It’s a little-known fact that the fabled Library of Alexandria had an annex for a small but select collection of t-shirts.
Tees were an integral part of Graeco-Roman culture. When Caesar led his army to Gaul, his vanguard of muscular young Legionnaires wore the message VENI VIDI VICI block-printed on oversized tees (to accomodate their armor).
No visitor to ancient Greece would ever return home without WHAT HAPPENS IN ATHENS STAYS IN ATHENS written across his back on a fine tee of Egyptian cotton: beige for the masses, purple-dyed for the upper classes. Or the ever-popular PLATO DID IT WITH LOGIC.
Then as now, people wore t-shirts to make a statement. Roman t-shirt shops were busy printing tees with the cultural and political statements of the day. Woe on the man wearing a POMPEY THE GREATEST tee shirt in an alley full of Crassus’ supporters. But a VISIT BEAUTIFUL VESUVIUS tourist tee would get no one in trouble.
Tragically, the fabled tee shirt archive vanished with the rest of the Alexandrian Library collection. And the tee itself vanished from western civilization for 1500 years.
But it’s back. And I’ve taken it upon myself to rebuild the Library. In my garage.
For years now I’ve been chasing this mutant white whale: the meaning behind t-shirts. Not the ones that people sell to make money, but the ones that people make to represent themselves: tees for business, sports, causes, personal events, hopes, fears, and particular times and places where — something happened. Or was supposed to.
Tees are powerful. If you don a tee with a message on it, you become the message. Everyone around you will see you that way. There’s almost no other medium that makes people into walking memes with their full cooperation.
Why do people make these tees? What are they saying? What’s the word they want to get out? And why do people happily slip a meme-on-cotton over their heads and wear it off to the Olive Garden? Or, and this is the kicker, even pay for the privilege of doing it by actually buying the tee shirt?
I’ve been chasing meaning ever since I picked up a tee at Goodwill for a Minneapolis beer ba, one that read FEAR THE CHEESE across the back in dire block letters. What the hell did that mean? It was like a secret message. You had to be there, to know.
I took it home and found out over the Internet. And I’ve been taking them home to find out ever since. Hundreds of them. Thousands, maybe. Sometimes there’s little to know. Sometimes there’s a lot. And sometimes it’s a trip to Oz, only — and here’s the important part — the people who made the shirt think they live in no such place. They might wonder, doesn’t _everyone_ live in a place nicknamed HogSkin County? What’s there to be curious about?
I’ve got tees from the Guantanamo Bay prison guard detachment. From the poor devils who spent years in Iraq looking for the weapons of mass destruction. From some tiny town in the Carolinas that held a Collard Greens Festival because they had nothing else to boast about. I got a tee from a bunch of musicians who gathered in a quake-ravaged city to set a world record for the most people to play “Shake, Rattle, and Roll!” at one time. Outside, among the ruins.
And more: surfing carpenters, apes in hard hats swinging drywall hammers, Sarah Palin in a dirndl serving beer (for “Sarah Pale Ale,” and yes, it’s real). I’ve got tees from the godfsaken base where death drones launch themselves to terrorize Yemen, and from the bar with the only decent margaritas on the Persian Gulf. Heartfelt memorial tees for teenagers who died young, or for firefighters who died in 9/11 — standing with one foot on the bar rail while Jesus mixes their drinks.
And many more that I can’t remember. See, that’s the problem. Most of these shirts are stuck in the Catacombs, a shack out back filled with towering stacks of silver-brown 30-gallon plastic storage tubs (available from Target at the low everyday price of five dollars plus tax). Every one of those tubs is stuffed with tees. Some of them have been sealed for years.
What good is a collection you can’t see and search? Can barely even remember? For all I know, the concentrated presence of all those message tees ripped the fabric of the universe, so that alien tees from strange dimensions are spilling into the Catacombs even as you read this. Peek inside one of those tubs, and you can’t say it’s not true.
So over the last few months, a plan has materialized. The garage walls have been painted and patched. Racks sufficient for a thousand tees have been constructed on one wall. Hundreds of hangers have been purchased, and protective plastic sheathing. A database has been created, and a system of color-coding by which each particular shirt can be located. There’s even a heat pump in the garage now to keep things from getting too cold, too hot, or too damp.
Now all I have to do is unpack, photograph catalog, color-code, and hang 1000 tee shirts. It’s slow going. Talk to me in six months. At which point the Great Library will stretch out before me, and I will be able to find for you an Italian restaurant tee shirt illustrated in the low-art style of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth with the flick of a key or a sharp eye for the right color code on a clothes hanger. Or a U.S. Army basic training tee with homoerotic themes. Or a tee commemorating Sarah Pale Ale Or a tee memorializing the life and death of a local tee-shirt artist. How meta can you get?
Why dot this? Why not? I want to show off. I love this stuff. I love the stories behind the tees. So many things in this world come, go, and leave nothing behind but a tee to say that they were even there. Tees are a small thing, but I like to find the big in the small. It’s in there, somewhere.
And after the Library is in order, I’ll write up the history of every single tee, as best I can. It’ll be, practically, a book. And then, who knows? Put it all up online and let the world have a shot, I’m thinking; I could call it “The Tees of Mystery.” Californians will get the joke.
Because four out of five people hear about what I’m doing and go cross-eyed with puzzlement and boredom. But the fifth smiles oddly and wants to know more. Here’s to the lucky fifth, and I’ll see you on the Internet someday. In the meantime — stop in for a tour if you’re ever in the ‘hood.