I remember the first item of clothing I wanted. In the best tradition of going hard on the way in, at age 12 I fixed myself on Michael Jackson’s jacket.
Everyone liked Thriller. Because if you didn’t, life would not have been bearable. That album and every song on it were in constant rotation for the better part of two years.
My ur-image of Jackson — the one I wanted to steal for myself — was taken from his “Beat It” video. In it, he wears the most ridiculous garment ever conceived.
French aristocrats used to style their hair around birdcages with birds in them. That’s not just imbecilic — it’s unhygienic. But the best way to visibly separate yourself from the plebs is to wear something they have neither the time, money, nor inclination to put on themselves. You can’t go to the coal mine with a live crow knotted into your ponytail, for instance.
The “Beat It” jacket was in that same tradition — fire-engine red, chain mail at the shoulders, covered in non-functional zippers. Everyone knew the “Beat It” jacket, but no one wore it. No one.
I would blaze that trail.
I didn’t tell anyone about my plan. It was the first time I’d “shopped” without my mother. The most notable part of the transaction was that the guy who sold me the jacket spent the better part of 10 minutes trying to talk me out of the purchase.
“Are you sure about this?” he said. He was young, but clearly sophisticated. He must have been. He was wearing leather pants.
I told him I was sure.
“I really like Michael Jackson.”
“Yes, but…” he said, regarding me sadly.
I was so excited that I wore it home on the subway. For the first time in my life, strangers noticed me. People asked about it or yelled out “JACKSON!” as I walked by. I did not enjoy that feeling.
I wore the jacket to school on Monday. I’m not sure what I expected would happen. I might have hoped for a few admiring comments. But I didn’t want it to be a big deal.
It was a big deal.
Kids gathered around in a circle to touch it. The girls wanted to wear it (another bad sign). There was a lot of laughing.
Not the good kind.
I put the Michael Jackson jacket in my closet and never wore it outside the house again.
On one of her visits from Ireland, my kooky aunt Sheila found out about it. I guess she and my mother were laughing about the story. She asked me to bring it into the kitchen.
She put it on, spun round a couple of times. A few hours later, she was still in it.
My mother came to me: “Can Sheila have the jacket?”
What I should have said was “No” or, better yet, “How much is she willing to give me for it?” Instead, I opened the door: “Why?”
“You never wear it. And she likes it. Why not give it to her?”
So, stupidly, I did.
I never did find out what she did with it, or, more to the point, what she did in it.
Did she wear it around Dublin, hoping to stumble into a back-alley dance competition? Did she go out with friends and everyone sat around pretending that Sheila didn’t look like a visitor from the near future or, possibly, a German? Did she know how ridiculous she looked?
Or did she have so much confidence that she didn’t care what people thought? Was she a better, stronger person than I was? I suspect she was. I like to think she wore that Michael Jackson jacket all over the place, and did not give a single fuck about what anybody said.