The tales my tees tell about me

Sometimes It appears that my thrift-shop apparel is sending the wrong message.

Phil Marden

The man slapped me on the back and said, “So, tell me about Kleer.”

I threw him a questioning look. Picking up on this, he pointed and said, “Your T-shirt.”

I looked down and read its message: “Kleer – Think Beyond Wood.”


The deal is this: I buy my T-shirts at the local thrift shop. Fifty cents for a tee in crisp, clean condition. What a bargain! The message on the shirt is of little importance to me. Once I’ve bought the shirt, I forget about it. This means that I am often taken off guard when others note whatever it is I’m inadvertently advertising. The responses aren’t always of the back-slapping kind.

Consider the man who growled at me when he noted my bright green tee: “You liberals are all alike!” he said.

The back of my shirt read: “Fair contract. Now!” I had no idea what it pertained to. No matter. In the eyes of the offended man, I was a liberal. And I was like all other liberals. Whatever that means.

Another fellow clucked his tongue and said, sourly, “You do know you’re in Red Sox country, right?” It was only then that I remembered I was wearing a Yankees T-shirt. All I could do was nod in response.

But most of the messages I carry do not elicit anything resembling hostility or even a frown. If people comment at all, it mostly reflects approbation, if not enthusiasm. I have a striking red tee with the white Polish eagle emblazoned on the front, along with the word “Polska.” One day, while strolling across the campus where I teach, a robust bear of a student threw his arm around my shoulder and exclaimed, “Brother!” He told me he was from Russia and that we Slavs have to stick together. It so happens that I am of Polish ancestry, but I have never been much interested in alliances.

In another instance, I picked up a handsome tee that bore the logo of the American Folk Festival, held yearly in Bangor, Maine. In large letters across the back it read, “VOLUNTEER.” This elicited a comment from a pleasant woman: “Thank you for your time and effort.”

You’re welcome.

Other tees have stimulated lengthy, and pleasant, conversation. I have a spectacular T-shirt with a garish splattering of colorful fruits and vegetables on the front. The caption: “World’s Largest Fruit Salad – UMass Amherst.” This was the impetus for a wonderful exchange initiated by an organic farmer at one of our open-air markets here in Maine. It turns out he had attended UMass Amherst and knew all about the phenomenal salad. When he was done singing its praises I felt as if I had done a heroic deed simply by wearing the shirt.

Some of my tees bear messages attesting to accomplishments I can take no credit for. I am not a Cessna pilot. I did not take part in the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race in 2013. I have never walked the entire Appalachian Trail, and I do not speak Esperanto.

However, there are messages I do wish I could find, for they would reflect my experiences and sensibilities:

“I have visited Greenland.”

“Thoreau. Now more than ever.”

“Don’t let school interfere with your education.”

“Baking soda can be used for almost anything.”

But perhaps, trumping all of these, I should settle for a message of rote candor, to wit: “This is not my shirt. I bought it at a thrift shop.”

That would, I think, keep everybody honest.

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