This old T-shirt

My husband has never worn a suit to work. He has never had to interpret “office casual.” His entire two decades of working have been spent in uniforms, usually with his name embroidered on the breast pocket oval.
    Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Jobs requiring uniforms are just as honorable as those requiring suits. Toilets gotta flush, cars gotta run, product gotta ship. My husband has never spent money on putting together a work wardrobe.
    He has a funeral suit and a wedding suit and the requisite button-down collar shirts to go with them. He has one pair of dress shoes and three pairs of Reeboks, categorized as lawn-mowing Reeboks, work Reeboks, and dress Reeboks. They are all the same style shoe, in different states of wear.
    So, instead of office casual, his closet can be defined as life casual. He has six pairs of jeans, one pair of cords, one pair of Dockers. Periodically he buys two new pairs. Where the old ones go, I’m not sure. I’ve never thrown out a pair of his jeans. The more holes, the more they become a fashion statement in his casual life.
    The same goes for those Reeboks. I have never thrown out a pair of his shoes. Once a year he buys a new pair, which demotes all the other pairs one rank. I don’t know where the buck privates in this shoe army end up. Maybe they are being held in reserve for an event like drain field overflow or catastrophic mudslide.
    As for shirts, men seldom need to buy them. T-shirts are accumulated free in such quantities, it’d be foolish to buy one. I don’t know if my husband has the largest collection of free or mysteriously acquired T-shirts in the world, but it seems like it. Last week, I counted 75.
    When I first met him, he was more prone to wear shirts that advertised a state of mind. He often showed up for our dates in a shirt that dared, “Ask me if I care.” Another presented a dilemma: what do you call a bear with deer antlers? The answer, a “beer.” Another was more philosophical and outlined the “four stages of tequila: I’m rich. I’m good looking. I’m bullet proof. I’m invisible.”
    I don’t see those shirts in the laundry anymore. They represent a different level in his evolution. The current leaders are shirts that advertise music festivals, events, or businesses. He has 22 of those, none of them purchased. When an event is over, the unsold shirts are handed out to anyone around, or he was on the stage crew, the sound crew, or somehow involved. I can wash and put away these shirts and see the past decade of his life unfold like a photo album.
    Some shirts are gifts from friends and relatives who know he’s a T-shirt wearing guy. Four are souvenirs of other people’s vacations. One has space aliens on it in homage to his sci-fi interests. Another has cartoon characters for no known reason. Another advertises the college his brother attended. Four shirts are tie-dyed. He likes Pink Floyd, you see.
    Nine shirts promote nothing at all but a color.
    We have never had a visit from Miss Utility, but he has a Miss Utility shirt from somewhere. Another 11 shirts advertise products he has sold or shipped in his warehouse jobs, gifts from the manufacturers.
    Not surprisingly, 16 shirts promote bands he’s played or traveled with, gifts often in lieu of payment for services rendered.
    He spends a large part of his life as a walking billboard for bands, products, or businesses, for no more compensation than the shirt on his back. Like the side of a bus, he travels around town emblazoned with a message.
    Some men are inundated with ties as gifts, but those who have little use for ties in their life get T-shirts. In the early years of our relationship, even I was likely to give him a T-shirt, but I have since learned the folly of this, because, of those 75 shirts, about 10 get worn while the others hang neglected and forgotten, like trophies in a dusty museum case.
There is an episode of Seinfeld that explains the phenomenon. One T-shirt will reign supreme as the king of your T-shirt empire, the favorite son. It’s the perfect color, the perfect fit. It advertises a product or event you still don’t mind being associated with. It has been washed enough times to feel like a second skin. It is you. Even fresh from the laundry, it maintains your scent, your essence, your shape. The next nine or 10 contenders have many of the same qualities, but they are not the favorite shirt. They will do, though, while the favorite is in the hamper.
    Then one day, the favorite dies. It contracts a fatal stain or is torn in the wash. The threads just give out. It becomes a fond memory in the rag box. And then one of the contenders is promoted to the glorious position of favorite tee. New shirts introduced to the closet may eventually become contenders, but shirts that have been on the hangers awhile and never promoted never become contenders. They just hang there forever, or until some well-meaning wife or mother tosses them.
    I could throw out the four stages of tequila shirt, or “Ask me if I care,” or even the shirt from his first band which is so worn that you can literally see through it. I know he’ll never wear any of them again. He may not even notice it’s gone. I could easily prune his closet from 75 shirts to 20. But clothes make the man, they say, and in some cases, these old tees are the family heirlooms, full of memories and history.