I bought a nice messenger bag while on vacation in Provincetown last month. It was one of the things I’d planned on shopping for long before we left. There were several great choices in the first few shops we visited. I was elated. In my pursuit, we happened on a new shop right off Commercial Street called Urban Man Made. Everything in the place is handcrafted by city artisans. This will not be a commercial for the store, although they do have a cool website if anybody’s interested. I ended up buying a funky vinyl black-on-blue bag there. It’s perfect, and I love it more every day I stuff something new into it. It grows with each addition and still has room to spare.
The bag sat in the passenger seat next to me the other morning. I glanced over at it while making a right turn. Although they look nothing alike, it brought to mind my very first bag, purchased on my maiden voyage to New York City. I was a college student on a theatre tour my final year at Kent State, in March of 1972. We traveled by bus and saw eight shows in six days. Onboard the bus that last night, as we entered the Lincoln Tunnel to return to Ohio, I realized I would never be the same. Something in me had changed. I’d fallen head-over-heels in love–with a CITY and adopted a new home. Plus, I had this wonderful brown leather bag over my shoulder, clutching it dearly the entire eleven-hour ride back to Kent.
So on this trip, we hardly ever left the theatre district. We couldn’t. We were either having a late breakfast before a matinée, or in a coffee shop grabbing a quick bite to make an eight o’clock curtain, or meeting our Theatre Prof, Duane for drinks after a show to gush about the magic we’d just witnessed onstage. Our territory was from Times Square/42nd Street to no further Uptown than 50th Street, maneuvering between Avenues Sixth through Eighth. Except one early morning, Duane took a small group of us downtown to Greenwich Village for a whirlwind one-hour sightseeing tour. The neighborhood enticed me. Next morning I returned to discover it on my own.
I braved the New York City Subway System alone that day and landed at Christopher Street/Sheridan Square, winding my way through the illogical maze that is the West Village. There were only little shops and small apartment buildings on every street. No chain-anythings. It was as though all the bigness of Mid-town Manhattan had petered out once you got to about 14th Street. Suddenly you were in a New York of the late eighteen-hundreds. One tiny business was more charming than the next.
It was on MacDougal Street that I spied this narrow shop’s window with a ham-fisted cardboard sign badly scrawled that read: Handmade Leather Bags Men and Women. Handbags for men? Initially the thought made me cringe. Then, regurgitated in my head, it sort of titillated me. A wiry dark man stood just inside the door. Middle Eastern I supposed from his wide dark eyes and craggy oversized nose, he was what I would term in those days ‘an older guy’–meaning mid to late thirties. As I stepped into the small space I became bombarded with the almost sweet, seductive smell that leather has for me. The man backed in further, silently beckoning me to come in and check out his wares. “Guud morning”, his rich baritone welcomed me. The street, the window, the bags, the smell, this guy–all together had me hooked.
“All made in Li-bah-non”, he told me, as did the small label inside each of the nicely finished pieces. They were simply designed and sturdily constructed of a substantial-weight leather. My Lebanese friend warned me of inferior bags sold in other locations in The Village made “in the Orient”. Without even questioning, he told me the price on the tags was negotiable. This struck me as odd, since I’d never been in any store in Ohio where you could bargain on the price of something brand new. I found my bag in only minutes, leaving the store with it draped over my shoulder, feeling like a real New Yorker–a Greenwich Villager–and possibly the queerest guy in the world who now carried a purse.
I sashayed all over town the rest of my trip, wearing that bag like a sign post. It said: I’m not some hayseed yokel tourist from Ohio or the Midwest. I’m a New Yorker, goddamnit, so don’t mess with me. It gave me grit, making the statement that I could be every bit as cool as you incredible New Yorkers. Crusty. Edgy. Finger on the pulse of what’s new and trendy, while thumbing my nose at the rest of you. On the bus ride back, a guy who was a theatre reviewer for our college newspaper lovingly teased the hell out of me, dubbing the odd accessory my ‘Leb bag’, and questioning how many Lebs it would take to make a man’s purse. He clocked a bit too much mileage from his lame joke during the long, half-day trip back to school.
Once on campus, my bag got some comments, and the occasional odd look, but it certainly didn’t raise a fuss. It would have taken a helluva’ lot more than my shoulder pouch to stick out in the crowd of 20,000 KSU students in the hippie heyday. Now, going home to the parents–that was a different story altogether. I thought my father would stroke out when I hopped into the back seat of his car, bag dangling from my shoulder.
“Is that a purse you got there?”, the reflection of my father in the rear view mirror asked. He couldn’t bear to turn and confront me face-to-face.
“No, it’s a satchel“, I answered snottily, having the synonym ready for the questions I was certain would be coming the moment he spotted the handbag.
“Oh, did you pick that up in New York last week?”, my mother jumped in with both feet. Here was a woman who believed, especially in these days, I could do no wrong. She was so thrilled to have a kid in college that whatever I did, she was behind me one-hundred percent. She bragged to everyone she could that “I have a son at Kent State”, with all the pride of Rose Kennedy and as though it were Harvard. Her acceptance of my bag trumped my father’s disdain. Still, as always, he would get the last word.
“Well you’re NOT carrying it around the neighborhood”, Dad grumbled. “You might be at college, but I still gotta’ live there”. I fell silent. He’d made his point.
At the end of that semester I went back to the factory job I’d worked every summer since high school graduation. It was a fabric warehouse in an old building in downtown Cleveland, working with twenty or so guys. We got along okay, although it was clear they never knew quite what to make of me. Most of them were middle-aged family men. They had foul potty mouths. Amazingly, some were capable of dropping the f-bomb at least once in every sentence. They made crude remarks about sex all day long, five days a week. I hesitated to waltz in with my Leb bag slung over my shoulder the first day back, but it had become such a part of me, I felt compelled to do it. I knew the guys liked me. I also knew they called me faggot behind my back.
The elevator door opened on the fifth floor, as the actor in me prepared for the scene I’d already long-rehearsed. I would step up to the time clock, my back to the men seated on the benches in the smoking area, nursing their coffee cups. They would see my bag even before seeing my face. At their first catcall or hurtful remark, I would swivel sharply to confront them all–my captive audience–and shout “That’s right, I AM a cock-sucker! So whatta’ ya’ gonna’ do about it, boys?”
There was only grand silence as I punched in. I turned towards the group of them. Frank, the elder and ringleader, cigar stub constantly between his lips, broke the spell. “Hey guys, our hippie boy’s back with so much fuckin’ pot, he’s gotta carry it in a leather sack”. We all laughed and the summer continued every bit the same as any other.
In December of the same year, my Leb bag and I made the move to Manhattan. We ended up in an apartment only a few blocks away from the leather shop where we’d first met. I went nowhere without my trusty friend on my side. He had become an appendage of my own appendage. But then, within maybe three years, trends changed and carrying a shoulder bag became passé. Men began toting gym bags everywhere. There was room enough for all the same crap I carried in my wonderful original, plus gym shorts, sneakers and a jock. The Leb bag ended up on the floor of a disorderly dark closet amongst the unworn shoes–then eventually in the trash.
Looking back, I should have had it bronzed like people used to do with baby shoes. That bag did so much more for me than simply house the essential crap one feels is necessary to live our day-to-day. At first he was only a souvenir of that incredible trip which would come to guide my early adulthood. It then became a certificate that allowed me passage anywhere, and proclaimed I was a proud New Yorker. Lastly, it transformed into a badge that represented my official coming-out–my own more palatable version of a pink triangle, which I felt brave enough to wear so the world could see. My new messenger bag is great, but it pales in comparison with the real McCoy.