Pop Culture
Jul 06, 2009, 05:55AM

Scout's Honor: I Carry a Pocketknife

A two-hanky lament for the lost accessories, and manners, of another era.

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A couple of weeks ago, an older brother rang the house to offer best wishes upon the occasion of my 54th birthday. We jawed about UK politics—he lives in London most of the year—Neil Young, the fine new memoir by Walter Kirn, Lost in the Meritocracy, and, unsurprisingly for two men in their 50s, our respective health updates. Everything ship-shape on the latter, he asked what gifts my wife and sons had presented that morning—it’ ;s not as if I need anything, but that’s not the point—and I told him I was tickled by a Dirty Projectors CD, two polo shirts, a replacement for my sweat-stained Red Sox cap, and above all, a new pocketknife.

Gary chuckled and asked what in the world I’d do with a small knife, maybe kill time by whittling on the back porch, sort of like Opie and Andy down in North Carolina a lifetime ago? In truth, I’ve carried around a pocketknife since first acquiring one as a Cub Scout, and would no sooner leave the house without it than my watch or set of keys. Not long ago, at Reagan National in Washington, D.C., I’d stupidly forgotten to pack my knife in the checked baggage and it was confiscated during the security check, accompanied by a mild dressing down by the fellow in charge. (By the way, I’ve passed by the guards a number of times, knife undetected, ample enough evidence that the vigilance at airports is, charitably, spotty at best.)

The apparently unfashionable—still breaking news to me—pocketknife has any number of important functions, and clipping your toenails with the mini-scissors is just one. I use it to open packages, slitting the tape, or to pop a blister. Not so long ago, it was the perfect tool to cut newspaper articles, which I’d then fold and put in a back pocket—and still do on the increasingly rare instances when I’m the print version of a daily newspaper in, say, a dentist’s office, on a train or in a cab. Sometimes, when trying to negotiate the impossibly tight plastic on a bottle of mustard, ketchup or Tylenol, it’s a lot easier (and safer) to cut the wrapper with a small blade than a kitchen knife. And yes, at times I do like to whittle (a habit my younger son has picked up, much to the astonishment of his brother), stripping the bark off a stray branch and coming up with a splendid, and wholly organic, thanks, spear.

Anyway, if the humble pocketknife was indeed an accessory that’s gone the way of the hat and tie clip, I replied, why was he still toting around a handkerchief every day, another item that’s rarely seen in public anymore. He disabused me of that notion, saying he’d switched over to Kleenexes oh, about 40 years ago, and in fact, it was one of our other brothers who hadn’t kicked the hanky habit. “Really,” Gary said, “handkerchiefs, if not just for show, get so filthy they ought to be cited as a public health violation.” Could be, and don’t be surprised if New York mayor Michael Bloomberg bans handkerchiefs—once he’s finished buying a third term this fall—as part of his continuing campaign to intrude upon the private lives of his constituents.

I queried my hanky-toting brother, who indeed, like my father and uncles before him, unapologetically shrugged it off as a simple ingrained habit. He said, “Yes, I still carry a handkerchief, even in my gym shorts when I’m having a work-out. It serves two functions: First, I have a chronic bad nose, allergic to everything plus a sinus condition. Today, there are pocket packets of tissues available, but that wasn’t the case when I was a kid and had to deal with nose issues. Second, the handkerchief, because of a little bulk, keeps one’s pocket change, bills, and keys from popping out. The idea of a soggy handkerchief being used over and over again might seem a little gross today, but hey, that’s what you did when I was growing up. Frankly, I sometimes took to carrying two or three during hay fever season.”

The defense rests, and I’m buying it.

Besides, there are far, far worse sartorial choices when you think about it. “Casual Fridays,” a 90s abomination, morphed into “casual every days” at around the turn of the century, but really, it’s still disconcerting to me when dining in a decent restaurant (some may remember the era when a maitre d’ scowled if you entered his temple without a coat and tie, and then directing you to a stock room filled with hideous “formal wear”) and you’re surrounded by rubes outfitted in sweats, sneakers and, worst of all, caps emblazoned with loud logos advertising this company or that. Truth be told, when I was 28, and whooping it up in the Algonquin Bar one late evening, the manager gently took me aside (I was wearing a suit), and pointing to the Panama lid atop my head, said, “Sir, gentlemen don’t wear hats inside this establishment.” It left me a little peeved, but the admonishment stuck, and I’ve never committed that particular faux pas ever since.

Likewise, how weird is it when you’re at a ballgame and see grown men decked out in replica jerseys of a favorite player? I’m obviously in the minority in this issue—recently I was at a Red Sox/Orioles game in Baltimore and the throng of geezers (actual or honorary) wearing shirts bearing the names of Pedroia, Ortiz, Lester, Markakis and Roberts numbered in the thousands. Oh, and people still wear their caps backwards, which is the sartorial equivalent of writing or speaking the words “back in the day,” “perfect storm,” “it is what it is” or “you do the math.” Putting on my Bloomberg face here, anyone over the age of 30 wearing a cap backwards ought to be arrested for a misdemeanor; over 50 and it’s a felony; and over 60, it’s 10-20 years in the pen.

There, I’m feeling quite content after getting this out of my system, and don’t even feel the need to express extreme displeasure when on the (fairly rare) occasions I’m in a church and no one else is wearing a coat and tie.        

  • O.K. I can accept the pocket knife even though I personally never carried one nor ever found myself lost over the need for one. The hankie, just gross. What possible excuse is there for carrying a pocket full of snot. The dress code? Puleeez! The tie, or chocking hazard, has long past its purpose. Unless you have a family crest, get rid of it. Besides, you are way too sensitive if you care what others are wearing at a restuarant or ball game. I'll give you a pass on the baseball cap though. Wearing it backwards is just as dumb as wearing your pants backwards.

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  • I'm guessing I'm older than you, and remember when it was a matter of proper manners to wear a tie and jacket to a restaurant and, obviously, church. The tie is a "choking" hazard? You probably just never learned how to tie a proper knot.

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  • Oh Landlord, first time I have ever found it necessary to admonish a commenter. It is disrespectful to both the owner and the clientele to go to a restaurant dressed like a slob. Baseball cap backwards says, "I am an idiot", with the exception of a workman having to lean into his work. Hmm, and in the olden days for catchers and home plate umpires.

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  • I enjoyed your sartorial and accessories observations, Russ. I'm a 'live and let live' type guy and let most fashion transgressions pass. But it rankles me to see people stretch outside their natural age group by, sometimes, more than a generation. Example: An obvious corporate lawyer or Wall Street type about 40 arriving at the beach with his baseball cap at a 90 degree angle, beak flat and bent up, like he's on his 6th grade field trip. Or a 65 year oldster coming into a fancy city brunch place, his wife dressed appropriately, but he's sporting his long shirt tails out, like you would find at a 20's - 30's bar on a Friday night. Just pathetic and sad.

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  • Noscull, as a member of a family that owns a number of restaurants, I can tell you that no one in my family is offended by street attire when patronizing their restaurants. What owners want is for the clients to enjoy the food and to keep coming back. In this economy, it would be foolish to limit your customer base by requiring patrons to dress a certain way. If street attire fits your definition of "slob", I suggest you stick with the country club dining. As for Spartan, was a top hat and tails a proper form of manners in your time or was it a suit of armour? My point about the tie is that it is an antiquated accessory that no longer severs a purpose. The tie originated as a sash used to display ones family crest. It later changed into a belt of sorts also used to display ones family crest. To tie a piece of cloth around ones neck, regardless of the knot used, makes about as much sense as chaining ones earring and belly ring together. Unless you think displaying your family crest is still socially relevant, then the tie no longer serves any practical function.

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  • Landlord, dude, I'm with you on the tie front. But what's your fixation on family crests? Maybe you should be wearing the suit of armor, or have big dice dangling in your souped-up Chevy.

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  • Ties serve the purpose of decoration, much like jewelry on women. I love a man in a suit and tie. Long live formality!

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  • Ties will never die, I won't let them. Ties and v-neck sweaters.

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