarf for exactly 20 years and in all that time it did not show a millimeter of wear.

In 1990, William Donald Schaefer made me lose it. I was running after him at a national governors' conference and it slipped from my pocket.

I returned for it moments later, but you are better off trying to recover your wallet in a crack house than a cashmere scarf at a governors' conference. It was gone and I have felt a lesser person ever since.

Flying back to England to get another one was out of the question. But a friend suggested to me that British goods could be obtained cheaply in Canada.

Frankly, I have never seen the point of Canada. The people pretend they are in a separate country, but they watch all our TV shows, so who are they trying to kid?

Anyway, a few weeks ago I flew to Vancouver, where I was told that the city of Victoria, a mere four-hour bus and ferry trip away, was the place to go for British goods.

I went to Victoria. It was very British. Tea and crumpet shops. Marmelade kiosks. Tweed joints.

I went into a store. Ye Olde Shoppe or something like that.

Do you have cashmere scarves? I asked.

"Of course, sir," the clerk said. "And what color scarf would the gentleman require?"

I have no idea what the gentleman would require, I said, but I would like one of deeply hued yellow.

"A most excellent choice, if I may say so," he said so. "The sign of a person of substance."

He took the scarf from the shelf. I touched it to my face. And was transported to heaven.

The very thing, I said. How much? In real money, not Canadian money.

He tapped a few figures into a calculator. "That would be 195 American dollars," he said.

No, no, I said. I don't want all your cashmere scarves. Just this one.

"Yessir," he said. "That would be 195 American dollars."

I walked out of the store scarfless and in a daze.

What has happened in a mere 21 years? Those Tibetan goats must be dining on minks.

I schlepped back to Vancouver. On the way to my hotel, I cut through the Hudson Bay Company, a big Canadian department store.

I passed its men's counter. There were a bunch of scarves there, none of them cashmere.

"They're something even better," the clerk said. "Feel this."

He handed me a scarf made of -- I kid you not -- something called "Cashmink" which was, the label assured me, "100 percent acrylic."

I touched it to my face. It was indistinguishable from real cashmere.

Good Lord! I said. I don't suppose you have one in . . .

"Deeply hued yellow?" the clerk said. "You bet. Our biggest seller." He reached beneath the counter.

"And it's on sale this week. Normally 15 dollars, now for 10 dollars and 50 cents."

You're kidding!

"That's Canadian money, of course," he said. "It's a little less in American money."

I reached for my wallet. And then I hesitated.

Would my father, I wondered, have purchased 100 percent acrylic shoes? Or would he have held out for the real thing? Wouldn't my father have maintained his standards in a world where the cheap and the fake threatens those things we most value? Wouldn't my father have spent more money in order to be a real man of substance rather than a phony?

Like hell.

Gimme two, I told the guy. I might have to go to another governors' conference.

HC

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