Second-Hand Harvard

By the Yard

There is a constellation of cigarette burns near the right-hand pocket of my new winter coat. Someone has reaffixed its buttons with coarse, dark thread; someone has worn its satin lining, the color of plums, fuzzy at the shoulders. When, sliding my hand into the right pocket, I finger a cigarette burn, I imagine the coat’s previous owner, gesturing with a cigarette, its tip bright in the early winter twilight. When I button the coat I imagine a button detaching under her hurried fingers and tumbling to the ground, imagine her pocketing it so that she could later sew it back on with heavy black thread. When I shrug off the coat I imagine her arms, an inch shorter than my own, sliding through its sleeves; I imagine the rough sweater that rubbed against the lining, leaving it fuzzy at the shoulders. I bought the coat last month, at a thrift store in my hometown; ever since, I have been haunted by its previous owner.

There is a poem by Ruth Stone entitled “Second-Hand Coat” that begins, “I feel/ in her pockets; she wore nice cotton gloves,/ kept a handkerchief box, washed her undies,/ ate at the Holiday Inn, had a basement freezer,/ belonged to a bridge club.” Thrift store clothes are loath to abandon their previous owners.

Because it turned cold Friday, I wore my winter coat. Hurrying through the Holyoke Center arcade a little before noon, I saw that people had begun to queue up at the Harvard Box Office; according to placards taped in the window, the Undergraduate Council’s Harvard-Yale shuttle tickets went on sale at noon. We had talked, my blockmates and I, about going to see the game at Yale this year—We ought to go, we said, we really should go. After having talked it over, though, and having puzzled out the logistics of bus trips and work schedules and paper due dates, we realized that our sole motivation for going was our sense of obligation. “We ought to go,” we said, talking it over—not “Let’s go, we’ll have a good time,” or “Let’s go, there won’t be anything else to do that weekend.” Instead, bound by an odd obligation to tradition, we told ourselves we ought to go. In the queue in front of the box office, students shifted from foot to foot, unbuttoned their coats, looked bored.

Of course, most colleges have their own obscure traditions—statues to rub, say, or arches under which to kiss at midnight, or implausible urban legends involving libraries sinking under the weight of their books. At Harvard, though, tradition is as insistent a presence as the cigarette burns on my coat. Upon our arrival in September our first year, we are greeted by a list the Freshman Dean’s Office has left of all the people who have lived in our room. (Actually, this was the source of my earliest disappointment at Harvard: reading my list I thought, briefly, that Theodore Dreiser—Theodore Dreiser!—had lived in my room; upon closer reading I realized the Weld resident was Theodore Dreier—without the S. I ought to have known, of course, that the real Theodore Dreiser was no product of Expos.) At Harvard, tradition is the explanation for much of the inexplicable—everything from final clubs to calling our majors “concentrations.”

Ruth Stone’s poem continues, “I think when I wake in the morning/ that I have turned into her./ She hangs in the hall downstairs,/ a shadow with pulled threads./ I slip her over my arms, skin of a matron./ Where are you? I say to myself, to the orphaned body,/ and her coat says,/ Get your purse, have you got your keys?” Wrapped in the customs of this place as securely as a second-hand coat, it’s easy to adopt a Harvard worldview—to ask ourselves “Where are you?” and to hear the answer echo off red brick.

But if we are bound to be shaped by tradition, it is also possible, I think, to shape it. The other day I found that a seam in the lining of my coat had split. I mended it with lavender thread; it is not a repair you’d notice unless you turned the lining inside out. Still, it pleases me to think of the lavender stitches, to think that the next person to inherit this coat will look at those stitches and imagine me. In this small, invisible way, I have made it my own.

Phoebe Kosman ’05 is a history and literature concentrator in Winthrop House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

Recommended Articles