Americans have a special horror of giving up control, of letting things happen in their own way without interference. They would like to jump down into their stomachs and digest the food and shovel the shit out.
William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch, 1959
Whitey was out of his element and getting by on his deep, natural reserves of cool. He was used to an environment he understood, one he'd invested time and energy in mastering, where people gave him respect and looked to him to tell them what to do. Suddenly, he was in the middle of something strange, where he didn't know the rules and couldn't tell straight off which way to go. He could handle it, he knew that, he'd handled new scenes before, but it was something of a shock to be reminded that he had to put in the effort.
Worse, his partner was doing it better. Now, that was new. Their entire relationship had been based on a power structure, implicit but clearly understood, that rested on Whitey's superior understanding of the essence of the world they lived in. The week before they left had only brought this more clearly to the surface. Blackie would fill in the blanks, ice the microdots and brew the teas, but his intelligence and capacity for detail operated under Whitey's direction.
No more. It was Blackie that established the first, easy relationships with the compadres of the highway, Blackie who had the initial grasp of the geography of the region, Blackie who thought to zip down to the tourist office and pick up a free map of Istanbul the crossroads of the ancient world, they read, with interest and a minimal Turkish phrase-book, so it was Blackie that learned to stumble through a currency transaction outside the Blue Mosque and Blackie who picked the hotel they stayed in. It was profoundly disorienting for both of them.
The white suit came out of a need for control. Need it be mentioned that this was not the result of any conscious deliberation on the subject of compensation mechanisms but rather something that, pressed, Whitey might have described as a whim that felt right at the moment? At that, he'd probably have looked to his mate to supply the mot juste. Still, sartorial responses to any environment fall into one of three basic categories the conventional (pin-stripes in the City, pajama pants on the hippie trail), the inattentive (absent-minded or vaguely concerned with warmth) and the costume ball (pick a personality and dress to match). Which one represents an attempt to assert individuality over a flickering and transient universe? Which sounds like the most fun?
The pair of them were wandering aimlessly through the covered bazaar one afternoon, cheerful behind sensory overload, sugar and thick Turkish coffee. They fondled the amulets and pretended to bargain over candlesticks. They passed aisles of sandals, rows of rugs, even counters filled with electric lamps, and happened on the clothing section. There were racks of rotten imitations of shirts that had been fashionable five years back, when Engerlund swung like a pendulum do and Mary's quant counted for more than her qual. There were knock-off jeans that copied imitation Levi's and almost spelled the brand names right. There were hustlers with second-hand lines to cover the deficiencies of their second-hand gear. It felt just like home.
"It's Kensington Market without chairs," suggested Blackie.
"Portobello Road with a roof on it," countered Whitey. "Hey, look at that."
The suit was hanging at the back of a booth, sneering quietly at its surroundings. It was an off-white, two-piece, double-breasted number with turn-ups and, on inspection, proved to have a remarkably authentic-looking Jermyn Street tailor's tag on the inside pocket. The entrepreneur in charge had some enthusiastic tale about an English milord who had traded it for a local costume in an attempt to infiltrate the seraglio. He was stronger on identifying salable myths than on historical accuracy, the Sultan's harem having vanished long before the lounge suit made its appearance; the item in question had in fact been lifted from the Hilton suite of a pretentious American not two weeks earlier, and matured in the back room until the former owner had flown away with the paperwork for his pumped-up insurance claim. Whitey endured the classist sales pitch without comment, checked the size 40 chest, according to the tab then cut through the crap.
"Try it on?"
Behind the curtain was a tiny private area for fittings, and in front of the stall was a full-length mirror with only a slight ripple in its surface. The shoulders were the very thing, the pants perhaps a smidgen on the loose side ("Nonsense!" they retorted sharply. "This is simply a comfortable fit. None of your pop-star instant vasectomies for us. We are a classic style.") but exactly the right length for low heels.
"It's you," cried Blackie. "It's perfect. It's the Treasure of the Sierra Madre, it's Casablanca, it's everyone's dream of a tropical outfit." He cracked up laughing, bouncing across the aisles and annoying the serious shoppers. "It's fabulous."
"Cool, innit?" agreed Whitey, adjusting the fit around his armpits.
"Man, that'll knock 'em dead in India," Blackie burbled on. "A porter for Bwana, no that's Africa isn't it, Sahib, that's right, chop chop, tucker for the Sahib."
"Chop chop's Chink."
"Well, whatever they say in India. That's amazing, man. Just think what that'll do to the heads of the border geeks."
"Freak out the punters."
"Very true, my lord. Would you like me to do the honors? We do not wish to be robbed."
"Yeah, why not."
"Yessir, Mr Whitey, sir. Leave this one to me."
Negotiations dragged on through much of the afternoon, and encompassed more than one round of tea and several diplomatic periods of rest and recuperation during which the conversation turned general. The numbers gradually approached each other. They started at Saville Row full retail on the one side and back-of-a-barrow-and-rather-warmish on the other, which was a significant discrepancy, and ended up somewhere just south of Take-Six-on-sale, a major concession on the part of the shopkeeper but then his expenses had been limited and he came to approve of these young Englishmen. They had a proper respect for procedure (alternative translation: a lot of time to kill). It was a pleasure to do business with them.
None but the most disingenuous would claim to be ignorant of the effect of floral prints with beards on the teeming grays of Fenchurch Street. And Whitey certainly understood the statement his suit would make in the legendary opium dens of Pakistan. St John wore one from time to time, with whiskers and mane it would be immortalized on the Abbey Road cover not long thereafter and probably for many of the same reasons, but it was unlikely that you would run into him at a greasy spoon in northern Iran, or squatting by the side of a broken-down bus just east of Qandahar, or even taking a morning break at the Coffee House in Connaught Place. The Lennon look was best on the front page or the TV news. Whitey had every intention of wearing the wretched thing out.
It said, "I'm here." It said, "I want to be seen." It said well, much of what it said would depend on who was listening. In its pristine glamour, it was read as a claim to wealth; as it took on a layer or two of dust, it acquired a patina of world-weary existential angst, or faded chic, or insufferable pretension, or fearsome repulsiveness or ferocious attraction. The really cool response was no response at all, because that was the response it was not programmed to elicit, but the suit was sharp and woe on the hapless hipster who merely pretended not to notice it, for unto him would fall the requirement of competing in the Hipness Olympics, where the aim is not to win but to avoid taking part. The suit controlled the environment by forcing a response from all who encountered it. Now there's a way to make yourself memorable.
White tennies were easy to find, and white shirts were standard issue and available cheap. The look was set and Blackie, who was most of the way there already, got into the spirit. He had the jacket, which was practical, and black cord jeans, ditto, and of course zippered black boots from Annello and Davide, appropriate for every occasion, so he simply dumped the pretty blouses and scoured the stalls for black shirts. Cotton T's were the best he could get, but they weren't out for the Ritz here. Ties would have been over the top.
The re-invention of their selves was under way. The trip was on.