Updated: Jan 31, 2020
I survived my youth in tank tops during the hot Florida summer months and a “winter coat” during the two months when temperatures dipped below 60—“bitter cold,” my grandma would say, wincing. But when I moved to a colder climate, I needed to learn of the beauty of the sweater.
My first foray into sweater wearing was, ironically enough, in Lubbock, Texas, a hub of economic, educational, and health-care activity at the southern tip of the high plains. I was there for an environmental journalism conference and had prepared for the trip by packing my usual outfits for a few days in Florida: short sleeve shirts and capris or light slacks. My outfits sufficed for the duration of the trip trip until I was at the airport awaiting my flight home. The airport was freezing! I don’t know why warmer climates need to over-compensate for the heat outside by making it excruciatingly cold inside. This is not an opinion, but a fact. Growing up, my mom shuffled me and my siblings off to school in shorts and short sleeve shirts, backpacks, lunchboxes, and parkas blazoned with our favorite Disney characters because it was so freaking cold in the classrooms. It was moronic and I’m sure a major contributor to climate change. (And I didn’t come back from that trip to Texas with just this one story idea on climate change.)
So I’m sitting in a hard plastic chair in the airport in Lubbock, Texas, flopping around like a fish on a boardwalk in an attempt to stay warm, when finally I break down and buy a sweater. The color was a light blue/gray and matched my eyes. The sweater said, simply, Lubbock, Texas. There might have been a tree or rock next to the name of the town to showcase all that the quiet hamlet had to offer, but I wasn’t really paying attention. Driven by insane cold, I paid the ridiculously high airport price and slipped the sweater over my head. I boarded my flight and thought that would be the end of it. But it was not.
When I returned to New York, I found myself reaching for the sweater more and more and wondering why I had waited so long to embrace the trend. By nature I’m a contrarian so avoided the sweater, popularized by Mark Zuckerburg, at all costs. But after getting my baby blue, I couldn’t resist its comfy allure. Unfortunately for me though, others couldn’t resist talking to me about the sweater.
“You from Texas,” people would shout to me on the streets of New York. These questions mostly came from homeless people in line at a soup kitchen at a church down the street from my apartment. Sometimes co-workers or other strangers would ask me that question, too. And I always responded in the same way: ”No, it’s just a sweater.” To which I would get a slightly offended reaction.
But why would anyone find it so hard to grasp this concept? Surely they’d seen the racks of sweaters available for sale to anyone with enough money at airports, attractions, and universities.
Finally I’d had it with the assumption that I was from Texas and decided I needed a new look. So during a visit home to Florida, I picked up a NASA sweater in the Orlando Airport. Once home in New York, cocooned in my dark blue zip-up sweater, I was sure I had nothing to worry about. And then one day, several weeks after my purchase, a deliveryman on the street questioned whether I worked for NASA.
“No, it’s just a sweater,” I said.
Taking my daughter to the pediatrician, as I walked into the office, a woman, standing 40 feet away from me with her own toddler in tow, sneered at me. “You work for NASA?” She spoke to me as if I was a dog who just peed in her favorite slippers. I didn’t know if I should apologize for somehow offending her or respond to her question. I said, simply, “No, it’s just a sweater,” and continued pushing my daughter’s stroller to her appointment.
I didn’t know what was going on or why people were so obsessed with my sweaters, but this had to end.
Thus began the search, far and wide, for a neutral sweater, or one that I could wear with pride and hopefully not get badgered by strangers when I wore it.
Eventually I settled on a blue sweater (aside from red it’s a really good color on me) with the word KALE written across it in the same lettering as the ivy league university, YALE.
This sweater, I realized worked in two ways: First, it conveyed that I had a sense of humor, and secondly, it gave people who only quickly glanced at my outfit the false impression that I was a higher achiever than I actually am, since, apparently, if your shirt advertises it, it must mean you work there, live there, or went to school there. Not necessarily a bad thing when making a first impression, I realized.
I’ve had the sweater now for a few years and it has served me well. I get a lot of chuckles from passersby on the street, and it’s a good conversation starter. Plus people do sometimes mistakenly think I studied at Yale, which is just as good as spending all that money and actually putting in the work to get a diploma at the school.
One morning I was having breakfast with a couple of friends, high earners and high achievers, and the topic of sweaters came up. I decided to share my own sweater saga while we waited for our coffee and pancakes. When I brought up my KALE sweater, John remarked that when he first saw me wearing it he thought I went to YALE.
I eschewed my common refrain and smiled and said, “thank you.”