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Me And My T

One Man's Quest for the Ultimate in Urban Chic

October 08, 2000|MARK EHRMAN | Mark Ehrman is a frequent contributor to the magazine

I'm going to retire my Zankou T-shirt. It's all Beck's fault. He had to go and name-drop the place in his song "Debra." Zankou Chicken is a low-key Armenian joint on Sunset that many believe serves the best rotisserie chicken in town. Cheap and Silver Lake-adjacent, it's fed many a starving artist. Although I have a bias against wearing T-shirts from places I actually patronize, this one is a beaut. Bright yellow with a bold red capital Z, followed by "a-n-k-o-u." No "chicken," no address, no slogan. So meaningless and unpronounceable to those not in the know that it doesn't feel like pimping. And at $5 each for 100% cotton, it's a real value. None of those chicken-lovers thought to buy one. Until that damn Beck song. Now I see the shirts all over town.

For a T-shirt snob like me, it's hard enough finding suitable specimens without pop stars ruining the ones I've got. X-Ray Specs, Mr. Bubble and all the candy-bar logo stuff have appeared on enough Rolling Stone covers to make them off-limits to me (and I used to have a great orange Twix shirt). Once those goofball '70s shirts might have been cool (Genesis, "Charlie's Angels" and the rest of those iron-on transfer deals you used to get at the mall), but the vintage stores are hip to them and now it's just soooo "That '70s" look. A T-shirt says a lot about a person. The last thing I want mine to say is that I'm like everybody else. But short of creating your own design, how do you find something original and fresh that still adheres to the T-shirt's humble mass-market roots?

Well, let's start with what to avoid. Unless Nike agrees to send you regular checks, why wear their swoosh? Do I want to walk around saying "I love Nike. I share Nike's values. I owe my quality of life to Nike products?" Ditto for Panavision, editing facilities, movie titles, poster reproductions or any other shirt that says, "I'm in the film industry." Names of cities and tourist attractions are the equivalent of saying, "Look at me. I've been to Miami. I've been on the London Tube." Dorkola. Worse is any rock band, tattoo parlor, hot rod or Hello Kitty--the lamest kind of chest-puffery.

With the exception of my abhorrence of pockets, any solid color T-shirt is a safe bet. My obsession is more about message than cut. But safety is no reason to eschew design, as long as you know where to look. I tend to avoid arty shirts or ones with ready-made slogans or familiar logos. It's like wearing somebody else's joke.

So where do I find them? Well, thrift stores, obviously--or not so obviously. It always stuns me when people ask "Are you from Connecticut?" Like if I was from there I would ever be caught in a Connecticut Country Club T-shirt (a simple butterscotch-colored affair with a tiny logo that I like to wear when I stumble out unshaven). Or there are the people who assume I'm from Pittsburgh thanks to an orange WPAGL (I have no idea) superimposed over the U.S. map with the city of Pittsburgh highlighted. I just liked it because it had a chunky version of "The Thinker" on it. Similarly, I've never tasted or even heard of Barenjager, but while their honey schnapps sounds sickly, their yellow shirt with a black "killer bee" logo is, well, killer. Like El Exigente, I sniff through the racks, past the 10k runs, bike-a-thons and AIDS walks (I do a lot of hunting at Out of the Closet), the stupid beer shirts, the sports teams, the bowling and auto wrecking (too common). What I'm looking for is something that doesn't fit into a category, and I'll know what that is when I see it. Ah, what's this? A black shirt with a red diesel engine and a figure that looks half Mercury and half Chief Pontiac. The Soo Line, it's called. Never heard of it. I'll take it.

Sometimes it's about finding the exception to the rule. While rock stars are out, a full-color Don Ho Aloha Show oversized shirt with the letters cut from full-color photos of hula girls and grass huts transcends the genre. While sports-related stuff advertises you as a lunkhead, I don't pass up a Mighty Mike Tyson Fan Club shirt that I find at Goodwill a few days after he bit off Holyfield's ear. Who would dare wear such a thing? Why, me.

This is not to say that buying new is impossible; it just means avoiding the obvious places such as Hollywood Boulevard, Dodger Stadium, Pink's, etc. At the survivalist store, I eschew the worn-out irony of the "Kill 'Em All And Let God Sort 'Em Out" stuff but latch on to the white T-shirt with the blue CIA logo and the words "Instructor/Langley, VA." There is only one left and I fearlessly snag it ahead of this salty mercenary type who tries to intimidate me into letting him have it.

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