The term bespoke is a British word that means that an article of clothing is made to a buyer’s precise specification. Most commonly used to describe the construction of a man’s suit, bestowed upon the term is much prestige. The term comes from humble beginnings and has since found its home in the parlance of the privileged members of high society. A finely tailored bespoke suit is a mark of distinction, the hallmark of a gentleman of taste. In wearing one, a man is beholden to it, for it impresses upon others the image of a respectful well-heeled man of means and success. It gives a man enormous confidence and great pride.
I was wearing one of my bespoke suits when it started raining. Usually, in years past, the rain would’ve been uplifting with its pastoral scents of dew. It was a different sort of evening though. I had just come out of a posh apartment building on the Upper East Side, though it couldn’t have been too posh. After all, there was a conspicuous lack of a doorman. I had just won me a new job, though it was no cause for celebration for me; I was accustomed to success, and greater ones at that. I was also accustomed to poor fortune. The light pleasant drizzles of rain that incited the impulse to dance always seemed to turn into heavy droplets of teeth-sucking annoyance at the most inconvenient of times.
Under the green awning, I stood there waiting in my suit. An old woman exited the door behind me and stopped next to me, looking first at the rain, and then at me. What she saw was a well-tailored suit and crisply pressed trousers underneath which resided a respectful if stern-faced young man. The clean lines of my suit swept across my shoulders and gave the impression of a regal posture, hiding the slumped shoulders and hunched back of the depressed. The waistcoat and tie formed a veneer of confidently capable professionalism in spite of the sticky July heat that lingered in the dusk air, a façade that hid the darkness that laid just underneath my raiment. The old woman smiled a wrinkled gentle smile at me in appreciation of my respectful and traditional attire before she walked off, her short umbrella bobbing off into the violet veil of rain.
I was barely capable of lifting the corners of my lips in reply to her smile. What energy I had was tied up in furrowing my brow in worry. It was not my navy blue summer mohair suit that I was worried for; my bespoke suits had superior construction that gave them resilience in their fabric, resilience beyond what the fabric of my self was capable of. Rather, I was worried that the beautiful hand burnishing in my expensive custom-order Italian shoes would be sullied, and that the salty polluted rain would render its supple leather uppers into ugly streaks of jerky.
I waited around for a bit hopelessly, though it was not long before I had to get to my next appointment. And so after two minutes under the awning, I decided that I would brave the stormy two blocks I had to walk to get to Park Avenue where I could only hope that a taxi cab would be kind enough to pick me up.
When I got there, I stood there with my arm hanging lamely in the air, waving limply like a sail in weak winds. The rain had let up just enough to be bearable, which allowed me to extend my wait under the elements. My glasses were speckled by the rain, and I stood there watching countless yellow cabs laugh their way past me, taunting me with their unblinking lamps. I cursed them all silently, wondering in frustration why any cabbie would refuse a well-dressed young man as a fare, especially when the young man was a habitually generous tipper. A lot good that karma is doing me, I thought.
In time though, a cab swung over and anchored itself in front of me. I embarked the cab and was greeted cheerily by the black fellow behind the wheel. His gleaming white smile was difficult to keep at bay, and I smiled back as I settled into the seat, careful to avoid gouging my shoes in the tight leg space.
In an African accent, he greeted me with great enthusiasm. “Hello my friend!” Where can I bring you?” he asked.
“59th and Lexington,” I replied. Using my hand, I brushed off my suit and trousers, wiping off the shimmering droplets of water off the edges of my clothes.
“No problem eh, fifty nine an’ Lexington, I got you.”
We navigated the city’s rush hour, and the rain besieged our vessel on all sides. The sensation of the cabbie’s smooth driving and the stop-and-go traffic made his taxi cab a little boat of reprieve from the sea of unpleasantness outside. The many pauses at red lights gave us occasion to chat. Or, rather, it gave him the occasion to chat and for me to listen.
“It is good day today, yeah?” he asked cheerily through the rear-view mirror.
I chuckled. “What’s good about it? It’s raining, I’m tired, and I haven’t eaten anything since last night.” I changed the subject, saying, “So, how’s business?”
“Ehhh…so so.” The smile on his face dipped only a touch. “Today is a little bit slow.”
“Really? I would’ve thought that the rain means more people getting off the streets, more people taking taxis.”
“Sometimes,” he said hopefully. “But not today.”
“You guys earn a lotta money?” I asked him. “Driving cabs.”
“Not too much, but I cannot complain,” he declared. “I do not have to be on my feet, I sit all day!” He laughed. “I don’ carry heavy things, I don’ even have to sweat. I work for long time though, twelve hours sometimes. But I am lucky, you know? I can drive to make money, this is a good job.” He spoke with the conviction of a man who knew something about life, about something beyond my own young sheltered years. Something told me that he was the sort of man who had seen hardships and failures that meant more than all the successes I had accumulated.
We rode in silence for a while. The only sound that reached my ears was that of the distinctly peaceful shush of dripping tires on wet city streets. My eyes stared emptily out the window, watching gray figures topped by large wobbling black domes blur by. When we stopped at yet another light, a metal railing appeared in front of my eyes.
Standing boldly in the middle of the road’s shoulder, the railing was steel gray, with black scabs. How it got the wounds was beyond me. Attached to it was a silver piece of rising ribbon that was frayed in one spot, and at the top end of the ribbon was a deflating balloon. The slightly sagging and colored navy, it was barely visible against the night sky. The outline of it glistened from the rain. Like an apparition, it hovered and blew in the gusts of wind. A particularly long gust of city wind battered it without mercy. It looked as though the ribbon would snap at the one worn spot at any moment, and the balloon would hurtle through the air and rise through the opposing droplets of rain, disappearing from the earth, never to return.
He smiled at me through the mirror, then turned to look at me. “You don’t look so happy, eh?”
I sighed and shook my head. He gave me an empathetic nod and let me alone, humming quietly to himself.
The wind died down, and the balloon returned to its bouncing half-mast flight, still secured to the railing by the ribbon. A few lights later, I could not help but ask the man, “Sir, why are you happy? Don’t take me the wrong way, I just…I don’t know.” I sighed. “ You gotta secret?”
He chuckled and shook his head. “No, no secret. There is no secret. I woke up this morning, so I am happy!” he declared. He turned around to look me in the eyes as he smiled a wide smile at me. “Look at you, eh? You have a beautiful suit, you should be happy! If I had that suit, I would be smiling all day! I would walk around feeling like a king.”
I smiled back at him as best as I could. I did not believe him.
“I woke up this morning, and I am alive, so I am happy, eh!” He concluded with a firm nod and a thumbs up.
I could muster nothing but half a crooked smile of amusement. I got the sense that nothing could keep a smile off of that man’s face. For the rest of the ride, I remained silent and mulled over the man’s optimism and cheeriness. I knew that there was some other reason to his happiness, but I could not decipher it. I imagined that he was sustained by a wife’s love or the adoration of a girlfriend, that he was buoyed by the love of a family. I could not imagine that anyone could remain happy for very long, no matter that they were swathed in luxurious wool.
The rain reduced to a boisterous clatter on the roof of the cab. In time, the rhythm pushed my thoughts aside, putting me in a meditative state of emptiness. My thoughts left me, and my mind drifted away to no place. Maybe he did have a girlfriend, maybe he did have a wife. Or maybe he had nobody. It simply didn’t matter anymore.
The cab slowed down and pulled over to the curb. We’d arrived at my destination. The man turned towards me with his ever-present smile. I slowly returned to the cab and looked at the man in admiration. Whatever phantoms that weighed down on my slumped shoulders earlier that day had dissipated in the man’s smile. The rain had stopped too, and I thought that I was fortunate that it did.
“Seven twenty-five, sir,” he said.
It was time to pay the man. I reached into my pocket and peeled off a twenty dollar bill. As I handed it to him, I looked into his eyes and said, “Keep it, my friend.”
The whites of his eyes grew and his mouth dropped agape. “That’s too much, eh!” He shook his head, refusing my generosity.
“No, no, I want you to. I really do. You changed my life, man.”
“Are you sure?”
I pushed the bill towards him and reassured him. “I am absolutely certain. It won’t make much sense to you, but your smile made all the difference in the world to me. Thank you.” I tipped my imaginary hat as a salute to him.
And so I left the cab and walked to my destination. I was buzzing from the amazement I felt. In fifteen minutes in a taxicab, the man did for me what my therapist could not do in months. His smile was a shining beacon, and I was made privy to the secret power of a smile. It was the best twenty dollars I had ever spent.
Author’s note: This is a piece of non-fiction. As usual, many of the readers enjoyed the way that I integrated the details into the story in such a way that avoid being purple prose. Most readers understood the relation of the bespoke suit’s details to myself, and many wanted to know more. Yet others decided that knowing more wouldn’t really help the story, nor is it even necessary.