The Hats of Languagehat

Oh yes well it is important to have a hat –John Ashbery

The whole shadow of Man is only as big as his hat. –Elizabeth Bishop

What have you done with all your words & gaudy language hats? –Lara Glenum

“You don’t need a hat to tax a man with stealing a pig.” –The Hon. Galahad Threepwood, in P.G. Wodehouse’s Summer Lightning

Here’s one for The Guinness Book of World Records. A Baltimore man recently broke a longtime mental record when a forty-year-long thought he was having came to an end. When asked what he had been thinking of he said he couldn’t remember but that it would probably come back to him. He added that possibly it had something to do with his hat. –George Carlin, Napalm and Silly Putty (via this Public Address)

The Hats of Languagehat

I have worn hats for over thirty years; they keep the sun out of my eyes and the birdshit out of my hair, and they look great. These are my hats:

STETSON.

The workhorse. I was looking for something else at one of those discount houses where you find incredibly cheap products of dubious origin (at the same store I once got Herbie Hancock’s wonderful 1964 album Empyrean Isles, retitled The Egg, for $2.99) and I noticed a wall display of hats; naturally I went over to check them out, and instead of the schlock I expected I found genuine Stetson hats (dress hats, not Western) for an amazing $20 each. This baby is black and sturdy and wears like iron. It’s got a little crease on the back that I suppose I could have steamed out, but I kind of like it. If I’m likely to be in a situation where I might worry about the safety of my hat, or if I just don’t have a yen for one of the others, I pop this on with confidence.

TRILBY.

The king of hats. The whole hat thing started when I went to Ireland to study Old Irish; at the Summer Institute I met a drunken heavyset Oxford grad student named Kim, and having enjoyed pub-crawling in Dublin together, we decided to go west to practice our Modern Irish in the Gaeltacht (you can’t really understand Old Irish without knowing some Modern Irish). Now, Kim was a hat wearer and had brought two with him, a trilby for foul weather and a panama for fair; he offered to let me wear whichever he wasn’t using, and I was instantly hooked. I especially loved that trilby, which I got to wear quite a bit, since the sun was, amazingly, out almost every day (the locals seemed bewildered, like moles forced to go about in daylight). When I got back to the States I had to start with much cheaper hats, but eventually I could afford a decentpanama (I wasn’t willing to settle for the cheap knockoffs; a real panama comes from Ecuador and is made from the leaves of the jipijapa tree, as my beloved grandfather Daddy Joe, a hat man himself, always used to tell me); trilbys, though, are as English as Marmite, and not easy to find over here. My wife got me a slate-gray one for my birthday. It was a good birthday.

BORSALINO.

My soft brown Borsalino is the only one of my felt hats I can really wear in hot weather. I got it at the oldWorth & Worth on Madison Ave., and when I was dive-bombed by a pigeon on my way to work, I just detoured to the shop and waited while they cleaned and blocked it for me. For free. A classy hatter.

PANAMA.

I have a battered old one that I wear occasionally with my old ripped jeans and a newer one that I wear to work on hot summer days; alas, even the latter is getting a little disreputable, and soon I’m going to have to replace it. Real Montecristis cost a bundle, but it’s worth (& worth) it if you’re a true hat lover.

FUR HAT.

A genuine Russian fur hat, getting heavy use in this frigid January of Ought-Three. Does anybody remember the Tall Ships parade of 2000? My wife and I were fascinated by the saga of the Ukrainian schooner Batkivshchyna, which staggered across the Atlantic, made its way up the coast, and got to NYC just in time for the parade. We went to visit it at its West Side pier, looked around, and chatted with the crewmen, who were selling all sorts of knickknacks. What we really wanted was a t-shirt, but they were sold out (we later got one online, proving once again the wonder of the internet). Suddenly a sailor showed me a beautiful fur hat (probably rabbit) and quoted me a price of $35. I tried to bargain him down, but he pointed out with some acerbity that that was already a bargain price. I couldn’t argue with him, so I forked it over and left with my prize. I always wanted one, and now I’ve got it.

GREEK SAILOR’S CAP.

I am on (I think) my third identical version of this classic foul-weather headgear. (Some day I will put actual pictures of my actual hats on this page, right after I get all my books shelved.)

BASEBALL CAPS.

I have two, properly speaking (I don’t count things that look like baseball caps but do not represent baseball teams): a Mets cap and a Senators cap.

The Mets cap is the classy new black model; I bought it at Shea as soon as it became available, despite the extortionate price, and threw away the ugly old adjustable blue-and-orange one despite its shreds of sentimental value.

The Senators cap… Well, here we take the wayback machine to languagehat’s earliest memories. My father was in the foreign service, so his home base was Washington, D.C., and his team by default was the Senators, and so therefore, by the immutable laws of paternal baseball inheritance, was mine. (Note well that I’m talking about the real Senators, the Walter Johnson Senators, not the fake expansion Senators who struggled along from 1961 to 1971, after which they gave up and moved to Texas to become the Rangers.) My first major league baseball experience was at wonderful old Griffith Stadiumwith its weird notch in the centerfield wall caused by some stubborn homeowners who had refused to sell; once we went back abroad, it was years before I saw another game, but I remained stubbornly loyal to team and league, listening to games on Armed Forces Radio, analyzing box scores, playing Stratomatic baseball with my best friend (a Tigers fan), and calculating batting averages in my head with amazing accuracy. Alas, the Senators were terrible for most of those halcyon seasons of my youth, but things changed when they got Harmon Killebrew and Bob Allison, and especially when they gotEarl Battey from the White Sox for sluggish slugger Roy Sievers after the 1959 season — what a steal! By the time that crafty old tightwad Cal Griffith took them out of Washington and shipped them off to frigid Minnesota, where (he figured) there were no black people to ruin his attendance, they were actually in contention, and the Twins rocketed to the top and won the pennant in ’65, only to lose in the seventh game of the Series to the evil Dodgers (who later re-earned my hatred by ruining the Mets’ pennant hopes in the ’88 playoffs — why, Davey, why didn’t you take Gooden out when I told you to?). I, of course, was thrilled. But my poor father, still based in Washington, felt obliged to transfer his allegiance to the new expansion Senators, who never got far from the cellar. When he retired, he moved to California and became an Angels fan. Some people are just cursed.

So why am I a Mets fan rather than a Twins fan nowadays? Well, when I went to grad school I had to give up pretty much everything else (I hear people nodding out there), and by the time I tried teaching and it didn’t work and I moved hither and yon and finally to New York City and got a real job and was ready to plunge back into baseball, I had no connection with any of the players or teams — all the players I knew had retired years before. I needed a local team, and it sure wasn’t going to be the Yankees, whom I have hated as long as I can remember (ask any American League fan from the ’50s how they feel about the Yankees), so by default I became a Mets fan, which for a long time felt comfortably like being a Senators fan — hey, I remember what the cellar feels like! — but then they got good, and in ’86 they won it all, even the Series, and I ran out into the street and all of New York was going mad with joy, and it was very good.

By the way, there’s a great article, Hard Ball for Hard Times, at Ohio University’s Perspectives magazine, an interview with historian Charles Alexander on why baseball was better in the old days. No, really — I’ve read a million of ‘em too, but this one is worth your while. Honest.

PORKPIE HAT.

That’s what Lester Young was famous for wearing. I’ve often thought of getting one, but it wouldn’t look snazzy on me the way it did on him. I can listen to his music, though. And to that of Jelly Roll MortonLouis Armstrong,MilesMonkMingusOrnetteAnthony BraxtonFranz Koglmann, and David S. Ware. And many others. The more I listen, the more good music I hear.