Thursday, September 11, 2008

The skirts are made of memories

When you work for a newspaper, the most amazing things pour onto your desk.

Last week, The St. Louis American received a $40 money order from Missouri Death Row - Reggie Clemmons wanted a subscription to the paper. That left a few moist eyes in the newsroom.

This week, a story pitch from Sarah Skirt, Inc. arrived from Chicago. It left one puzzled editor. There are at least three moving parts to this pitch and, taken together, I wasn't convinced this wasn't a hoax:

* We make "wearable memories" - skirts from old ties.
* We are recycling old ties - "tie one on to go green."
* And we give 30 percent of the cost of the skirts ($113) to charity.

Three charities were listed, they all checked out (a children's hospital, a school in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, a community outreach project at a Chicago church). But the "purpose" of this business, printed in green ink at the bottom of the page, is to fund something called "Bradshaw Barrack" to care for homeless youth that seems to exist, as of now, only in the minds of the ladies who make Sarah Skirts.

I was sorting mail at The Tap Room yesterday and chatting with a moonshiner buddy when I came upon this letter in the pile. I handed it to the moonshiner, who glanced it over. Then he started to pull up the Sarah Skirt, Inc. website on his iPhone while I called their number in Chicago.

I got Sarah herself, though she wasn't in Chicago. She was in Rochester, Minnesota. She was in a waiting room at The Mayo Clinic.

"I'm with my husband in the hospital, and they're asking me to keep my voice down - can you hear it?"

I could hear it. Why Rochester, Minnesota? Why The Mayo Clinic?

"He has trouble with his heart," she said. "And I figured, 'It's the heart, you only have but one. Might as well go to the best.' They're the best here."

This was looking even more puzzling, but much less like a hoax. I asked her about the skirt business.

Sarah said, "The skirts are made of memories."

She said she had the idea after her dad died and left behind him a bunch of ties. She began to weep, abruptly, when she admitted the idea came after she had already disposed of her father's ties by other means. So, though she now preserves the memories of other dead men by sewing skirts from their ties for the women who survive them, her own memories of her father are gone - or, at least, his ties are.

My moonshiner buddy, Golfbag, had the website up now. He said, "This looks very much like quilting. I've got a lot of quiltmakers in my family." Golfbag is from Kentucky.

I had warmed to Sarah, so I told her my tie story. How I had made a record for a great American poet, Leo Connellan. How he died as we were making the record. How I went up to see the widow and daughter. How they were preparing for a yard sale. How they had set aside a box of his ties. How I bought a bunch of them and gave them to people who had worked on Leo's record and asked them to wear his tie, one day, and write me a letter about what they did that day. How one guy, a rocker in Boston, even got married in his Leo tie.

"That's good!" Sarah said.

By now I was convinced this was for real, but I still couldn't figure out how they found a weekly newspaper in St. Louis edited for the black community. Sarah lives in Chicago and her voice sounded like that of a little old white lady.

She said a newspaper reporter for The Chicago Tribune had heard word of them and written a profile that "got a lot of business for us." This opened Sarah's eyes to the powers of the press.

She told the staff "idea girl" (on a staff of three): "Honey, I think it's time to pull up all the newspapers in the United States and send them all a letter about us." So, that's what she has been doing: "She is sending out letters all day, about 10 a day. I guess you were one of them."

Golfbag was powering down his iPhone as I was wishing Sarah well. He said, "It looks like a good business for the environment."

Sarah said, "We give the proceeds to charity."

I said, "When you work for a newspaper, the most amazing things pour onto your desk!"

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