History records the introduction of bobbed hair in 1921 as a milestone in women's liberation. But the archives neglect an emancipation epic of equal moment that year: my discard of knee pants, long underwear, suspenders, and high button shoes, for the long pants and accessories to which becoming 16 years old now enfranchised me. In those times, only on that 16th birthday did the magical moment arrive when boys dared dress like men.
Like my other clothes, my first long-pants suit was a hand-me-down from my brother. The pants were too long, the waist too wide, the jacket too small, the sleeves too short. I never raised or bent my arms to lift the trouser cuffs off the ground. But I wore that suit as proudly as if it had been tailored just for me in the most fashionable Fifth Avenue store.
Come of age, I savored a liberal sampling of life's heady pleasures. I saw Babe Ruth hit a home run at the Polo Grounds. I sat on the open upper deck of the Fifth Avenue bus, from Washington Square to Fort George, riding the length of Fifth Avenue and Riverside Drive, all New York at my feet.
I made a weekly pilgrimage to Coney Island: daredevil rides at Luna Park; at Steeplechase, the crazy mirrors and mad clowns, the hidden air jets ballooning the skirts of flustered but flattered females; Felt man's hot dogs; the carousel; corn on the cob, jelly apples; games of skill and chance.
I fancied myself a man-about-town, as my now sophisticated taste in entertainment turned from movies and vaudeville to the Broadway theater. I discovered Leblang's discount ticket agency, below Gray's drug store, near Times Square; a real bargain basement, where seats to Broad-way shows sold at half price. Then came the mad dash to the theater, imagining myself an All-American halfback, as I ran broken-field style through the streets. Every such night on Times Square was another New Year's Eve: the crush of pleasure-bound crowds, spectacular electric signs, the traffic and noises.
My first Leblang purchase was "Rain," starring Jeanne Eagels. A dramatization of the Somerset Maugham story of a South Seas prostitute, it was the sex-shocker of the times, and denounced as pornography by moralists. Its frank sex treatment alerted me to gaps in my education which I thereupon firmly resolved to eradicate by dint of conscientious field research.
I patronized the local poolroom, our neighborhood cultural center operated by the wrestling Zbysko brothers, out of which Morn dragged me regularly. Wladek and Stanislaus faced their most fearsome ring rivals with less trepidation than they did Morn's wrathful scorn, delivered in pungent Polish. I smoked and drank beer in the alley of our tenement house.
A reckless adventurer, I survived spine-tingling rides in my uncle's new Reo car: over the Harlem Bridge, onto the prac-tically private Boston Post Road, past the Bronx fields and farms, out into the open country to the uncharted reaches of the Connecticut wilderness.
Irresolute signs of maturity began to assert themselves. I nursed with tender solicitude the vagrant facial hairs which sprouted weed-like in forlorn loneliness. My voice fluttered unpredictably between basso and soprano. The geometry of girls mesmerized me. My despisement of the boys who talked to them, pariahs until now, began to yield to grudging envy.
Girls had always been as repugnant as relatives. Although still scornful of the illogic of their ways, I no longer crossed to the other side or pretended not to see them when they came down the street. Their presence had acquired a bewildering power to dry my throat, muddle my speech, quicken my pulse, shorten my breath, and befuddle my brain.
Sunday afternoon parties with the girls replaced the sacred traditional game of box-ball with the boys. Ostensibly, we socialized : We gave imitations of our favorite movie and vaudeville performers; we danced in the delicious semi-embrace of the long-ago style to music which pleasured the ear with melodies one could remember, sing, and whistle - another world from the frenetic gyrations of the tribal calisthenics called social dancing today, and the deafening yawp of rock-and-roll called music.
But the real agenda of those Sunday seances were the kissing games: spin-the-bottle and postoffice. I kissed the girls and - rapture sublime - was kissed back sweet times beyond counting. I applied the lessons learned from Rudolph Valentine on the screen instead of my until-then heart throb: Tom Mix and his Wonder Horse Tony.
That first long-pants suit marked the end of one life and the beginning of another. My suits since then have cost much more, and have been more fashionable. But no other rivals the special place of that first one in mellow