Ordeal in getting 9-year-old boy through this rite

April 21, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

One Saturday, a piece of mail slipped through the brass slot in the front door of the house on Guilford Avenue.

L It was an invitation to Margo Pierce's ninth birthday party.

I didn't grasp the importance of the document until it caught the eyes of the trinity of women who called so many of the shots in that sprawling house that was home to three generations.

My mother, grandmother and great-aunt studied that piece of paper as if it were a draft notice. They zeroed in on the key words. One was "dance." The others were "Mount Washington Club."

Almost simultaneously, the three women uttered one more ominous word. It was "suit."

That was the spring I turned 9 and it was time for me to have my first wool suit -- a proper jacket and matching long, cuffed pants.

I protested that I didn't know how to dance. They replied that nobody else did, so don't worry. A suit, however, couldn't be faked.

A few days later, the process, or ordeal, began. I'd just come home from school and was greeted by the three, two of whom were dressed for battle.

The grand matriarch of the family, my grandmother Lily Rose, had on her best dress and one of her funny old-fashioned hats. Her sister and vice president on all matters, my Great-Aunt Cora, was decked out in her Persian lamb coat and green hat that resembled a beehive. My mother was pregnant with her last child and decided wisely to stay home.

Within minutes, my grandmother and great-aunt had me in a taxicab. The destination was Hopkins Place, an address I'd scarcely heard of. The building we now call the Baltimore Arena was then only a dream of Mayor Tommy D'Alesandro Jr. It may have been discussed, but the Civic Center was not a reality.

To a 9-year-old, pre-Civic Center, pre-Charles Center, pre-Inner Harbor Baltimore meant an aging and mysterious downtown chock full of loft-style buildings. Everything seemed sprayed with coal soot. The windows didn't know what ammonia and cleaning rags were. There were funny little streets running at weird angles. There was certainly nothing perfumed or stylish about the men's clothing district.

I learned later that it was a Baltimore ritual for men to buy their suits off the pipe racks at these downtown, time-honored manufacturers. One of the most famous of that era was the Styleplus, a place that had suits to fit anybody regardless of height, age or waistline. The cutters and pants pressers were only a floor above or a block away. The prices reflected that proximity.

The salesman groaned at the sight of these rather formidable women chaperoning a child onto the battered linoleum showroom floor of the otherwise all-male Styleplus.

It did not take long before Lily Rose and her vice president were issuing orders to both the salesman and 9-year-old charge.

The two women were both excellent seamstresses and knew a lot about fabrics and construction of clothes.

For many years, they'd kept me in short pants made on their ancient but fully working Wollcox and Gibbs sewing machine. This was a rite of passage. Short pants, except for summer, would henceforth be a thing of the past.

For the next hour, I tried on suits, or rather I auditioned suits, for their approval or rejection. Their standards were high. Some suits were rejected as too flashy or too poorly made. They found fault with the wool in others. After many tries, they settled on a medium-blue suit of scratchy wool.

Then came a trip to the tailor's platform and the room of mirrors. The sisters watched every chalk mark that went on the pants and coat.

AAnd they criticized. They told me to stand up straight, then even more straight. I was told not to slouch. I was commanded to pull my shoulders back. And after all this, Great-Aunt Cora slipped in one last reminder: "Stop being self-conscious."

The night of the dance at the Mount Washington Club came and went. I tried to do all the right things -- stand up straight, control my posture and not eat all the brownies on the refreshment table.

But I flunked the self-consciousness test. All night long, everybody there referred to me as the boy in the new blue suit.

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