Watching the Shirts Go By: A Great Way to Pass Time in the Developing World
A couple of weeks ago, while picking up a bag of clothing from my local laundromat, I noticed a t-shirt that one of the employees was wearing. The shirt was solid black with large white letters:
F*** YOU, YOU F***ING F***ER!
“Wow”, I said, “Your t-shirt seems a little angry.”
“Huh?” the woman uttered, while turning toward me with a puzzled look.
“You’re shirt,” I told her, “it seems to have gotten up on the wrong side of the bed today. Do you know what it means?”
“No, not really.”
“Ah, OK. Well, I’ll just mention this. On Sunday, when you’re getting ready for church, I recommend a different option, just in case there happens to be an English speaker in the crowd.”
Of course this was said with a smile on my part. And judging by her reaction, I think she actually did have at least some idea as to the stated message of her selected garment “del dia”. But although that may be the case with this example, through countless conversations I’ve had along these same lines over the years, I’ve learned that it’s often the exception to the rule. You see, I live in Nicaragua. And although the national language may be Spanish, the majority of clothing seems to be quite fluent in English.
“Oh, so you’re a Judas Priest fan?”
“Judas Priest. You know, that metal band from the 1980’s. You’re a fan? It’s on your shirt there, right above the big golden eagle.”
“Oh, that. No, no. I don’t know what that says. I just thought the bird was pretty. So what do the words mean?”
As a result of these interactions, one of my favorite pastimes has become what I refer to as “T-shirt watching”. We’re all familiar with the concept of “people watching”. You know, you’re waiting in the mall food court for your friend to show up, and you forgot to bring a book. Or your plane will be taking off in a matter of minutes, and you’re killing time while awaiting the initial boarding call. What do you do? That’s simple. You watch the passing masses, of course. T-shirt watching is basically the same concept. It’s just that the focus is slightly narrowed.
I’ll give another example. As I write these words, I’m sitting in a local internet café/mini market in central Managua. There is an older Nicaraguan gentleman purchasing what appears to be rice and sugar from the woman behind the counter. If what his shirt is saying has any element of truth, this man has at least at one time in his life been an avid supporter of the…..Masonville Badgers.
How about the other guy that I passed on the way in? He was relatively young, maybe in his early to mid 20’s. He looked pretty mean, wearing the bandana on the head, the baggy jeans, and the facial expression of “Go ahead. Give me a reason, any reason at all!” Clearly this guy was one tough “galleta”. Yet according to his t-shirt, he was also a………Purdue MOM?
Sometimes such a dynamic takes a slightly different, more uncomfortable twist. I’ve seen scores of six to ten year old girls over the years clad in t-shirts with such messages as “too sexy”, “hotter than your girlfriend” or others that are far more explicit and inappropriate. When I inquire as to the message they are promoting, they of course have no idea. Not unlike the apparent fan of 80’s metal from above, they simply “like the color” or “the two little hearts”.
To understand more with regard to this favorite pastime of mine, though, I think it’s important to offer a bit of background material. And to truly understand the clothing market of the “third world”, one has to understand that the flow of this market is generally originating from the direction of the “first”. That is, when a kind soul from a place known as the “first world” decides to donate that old piece of clothing (or new, perhaps) to their local church, charity, etc., such an item often makes its way, whether formally (legally) or informally (illegally) to a much larger geographical region known as the “third” or “developing world”. From there, individuals not unlike those mentioned above find themselves with the opportunity to receive or purchase these items for a very favorable price (such as no price at all, for example). In addition, if these individuals happen to find themselves living on one to two dollars per day, they are often less concerned with certain garment-related specifics. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that there is a complete disregard for outward appearance or presentation. On the contrary, in this part of the world such factors are still emphasized quite heavily. That being the case, however, some of the finer points such as wording or language of a shirt seem to receive, on the average, slightly less emphasis.
But sometimes such garments begin their journey from a very different motivational starting point. Let’s say, for example, that there is a large sporting event scheduled to take place this weekend. If you are a clothing manufacturer, and you want to sell as many championship t-shirts as possible, you’ve got to be ready to sell them IMMEDIATELY after the event. That is, you’ve got to be ready to sell your product when fan support and enthusiasm is at its highest level. And if there is going to a moment when those fans will show less regard for such details as the little number printed on the price tag, you’ve got to be prepared! Of course, the obvious dilemma is that you don’t know who is going to win the big game, right? Yet to the same industry, there is an obvious solution. You simply print championship merchandise for BOTH teams. By doing so, as the fans exit the stadium, they have the ability to express their enthusiasm and support for the winning team through a small monetary transaction. Those pesky, time-consuming labors associated with design, production and distribution are all taken care ahead of time. Sure you’ll lose a little on the costs associated with printing unsellable merchandise with the wrong team listed as the winner. What you gain in overall sales, however, will more than make up for this unfortunate red number listed in the loss column.
But there is a second challenge as well, and that is what to do with all of that XL, 100% cotton overstock. Due to US regulations, you can’t actually sell such merchandise, and you can’t just leave it sitting around the warehouse forever. What CAN you do? What you CAN do is donate. And as a result of this solution, if the t-shirt is any reflection of an ultimate reality on the planet today, the developing world is often living in an alternate universe. For example, in February of 2008 the undefeated New England Patriots were favored to win the Super Bowl as they squared off against the wild-card New York Giants. As we now know, it turned out to be one of greatest upsets in Super Bowl history, with the Giants emerging victorious through a 17-14 win. But as fans were celebrating in New York, a well known charitable organization known as World Vision was happily accepting a larger than normal donation of discarded, legally unsellable championship hats and t-shirts. When all was said in done, although the official trophy may have been engraved with the name New York Giants, it was a whole different story in the town of Diriamba, Nicaragua. In Diriamba, according to the message proclaimed on thousands of brand new, white championship t-shirts, it was certainly the year of the New England Patriots, 2008 Super Bowl champs.
And so it goes in the continual migration of this predominately cotton species, nearly always in a southern direction. As for me, although I’m certainly not known for my large, fashionable collection of clothing, I still find myself with a small donation from time to time. In such cases, I place the selected garment on a step in front of my Central American home and walk away as quickly as possible. Within several minutes, without fail, it disappears mysteriously into the crowd. Later, as I participate in my new-found sport of t-shirt watching, witnessing the colorfully clad masses making their way through the city streets, I keep a special eye out for my recently discarded items. I always think that coming across these items would be the proverbial “Holy Grail” of this activity. It would be like an avid bird watcher spotting the rarest of species in the wild, often a once in a lifetime opportunity. Or maybe it would be like the elusive “hole in one” of which every golfer dreams. What would I do if I actually did find myself in such a fortunate position? I’m not sure. I mean what could I really say to the person wearing my old shirt? Probably nothing. After all, such a conversation would most likely be awkward and easily misinterpreted. But assuming I did arrive at this point, at what would no doubt be the pinnacle of my t-shirt watching career, I don’t think this short-lived career would come to an immediate end. I think I’d continue to donate, and I’d continue to maintain a watchful eye. Because as every golfer knows, that next hole in one could be just one stroke away.