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An open letter to my seamstress

10 Jul

Dear Chumkee,

We don’t know each other, but we have a lot in common. I just bought a new shirt at Stein Mart. Because you sew a ton of shirts every day, there’s a chance you made mine. Small world, huh?

All my apparel originates from exotic locales. When I visited a small South American city earlier this year, I had to buy a shirt because I had run out of clean clothes. There’s a saying in parts of America that women glow rather than sweat. Though I am not a woman, I was lit up like a nuclear power plant in full meltdown. I believed it easier and nearly as cheap to buy another shirt rather than launder the one I wore. Though I mistakenly asked in Spanish for a “ladies blouse,” I left the store with a man’s peach-striped short sleeve shirt fabricated from space-age material. The best part was the label, which indicated my new shirt was “Hecho en Colombia.” I bought local.

?

An inexpensive shirt with peach stripes.

LaDoradaBoughtShirt

Great place to buy a cheap shirt when you’re sweating buckets.

However, I cannot always afford to buy my clothing on location. That is why you’re so important to me. Because of children like you, I don’t have to visit the countries where my  apparel is produced. My clothes are shipped directly to the United States. Their final destination before purchase is just minutes from my house. They await me arrayed in colorful displays at Old Navy and TJ Maxx. My clothes are tailored to my exacting standards by masters of their trade, just like you, in far-off lands such as Bangladesh, Vietnam, and a little country called “China.”

Although the cost of everything from housing to food has risen, it is paramount I pay no more for my clothes than I did thirty years ago. When I was in college and could barely afford to pay my monthly rent, I still wanted to look good. I did not realize it took more than nice clothes to accomplish this, but naiveté ain’t always a bad thing. I spent a high percentage of what we Americans call disposable income on clothes. My favorite buy was a pale yellow, 100% cotton pinpoint oxford with a button-down collar. I paid $30 for this versatile garment at the Mister Guy clothing store near campus. That’s where all the preppies shopped. A preppy is someone who dresses like he has a corncob stuck up his backside. I dressed this way in college.

Thirty dollars is a lot of money, am I right? I mean, that’s about half what you make in a month. So, just imagine what it was like way, way back in 1980 for a guy who made $4 an hour spinning Waylon Jennings records at a country bar. Not since I wore a lavender sweater shirt in seventh grade to drive the ladies wild did I so cherish an article of clothing. I looked forward to each laundry day so I could again wear that perfectly fitting beauty.

But the idyllic days of my relationship with that magnificent example of American textile craftsmanship were short-lived. A college roommate, whom I am too classy to identify here, shot off a bottle rocket which landed in my laundry basket. When the gunpowder cloud cleared, I discovered my beloved button-down had been assassinated with extreme prejudice. It had burn holes everywhere. The period for mourning my precious shirt was made worse when my roommate, who never amounted to anything, replaced it with a cheap polyester knockoff. He paid a few dollars for it at a discount department store that is, for good reason, no longer in business. I believe the replacement shirt was designed for a pregnant woman. Its sleeves were too short, and it came with enough belly room to hide a Toyota subcompact. I tried to give away the shirt to Goodwill, but they rejected it because they could not forensically identify the material’s composition.

I know you’re busy sewing belt loops on a pair of skinny jeans, so I’ll get to the point of this letter. I’m writing to thank you. Today, my $30 yellow shirt would cost three times as much if clothing costs followed inflation. But I don’t have to pay $90 for nice shirts in 2015. I mean, if I did, you would probably be paid a lot more, right? That’s crazy talk. Instead, I can still buy a decent shirt for $30 or $40, just like I did 35 years ago. It means so much to me that highly trained artisans like you, some as old as ten or eleven, spend long hours each day making sure I have cheap clothing to wear. To you and all the other seamstresses and seamsters out there, I tip my cap. (A cap you may have sewn, by the way.)

If it were not for you, I would not be able to pay less than the price of a tank of gas for a Polo knit. So, I now honor you for your hard work. And I hereby acknowledge and celebrate all my tailors by location, if not by name, with this quick rundown of shirt labels in my closet:

  • Bangladesh (6 shirts)
  • Sri Lanka (5)
  • China (5)
  • Mauritius (3)
  • Vietnam
  • Philippines
  • Nicaragua
  • Egypt
  • Indonesia
  • Thailand

I appreciate you, Chumkee. When you take your five-minute lunch break at your sewing machine to eat a little chaat, you may wonder who is wearing the shirts you’re paid $68 a month to make. Now you know. You make me look good. And best of all, I still have plenty of money to buy an iced Swiss mocha with skim milk once a week without worrying I will go broke. You are my hero. Now get back to seaming so I can feed my cheap clothing addicition. I would like something in pale yellow.

Signature

Colombia: close, but no cigar

21 Mar

Dear Country of Colombia,

LaDorada Valentina and Juliana

Valentina and Juliana early Saturday morning at a small park in La Dorada

It’s me, one half of Los Americanos Gigantes who recently visited your country. (My brother, Jeff, the other Gigante, is still there, somewhere. If you see him, point him north.) I had a very good time in your country. I was not surprised to learn tourism was up 12% last year. Colombians are very nice and hospitable, the country is beautiful, and I never saw a single snowflake. These are my main criteria for judging any country in March. However, you’re not a world-class destination, yet. With a little extra effort, you can get there. I offer a few tips:

1. Play hard to get
You make it too easy to enter your country. Make us think you don’t care if we visit. Though there was plenty of security at El Dorado airport in Bogota, it took me only ten minutes from the time I left the plane to pass through customs. This is not acceptable. How am I supposed to believe your country is worth visiting if you don’t make it a hassle to enter? Let me give you a better model: I returned from Colombia to the U.S. via the Miami airport. It took me, entering my own country, one hour to navigate customs. Miami provides kiosks that allow U.S. and Canadian citizens to self-process their passports. This is supposed to accelerate the procedure, but I had to wait in a long serpentine line to use the kiosks while being barked at by a customs official who would make a good drill sergeant. After that, A few hundred of us new arrivals were directed to another long line, where other officials yelled at us. There, I went through Passport Control where a human checked my documents anyway. From there, I stood in a third line so I could hand my customs form to another person who put it in a stack without looking at it. Finally, I went through the TSA checkpoint where I got to take off my smelly shoes and receive a full body scan by a device that checked my body mass index and got way too personal in other ways I would rather not think about. If that doesn’t say “Welcome to America,” what does?

 2. Don’t be sorry
Oldest Streets in Bogota
Don’t apologize because so few of you speak English. If we visit your country, it’s our responsibility to know your language should we want to communicate easily. In our America, we would expect you to speak English at least as well as we can. I mean, come on, we’re AMERICANS. It did not surprise me that you struggled with Spanish spoken with a north Missouri country accent. I’m still not sure how my brother is able to generate eight syllables out of Buenos Tardes. But who am I to judge? When I thought I was asking for directions to the Museo Nacional in Bogota, what you heard was: “Where can I buy a pair of purple shoes that smell like turtle poop.” You did not flinch. You told me exactly where to find such shoes, as though such questions arise daily. However, I mistranslated your answer to mean: “The museum is next to the Piggly Wiggly.” That is my problem, not yours.

3. Don’t be so helpful
My brother flagged down a second person on the street to ask for directions to the museum. The man appeared to be in a hurry, but he was eager to help. However, like nearly everyone we met in Colombia, he spoke rapidly. The only two words I caught were calle and carrera. I became very practiced at saying in Spanish, “My good sir, we are but simple North Americans of limited intelligence. Please, repeat what you just said.” He did. We still had no idea where the museum was.  (It was right in front of us.) Jeff and I waited until the man was half a block away before heading in the direction we thought was correct. We had taken about twenty steps when the man ran back to point us in the correct direction.

Prez Palace

Jeff in front of the Presidential Palace, just before being told there’s nothing to see here. So, move on.

Don’t be so nice
The man on the street was the rule and not the exception. Even cops and soldiers were nice. You have had more than your share of political assassinations and attempted assassinations, so I understand why armed soldiers are everywhere you have important buildings. And I can understand why they did not want us tarrying in front of the presidential residence. But even the guard who shooed us away did so with a sheepish smile. A motorcycle cop told me to quit waving my cell phone around like a twelve-year-old girl (I’m paraphrasing), because it made a tempting target for thieves. But nearly everyone in Colombia had nicer phones than me. I was kind of hoping someone would steal mine.

There is no place for your kind of honesty into today’s world. My math skills are left wanting in English, so you can imagine how bad they are in Spanish. Yet, store clerks and servers showed us exactly how much something cost before we paid. And then they slowly counted our change as though we were five-year-olds. Even then, it didn’t always help. In La Dorada, a store clerk had to chase Jeff when he left a few dollars in change on the counter.

Jeff believed he needed to have a Cuban cigar. He did not realize that only three Colombians smoke cigars and that two of them have succumbed to lung cancer. Still, everyone he asked had heard rumors of a place that possibly sold them. They provided the best directions they could. We spent more money on cabs trying to find one cigar than the entire Cuban GDP for 2014.

That reminds me. You make it too easy to move around your cities. The cheap, clean mass transit system in Medellin makes ours seem antiquated, which it is.

Jeff and Cecilia-Case Guadelupe

Jeff with Cecilia, our Bogota spouse

Don’t worry about us so much.
Many people in Bogota, Medellin and La Dorada told us to be careful. For example, Cecilia worked at the Bogota Hotel where we stayed. Cecilia does not speak English, but she made herself very clear. We called her our “Bogota spouse,” because she tried to keep us in line. She reprimanded us when we forgot to lock the door to our fourth-floor balcony. She wrote “No” on a map to show places we shouldn’t go, because that part of the city can be a little dangerous at night. But everyone else was out having fun, so why couldn’t we?  We may have ignored Cecilia’s advice. Please, don’t tell her.

I intend to return as soon as possible to see if you have implemented any of my recommendations. I will be extremely disappointed if you have.

Signature

p.s. suggested reading: The Vortex by José Eustasio Rivera is Zane Grey, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Joseph Conrad rolled into one.