My coat and I

It finally caught up with me. I was expecting it, knew it would happen someday. But when it did I still wasn't prepared. It happened one windy day, while I was striding down Newbury Street in Boston. I was wearing my favorite coat, a fading but still snappy '40s number trimmed with fur. Two girls dressed in black punk getup were heading toward me. As we passed, one of them yelled over her shoulder, ''Dead animal skins!''

For a few seconds I thought her remark was part of some bizarre conversation they were having. Then it sank in - she was talking about me. Or rather about my coat.

Never having been shouted at about a coat before, I was at a loss as to what to do. So I kept walking. I figured that if I turned around and said, ''Wait! You've got it all wrong, I . . . ,'' they'd be long gone, and I'd be left explaining to the wind. Or worse, I'd explain the situation and then they'd shout me down.

But the odd thing was - they kept walking too. The girl seemed content to toss off the political statement on the run.

What could I tell her? That the coat isn't a symbol of prestige for me. That I'm against the trapping of animals. That I wrote an article about animal rights groups boycotting a fast food chain for selling veal. That I rescued a cat from the streets of Greenwich Village, subscribe to the National Geographic, support Greenpeace. Hey! I'm an animal lover from way back - I've got credentials!m

I can just see her steely glare now, clamped on my furry lapels. ''So why,'' she would ask quietly, ''are you wearing that coat?''

Gulp. I thought, uh, that's a tough one. And that, I knew, is why I kept walking. There was nothing I could say. She was right. In a certain absolute sense, someone with my beliefs was being hypocritical by wearing fur. Since the coat is 40 years old, the fur trim on it is most likely from a trapped animal, not one grown for the purpose of being liberated of its pelt. I have no excuse.

I know all that. But I wonder if the sole identity of the coat is as a political symbol to 1980s consciousness? Is there another dimension to its value?

''Let me tell you about the coat,'' I imagine myself telling the girl. ''It's oatmeal-colored wool with a perfectly preserved beige silk lining. It has shoulder pads and a fur trim on the front closing that extends around the neck and wide trim on the sleeves. . . .''

The coat symbolizes for me the era when clothing was built with style, grace, and durability. The shoulder pads make me think of Katharine Hepburn's jaunty self-reliance. An alert costume designer found it at the bottom of a barrel at the Salvation Army in San Francisco seven years ago while searching for costumes for ''The Time of Your Life.'' I wore it in the play as a jilted, huffy woman.

How can I tell the girl that I felt so beautiful and grand wearing it that I had to work doubly hard as an actress to feel appropriately homely and unwanted? That I begged the producer to let me keep the coat in lieu of payment for the show? How now it breaks my heart seeing the fur drying up and shedding, and knowing there's little I can do about it? How the coat was the first really lovely garment I've ever owned? How it, aside from the fur, is so elegantly designed that a jogger once stopped in his tracks to wheeze out his admiration of it?

Seeing myself through the girl's eyes, I'm a rich, snooty Bostonian. What a joke, I mused, stepping a bit less smartly; I was just wondering how to pay the oil bill. But she doesn't know that. To her, I'm part of ''the enemy'' - complacent rich people who care little for the suffering of others in their pursuit of status and prestige and comfort. Or so the label goes.

The girl's comment took a lot of the self-righteousness out of me. Here I am , the once-radical college student who probably spouted off a similar searing reproach to an astonished matron, now being hollered at myself. This time around I'm somebody else's conception of enemy. Have I really sold out?m Am I now one of them?m In college, wearing clothes from thrift shops rather than from the anonymous racks of a department store was the pinnacle of political chic.

But what I'd like to tell that young woman (and tell the me of hard-line college years) is: It's not that simple. It's too easy to write people off because of their dress, or speech, or political beliefs. It's facile and superficial to assume that a woman wearing a polyester pantsuit is going to be against women's rights, or that an overweight man wearing a white plastic belt and white shoes is going to be a bigot. And it's just plumb wrong - as I've had proved to me time and time again. People will always break down all the stereotypes you can build up against them, if you let them.

A coat doesn't sum up a person's life, I'd tell them. You cut yourself off from people by thinking so. It can give you a smug satisfaction that there is a right way to live and a wrong, but it can rob you of the goodness in those you'd wish to relegate to the status of enemy.

The coat is fading fast and when it's gone it won't be replaced with another fur. I will have fond memories of it but will feel more in harmony with my own conscience without it. The moral to me is: If you want to wear the trappings of wealth, you might get caught.

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