When I was a boy, all men wore hats. They were called Fedoras.
They came in black, different shades of brown and grey, with a silky band around the crown. A man walking down the street without a Fedora, especially in the winter, looked strangely out of place.
Hat shops, where you could have your Fedora cleaned and re-blocked, always seemed to have a three-seat shoeshine bench. You would climb up, put your feet on the raised-up shoe-stops, raise your pant cuffs, and wait your turn for a shinier-than-shiny shine.
These shops smelled of steam and shoe polish and cigarette smoke. The bench you sat on while having your shoes shined was stretched brown leather with one or more newspapers to read while the shoeshine guy slapped your shoes with polish, then brushed them (a brush in each hand) rapid-fire until his hands were a blur. Then, the snapping rag that not only added the extra shine, but seemed to massage your foot as well.
As you sat there, you could stare at all the clean blocked hats on the shelf on the far wall with little tickets in their bands, waiting for their owners to claim them.
I remember, in particular, the little bald man who cleaned the blocked hats. His name was Stan and he never smiled. When the customer would try to point out stains or wear on his wounded Fedora, Sam would mumble: "Yeah, yeah, yeah! Leave it with me. Come back in a few days!"
His sidekick, who shined the shoes, had thick black hair and a smile missing two front teeth. His name was Vic and he insisted on smiling all the time. They never spoke to one another. At Christmas, it was kind of like visiting Ebenezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchit.
The boys in my neighbourhood and I waited anxiously for our dads’ Fedoras to get so old they were beyond cleaning — and then we would rescue them for our own. Our dads would cut off the brim, remove the band on the crown, cut jagged teeth edges around the lower part of the crown, three or four small holes in the crown itself, turn the ragged edge upward, and lo, we had a beanie!
We would put any small thing we could find on our beanies: ribbons tacked with safety pins, badges, Cracker Jack prizes, all kinds of things. We felt like Mugs McGinnis from the Bowery Boys.
The last Fedora I really took notice of was one I bought in the mid-’60s to prove to the world I was now a man. By that time, the Fedora was fading into history — no one seemed to notice I had arrived at the squeaky door of maturity. I only wore my Fedora three times. I threw it away eventually. Very few men were wearing them and no one seemed to know what a beanie was, let alone want one.
Lots of things that were a positive part of my childhood are no longer around — the old Victrola phonograph, the pedal Singer sewing machine, the icebox, the horse-drawn bakery and milk wagons and, of course, the Fedora.
By the time I had reached the age of participation, I was only allowed a "taste" of what I had waited so long to be part of. But I am grateful for that taste.
Today, I savour the recollection of a time when men got their shoes shined on a regular basis, of a time when men wore hats and visited shops where they could get their hat cleaned and blocked, where you could smell the steam and the shoe polish, and hear the rhythm of the cloth as it danced across your shoes.
I am grateful for the splendid Fedora.
MARCH 2014 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE
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