Survival of the Pink Shirt

I was careful not to wear my pink-checked shirt on Thursdays. Toward the end of the school year, I opened my closet on a Thursday morning to find only one fresh shirt, the pink one. The shirt I had worn the day before was wadded up and put in the dirty clothes. Mom was busy on a gardening project that week and was behind on the laundry. So I paced about and decided to tell my parents that I was coming down with something, probably a late spring cold, or maybe the flu. And I should stay home to beat whatever it was before it became serious. Mornings at home were quiet.

My parents were drinking percolated Folgers coffee at the kitchen table and reading the Napa Register and the San Francisco Chronicle. I told them about my illness; Dad and then Mom tested for a fever by putting their hands to my forehead. My father said, “You don’t have a fever. So off you go; better hurry up or you’ll miss your bus.”

I had a lousy back-up plan: asking Mom to iron a fresh shirt. On the other hand, she hated ironing; all of us, including the dog, Tina, avoided her when she was about to iron, or ironing itself. She was reading the Herb Caen column in the Chronicle and was smiling. Morning smiles were rare — why wreck her pleasant morning by even bringing up ironing. So I went back to my room, put on the pink shirt, and ran to catch the school bus while praying that I would not run into Wilbur Wilson that day.

The school year was winding down, class work had been completed, grades would be out soon, and the overall ambience was relaxed as summer’s three carefree months were approaching. The morning was one class after another, I spent the lunch hour gobbling down a sandwich; the rest of the hour was spent in a corner of the library reading a book about the start of World War II. I was careful not to drink anything that might lead me back to the smoky men’s bathroom. In a couple of hours, the day would be over; and I’d be back on the school bus taking me home for a quart of whole milk and some cookies.

Despite the avoidance of all liquids, I believed the unrelenting strain and outright fear may have sent my kidneys into overdrive. Late in the afternoon, I tried the gym’s locker room that had bathroom facilities; but by that time of day, gym classes had finished, and the doors were locked. I could walk into the fields surrounding the school, but then I would miss a lot of an afternoon class; my lying to the teacher would only complicate matters. But my bladder was about to burst, and I had to use the men’s room. As the lunch hour was ending, I dashed to the men’s room, peed, and headed for the sinks to wash my hands.

Wilbur was combing his hair while smoking a Lucky Strike. Some smoke got into his eyes, he put the cigarette down while rubbing his eyes and coughing. He picked up the cigarette, took a deep drag, and noticed me. He was looking at me and seemed to be trying to place me while I was drying my hands. A fast break out the door, and Wilbur couldn’t stick my head down a toilet and flush it.

“Hey you,” Wilbur said. “I told you not to wear pink shirts on Thursday, didn’t I?”

I broke for the door; he grabbed my collar, “Well, didn’t I? I’m sure I did. And I still don’t like queers. So I’m going to put your head in a toilet and flush it.” He started pulling me to the stalls.

“Wait, wait, please,” I said. “My mother had polio about five years ago and she’s in an iron lung. She got behind with the laundry this week, and this was the only clean shirt in my closet. She was ironing shirts this morning; it takes her over half an hour to iron one shirt — getting in and out of the iron lung takes time, you know. And she can be of the iron lung for just three minutes.”

That was a lie. While my mother had polio when I was much younger, she had been quite ill and tired easily for the rest of her life. She was never in an iron lung; it surprised me that my lie was quite convincing and flowed so easily.

“Jesus, you poor kid,” Wilbur said and let go of me. “Beat it, get out of here. Oh, and wear all the pink you want, even on Thursdays. Dig?”

“I do. And thanks for not putting my head down a toilet.”

“No problem,” he said and lit another cigarette. “You’ll be going to college, won’t you?”

“I’ve never thought that I wouldn’t. My parents drummed that into my since I can remember.”

“And that’s why I gave you a hard time,” he said. “Now scram.”

As he told me, I scrammed, found a drinking fountain, and took a deep breath. Although bullied, I had made it through the seventh grade and would never see Wilbur again as he would move on to the high school and graduate before I arrived. Significant humiliation; then again, my head was not pushed into a toilet.

Napa, January 1966

I didn’t see Wilbur until a Tuesday afternoon in 1966 when he was working in a shoe store across the street from my father’s office. A fresh Brooks Brothers pink button-down shirt was hanging in my closet; the following Thursday, I would meet Wilbur once again and see what he had to say about things in general and our last conversation.

That day I was looking quite preppy with the pink shirt, a green and white rep striped tie, wool slacks and polished Bass Weejun penny loafers. Wilbur was leaning against the shoe store building smoking a cigarette and checking out the pelican gray rain clouds rolling in from the north. I leaned on the building, lit a cigarette and said, “Looks like heavy rain anytime now.”

“Got that right,” he said with a smile. “You kind of look familiar; have we met?”

“We have, about eleven years ago.”

He seemed to think about that. “We went to school together?”

“We did, sort of, at Ridgeview. I was in the seventh grade; you were in the tenth grade and an Earth Angel. How much of an average day back then did you spend combing your hair?”

He laughed, shook his head; his abundant long blond hair was not as elaborate as I remembered it. He combed it straight back and not ratted like it was when we first met. “At some point I realized that I had to start fitting in. Back then I spent more time on my hair than most girls did.”

I said, “Back then I thought the Earth Angels were giving the middle class the finger, were you?”

“Got that right,” Wilbur said. “Where did we meet?”

“Ridgeview’s men’s room. You threatened to shove my head down a toilet if you caught me wearing a pink shirt on Thursday because only queers wear pink on Thursdays.”

He seemed to be collecting his thoughts, “Yea, I remember you. You’ve really grown a lot since then, and you went to college?”

“I did, and…”

“I was a jerk back then. And…” He snapped his fingers, “Your mother had polio and was in an iron lung. When I think of those days, you and your mother come up a lot. Is she….” He tried again, “How is… How is she?”

“She had polio but was never in an iron lung; I made that up. Every time I wear a pink shirt, you come up.”

“I was a first-class jerk back then; I bullied the younger kids, like you. My behavior back then was terrible; I’m embarrassed about that. Although it’s eleven years late, I do apologize for what I did to you.” He put his hand out.

We shook hands, introduced ourselves, and said goodbye. We would never see each other again.