Bag Man–the things I carry

We heard animals last night, yipping and howling in the woods across the road from the orchard. It was not a sound we are acquainted with.

“Coyotes?” Tizi said. 

“They sound like dogs,” I said.

Coyotes, David confirmed the next morning. 

They’re out there. The next day, driving over to the Sportsman’s Cafe for breakfast, we saw one loping across a dry grassy meadow along Triangle Road, like it owned the land. Just like it belonged there. Which, of course, it does. It’s wild out here. The other day at the tasting room, a guy described the trouble he’s been having with a brown bear. A big brute he said. Not quite grizzly size, but big. It comes scratching at the front door. The dogs, he said, annoy it, shoo it away. If need be, he said, he can take care of it. Pests like these—coyotes and bears, not to mention pests of the two-legged variety—are another reason people around here arm themselves.  Many of them, I suspect, carry.

That morning I couldn’t help but notice I was the only guy in the restaurant openly carrying—a man bag. Anywhere I go, I don’t quite feel normal without it slung over my shoulder. The way those guys—and probably some of the women—don’t quite feel normal without their guns. In this place, I am an oddity. 

In some contexts, virtually everywhere I’ve been out here, a man bag can feel downright  unmanly. I feel so urban toting it, kind of metro-sexual. In my bag I carry my wallet, a cell phone, a ballpoint pen, a pair of glasses, a couple plastic toothpicks, nail clippers and an Emory board (so necessary since I stopped biting my nails), and two sturdy plastic bags from a local grocery store back home for bagging groceries when I shop, wherever I shop, for lunch.  

 My son calls my bag a murse. In some circles they say mote (a man’s tote bag). Shops selling them say messenger bag or mail bag.. I wear mine cross-body, like a bandolier ammunition belt. The way Indiana Jones, a gun-toting manly man, wears his man bag.

I can imagine Indie growling, “It’s not a man bag! It’s a satchel.” The term is unfortunate. Simon Chilvers writes in the Financial Times, “The term ‘man bag’ is arguably one of the most irritating in fashion history: ugly sounding, borderline patronising, borderline sexist.” 

“It’s not a purse. It’s european.” So says Jerry Seinfeld in “The Reverse Peephole” episode. To which George Costanza says, “A man carries a wallet” (George’s emphasis).  

I carried a wallet for years, in my hip pocket, like most American men. At some point Tizi commented on my pants, how the fabric was worn thin on my hip pocket. “And doesn’t that blob back there bother you, sitting on it?” she asked me once. I hadn’t thought about it. But now that she mentioned it, Yes it did.   

So I emptied my pockets. And I’ve never gone back.

A cursory study of the etymology of “wallet” suggests the accessory used to be a man bag. A reliable unnamed source indicates: “The origin of the word wallet can be traced back from the ancient Greek word Kibisis which was the word used to describe the sack carried by the God Hermes.” That sounds like a stretch to me, but if it’s okay for Hermes, it’s okay for me. An online etymology dictionary I consult suggests wallet comes into English in the 14th century, from Old French “walet,” a term denoting “knapsack,” or from Proto-Germanic “wall,” a word for “roll.” Or possibly from the old French “golette,” for “little snout,” which I do not understand but immediately love. The point being that a wallet used to be a bag. A man bag.

Bags were necessary because the pocket had not yet been invented. Think of it: life with pockets. In Hannah Carlson’s delightful World’s Use of Pockets: Men’s Clothes Full of Them, While Women Have but Few . . . Civilization Demands Them, she notes: “For centuries, how you wore your purse distinguished masculine from feminine dress, but the purse itself did not belong to a single gender.” But in the 15th century, along come pockets, primarily on men’s clothing, signaling, for centuries, the end of the man bag. On men’s clothing, pockets. In which they keep their stuff. When I was a kid, I was frequently made aware of my father’s presence by the coins (he called them “silver”) or car keys jingling in his pocket. He kept a wallet, which he called a billfold (my Italian father-in-law called his a portafoglio) in his hip pocket.  In my mother’s case, I recall her reaching into a apron pocket for a tissue, but otherwise, in my memory she is more or less pocketless.  

Pants pockets gave, and continue to give, boys and men a place to put their hands. Hands in pockets can give a man a casual, stylish, insouciant look. But there was and is a downside. In 18th century satirical engravings, hands in pockets indicated lechery. When I reached a certain age my father would say, “Don’t stand around with your hands in your pockets, looking idle.”  

With the advent of pockets, pick-pocketing became a thing. I was on a crowded bus in Florence a few years ago with a group. A guy I was traveling with advised me and the members of our group to keep our hands in our pockets to protect ourselves from thieves. By the time we got to Fiesole, this poor guy had been fleeced. 

I wear my bag slung across my chest, bag left. In an emergency I can reach into it with my left hand and grab my nail clippers.  I was pleased to note recently that’s how Indiana Jones wears his bag, bag left. We are men of inaction and action. Now that I think of it, in all the Jones movies, which I love, I have never seen Indie open his man bag and take something out, ammunition for his pistol, let’s say, or a hankie. Well, he knows what it’s for. And I know what mine is for.

A few years ago I guy came to our house to do some work. Tizi chatted him up. She needed a name. I think she was looking for a blacksmith.  

“I know one,” the guy said. “I got his name and number right here.” 

He reached around to his hip pocket and hauled out his wallet. Folded in half, it was fat as a deli sandwich. He regarded it with pride, held it out for us to admire. Yes, it was certainly big. Then he opened it, fluttered through a stack of bills and business cards and papers and receipts and photographs, and eventually pulled out a thin slip with a name and phone number written in faded, slightly smeared blue ink. 

“My whole life is in here,” he said. He closed his fat wallet and, with an adoring smile, held it out again (again!) for us to admire. When he shoved it back in place in his hip pocket, I wondered how he could even walk straight.

1 Comment

  1. Sherrie says:

    I think the last picture is Bob 🙂 You’ve been carrying your satchel for so long, good for you as it must be so much more comfortable and easier. Look at you and Indiana Jones.

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