A lack of familiarity and the subtle hints of uncomfortability revealed themselves on my friend’s face the first time she saw me don my new leather jacket. I had spent months deciding if the “look” was right for me, but, with the first brisk signs of fall, I decided to go for it: to wrap myself in leather. I walked from my apartment nestled on the quiet, residential block in Chelsea down to the bristling corporate storefronts overflowing with tourists and their endlessly swiping platinum credit cards. During the walk, I filled my ears with the sounds of my “fall music” – an eclectic mix of folk, Americana, and acoustic – while my mind continued to decide if leather was really my thing and if I had truly entered a stage where I felt comfortable trying it out. For most people, the idea of the leather jacket seemed nonchalant: leather jackets have been and continue to be a staple in various iterations of American fashion-forward culture. But for some reason, in my own unassured mind, the idea of a leather jacket represented something I wasn’t. And the problem my mind couldn’t overcome was whether or not this spectral person I wasn’t was who I wanted to be and, at some deeper level, who I could be.
When I walked into the shop the hip, young clerk pointed me down the stairs towards the section of the store that better fit my gender expressions. Upon entering this subcellar layer, the first clothing rack I ran into played host to this company’s entire line of leather. As I deftly passed my hand over the sleek silkiness of each of the leather jackets, a meek, chic sales clerk with an air of superiority approached me to discuss my interests and options. What I wanted to say: “This is too much for me! Why is buying a leather coat such an overwhelming decision?!” What I did say: “I think I want something edgy and classic.” Acting as though I knew exactly what edgy and classic meant, I said these words with confidence and grace, as not to reveal the inner turmoil racking my body from my larynx to my intestines. The clerk showed me several options but none caught my eye, and none seemed to offer the image of myself that was stuck in my mind: the image of boy become man, of confidence and edge.
Then they showed me a jacket that, when it made its appearance, seemed to shine with a glow sent from a spotlight situated somewhere just above it as if to say to me: “me.” Equipped with zippers and belts reminiscent of whips and chains (and everything else Rhianna sings about in her classic “S&M”) this jacket aptly named “the classic biker” exuded the objective selfhood of exactly who I wanted to be, who I was afraid to be. So I tried it on. It fit. It fit well, and when I looked in the mirror, surrounded by all those lights positioned in just the right way to make everyone look good enough to buy anything, it looked good.
Upon returning home, I swiftly removed my jacket from its paper carrying case and situated it nicely on my grey linen sheets to – as any good millennial ought do – Instagram my new jacket. Hoping that the “likes” would embolden my decision to publicly wear my new jacket, I put it on and called my friend: “let’s smoke” I said. As I stood outside, acting as one ought to act when one is wearing a leather jacket – that is with my sunglasses on and one knee bent with my foot supporting my lean against the red brick wall – my friend approached, exclaiming “I am going to have to get used to you in that jacket!”
“I am going to have to get used to you in that jacket!” I also thought to myself as I stared down at the edgy “classic biker” on the body of a boy who studies Plato and would rather stay home and read books on contemporary art than go to bars where screaming is a qualitatively understood form of melody. My friend and I left my apartment and walked to our favorite lunch spot for sandwiches, iced tea, and conversation, but as soon as I had taken the last bite of that prosciutto sandwich I dashed home and took off my jacket. I hung it neatly on my coat rack where it would remain, untouched, for the next several weeks as I pondered the possibility of ever being comfortable in leather.
A few weeks later, as the cold set in and I still had yet to purchase a winter coat, I once again weighed my options: wear my light fall jacket, in which I was comfortably hidden from the public view, but in which I would also most definitely freeze, or wear my new leather jacket, a jacket I had been too unsure of to wear for any extended period of time, but who’s impenetrable outer cowskin layer and silky warm inner layer would certainly keep me warm on the startlingly cold city streets. Knowing that I would be miserable if I had to walk in the early winter weather without a proper coat, I once again put on my edgy, leather jacket, decided not to zip it up (to take off some of the edge) and left my apartment. At first, I looked down – unable to look in the eyes of the all the older, buffer, and significantly hairier gay men who populated the streets of Chelsea around me. Unsure of myself in my weeks-old purchase, I had no idea how other people were perceiving me: did they see me as my friend saw me? Or, since they had never known me before was it natural? Either way, I found the gazes of these other men – gazes rooted in my imagination as distinct from the realities of self-obsession that plague every New Yorker – only focused on me.
With iconic pop in my ears, I forced confidence upon myself: reminding myself of the impossibility of hiding on a packed city street, I peered down at myself in my “classic biker” and walked on. With an air of selfhood that comes only from an awareness of being examined, I slid down the sidewalks as if acknowledging that my public persona had shifted. In that brief clarifying moment, I felt a fire of comfortability in my leather, in my skin. In that moment, my leather jacket made me feel onerous and free. Most importantly it made me feel powerful and desired and powerful because I felt desired. What it was about wearing this jacket that made me feel this new mixture of power and desire was veiled at the time, kept from my own self-awareness by the excitement brought on by an opening of desire. For some unconscious reason, the public display of leather made me feel these new ways that, until now, had been dormant – awaiting that moment on the streets to release themselves into euphoric revelation.
As time went on, my understanding of this strange totemized, cow skinned object shifted as what I thought was brought about by the leather became intensely subjective explication about my own individual experience and orientation towards the world. I had rarely been confident about who I was (gay) and what I desired (boys) and so I often hid myself in my apartment reading books about boys and being gay, afraid to experience the culture as I discovered it in my books. The leather jacket, for me, represented a foray into my own sense of gay masculinity – a moment of self-understanding that urban gay men for decades have experienced as they have donned their leather jackets and chaps and found refuge in, only now, famous bars such as The Eagle in New York and the Tool Box in San Francisco. My apprehension at buying a leather jacket was an apprehension at trying to be something I was ultimately very much afraid of, but who, at my core, I really was.
As I walked through my neighborhood, which for decades has played host to all varieties of gay men and their subcultures, I looked at the contemporary men around me – gay men who notoriously do not look like me with my piercings and tattoos and leather jacket – and felt strengthened because being desired and desiring, the intertwining of both which plays itself out in power, felt for me, for the first time, comfortable, open, Erik. What I had always thought impossible, a feeling of confident, public and personal masculinity, was in fact exactly what made me most comfortable. In leather, on 8th Avenue, a shout-out to the 70s from 2016, The Republic in hand.