Being fashion conscious in the middle of nowhere…
I arrived from Poona – via the Castle in New Jersey – with some few thin garments which had looked sumptuous in India. At the Ranch they were absurd – poor-looking, worn, inadequate, hippie-ish. Luckily there was this wonderful commissary open on odd afternoons where one could go to get outfitted for Western life. This cashless shopping was thrilling (as was seeing all these guys heretofore clad only in robes or lungis, suddenly having long skinny legs like movie cowboys and interesting behinds and felt hats and accompanying bashful swaggers. I’m not saying it was better – just different.)
I mined that free garment dispensary for all it was worth of course, reveling in my Crocodile Boots (those lumpy swamp-colored insulated things we wore in the snow) and jeans and sneakers and vests. But for a hunter-gatherer like myself it was small potatoes. No cloth shops! No tailors! No problem! Even though I had no time to sew and no needle and thread to contrive alterations with, I made do. You see, each townhouse and trailer had a mudroom, necessary in Big Muddy. And each mudroom had a Free Box! Here’s how I shopped: Many an evening I’d hop off the bus at my stop and make a quick furtive dash along the row of houses, nipping into each back door and having a quick rummage through the freebies. This was great! I scored great stuff! (Hmmm… were these Lost and Found boxes, or Free Boxes, or sort of both? Memory escapes me…if they were Lost and Found, then petty larceny was occurring.) You see, I put myself to sleep each night dreaming up the next day’s outfit – an occupation of soothing delight. I needed plenty to choose from.
Once there was a meeting in Magdalena where Sheela held forth about proper dress. She kept going on, with great relish, about glimpsing a woman’s “tangle of jungle” while the woman was pumping gas at the gas station. I was called to task for wearing short shorts on my bicycle (I lived on my bike as much as possible, in the guise of work errands) and I was issued with some stupid culotte things in a peachy color which didn’t suit me. But they were nice crackly brand new, and I thought if I had lots more new stuff some of it might be interesting; so I asked. Sheela seemed to think a person should be satisfied with just a few outfits to wear again and again! What bosh!
Then the Moms (who were not like my Mom; my Mom, after she grew up, which happened when I was fifteen, didn’t annoy people) appointed me liaison between Ranch and Outside Telephone Company. Suddenly I was supposed to dress all proper and businesslike! How fun! What a challenge! I was issued with a number of ghastly suits with padded shoulders and high necks and no-iron, staticky fabrics, as well as really fab high-heeled Italian suede shoes. Always game for dress-up, I had my hair permed so that I looked like Little Orphan Annie Goes Corporate. I’m sure my expression wasn’t corporate, though – because I felt sort of weird in those clothes, like a squirrel wearing diapers, and it must have showed.
One day I was informed that I was going to be moved to another house. The moving crew came while I was at work and they somehow managed to lose one of my boots between the old house and the new. It was a very fine short boot, sort of maroon with a wedge heel. I asked after that boot and the rowdy bunch who did the moving (an enviable job, I thought, roistering around with those mavericky guys all day) had no sympathy whatsoever. For years I felt burned about that boot! The power of that feeling of loss was a startling thing to see. It was, I felt sure, a sign of a really recalcitrant spiritual state.
And then there were the uniforms (of which I’ve spoken in other writings. After I was fired from Edison I often had to wear them.) Aside from the fact that they were half-polyester, which rendered them unfit to be worn by woman nor beast, they were all sedate, dowdy, and somehow fattening. The red jeans for Magdalena weren’t too bad if you rolled up the hems and added Minnie-Mouse shoes and little socks, and a jaunty scarf at your throat. But then some slab-sided Texan Fascista (as opposed to Fashionista) would eye you up and down, head to toe and back again, and tell you to remove the additions. Making donuts, as I’ve mentioned, was a much better job because I could wear whatever I wanted, and when once said Texanetta sauntered in and demanded free donuts, I got to remind her that freebies, in the donut world, had been expressly forbidden. (I just fed my boyfriend the rejects, the bent and over-fried ones, which, as everyone knows, taste better anyway.)
After the Ranch there were all these clothes left behind – literally mountains of them, since All Colors had been declared. I collected piles and piles and stuffed them into the school bus a group of people I knew had bought for a pittance, and we trucked them down to Laguna Beach along with washing machine, dryer, etc etc to establish a mini-commune. I thought it would be easy to sell those clothes, but it was not. Finally a woman who had a table at a flea market bought them all from me for something over a hundred dollars, and then she stood there looking at them doubtfully. “But they’re all red,” she said. “I don’t know if anybody will buy them!” Later she phoned me and said that people had just stood and stared at them and then walked on. I felt sorry.
And I sent boxes and boxes out to the California desert where my father lived with a brother and some friends of theirs. My father, always a scavenger, was delighted! He was color-blind, and had always seen my mother’s red hair as green.
I myself continued to wear red for many months after the Ranch ended. Navy blue just felt so strange.
Text by Madhuri