When you select a fedora, go with fur felt, preferably with a leather sweat band and a high quality silk lining. At the back, just at the lip of the band, you will notice a little bow, which is a nod to the hatters who went mad back when fur felts were treated with mercury. These days, it is Scotchgard and shellac, so if you’re trying to go vegan, better look toward straw and cotton instead.
A fur felt fedora is lightweight, strong, and soft, or at least it should be. You can find one whose crown has been pre-creased, or you can get an open crown and do it yourself – a process some call “bashing.” At the factory, they will put the hat over a mould and steam it and press creases into it, and when it cools and dries, voila! Perfectly bashed. But a flawless crease can have an odd or overly formal air to it. The good news is that all you have to do is hold your hat over steam and re-press it as you wish. In fact, from time to time you might want to change its profile for fun or fashion, and you will find yourself obsessing with kettle in hand, racing to pinch and smooth – counter-clockwise always – before the heat and steam mist off into oblivion.
The brim offers further considerations. First, width; second, snap versus raw edge. With respect to width, a good old fashioned fedora (is there another type?) has a brim of about two and a half inches, but there is no hard and fast rule. For my purposes, two and a half is a minimum. Aficionados call one-inch brims – frequently associated with Sinatra, jazz musicians, and screwball kids at the beach – “stingy.” Some have adopted “trilby” as a category unto itself to describe the inch-or-so brim, but the origins of both “trilby” and “fedora” suggest they started as the exact same hat, referred to differently on different sides of the Atlantic, much as coriander refers to cilantro and cilantro to coriander. But things change, and always will, so no need to be too fussy about terminology.
Anyway, two and a half inches is a good width because it shields the eyes well. This shielding is easy to control with a snap brim. The snap is so-called because the brim is under tension from a sewn-on ribbon of slightly smaller diameter than the brim itself, allowing it to be snapped up or down. This is in contrast to a raw edge which is unfinished and can flap around depending on quality and softness of material, as well as torrential rain and falling into the sea.
Mine is a snap brim and I leave it snapped down to protect my ample nose from the sun. Beyond the obvious advantages of shielding one’s face from the environment and the elements is masking the countenance of its wearer. Sometimes, I want to be invisible. If I can’t see you, you can’t see me.
At the same time, I want a view as to who sees me, so I am fussy about where I sit in public and I therefore prefer my back to a wall – absolutely not in a chair in a thoroughfare. I like to see the door – or entrances in general – and I’ve a voyeuristic habit of scrutinizing people as they come and go.
My motivation for this habit is entirely above board: I imagine the series of choices and accidents that have brought us to the same places, and I cook up stories that end in a spot I never expected. This is a pleasurable pursuit and it helps me welcome my world anew, and that’s often what I need. I suspect many of us could afford to realise just such a shift.
I am often the only person sitting in here alone, and as much as I wish to see this café thrive, I also wish it not to be crowded, only to be peopled enough to provide the energy I crave in this peculiar anonymity. I like underdogs, hidden gems, the undiscovered space. I want to find myself in the places that I haunt.
I don’t want to seem mysterious, as if I’m affecting a mood and a demeanour, although I prefer positioning myself under a spot of light in an otherwise dim setting. I’m drawn to spotlighted, dark characters as well: Henry Fonda’s nefarious turn as Frank, in Leone’s epic, scrubbing through dust and blood, dodging Bronson’s revenge; Johnny Cash’s chic man-in-black cowboy with a bible and a fistful of pills, his voice his weapon; Lemmy’s leather and denim punk rock lawlessness, but with a purpose beside a stack of relentless noise.
In my dealings and in my style, I make no more effort than iron to a magnet. I suppose I’m living more of a tour than a dream, guided more than pursuing. But when I pause to consider the journey, it seems odd to me how long it has taken to settle on this space – where I am, who I am. I think when I quit trying to understand where I am sitting, that’s when I will arrive.
Under a heater, under an adjustable incandescent lamp, a chilly blustery day in a leather jacket in a leather chair.
Black. Black tile floor. Grey grout. Neat. Exposed brick behind rough concrete. A spiral staircase, also black, leads up from my angle.
No one bothers me.
Pretty people pass. Thousands of dollars in shoes and jackets and shirts and skirts and scarves and handbags by Prada and Gucci and Chanel and off-brand look-alikes printed and padded just so. In the handbags are eyeglasses and glosses and purses and wallets of leather and credit.
In their mouths are dental bills and cosmetic brightening treatments and the aroma of secret cigarettes, purchased with cashed out dollars from the weekly grocery shop so they will not show up on a receipt. Will they deny the smoke when the dentist asks, when the insurance man asks, when the doctor ticks the boxes and tallies up a clean bill of health? Of course, when it’s over, we’ll all be dirt and yellow ash and worm-chewed hardwood once the lacquer breaks down. If we’re lucky, a tree will grow over our remains and shade the grass where the man on the mower will take his own cigarette break, wondering quietly about the world beneath him and the life before him.
In the hall are music and royalties and advertisements and physical media long ago declared dead. For all the clicks and likes and virtual engagement metrics, it remains the posters and print ads and commercials two decibels louder than the songs that are impressing and selling, as ever. I hear tinny ticks of iPods and smell the after-oma of today’s version of Bay Rum – Axe or Rexona or some such allure. In the distance, I note the ding of a microwave oven’s finishing touch.
Business suits wander through, bulging with pumped muscle, some injected with black market chemicals to save the time that’s money in the pursuit of looks to kill. Spray on tan and the real thing, awash in bikini lines and freckles, to be checked by a qualified dermatologist who keeps up with his continuing education at the technical university, out by the golf course where he’s driven his handicap down to an all-time low. Cocktails to follow.
Next: Check the cell phone, log in to the free wi-fi. Running low on data this month with GPS and streaming maps and that weekend drive down the coast to the wine festival. There: The blank stare of a man waiting, checking his watch to be doubly sure – Breitling, is it? – ready to commence commerce upon her arrival. Here she is: Black boots just below the knee. Luscious, luxe. Silky dark hair. Takes her scarf and jacket and tosses them on a leather chair just like the one I’m nuzzled into. Says get me a latte and he does, no longer blank, sparkling now, biding his time.
In case you wonder, this is how an economy functions.
I sit here alone. An outsider. Will I get a job? Will I re-integrate after the years I have spent raising a small child, now in school? Can I re-enter the routine of transactional systems, an exchange of my time and skills for paper in my billfold and coin in my pocket? What will it take to regain my focus? To let go of this vigilance I’ve cultivated – this constant watchfulness? Will the anxiety shut off, as a light with a switch? Will my fussiness hold me back?
More: Will all this writing matter? These are free words given away and consumed anonymously across the ether at the cost of a hundred coffees and a dozen fine tipped felt pens and one well-worn, now-nearly-full notebook, words in the margins and at the tops of pages, words between lines, words forced out at times, words coaxed out at others with a pint at that corner bar in Takapuna overlooking the pretty people, to and fro the beach and the real estate office and all the locations I can see or imagine.
And now I’m thirsty again.
I sit here alone. An outsider. The girl walks from behind the counter with a cup on a saucer and she surveys the room. In the corner, a hat pulled down over his eyes, half hidden in leather and denim, an adjustable lamp trained on his notebook, Customer #73 neatly etched into a folded steel placard placed at the edge of the table. They will find the number before they find me, as I prefer, nameless in our exchange.
When she asks, the barista says to the hostess, “I’ve seen him here before. Sits in that spot every Wednesday.”
She will bring the coffee and set it down and ask if there is anything else. No thank you. She will take the number away and glance at me and think his eyes are very blue. And in this instant I’ll know her as bright and young, possessing an inexpressible promise and possibility I have learned to recognize in twenty-something faces. And I am envious, when I tell myself the truth. I am envious of her promise, envious of the years still ahead of her, brooding over the contradiction of two decades to find myself here and the necessity of those years to make this moment.
I sit with my right leg crossed over my left, boot tapping to jazz on the overhead sound system. I remove my fedora with a gentle pinch and place it on my right knee, center crease in line with my leg. I check the ribbon and pinch. I flick off stray lint. I lift the cup slowly, its handle pointed outward, my finger looped through by habit, careful not to spill foam on the fedora. I sip the cappuccino as I compose a phrase. I am the only table of one, but despite my self-imposed separation from the crowd, I am part of the crowd in this café that thrives on all its transactions, no distinction between the espresso for the customer with the Breitling, the latte for the elegant woman in black boots below the knee, and the coffee for the lone figure at the table in the far corner – the one who writes in his notebook, and never drinks his coffee until he takes off his hat.
© Brian Sorrell, text and image
Brian Sorrell has worked as a cook, typist, computer programmer, woodworker, bicycle repairman, and university lecturer, all of which inadequately prepared him for his current full-time role as Dad. In February 2012, the family packed up their house in California and relocated to Auckland, New Zealand, where Brian now specialises in chasing his always-on-the-run son, drinking coffee, and recording his adventures at “Dadding Full Time.” Visit Brian at Dadding Full Time on Facebook, @DaddingFullTime on Twitter, or connect with him on LinkedIn.
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