I bought my tuxedo for about 10 dollars from a Salvation Army in Paterson. The previous owner was a bigger man, much larger than me, and left some nice stains under the arms of his donated XXXL shirt. The neck left about 2 inches between my Adam’s apple and fabric, something that worked in my favor; my neck never turned red and rashed from rubbing too much against cotton. Otherwise, I looked like a lost member of The Talking Heads.
The jacket was big, too. Two burns on the lapel came from carrying a chafing dish back to the kitchen against my chest. Even though I held it with cloth, I burned both my jacket and hands. A rip down the side came from falling down the stairs, luckily for the tux most of the falling was done on my head; I was back to work the next day after an hour at Holy Name Hospital. The edges of the sleeves were singed from lighting sterno gel, never noticed some had stuck to it. My shoes could talk, the heel flapped with each step. Material was missing from the side, if I were wearing anything but black socks, you’d notice.
My great uncle faught and died in World War II. He would occasionally send my grandmother items from his training and time overseas: things like firing accuracy booklets, currency, and his sewing kit. When the buttons from my tuxedo jacket started falling off, I used the string from his sewing kit to refit them. The whole thing was already terrible looking and dark green string attaching buttons didn’t help me look more professional, but I felt a pride wearing it with his sewing string. I’ll hopefully never know what it’s like to live (or die) on a battlefield, but the restaurant was my version of chaotic hell. Having something of my family’s on my person at all times kept me going through all the nonsense: the concussions, burns, stabs, curses, thrown punches, collapses, and screaming. Sewing them myself, I was constantly reminded of my great uncle at work every time I looked down to button up and saw a loose green string poking out from inside the jacket. Maybe Nana just wanted me to hold onto it and look at it from time to time, but back then I felt it was a better arrangement; also I was really stressing for string to get the damn buttons back on.
Most of our tuxedos looked similar, though I was near the top of sloppiness. Wearing something that cost less than a few drinks during Happy Hour, I didn’t really mind getting it beat up and even more used looking (by the end of my time as a server, the armpit collaboration between me and the previous owner was glorious). We barely washed them during the weekend so 4-6 parties’ worth of cake, salad, and assorted beverages were carried to new parties, or rubbed off with hot water if rancid enough.
I don’t know what a “good” tuxedo looks like on me. I don’t know what it’s like to wear a good tuxedo and socialize with a plate of food and drink. I only know how to run in it. I know that if a glass falls off a tray stand, I should try and break its fall with my un-shined and barely together shoe. I know that if plates are dirty, my jacket can easily become a cloth. Dirty forks out of the washer can be rubbed against pants; they don’t stay wet for too long and dampness doesn’t show against the black pants. I know the utility of the tuxedo but none of the luxury. Servers get beat up, our clothes are burned and wrinkled, we’re wet from drying dishes. I’ve never been anywhere near the very real danger of a battlefield, fatigues and a tuxedo are mmaannyy worlds apart; but for a time my tuxedo was a backlist of every behind-the-scenes battle for every party that went well (hell, or those that didn’t). When at my wit’s end, my great uncle’s sewing strings reminded me that things could be way worse. They reminded me to suck that shit up and keep my shit together, to stop being such a little shit and get things done when they needed to be done. Maybe Nana wanted me to keep the kit intact, maybe I should have, but I don’t regret looking down and being reminded of a family hero. Sometimes the extremely temporary escape was necessary, like when ceiling tiles were falling all over the ballroom and there wasn’t a god damn thing we could do about it.