In the hood

It’s only fitting, so to speak, that the quintessential American garment, the sweatshirt, is an American invention.

The idea was thunked up in 1926 by a fellow named Benjamin Russel Jr., who played football for the University of Alabama. He couldn’t hack the itchy wool jerseys players wore then and he complained to his father, Benjamin Russel Sr. about it. But this wasn’t grousing for grousing’s sake, since his father happened to own a factory that made cotton clothes, which later became Russell Athletic.

BR, Sr. gave it some serious thought — about four years’ worth — because it took him till 1930 before he produced the first cotton sweatshirt. I assume it was too late for BR Jr.’s comfort, since he’d graduated by then, unless he was on the Uof A’s on the five year plan and his eligibility was extended as an act of Southern gentility. Sadly, such information has either vanished into the mists of history or been buried deep in the red clay.

The sweatshirt’s second iteration, the hoodie, came about in the ’30s, supposedly for upstate New York warehousemen.

Two distinctive things about the sweatshirt: First, the lining is a pile called loopback, which gives the sweatshirt its distinctive feel and warmth retention. Second, the V at the front of the neck serves two purposes. One is it absorbs more sweat, and the other is it helps the neckline keep its shape in spite of a lot of rough wear.

I’ve been a sweatshirt aficionado since I was in single digits, and in my early teens got hooked on sweatpants as well. My love of both has stayed with me all that time – not a complex love, so much as a duplex one.

Currently I have three sweatshirts — all hoodies — and naturally I have a favorite. And just as naturally, there’s a story behind it.

Deposit … but no return

Six years ago my bff Emma Rose invited me to Denver to run a half-marathon with her. Our friendship goes back over 45 years, and our running partnership goes back almost as long, so doing the half was a given. Plus she’d never run that far before, so it’d be a big deal. But there was a weird catch to it. The half-marathon was being run with a marathon, and because most of it would take place in the heat of day, the race started at some ungodly hour and the runners had to be in place by 0500 or so.

Though it’d a scorcher later in the day, at that hour it was downright cold, and waiting two hours in only shorts and shirt would be a real misery trip. I hadn’t brought sweats with me, so I decided to cop a pair at Goodwill, which I did. They cost mere pennies and were excellent quality, so I figured I’d leave them at the start, which was also the finish line, and pick them up when I got back. Most of the other runners figured the same … but we all figured wrong.

When I got back to the finish, not only were my sweats gone, so were everyone else’s. Every scrap of clothing had been picked up and hauled off.

In the race literature’s fine print (which I obviously didn’t read) they said any clothes left at the start would be given to Goodwill. Talk about karma.

A keeper

The race was in late spring and we did so well, we decided we’d run the Denver marathon in the fall. It also started disgustingly-early so when I got there, I once again went to Goodwill to get warmups. Since I’d be leaving them, I wasn’t very fussy. I got a so-so pair of sweat pants and then checked out the hoodies.

There was a huge selection and I ended up with one that was different from any sweatshirt I’d ever had. While all my other sweatshirts were warm and comfortable, none had ever really fit me. Either they were too big or too long or too something. The fact is while they did the job, I always looked like some schlemiel who got dressed by the cat.

But this one fit perfectly, everywhichway. It was love at first wear.

But while it was a perfect fit, it violated my two rules of sweatshirts : I never wore a red one or one with a name on it that didn’t relate to me. This one was bright red and across the chest, in huge white letters, it said Rutgers. Rutgers? I knew it was a college in New Jersey but knew nothing else about it. And I cared even less, so to advertise the joint was exactly what I didn’t want to do. No matter, I wanted the hoodie and I got it.

Of course, because I liked it so much, there was no way I was leaving it at the start, so I got another schmatta for that purpose.

I’m proud to say both Emma and I finished our marathons in what in my dotage passes for epic fashion – we both came in within five minutes of our ideal times. And what made it even more impressive is she was running her first marathon, at the tender age of 55.

A funky finale

When I flew out the early next morning it was cold and thus ideal weather for my new hoodie, which I donned with delight.

I got to the airport way before my flight’s departure time, went through security and sat down at a coffee shop on the second level. Then, suddenly, as I was sipping on my vastly-overpriced java, the world erupted in madness!

At first I thought a bomb exploded. But as the noise continued I realized it was singing – or at least a cacophonous attempt at it. I couldn’t make out the words, as they bounced all the hell over the walls, ceiling, floor and my psyche, nor could I tell where it was coming from.

I walked to the railing and looked down, and there in the security lines were at least a couple hundred people singing their fool heads off. They were all middle-aged or older. They were bunched together, most of them with arms wrapped around their neighbors, swaying to and fro, their faces split in wide loopy grins.

It took me but a moment to suss out the scene: They were were a college alumni group who’d just celebrated one helluva reunion in Denver. And now that it was in its death throes, they were putting it to rest, not with a dirge, but with — what else but – a rousing chorus of their alma mater.

Finally, after what seemed like hours, they ended their yowling, only to erupt in a cheer that while not louder than fire siren, was a bit more grating. After that, there were heartfelt hugs, high fives, head rubs, fist bumps, and every other manner of adolescent reverie. Then they quieted down and went through the lines like people of apparently-normal intelligence and socialization.

Now you might want to know, if I didn’t recognize their song or any of its words, how I knew they were all alumni belting out their alma mater.

Trust me, it didn’t take a mind reader. In fact, it was obvious — as obvious as the big white letters on their bright-red hoodies. Which in case you haven’t guessed, read “Rutgers.”

In one swift motion, I whipped off my sweatshirt, turned it inside out, and stuffed it in my pack.

I did it so fast I didn’t know if anyone had seen me do it, but I sure hoped they hadn’t.