There are very few old traditional hat stores left. I’m talking about a place where you can walk in and try on twenty hats and see how you look in them. To be able to choose from a collection of hats carefully curated by a true haberdasher (does anyone even know what that is anymore?) is a true pleasure for anyone interested in style. Slowly the remaining hat stores are disappearing one by one, like independent bookstores I suppose.
One of my favorites, Phat Hats in Hartford CT, has joined the ranks of hat history and is now defunct but before its demise, I got a lesson from a pro on how to choose a hat.
Websters defines Phat as: very attractive or appealing, gratifying, excellent. Phat Hats was a small store in the “hood”. Upon entering, patrons were greeted by an immense and very friendly man named Sebastian. Customers who didn’t know the drill were quickly found trying on hat after hat, each carefully chosen by Sebastian. His unwavering confidence made one feel as if a baby in the arms of a loving mother. The brain chemicals kicked in and you started to relax. You felt safe in the hands of this expert who drew from years of experience. Your own opinion? Disregard it. Sebastian was in charge and on a mission to make you look superb.
His honesty was brutal. He would hand you a hat and then look at you, shaking his head time after time almost in despair. Finally, through a process of elimination and after careful scrutiny, in a loud voice he would confidently declare, ”YOU’RE PHAT!” Is difficult to express the joy one feels when one is deemed, finally, to be PHAT. Simply put, it is one of life’s true pleasures and a memorable one indeed.
A similar experience occurred at another of the rare, remaining hat stores, the great Delmonico Hatters in New Haven, CT. Upon entering the small store I was greeted by a tall, extremely thin man with distinctive features. My mind went immediately to the character of Ichabod Crane. He was balding with longish gray hair and a large crooked nose, a descendant of the Delmonico clan who had established the business in 1908 in the glory days when everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, wore a hat. A great period to be alive for a hat professional.
Striking an imposing figure, I assumed he was the equivalent of Phat Hats’ Sebastian. I was wrong. I realized the error when a thin, distinguished looking man approached me from the back of the store. His quiet demeanor exuded self assurance, dignity and supreme style. The waters seemed to part as he came near and addressed me. “Hello, my name is Marcus. How can I help you?” I had felt the feeling before. The security and comfort of being in my mother's arms as a child. I instinctively knew that he had only my best interests at heart and that I was going to walk out of there looking FABULOUS!!!
After exchanging pleasantries, the process began in earnest. Slowly and deliberately, Marcus handed me hat after hat. I didn’t need to look in the mirror (though I did). One by one, Marcus scrutinized me with an almost sad expression, each time slowly shaking his head from side to side.
"No.... Here… try this one….. (Long pause). No. “
Even a supremely confident person has to be affected by this necessary but humbling ordeal. All done with great care and love, however. Some of the hats I liked but wisely deferred to Marcus’ experience and sense of style.
Marcus then handed me a Homburg, sometimes called “The Godfather” as Marlon Brando had worn the style in the movie of the same name. I had always wanted a Homburg, a striking hat worn famously by bluesman John Lee Hooker. It screamed attitude. No wimp was going to be seen wearing a Homburg. Sadly, I had tried on many Homburgs over the years and just didn’t think they looked good on me. This particular model was a white straw hat. I had never seen a straw Homburg and was intrigued.
Marcus stared and stared, cocking his head, stepping back, looking from different angles and finally he said confidently, “That’s it!!” I was surprised and foolishly questioned him, expressing my reservations from all the times I had tried on Homburgs before. He simply smiled from such a self assured place that my insecurities about this all important decision melted away. For only the second time in my life and more than ever before, I knew for a fact that I was most assuredly PHAT.
I walked out of the store wearing my new Homburg and I swear to God, the moment my foot hit the street, a passerby looked at me and enthusiastically almost shouted, “NICE HAT!!”. I thanked him but the thought crossed my mind that he was a paid employee placed outside the store for just that purpose. What was to follow proved me wrong and vindicated Marcus, the King of Style, once more.
As a full time musician, the next day I embarked on a short tour, playing in New York and with several stops throughout the state of Pennsylvania. I was completely astonished as I walked down the street in New York City the next day and heard someone yell across the street, “Hey man, nice hat!!”. Later, on the subway, a guy passed by me and said, “Wow, that’s a great hat!” Anyone who has been in New York City knows that this simply doesn’t happen in the Big Apple.
I was feeling good when my hat and I rolled into my hometown of Bellefonte in Central PA. It was 11am and I was onstage setting up to perform a concert at the Bellefonte Arts and Crafts Festival when my mother approached the stage and seeing me for the first time, looked at me intensely and said,
“I DON’T like the hat!”.
The comment shook me a little. It was my mother after all and a slight wave of self consciousness crept in. Not the sort of thing that is welcome when trying to pull off a Homburg. At the end of the tour as I walked in the door of my house, my wife took one look at me and forcefully declared, ”I DON’T LIKE THE HAT!”
The world liked my hat but the two women closest to me both strongly agreed that this hat was not for me. My wife in particular demonstrated the keen ability to drive the point home. I was undaunted however and though battered, was serene in the knowledge that this hat had been specifically chosen for me and given the supreme blessing by the great Marcus, knower of all things pertaining to hats.
About once a week, I have the great privilege of performing at the CT Hospice, a wonderful facility located on the shoreline overlooking the waters of Long Island Sound in Branford CT. I wander the hallways and, if it seems appropriate, enter people’s rooms, sit for a while and play for patients, family and friends who have gathered to spend precious days and hours together in the final moments of life on earth.
It is often a profound and moving experience to be a small part of their lives at this special time. Sometimes the mood is light with laughter and singing, sometimes somber and reverent, sometimes sad, especially if family members, for whatever reason, are not present.
So, shortly after the incidents described above, I was at the Hospice and walked into a lady’s room who was by all accounts unresponsive. I played softly for her at bedside knowing that sometimes people are conscious and able to hear but so weak that they can’t respond. It was a very special time and I felt a connection though there was no outward sign of any awareness of my presence.
All of a sudden, as I played, I saw a nearly indistinguishable movement of her eyes as if she was trying to open them. With what seemed like all the strength she could muster in her severely weakened state, her eyes began to flutter and then to open ever so slightly as she looked at me in one of her last moments of awareness in this world.
Then a remarkable thing happened. It seemed like she was trying to speak. With such great effort, she started to make almost imperceptible sounds, barely audible. I leaned closer to try to hear thinking, "Oh my God, I’m going to hear what may be this woman’s last words."
The gravity of the moment hung in the air and time stood still. As she struggled with her last ounce of strength, faltering on each of the fragile sounds she was trying to make and in the tiniest of voices, I heard her exclaim with all the conviction in her heart, “Like the hat !”