Wednesday, September 18, 2013


The Urban Dictionary says the term Swag first showed up as a noun in the 1960's. It was an acronym for "Secretly, We Are Gay". I'm not so sure the homeboys hanging around on ghetto street corners where it is enjoying a new popularity did any research into its origins. The Urban Dictionary goes on to elaborate how it currently is used "by those douche bags thinking they're cool wearing their baseball hats sideways while their pants hang halfway down their thighs exposing boxer shorts with Calvin Klien labeled waistbands". Now everyone from pimply faced teenagers to surfer dudes have adopted the term to indicate anyone they think has style and I mean style in the broadest sense.
It was cool afternoon in early August. We had been invited to Eagle River, a small resort town in Northern Wisconsin known as a vacation destination for the Chicago mafia back in the 1950's. On that cool afternoon I had taken my daughter and her best friend into town to do some shopping. They went down one side of the street while I walked on the opposite side trying to look as if I didn't know them so they could pretend they weren't being followed by an over protective adult. A group of youthful townies lazed on some garden chairs on the side of a corner ice cream parlor on my side of the street. Piercings and neon dyed hair were their fashion statements but as I walked by one boy slouched halfway of his chair legs out-stretched and crossed at the ankles pointed at me with a cocked finger and said, "Hey man, you got swag". This was the first time I heard the term used as a noun. I wasn't sure if I was being ridiculed or envied. The kid did follow up his comment with a thumbs up. I decided to take it as a compliment. I thanked him, turned my head and continued on down the street. I was dressed in what my world might be considered swag in a positive manner: a salmon sport coat complete with a pocket square from Nautica, a pressed white shirt from Banana Republic, my favorite seafoam Sperrys, jeans, and my signature vest - this one out of off-white cotton I had picked up at Macy's for less than twenty bucks with discounts and a $10 off coupon. When I met up with the girls at the end of the street and told them with my best impersonation of cockiness, "I had swag" they both burst out in stomach wrenching laughter. From that point on I've used every opportunity I could to remind my loved ones of who in our family has officially been granted the title of "Swag Man".
The swag didn't stop there. Two weeks later I had to catch a flight back from New York to Milwaukee. La Guardia Airport isn't known for its hospitality or friendly banter with the passengers. New York rudeness is more the norm than the exception. I also have a reoccurring fear of going through security, not that I'm concerned about terrorism, but I hate to have to announce my full name. I'm not comfortable with having to yell out "Leroy" and sustain the double takes of the TSA agents who always seem like they're doing me a favor by passing me through on an assumed alias. This time was different. As I walked up to the agent, a very attractive black women in her mid-thirties, I started to do a little nervous twitching as she paused, looked at me, back to my ticket and driver's license and then to a male agent working the second security line. I thought I was either in for a ribbing about my name or they had finally decided to sideline me for one of the million of bad things I had done in my life that were now rearing their ugly heads in my muddled brain.
"Renaldo, take some notes. Here's how to show some real swag." She drew a sly smile as she bent her chin and bit her inner lip. This time it was a black blazer from Zara, the same white shirt I had worn on my first swag encounter, Glen plaid skinny pants from Banana Republic, a two dollar pale blue vest I had picked up at a vintage clothing store, and a pair of worn white bucks. We had a small discussion about the overweight, sleeveless t-shirt wearing, hairy in all the wrong places passengers she sees more often than she'd like going through security. I know I'm old-fashioned but I think air travel would be so much more palatable if we all wore decent clothing when we travel.
The hat trick of swag occurred about five days later. Rick was still back in New York and I had to pick up something for Emmy and myself for dinner. There's a rib place near enough to Emmy's school I thought I would stop at and order take-out before I had to pick her up from swim practice. I hadn't been to Fat Jack's before so I wasn't all that familiar with the menu. I walked up to the dimly lit front counter were the hostess handed me a menu. In my indecision we began discussing the pros and cons of spareribs versus back ribs when an older woman (I'm being very kind here) was returning from the dessert bar precariously navigating the hall with a slice of lemon merengue pie in her hands.
The hostess interrupted our conversation to say, "Starting with dessert tonight Millie?" Millie, who had been watching her feet as she shuffled down the hall raised her eyes long enough to nod at the hostess. That's when she saw me standing at the cashier's desk. Her face turned from slightly startled to slightly coquettish if that is at all possible for someone in her late eighties. I could tell she was doing a once over on me from head to toe with a short stop somewhere mid-way in her survey. Millie had that matted hair of someone spending their fading years in an assisted living facility. Her pale pink polyester corduroy stripped slacks, tiny spring blossom print blouse, heavy sneakers and a hand-knit poncho she wore even though it was almost ninety degrees outside was the look of someone whose memory and faculties were slowly slipping away. At the end of her once over a big smile swept across her face exposing a mouthful of crooked sepia stained teeth. Rather than passing by and back to her booth with her son who had taken her out to dinner she sidled up to me, kissed my arm and said, "You're mighty cute". I suppose I could have gotten upset, brushed her off, asked for assistance from her son, or embarrassed her but I remembered my own mom and her fight with senility. The kiss was tender. I decided this was here way of telling me in her eyes I had swag. She repeated her appraisal of my appearance and gave me a very sly wink. I told her I thought she had some pretty hot swag. She didn't blush or ask what swag was but winked again and walked back to enjoy her dessert-first meal with her son. Flatter still goes a long way in this world.

Cuzco Children, 1948
Irving Penn, photographer
Represented by Pace/MacGill Gallery, NYC

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