Artifacts from past lives

by Brian Clarey

I call it the Cool Guy Vest, and I’m wearing it today, made of brushed black suede, sheeny satin and sturdy steel snaps. Totally badass.

I picked it up more than 15 years ago in, of all places, the Louisiana Superdome during one of those huge mega-closeout sales that hinge on the bait and switch.

I was a recent college graduate, rededicated to the idea of living in New Orleans and tending bar for a living and freelancing some journalism on the side. I had just signed a lease on an apartment in the Garden District of which I would be the sole resident, my first time living alone. My primary relationship was with a woman from the West Bank, but I had big plans for my genitals in the coming months — I was kind of a bastard back then, but I reasoned that I had been waiting my entire life to be out of school, earning money and beholden to absolutely no one. I envisioned the next few years as a seamless binge of wine and women and song, a celebration of a young man hitting his stride.

It worked out pretty much as I planned. But the vest… man, the vest…. I remember seeing it amongst all the junk stacked in piles in one of the Superdome’s adjunct chambers. I was there for a VCR, one of those newfangled ones where you could tape programs by punching in a numerical code, and I had slipped under the leather guy’s tent just because… I don’t know… something about the smell… like a catcher’s mitt or a saddle or a really good pair of shoes. Leather. Nothing else like it. And as a young man about to prove his mettle to the city of New Orleans, I was pretty sure I was gonna need some. Or, at least, some suede.

It cost me 12 bucks. Over the years, I’ve worn the Cool Guy Vest behind the bar, on New Year’s Eve and Halloween. I’ve paired it with T-shirts and jeans, blazers and henleys, neckties and bolos. I’ve worn it under a tuxedo and with practically nothing else at all.

And like I said, I’m wearing it today. Maybe it sounds pretty stupid, but this piece of clothing, which is older than my children, my marriage, my career… hell, it’s older than my house… it makes me remember that bold and feisty young man ready to grab his life by the throat and throttle it until it coughed up its prizes, reminds me of the bits of him that remain. The Cool Guy Vest is a part of me, and when I wear it I am gonna eat your lunch.

Really, the Cool Guy Vest is just a representation of those qualities I associate with it, qualities that exist in me whether I’m wearing the vest or not. But I still like having the vest, even though I don’t wear it all that much anymore. Not very often at all.

Recently a friend lost something — several somethings, actually: more than a dozen guitars he’s been collecting since he was 12 years old worth perhaps six figures at fair market value. Their emotional value is inestimable.

The reasons behind the loss aren’t important for this story; what’s important is that he gathered them one by one at various noteworthy intersections of his life, he had them for a time and now he doesn’t. Like the Cool Guy Vest, these guitars mattered to him for the things they stood for, their corresponding facets to his life story. Losing them in a single instant was like losing crucial chapters of his own history — or, at least, the physical manifestations of them.

Stuff is like that — these things we own that also, in a way, own us.

My friend is choosing to be philosophical about the whole thing.

“Maybe that’s what happens,” he said to me. “Maybe you finally become an adult when all those things you have that tie you to the past are gone.”

That’s one way to look at it. If that’s true, then all this stuff we have — these things we’ve amassed that make us feel complete, that help us define who we are — all this stuff is holding us back, keeping us from truly moving forward, away from what was and towards what could be.

The problem is that some of that stuff from the past is worth keeping.

Maybe my friend has moved on from the loss of his guitars, but I’m pretty sure he’d rather have them back if given the choice.

And at this point in my life, I am unwilling to give up the Cool Guy Vest. I’ve got it on right now, in case I haven’t mentioned, and I am ready to take on the world.