Zoot Me Up!

Joe Coleman, tailor to Houston's zoot suit culture, knows one thing for certain: Sometimes, clothes do make the man.

Joe Coleman can understand that change perfectly. A self-described petty "thug" when he was growing up in Louisiana, Coleman nevertheless felt monitored and protected by his town's older generation. "If I did anything wrong in my neighborhood, anybody there could whup my butt," Coleman says. He had a doting mother and aunts, and his father, who was a farmer, would assign him tasks every timeR> Coleman asked for something, impressing on his son that he had to earn what he got. At the all-black high school he attended, most of the cafeteria workers were his relatives; when he got caught stealing milk, he remembers the cafeteria lady who caught him forcing him to apologize to the entire cafeteria.

"That's beautiful," Coleman says. It's a vigilance he carries on with other people's children. In a cluttered cubicle at the back of his shop, Coleman keeps a tattered manila file folder filled with pamphlets and Xeroxes on subjects such as race relations and American history, which he assigns the hip-hop kids and gang wannabes who visit the shop to read. He also keeps his 1962 high school yearbook, to prove to them that he was an athlete and that the haircut he had back then was the same as the fade they wear today.

Not that all his texts are so benign, or so universally accepted. On a ledge beside the watch chains sits a well-read popular encyclopedia of U.S. history. Nearly each page is highlighted or lined. Then, from beside a cash register, Coleman eagerly brings out another book: The True History of the Blacks and the Jews, a Nation of Islam publication that alleges Jews were the pivotal players in the slave trade. "You can't argue with it. It's all quotes from other sources," Coleman says mildly, unaware that the person he's speaking to is part Jewish. Nearby, from a thick manila file of clippings and articles, Coleman fishes out another text: Black Woman, 3/4 of the Black Man's Problems. Does he really believe these things? "Yes, misunderstanding is the root of a lot of problems," Coleman says blandly, seemingly oblivious to how these writings might contrast with the tolerance for which he's well known. Instead, as he shuffles the texts among his dozens of other pamphlets and Xeroxes, Coleman uncritically seems to consider them clues in a puzzle he's still assembling.

Still, unlike other would-be mentors, Coleman's gruff way with a lecture, as well as his own past as a brawler and troublemaker, gives real pause to the kids who come into his store. Brenda Bright, a Dartmouth professor who has written extensively on Houston's low rider culture, recalls watching Coleman talk with a group of high school kids who came into his shop last fall to have memorial T-shirts printed for a murdered friend.

"They had to wait, and while they were there, Coleman was standing there talking to them in a really wonderful and amazing kind of way. I think his own youth was not that much different from theirs. He was talking to them about guns and stuff -- trying to get them to take seriously the idea of staying out of situations where they could get hurt," Bright says. "He did it by telling a whole series of stories about his own foibles as a kid, getting beaten up. He just did this amazing riff with them about how there's always someone stronger than you are .... He was challenging the things that made the most sense to them. He divests them of the pride that gets them into trouble. He has a credibility with them in a way that most adults do not."

In his yearbook, still pristine 32 years later, Coleman appears under the heading, "Most Typical Teenager." That's another key to his appeal: to this day, he remembers brilliantly the power and status struggles that dominate all teenagers' lives -- including the competition for clothes. After all, desiring precisely the right outfit and working toward transcendent grooming aren't just a Chicano thing.

"See him?" Coleman says, pointing to an unlovely looking teenager on a page of his high school yearbook. "That's my cousin. He was voted best dressed. He was ugly as hell, but he was the best dressed guy in school."

To this day, Coleman remembers his cousin's genius at shining his shoes, something of paramount important in 1962's teenage pecking order. All the boys in high school would diligently polish their shoes, painstakingly finishing their task with something called "sole dressing," a shiny black filler rubbed between the top of the shoe and the sole. It was almost impossible to keep the dressing clean, especially since Dubberly High School consisted of a series of modest buildings separated by dirt paths that turned to mud pits whenever it rained.

Coleman remembers admiringly how his cousin could almost supernaturally keep from marring his sole dressing, even in a deluge. "He would walk from one building to the other and -- I could be remembering wrong, but I believe he never ever got any mud on his sole dressing. No water, no mud. I'd look and from what I could see there was nothing on them. You could see him hopping across that yard, and at the end of it they'd be completely clean."

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