A great Yiddish word is "mishegas." Its closest English equivalent is "obsession," but ultimately that doesn't come close.
"Obsession" is very Western European, post-Freud, and pseudoscientific-and-ominous sounding.
"Mishegas," on the other hand, is very Eastern European, pre-Freudian, and implies a charming eccentricity, rather than an alarming deviance.
For example, say loopy Uncle Hersch's lifelong hobby is collecting matchbooks. His shelves are full of albums of matchbooks, so is his attic; another bunch are in the cellar; crates of uncategorized ones are in the garage.
Hoo-boy, does he ever have a mishegas!
But so what?
According to the standards of mishegas, it's good to have a hobby, it makes him happy, and if you want to grab a quick smoke but can't find your lighter, he's the man to see.
But if you label what he has an obsession? Then what?
I'll tell you what.
First, your whole family forces Uncle Hersch to have a psychological work-up from some shrink who posts his pamphlets in the health food store and the laundromat. Next, the shrink concludes that all those matchbooks clearly mean Uncle Hersch is suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. After that, UH is put on meds that make him lethargic or hyperactive, aggressive or fearful, obese or anorexic and that are so expensive, he has to take out a second mortgage to pay for them.
Finally, he has to agree to go to weekly therapy for at least a year, which he does, since he now thinks he's nuts too. The shrink spends each session either asking Hersch if he was ever afraid of spiders and snakes, or he tells Hersch how much he likes to watch golf on T.V.
A year later we find UH free of his matchbook collection, his savings, his slim waistline and sweet disposition, as well as the one thing that provided him with joy his entire life. Meanwhile, the shrink just bought another BMW.
All of which makes me glad I've never had an obsession. I have, however, had many a mishegas and my latest hit me about two winters ago in the Dorsey Street Exchange.
Retail is for losers
Consignment stores, rummage sales and the like are a lifelong mishegas. As far as I'm concerned, buying retail is the creative man's last resort. Sure, if you do the retail thing you get exactly what you want, but what fun is that - especially since you're paying full price (and let's get real: even when it's on sale, it's still a full price of sorts).
Consignment stores, on the other hand, are less a form of shopping than an adventure. You never know what you'll find, or even if you'll find anything. You only know that when you eventually find something, it'll be a real trip and it'll cost pennies on the dollar. It might even have been made in the USA.
But back to me in the Dorsey Street Exchange.
I was on the top floor, scanning everything but focusing on nothing when - bam! - something suddenly caught my attention. Or more specifically two somethings caught my attention. They were sport coats, hanging in the middle of a rack. I went over and checked them out.
One was blue; the other was brown, and they were both heavy tweed and in perfect condition.
Why was I looking at sport coats? I had no idea, since I didn't have one and the last time I wore one was probably at my Bar Mitzvah. Still, I took the blue one off the rack and looked inside, at the labels. One said Harris Tweed; the other said, "Wilson's Clothing Company." Was this an omen? I wondered.
Wilson's was a Saranac Lake institution. Located where The Blue Line is now, it was a quality men's clothing store that'd been in business since at least the '30s. While clothes may make the man, they never made the Dope, so I almost never shopped there. But I liked to look at their stuff. Plus I liked talking to Jug Hayes and Bud Duffy, who'd worked there for decades.
I tried on the jacket - it fit perfectly.
Another omen? I didn't know. I only knew I was going to buy it, which I did, for a lordly $12.
As for the brown one? I left it, figuring since I never wore a sports coat, I probably wasn't going to wear the one I just bought, let alone another one.
The best it gets
When I got home I put on the coat and admired myself in the mirror. Very classy, I thought to myself. It added the perfect note of je ne sais quoi to my usual je ne sais rien appearance.
So now that I'd just added a sport coat to my wardrobe, a relevant question presented itself, namely, What was I going to do with it?
Yeah, sure, the obvious answer is wear it but that's if you've been wearing them all along. If not, then making the jump from Carhartt's and plaid shirts to a real upscale sport coat seemed insurmountable. The coat stayed on its hanger, untouched, for a couple of weeks.
Then, on a sudden whim, I decided to wear it on a brief trip to town. During my excursion, I noticed something: The coat was not only tres chic - it was also really warm. I then recalled what my friend Ed Woodward once told me about sport coats.
Ed, who seemed to know darn near everything about everything, said that if you went to the British Isles in the middle of the winter, you'd see the men wearing tweed sport coats. It wasn't a fashion, statement, he said, it was practical: Those coats - as opposed to a lot of the ones Americans wear were made with two purposes in mind. One was staying warm; the other was to last for decades.
After that, I remembered one of the labels in my jacket said "Harris Tweed." I'd heard of Harris Tweed, but had no idea what it was. I mean, I knew what tweed was, but was Harris Tweed something special? When I got home, I looked up Harris Tweed on the internet.
As it turns out, Harris Tweed is indeed something special. In order to qualify for that label (which is protected by an act of Parliament) the cloth is made only from sheep raised in the Outer Hebrides, where it's also spun, dyed and woven. Originally, each step of the process had to done by hand and in the workers' homes; now only the weaving is done in their homes. It goes without saying that the resulting product is a super-cloth.
It's also super expensive - at least compared to the cost of standard off-the-rack sport coats. But for something that's lovely to look at, deliciously warm, and endures like granite, it's worth every penny you pay for it, especially when you're paying roughly three percent of its retail price.
The day after I found this out, I went back to the Dorsey Street Exchange. Just like my last trip there, the brown coat was still on the rack.
But this time, unlike during my last trip, I snapped it up with no hesitation whatsoever.
When I went to pay for it, I got a real kicker: Everything in the store that day was half-price!