Steve Luxenberg - Official Website

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The case of the mysterious jacket

Promoting a book can be hard work, but it has many rewards, including the possibility of the unexpected, surprising encounter, such as this one that comes out flying at me out of my past:

The scene: The Birmingham Community House outside Detroit, my native city and the locale for much of the narrative in Annie’s Ghosts. It’s a Tuesday night in early July, and there’s an overflow crowd of nearly 200 who have come to hear a talk about the book.

A few minutes before the program is set to begin, the sponsoring organizations direct me to the signing table for a photo session. The organizers ask a few people to come over to have their books signed. A line forms. After the photo, I keep signing, thinking that with a crowd of that size, it would be good to reduce the number of people who will have to wait in line after the talk – a plus for everyone.

Two women approach. Their faces have an expectant look, as if I might recognize them. But I don’t. I’ve long since gotten over being embarrassed by a situation like this. A mumbled apology just makes the moment more awkward.

One of the women sees that I’m clueless about her identity, and she decides to offer a clue. She pulls open the jacket that she’s wearing, revealing the lining. Stitched there, in bright gold yarn, is my name. I stare, befuddled, at “Steve Luxenberg.” In the momentary silence that follows, I’m thinking: Did she stitch it herself? She doesn’t look like a groupie. Did she buy it at a flea market, see the newspaper article that mentioned my talk, and decide to come? No, that’s too weird.

Finally, she takes me off the hook. The story, of course, is much simpler. She’s my former next door neighbor. When she was 10, and I was 14, I babysat for her and her brothers. Her name is Shellee, and we haven’t seen each other in about, oh, 35 years. She had come with her mom, Joann, who still lives in the house next the one that my parents once owned.

The jacket? It’s my high school “letter” jacket, the one that athletes wear to show off that they belonged to one of the varsity teams. My sport was basketball. When Shellee got to the same high school, she earned a varsity letter, too.

Now I have to let Shellee narrate the rest of the story, and how she came to have my jacket, because I have no memory of what she is telling the small knot of listeners now gathering around her at the signing table.

She explains that in those days (the early 1970s) letter jackets were the exclusive province of the boys’ athletic teams. Girls could have letter sweaters, just like the guys, but not jackets. That made her mad, and when I was home from college at some point, she complained to me about the unfairness of it all. She says that I retrieved my letter jacket, and brought it to her. Here, I said (according to Shellee), take it and wear it.

She did just that, proudly.

I examine the jacket now. It shows a few signs of its age – fraying cuffs, tattered collar, a few tears in the lining – but it’s in good enough shape to be the centerpiece of a brief and emotional reunion of old neighbors.

Someone standing close by, hearing Shellee tell the story, suggests that she return the jacket to me.

“Do you still wear it?” I ask.

“I throw it on occasionally,” she says.

“You keep it,” I say. “It’s yours. It’s hasn’t been mine for a long time.”

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