In this weather, we drag out the coats of bygone winters

January 18, 2003|By JACQUES KELLLY

It's been a while coming, but the winter coats, the real woolies, came out of the closets this past week. It's been a few seasons since Baltimore has experienced a furnace-rattling winter, the kind that demands a type of emergency apparel I delight in observing.

By this, I mean the category of heavy-duty coats, hats, mufflers and handwear we used to wear while waiting (for what seemed days) for an old Baltimore Transit Co. bus or car to arrive, back in the era when getting to work or school on a public conveyance was not considered weird or unusual - and so many people lived near a streetcar line.

Deep in many Baltimoreans' closets or storage lockers are the sort of coats and gear I've spotted over this current cold snap. These are the blankety things we don't throw away because, after all, we may need them someday, and Baltimoreans hate to part with anything of such potential import.

Without consulting a thermometer, I could tell the temperature when I emerged from the early service last Sunday at Saint Ignatius, at Calvert and Madison streets. Heading into the High Mass were several women wearing mink coats. Now, mink has been taking its licks from animal rights activists for some time. But let the mercury dip and dip again, and these protests shrivel.

I grew up in a house of mink, beaver, seal, raccoon, muskrat and even rabbit.

My mother, great Aunt Cora and sisters wore mink at the slightest sign of a chill because they felt it was the only way to stay warm outdoors in the winter. (They were also, by the way, devoted animal lovers and friends of all creatures.)

We had a distant cousin who owned a mink farm in Beach Creek, Pa., which helped, but that was only part of the source. My mother also mastered the fur district of Lower Manhattan after she had befriended some Johns Hopkins student who supplied the name of his uncle Harry or somebody, who had a wholesale business near the punishingly cold Hudson River. She liked to select her own pelts, then have a coat made to her specifications. If there were any pelts remaining, they went on the head, in the form of a mink hat.

For all the mink, my mother and aunts had a real variety of vintage furs stashed in the closets. When bundled up in these coverings, they looked like subjects of 1930s photographs (not surprising, given the furs' dates of purchase). If they were only walking up to Waverly, or dodging over to SS. Philip and James for a quick novena, the beaver coats would do.

There was a practical side to all this furry bundling. We traveled on foot a lot and took cabs and buses. We also were not afraid to go out at night and were regular customers at the Lyric, Mechanic and so many movie theaters, even on numbing-weather evenings. How many times did I smell the scent of mothballs at the Lyric on those Wednesdays when maestro Eugene Ormandy strolled across the stage?

Not far from my cousin's place in Beach Creek was the Woolrich coat factory, from which I was attired in coats designed to stand up against the Blizzard of March 1958 and other local weather nightmares. These coats were invariably a vibrant, fashion-dubious plaid. With them went a sensible pair of Herbert Cox shoes and, in foul weather, heavy rubber boots, bought in a place like Shocket's or Goldenberg's.

I've liked observing these coats that emerge only during wicked weather because they are somehow slightly theatrical. It's like going to the old Mayfair Theater for the local premiere of Dr. Zhivago, then emerging on Howard Street to see that old Baltimore's become Czarist Russia.

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