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.