Posted by Sheila Connolly

I was planning to give you another profound, insightful and educational commentary about the literary world and the writer's life. And then I said to myself, forget it–it's summer.

So I'm going to talk about t-shirts. Summer reading, lite.

So there I was, standing in the local supermarket, guarding the full shopping cart while my husband went back and bought the six things he had forgotten the first time through, which took a while. Being a writer, I started looking around and observed that approximately seventy-five percent of the people in the store were wearing t-shirts. (Not a scientific survey, but close enough.) Old, young, male, female, employees and shoppers. (To put this in perspective, this is a fairly blue-collar neighborhood, not near any major city. If you'd like me to do comparable research in a more upscale area, I'd be happy to comply.)

All right, now that I had firmly established the ubiquity of t-shirts in the supermarket, I moved on to the second stage of research: reading them. Based on my in-depth analysis, the sample divided itself into several major groups:

-- college or university affiliation

-- commemorative

-- the "I been here!" genre

-- funny sayings (with subset of salacious phrases)

For the record, I was wearing an "I been here" example (Colonial Williamsburg, from a school field trip with my daughter a decade ago), while my husband flaunted a university item (given to him by my sister). But for the life of me I could come up with no correlation between the shirt and the wearer, among the people I watched. I saw one lovely old lady with a discreet Eiffel Tower over her heart (I sure hope you saw it yourself, and this wasn't just a gift from your kids), a middle-aged man with a green skull (do I really want to know?), a teen-age boy with a Minuteman (the Revolutionary soldier, not the rocket) on his back and the slogan "You Will Get Paid" (what's that about?), another teen checker boosting a musical group I recognized, sort of, and a sprightly gent whose shirt read "I put salt on my salt." A grey-haired dude was wearing a sleeveless one–not a good look, pal. One adorning a man in the parking lot incorporated four initials, but I couldn't read the fine print (must be for a law firm, right?).

But the point is, the vast majority of the t-shirts said something, which implies that each of these people made a conscious decision about what message they wanted to send to the world that day. (For the moment we'll ignore those whose mother picked out their clothes, or who had absolutely nothing else clean to wear.)

Src_1980_1Here's one of my all-time favorites, circa 1980, taken in California (look at that waist, sigh).

I've got a closetful of much-beloved t-shirts, from all over. I could navigate the Metro in Paris or the Tube in London, if I could read upside down. My husband has provided a cache of Korean shirts (he's been traveling there for years) that are very striking–and almost too pretty to wear. I have others from Ireland, England, Wales, Scotland, California, and New Jersey (oops, how did that get in there?). A few years ago I started to inventory my t-shirt collection, and stopped counting at sixty; my daughter had a similar number, and neither of us has stopped collecting. I bought another concert t-shirt just last weekend (dang, they're expensive–that's where all the concert profits come from); she bought the same one (in a slightly smaller size). I have no idea where to put mine, because the piles of shirts on the closet shelf (they long since outgrew the dresser) threaten to fall on my head already.

But sometimes choosing the right t-shirt is a difficult decision, you know? I consider where I'm going and start pulling out candidates. One is too pompous–looks like I'm showing off. One is too obscure. One might offend the political right, or left, or just all sensitive souls with no sense of humor. One is too faded/shrunken/stained to wear in public, but I can't bear to throw it out. I have a Henry David Thoreau t-shirt that I bought at Walden Pond. It says "Simplify, simplify", and I wear it to yard sales and flea markets to prevent myself from acquiring more useless stuff. Sometimes it works.

I really did see a woman this weekend wearing a nice green t-shirt that said "Stop Looking At My Chest." What sly wit! What brilliant social commentary! And that's what started me thinking. Maybe t-shirts are the purest form of communication, and the wearer's selection telegraphs his or her entire philosophy–limited, of course, by the width of the chest in question.

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