As a kid, I knew very little about clothing – even less than I do now. I went shopping for clothes once a year with my parents, just before returning to school. I always treated this single shopping trip as an awful chore, made tolerable only by the luxury of choosing back to school sneakers and t-shirt iron-ons. For most of my wardrobe, my parents would take me to SEARS or DENBY'S, a department store that employed my father at one time – doing what, I cannot be sure. I hated SEARS. It was all Garanimals and Osh Kosh (b'gosh!) and NFL® brand clothing and Tuffskins corduroys in unappetizing colors like "rust" or "feces."
Denby's wasn't as horrible, although my affection was limited to about 5% of the store's physical retail space. When we pushed through the swinging doors, I would rush past the "clothing for well-behaved boys" section – matching denim suit sets and colorful snap-front shirts with western collars and double-stitched bible pockets – and proceed straight to the small area in the rear of the store devoted to boys who would soon chip their teeth on fists and be tossed from school for lighting smoke bombs in the boys' room or flipping a hall monitor the double-bird. This unspeakable section of Denby's contained only four things, to my memory: belt buckles, novelty t-shirts, denim jeans and jackets, and a rack of embroidered patches to adhere to one's denim jeans and jacket.
My favorite t-shirts leaned toward the comic and absurd. One of my greatest prizes was an acquisition I made in fourth grade – a heather blue ringer T with rubber stamp iron on letters spelling out the words, "FACTORY REJECT." The phrase was not punctuated with a giant comic exclamation point, though the exclamation point was absolutely implied. I wore the shit out of that one, sometimes coupling it with my The Empire Strikes Back belt buckle. (ok, in retrospect, i cannot name a single juvenile delinquent in my school who, upon being led from the school building and shoved into a squad car, shouted, "hey! easy on the belt buckle, pig! you're gonna scratch Yoda! and hey, what are all you squares looking at? that's right – i'm a factory reject, see, just as my t-shirt unironically states. even the factory don't want me. what'd you expect from me? my destiny was already written, right on my chest.")
The t-shirts were find, but the embroidered patches were the most coveted item in the whole store. The designs ranged from junior pothead sloganeering ("keep on trucking" made absolutely no sense to me then and, with time, has continued to make absolutely no sense to me.) to Age-Inappropriate Machismo. Those were the best: coiled cobras, screaming eagles with fresh blood in their talons, crossed ninja swords, flaming skulls, and black panthers. (whenever i'd point to a black panther patch and cry, "please!!!" my mother would just shake her head and ask, "why would you want to wear a picture of huey b. newton on your knee? she did not get me.)
Every once in a while, Denby's would carry an embroidered patch with a highly politicized message. During the Iran hostage crisis, they stocked a patch depicting Mickey Mouse giving the finger. Underneath his smug pose, was the inscription, "HEY IRAN!!"
My mother absolutely REFUSED to buy me any of these patches, fearing they would just ruin my "nice" clothes. I couldn't even convince her to buy one for practical purposes, such as mending a blown out knee on a pair of jeans. Instead, she would employ an unassuming square of dark blue fabric that came with her sewing kit. It was stiff, ugly fabric, completely without personality. With one of her gigantic patches inserted inside my jeans, cut far too large for the hole it was intended to cover, I could barely bend my knee; it was like wearing a polio brace.
Even if I saved up my allowance, it was fruitless to imagine spending that money on an embroidered patch. My mom did all the sewing and ironing. I could barely brush my own hair once it started changing texture in fourth grade. There was no way I was getting anywhere near an iron. So, instead, I would just spend 10 minutes or so at the embroidered patch rounder, turning it slowly and lovingly, examining the patches the way someone else would study an impressionist painting. I was young, and they were out of reach.
Well, guess what? I'm not young anymore. IN YOUR FACE, MOM! WHO'S THE FACTORY REJECT NOW????? (answer: me)