I was on the up escalator, rising into the perfumed precincts of the second floor of the Nordstrom department store in Virginia's Pentagon City mall, when a tall, shapely black woman, about 39 years of age, sashayed past and settled in three steps above me. From the heterosexual-male perspective, the view was outstanding: a fine female rump in tight velvet pants, shifting around slightly somewhere north of eye level.
Until that moment, I had been feeling like a Slate magazine kind of guy. My pants were slate-colored, my jacket a charcoal that certainly qualified as the same. I had absorbed the wisdom of Slate dialogists Susan Estrich and Stuart Taylor Jr. on the subtleties of contemporary sexual-harassment law. (Thus I chastely averted my eyes from the behind ahead of me.) I had balanced my budget following the recommendations of Professor Stein. I had slaked my thirst for O.J. news by reading Harry Shearer. The Gist of my Spin was that I was above The Fray. My tabula was rasa.
All I needed to round out my sartorial and spiritual Slateness, I knew, was a good pair of SlatesTM. The latter refers, of course, to a line of men's pants sold by Levi Strauss to leading department stores everywhere.
My search had begun the day before at Hecht's in downtown Washington, D.C. Navigating through brightly colored racks of Tommy Hilfiger gear and a bold display of Timberland boots, I had been distracted by a drab blot to the right of the aisle. There stood a table covered with stacks of folded men's slacks, uninspiring in color, dubious in cut. I slowed to browse: first, a mound of sand-colored leggings and a veritable tower of dull forest-green numbers; nearby, two racks of gray garments hanging limply beneath a sign that said "$58." "Slates," the little promotional poster announced. "These are those pants."
This stupid tautology bugged me immediately--but then stupid tautologies are the hallmark of criminal regimes and successful ad campaigns everywhere ("Coke is It," "Nixon's the One," etc.), so I checked my annoyance. If the people who sell Slates are so dumb and I'm so smart, how come I ain't rich like them? I fingered the fabric and looked for a pair in my size (38 waist, 32 inseam). Some were 100 percent worsted wool--but who wants to wear wool in the summer? A stack of gabardines would have made a fine cover for a motel love seat, but they seemed out of place on my person. And then there was the rack of bottoms made of something billed as "Microfiber."
What is it about modern life (I wondered idly) that makes entrepreneurs want to celebrate and sell its micro-ness? Especially when the label in the waistband reveals that "Microfiber" is another way of saying "100 percent Dacron."
Then it dawned on me: What if Slateness, as embodied by the magazine and the pants, wasn't as cool as I was assuming? What if it wasn't cool at all? For all I knew, "Slate" was actually insider's lingo for a certain market niche--my market niche!--comprising guys who have gained 50 pounds since high school, guys who know their way around a search engine but, what with the wife and the child support and the gas bills and all those $7 bottles of wine, lack the loose dollars and idle time that can buy true American style.
Suddenly, I was face to face with one of the recurring nightmares of bourgeois life. I was caught in one of those waking dreams in which you understand full well that your individual tastes, carefully nurtured and developed over the decades, have in fact been anticipated, designed, and shaped by others every step of the way. My search for Slates, apparently an act of free will, was but a pawn's move in the great game of advertising played by casually superior types on Madison Avenue and in Hollywood (and in Redmond, Wash.!) for billion-dollar stakes in which I would never share.
Thus the Slate mind pierces the false consciousness of late capitalism. Your vaunted individuality is exposed as nothing but a pixel in the big picture of the money boys. But you do get a prize, my friend. You get to wear Dacron!
Bitterly, I toted three pairs of Slates to the dressing room, vowing never again to subscribe to an online magazine, even one that doesn't charge. There in the privacy of the changing room I understood that the erotic subtext of Slates--the pants--was that there is no erotic subtext. While much of men's and women's clothing is designed to send out a complex code of sexual and social signals, Slates, true to their name, are blank. You mean you want to slip into something that might attract the attention and admiration of a fellow mammal? These are not those pants.
The sole and grudging concession that Slates make to male vanity is pleats. Now, I like pleats, and I was consoled briefly in the changing room by the thought that this subtlest of fashion statements was all that a Slate guy needed. I tried on the gray Microfiber model, waist size 38. I checked the mirror: not bad. I emerged to ask the salesman if he thought the pleats were pulling too much. He was amused by my Slateness.
"Try a 40," he said.
The humiliation caused by his unkind smile persisted for 24 hours. Not until that supremely attractive female butt crossed my radar in Nordstrom did I start to feel better. And no sooner had I begun to enjoy my Slateness than glorious erotic opportunity went a-glimmering. At the top of the escalator, the phat lady made a sharp left into a silky hedge of Liz Claiborne blouses to confer with a salesclerk. I wanted to follow her asking playful questions. Instead I turned right, toward the men's department, still searching for those pants.
Truth be told, it was not all that hard to come to terms with the unbearable Slateness of being. I had to admit that Slates, although perhaps overpriced and ugly, were not altogether inappropriate for a guy like me. My pleats do pull. My prosperous ass is too big for Dockers and too wise to try to fake the funk à la Tommy Hilfiger. Is the man of Slate too good for Dacron? Not at all. I marched up to a salesgirl in the men's department and inquired if she had any Slates.
She looked at me--no other word will do--blankly.
"They're a line of pants from Levis," I stammered.
"Oh, we do not carry any Levis," she said emphatically. "Never have." She smiled and produced a small piece of candy. "Want one?"
I popped that caramel treat into my mouth and looked into her pretty eyes. Such exquisitely miniaturized and stylized sexual situations (it occurred to me) were the reward, the glory, of a Slate-type guy. Thus the Slate mind grasps the unfolding rationality of hedonistic capitalism: Microsoft, Microfiber, Microsex.
The salesgirl directed me (still sucking gratefully on her micro-gift) onward to the Macy's at the other end of the mall. Here the lights were brighter, the music a wee bit louder, and the tease of pleasurable consumption a bit less subtle and a bit more fetishistic, though no less pleasurable. The makeup counter was lined with female forms: an older Latin woman painting the wide-open eyes of an African-American teen-ager; a white girl and a pink girl and a brown girl crowding around the eyeliner counter, avidly seeking their "one true color" amid the promiscuous riot of magenta, peach, chartreuse, fuchsia, and mauve. Undistracted in this brothel of platonic indulgence, I went to the men's department and found another salesclerk. She had a mustache, the cultural significance of which completely confounded the Slate mind.
"Do you have Slates?" I asked weakly. "The pants."
"Slates? No," she replied. "We have the Savanes, the Dockers, and the Club Internationals on this side. But no Slates. Maybe you should look down there." She helpfully pointed to a corner lined with men's suits.
There it was again, an island of Slates, dull as dirt but not as cheap: two pairs for $100. I quickly snatched up a bunch of size 40s before any of the salespeople could get close to me, and headed toward the changing room.
The fit was nice and loose, the way my wife likes it. The pleats were pleasing. Checking myself out in the dressing-room mirror, I realized that in these pants, I would never again be fearful of that other nightmare of bourgeois life, the moment in which you sense that your middle-class prosperity, your high-tech skills, your credit cards, and the advertising industry all give you license to slough off your work ethic, relax your discipline, and lower your guard. The Slate man knows the cultural contradictions of capitalism. He lives them, wears them, and so is proofed against the temptation to follow the (logical) sequel to bourgeois success--the urge to abandon the self-denial that made it all possible, to mock your colleagues and spurn your peers, to return no e-mail, to call in sick from the beach house, to drink $20 bottles of wine every night, to watch porno movies in bed with ironic comp-lit graduate students, and to vanish for days on end in pursuit of un-bourgeois happiness.
No, my Slates reassured me. I would do none of those things, and I would be no less delighted and content for not doing them.
The only problem was that my pleats were still pulling. I noticed that I had brought in a size 42. I can't be that big, I thought, picking up the pants. (Thus the man of Slate corrects the error of his ways.) I tried them on. Tucked in a wee bit at the waist, they fit me perfectly.