First the T-shirts were bagged up for transport to Goodwill, then the tears came, then the rest of the move happened. That’s how it went down for me, after my wife and I bought a spiffier, but smaller, house and were forced to downsize our respective hoards. I knew the day was coming. Being divested of my T-shirts had happened to me before, albeit under more trying circumstances. So this time I was prepared. Months earlier, I’d started a mass DM on Twitter, a so-called “canoe” filled with friends and acquaintances, to steel myself for the end.
The other founding member of the DM, Charlie, was my cousin. He empathized with my pain. I’d moved in with him, his brother and his father when I was 14, mere weeks after the State of North Carolina had awarded my uncle custody of me. At the time, I had only one shirt: the one on my back. Everything else I got, five or six 100-percent cotton T-shirts emblazoned with thick graphics depicting software products like “Lotus Notes” and a bunch of loose pairs of mesh shorts, came from my uncle’s personal collection. Together, the four of us had exactly zero money, subsisting on extra cash from periodic visits to the pawn shop, plasma donations and the streetside beanbag sales that were always a family effort.
The singular gem of my collection during this period, a shirt that literally melted on my body in the mid-aughts, was a 75/25/25 “tri-blend” shirt (the numbers referring to the percentages of cotton, polyester and rayon, respectively) that featured the Westmoreland County Community College logo next to some random geometric shapes. None of us had ever gone to WCCC, but my uncle found it in the muddy soil around the Gateway High School track where he was running wind sprints. Fond of checking used pants for cash and taking other found items for his wardrobe as a way of cutting costs, he brought the shirt home. I was the only large male in a house of extra large males, none of whom could fit comfortably in the shirt, and so, it passed to me. I wore it for weeks on end, washing it infrequently in order to extend its lifespan, but it eventually succumbed to the ravages of time.
“If you grew up with holes in your zapatos, you’d celebrate the minute you was having dough,” Jay-Z has rapped. That sentiment certainly rang true for us, except we began celebrating the minute we had T-shirts. The earliest came from playing sports and/or stealing them from the locker rooms in which they were scattered, compiling a full run of conference championships in high school football and wrestling dating back to the early 1990s. We also, though, stole T-shirts from crappy mall stores like Spencer’s Gifts and the Electronics Boutique, victimless crimes against faceless corporations in order to gain access to faddish shirts representing Nintendo 64 games like Ocarina of Time and WWF performers like D-Generation X. Why thousands of young men, especially a celibate young man like myself, walked around in shirts reading “Two Words: S*ck It” remains a mystery, but that purloined shirt lingered in my collection until a few days ago.
Over time, more T-shirts entered that collection. For instance, various USA Wrestling shirts from various USA Wrestling tournaments. I’d finish quickly and poorly, per usual, but I’d get a shirt showing I was there participating alongside forgotten heavyweight collegiate semi-stars. There were also 50/50 cotton-poly red shirts from the Golden Corral, which I would wear under a white Unifirst apron while preparing steaks and hamburger patties in the meat room. And, of course, loose, uncomfortable 100-percent cotton T-shirts bearing the names of forgettable androstenedione-derived supplements, that I acquired gratis because I was buying that stuff in bulk.
I moved dozens of times between 2002 and now, but the T-shirts always traveled with me, leaving my service only when flapjack stains had rotted the armpits or pizza sauce had completely disfigured the garment. The acquisitions never ceased either. For a little while, I fancied myself as being “into” music, listening to bands like the Smiths, so I purchased band shirts because that was just an accoutrement people who were into music had. Also, whenever I visited a new city, I bought more shirts, ideally 75/25/25 tri-blends like my uncle’s gray shirt. Similarly, when a CrossFit affiliate launched at the University of Pittsburgh in 2009, I joined and got a bunch of tri-blend shirts. I didn’t care much for the programming, but I liked the other people who were trying to become the best at exercising and I loved the tri-blend.
For Charlie, it was much the same. He had been a very good high school athlete, and briefly a D1 college football player; so he had loads of T-shirts to commemorate his teenage feats of strength. He wore them incessantly, and when his wife set about ridding his wardrobe of these nasty old shirts, we took to the internet to discuss what the loss of such items meant. “It’s nice to think about the shirts we had, and how we got them, but I figured they would go sooner or later,” he says. “For me, it’s about the memories. I don’t need the actual shirts anymore.”
Slowly but surely, more of our old friends were added to the DM. Brian, also 36 (like Charlie) and recently given to long stretches of underemployment, had wrestled alongside both me and Charlie and never won so much as a takedown, but he nevertheless clung to T-shirts identifying our school as “conference champions.” For him, we learned, the sense of belonging embodied in the shirts is what kept these garments in hand — even if they captured the accomplishments of others. “They gave me a sense of where we’ve all been,” he tells me. “I don’t feel attached to them the way you are, and I don’t have as many, but the ones I have do hold nostalgia value for me. Those were some of the best times of my life, even if I was just watching you guys wrestle.”
Zack, 38, had traveled to comic conventions with me throughout our teens and early 20s, big ones like Comic-Con in San Diego and small ones like Heroes Con in Charlotte. Throughout those years, he’d only worn polos and khaki pants, a strange kind of grown-up costume, and his T-shirt collection — all pop-culture and comics references, and perhaps far more in quantity than the 30 bags I recently disposed of — was created deliberately during his late 20s in an attempt to spark conversation with others. “I suppose I collect them the way I collect everything else,” Zack says. “I’m actually overwhelmed in my condo by the sheer volume of my collections, so I’m constantly plotting to determine what I can give to others. The T-shirts are part of that, but they seem oddly necessary. Each of them stands for something I’d like to discuss with someone else, a point of connection.”
David, 34, attended grad school with me at the University of Pittsburgh. His interest in music was no passing fad, as it had been for me, and his T-shirts constitute a history of the concerts he’s attended. “The concert shirts were usually 100-percent cotton and way overpriced, and I rarely even wear them,” he confesses. “My husband hates them. They’re folded in drawers in precise chronological order. Many of the bands weren’t even particularly good. I have a Korn shirt. I went to an Insane Clown Posse gathering. I’ve seen R.E.M. too many times to count, but can’t stand them now; they’re dreadful.”
“What could someone looking at these things make of me?” he continues. “If someone were to care, I mean. If someone were to attempt to reconstruct my own little cultural micro-history, would they ask why I have this Korn shirt? Would they try to fit them all together? What picture of me emerges?
“The thing is, no one will ever study me. This Korn concert will be lost to my history as soon as I dispose of this shirt, which I will do eventually. I will get rid of it. That will be it. That will be it for me and for that line of inquiry.”
Not everyone thinks so deeply about such things. I added Justin, 39, to the DM because I saw him complaining on social media about how his wife has been hassling him, urging him to “grow up” and “get rid of my shit.” For him, a reliability engineer who works long hours each week, the preservation of a room of his own, a “man cave” in which to hibernate undisturbed by spouse and children, was the paramount motivation. “She just wants to throw out my shit and put the house together how she wants it. It sucks, and I feel totally powerless.”
In Justin’s case, the shirts are mostly cheap, 100-percent cotton South Park “Beefcake” shirts of the same vintage as the shirts my cousin and I stole from Spencer’s Gifts. But it’s the principle that animates him. “If these are gone, what do I have left that’s mine?” he asks. “I wear uniforms at my job so I don’t really have a need to buy new T-shirts, but I liked having my particular stuff and my personal space. It made me feel like I still had a bit of myself left, even if it was stupid.”
Nathan, 31, recently unencumbered himself of a good deal of apparel, giving away dozens of novelty cat T-shirts that he wore primarily to house parties to amuse himself and (possibly) others. I added him to the DM primarily to convince him to take some of my own shirts before I gave them away, but he wasn’t having any of it. “I don’t need more shirts,” he explains. “I enjoyed the shirts your dad sent, the cat shirts and the Bateman University shirts, but I don’t want more of them. We’re all drowning in stuff, in product, in content. Also, your shirts are all XL or XXL, which are way too big for me.”
Randall, 43, is a lifelong wrestling fan, a self-confessed “nerd” whose house, like Zack’s, is teeming with collectibles of all shapes and sizes. He has memorabilia dating back to the early 1980s, all acquired at shows he attended, and fancies himself a voice of reason among the T-shirt exiles. “I never got married because I didn’t want to reckon with how cohabitation would impact all my magazines, programs and T-shirts,” he says. “It wasn’t worth it. I know we’ve talked about people choosing a spouse or their collections. I’m happy with my collections. I don’t even like thinking about giving any of this away. Hearing about getting rid of shirts is very unnerving. I want to stay firm and committed to not giving anything away for as long as I can afford not to.”
When I mentioned this topic on social media, more people added their two cents. Powerlifter John Skelton, who had also become overwhelmed with event T-shirts, showed me how he had turned several of those shirts into a quilt. My mom, who sometimes reads my tweets and posts, offered to store all of my T-shirt bags in her garage, so that they could be properly preserved and “passed on to my grandchildren, who will need them.” My half-brother texted to ask if I was okay emotionally, if “everything was alright.” I didn’t have a suitable answer for anyone, though, because I was still grappling with all this.
“The premise of a story like this is that it’s silly,” the always introspective David says. “But while it starts as a gag, whether they’re a sosadtoday person like you, a person accustomed to hard times, or a person like me, who is perhaps ‘privileged’ in the grand scheme but nevertheless very invested in these material things, it stops being a gag. It’s maybe funny for the people who think we’re stupid, self-absorbed fools clinging to these stereotypical ‘man things.’ ‘Oh, you men’ is a typical reaction, I guess, even from my husband. But the people who laugh don’t know how such reactions hurt us. It’s like the fable of the boys and the frogs, where the boys are torturing frogs and it’s merely fun for the boys but deadly serious for the frogs.”
But is it really that serious? All my life, I’ve been told I was moments away from losing everything. My dad would celebrate my birthday, even my very early birthdays, by telling me to smile because “you’ve got half down and half to go.” I lost everything I had for a period of years, only to slowly reclaim it and then some, barricading myself behind a pile of free-market rubble. The T-shirts were a part of that great wall, and now they aren’t. The world will no longer read my shirt and think that the crappy block-stenciled lettering really means I’m a “Cap 7 220-Pound Champion.” And I will no longer have immediate recall of the memories that shirt readily conjured (and created).
I do, though, have plenty of closet space for more T-shirts.