salesman Lud Gutmann '55 recalls the day a scholarship student
and his parents went to Langrock's to pick out a suit for graduation.
By Lud Gutmann ’55
Our red Ford pickup truck, dulled and tarnished from years of
heat, rain, and cold, stood in the shade of the chicken house feed
room. It sagged under the weight of the hundred-pound sacks of grain
I was piling neatly in its bed. I paid little attention to the routine
work, thinking about my summer job at a nearby restaurant, adding
up the amount of possible tip money to go with the scholarships
I had for medical school in the fall, and wondering if it would
do. The last final exams had been three days before, and Princeton’s
graduation was still two weeks away. Helping out on the farm was
an expected time-filler.
I looked up to see Mom walking briskly down the rough gravel path
toward me. Her determined look predicted a plan for this warm spring
morning. Could be good or could be bad – anything was possible.
“I think you need a new suit. How about we drive over to
Princeton and buy one?” she announced, her hands firmly planted
on her hips. She turned away immediately; it wasn’t really
a question. “I’ll talk to your father,” she said,
her face toward the hen house. It seemed like a good idea to me
– it beat moving heavy bags of feed. I kept on working, even
though I knew her idea was now a plan of action.
Dad was coming from the nearby chicken house, carrying two wire
buckets filled with freshly laid eggs. I knew he’d enjoy a
break, but I wasn’t sure he’d want to go with us on
my mother’s errand. She hadn’t learned to drive, but
she and I could have made the trip alone. It was unusual that she
seemed to want support for this one. My father handed me the keys
and went into the house to clean up. Twenty minutes later the three
of us were on our way on the short drive through the New Jersey
Going to Princeton was no longer the awe-inspiring event of a
few years before. True, the gothic towers and peaked roofs rising
above the trees still seemed out of place in the midst of the New
Jersey farmlands, but they had lost their mystique for me after
four years. The imposing stone walls felt like home.
In 1955, once classes were finished in May, Princeton, like other
college towns, turned back from an active, student-packed place
into a sleepy little village populated only with permanent residents.
The traffic jams on Nassau Street, students filling the sidewalks
as they shopped at the men’s stores or had a snack at the
Balt, and families peering at the Firestone Library, the soaring
gothic chapel, and historic Nassau Hall, were momentarily scenes
of the past. The campus was deserted. An occasional unseen power
mower broke the silence – like a distant thunderstorm breaking
the stillness of a quiet spring morning. Overtime workers were getting
the campus dressed for the upcoming graduation and alumni Reunions.
“Where do you want to go?” I asked my mother. No sense
in asking Dad; he always stepped back in these situations.
“I suppose Langrock’s. They’re the best shop?”
my mother asked.
“They’re pretty fancy and expensive,” I replied,
but I knew what she would say.
“That’s where we’re going.”
I parked our aging green Chevy sedan in front of Langrock’s.
The large clothing-store display window was ascetically trimmed
in white and, in contrast to the fussily overfilled shops nearby,
held only three suits. The headless mannequins wore Princeton cravats
around their necks and their suits were the accepted classic styles,
expensively cut from expensive fabrics and, I was sure, sporting
expensive price tags. There was only one other car parked on the
street. An elderly couple out for their late-morning walk smiled
at us as we walked toward them.
I’d been to Langrock’s before with a few of my friends,
but had never bought anything. Like the rest of the new breed of
scholarship students with little disposable cash, I’d found
more inexpensive outlets for my clothing needs. Fortunately for
us, chino pants, white T-shirts, and scuffed white buckskin shoes
(the scuffed effect was important) were the accepted student outfits.
On this quiet weekday morning, Langrock’s was uninhabited
except for more mannequins wearing summer suits and standing at
attention along two walls, wooden racks with neatly hung suits and
jackets, and two salesmen, almost hidden by the counters covered
with an assortment of dress shirts, rep ties, and lightweight sweaters.
The salesmen were lounging over coffee in the back of the shop and
glanced at us without interest. We were the only customers in the
store. One of the salesmen ignored us and continued to read his
magazine. The other walked over slowly, making a careful appraisal
of the three of us. I had seen him before and knew he had spent
years catering to the University’s wealthy and privileged
students. Like the other salesmen in Nassau Street’s exclusive
shops, the sales staff mirrored the elitist and superior attitudes
of their clientele.
We didn’t measure up at all. There was my dad, still in
his unpressed work pants and shoes. He wore one of his old blue
silk shirts, its detachable collar long gone, that had seen better
days in Germany. It still had smudges on the sleeves from painting
the chicken houses earlier in the spring. His leather shoes, originally
fine quality, were in worse shape than the shirt.
Mom wore a simple patterned housedress, bought in Woolworth’s,
which had survived a multitude of washings. Her hair was its usual
untamed bramble of curls. I was the most fashionable, or at least
acceptable, in my white T-shirt and khaki shorts.
The salesman’s assessment was less than favorable. He wore
the same superior and imperious look so carefully cultivated by
some of my more class-conscious school-mates. Mom, busy looking
at the racks of suits, paid no attention to him. Dad watched, bemused,
and soon found a chair, the better to observe at a distance. He
opened his newspaper.
“I suppose you’re just looking around,” the
salesman said with slow emphasis. He clearly wanted to get back
to his coffee. He had no “Welcome to Langrock’s”
for us and no “What can I do for you, madam?” for my
mother. His carefully creased gray trousers, white shirt, and orange-and-black-striped
tie enhanced his self-ordained aura of disdain. His nose lifted
a notch higher as he watched my mother run her hands across the
suits, feeling the goods for quality. I could imagine him thinking,
what could she possibly know of quality?
In his eyes, we were farmers. He was only interested in important
customers – ones who could pay full freight. Left unsaid were
the usual friendly comments made to clinch and perhaps expand the
sale, such as “Free alterations? Of course, Madam” or
“Those socks would go well with that suit, sir” or “Permit
me to suggest a tie…” No such thoughts crossed this
salesman’s mind as he studied us and wished us gone. My father
sat in his chair, seeming to read his newspaper.
“Actually, we want to buy our son a suit. He doesn’t
have one,” Mom finally said with her heavy German accent.
I thought I heard the salesman let out a small groan.
“I guess you folks are farmers,” he replied, his tone
exasperated. “You probably don’t get into town too often.
Are you really sure this is where you want to buy a suit?”
There, he had said it – farmers. That’s us to him,
I thought, just farmers who had wandered in.
“Oh yes, a suit for my son,” she replied, her smile
radiating her European charm. “He says this is the place to
come,” gesturing at me.
The salesman looked me over and shrugged. He stepped over to the
rack to pick out several suits when my mother added, “The
suit has to be ready in a week since our son graduates from the
University here in two weeks. Perhaps you can suggest a tie and
shirt as well? I assume alterations are free?”
The salesman stopped, momentarily caught off guard. Mom kept right
on with her assault: “Our younger son will be a freshman here
this fall.” My father looked over the top of his newspaper.
The salesman was now in full retreat.
“Can you show us something in charcoal gray?” she
asked, smiling broadly.
“Yes, madam. Will madam wish to select shoes for the graduate?
We will be pleased to fit her other son, as well.” His large
smile glowed with false sincerity. I didn’t look at my father.
I was sure he had lowered his newspaper to his lap and taken off
his glasses. I could picture his expression.
Lud Gutmann ’55 is the Hazel Ruby McQuain Professor
of Neurology at the Robert C. Byrd Health Sciences Center of West
Virginia University in Morgantown, W.Va. He teaches and mentors
medical students and neurology residents and maintains an active
practice in neurology. Gutmann is the author of 168 scientific articles,
most dealing with diseases of the muscles and nerves. His short
stories have appeared in many national magazines and journals.