Christmas Coat by Paul Howard

I bought a new coat for Christmas. And I surprised myself because it wasn't the kind of thing I would usually wear. It was a shearling coat, made from the softest, warmest lambswool.

It was the kind of coat that I always associated with football commentators sitting in a freezing cold gantry for an FA Cup third round match in Huddersfield, Or TV detectives who drove Ford Capris, called women "Darling" and roughed up suspects in laneways before declaring, "You’re knicked!"

It was comfortable to an almost supernatural degree. But it was also true that it provoked strong opinions in people. I walked into a Dublin pub one night and a man walking past me muttered a derogatory word – beginning with W. To avoid sullying the Christmas atmosphere, we’ll pretend that the word was "wonder".

I can’t say the man was altogether wrong in this assessment. Because even I had a moment once when I caught sight of my reflection in a shop window on Clanbrassil Street and I thought, 'Who is that complete and utter wonder?’

You see, the coat was suggestive of a certain attitude. You might even call it obnoxiousness. It was the kind of coat that – if you walked down the wrong Dublin street – was liable to get you punched in the face.

But then one Christmas, in New York, I was reminded that fashion is nothing more than a matter of context and timing. I was walking up Columbus Avenue. It was three weeks before Christmas. I’d just asked a woman to marry me – and she said… yes.

And if I looked like I was walking with a certain swagger, well, it’s probably because I was.

It was late in the afternoon and starting to get dark. All of the Christmas lights were on and a heavy snow was falling. We were standing at a pedestrian light at the junction of Columbus and West Forty-Third. And somewhere behind us, a voice said:

"Hey – Old School!"

The woman who had agreed to be my wife said, "I think he might be talking to you."

So I turned around – and there stood a man, who looked a little bit worse for wear. I noticed that he was smiling at me.

He said, "Man, I love that coat!"

I said, "Thank you."

He said, "You’re ALL the style, Old School! ALL the style!"

You see, my coat was having its moment. It was wasted in Dublin. This was a coat for a cold Manhattan afternoon that looked like a Christmas card. It was one of those rare times in my life when I have felt perfectly centred.

We crossed the road and we walked another block. My mind felt a bit swimmy and there was a song in my head:

Silver bells, silver bells,

It’s Christmas time in the City,

Ring-a-ling, hear them ring.

Soon it will be Christmas Day.

And behind me, I heard a voice say, "Hey, Old School – give that motherflipping coat."

He didn’t say "motherflipping", but again I’m paraphrasing.

"HEY, OLD SCHOOL! GIVE ME THAT MOTHERFLIPPING COAT!"

From his take-no-prisoners New York tone, it was clear that the man appreciated my style in a way that probably wasn’t healthy for either of us, so we quickly crossed the road and hurried on another block.

But the man decided to follow us. And for quite a considerable distance. We walked through the forties and into the fifties, listening to a persistent background commentary, in which my admirer mixed compliments with vague threats of violence.

"YOU’RE WORKING IT, OLD SCHOOL! YOU ARE WORKING IT!... I WANT THAT COAT, YOU MOTHERFLIPPING MOTHERFLIPPER… ALL THE STYLE, OLD SCHOOL! ALL THE STYLE!"

We quickened our pace. By the time we reached Fifty-Ninth Street, it had gone quiet. We looked behind us. We seemed to have burned him off. A block or two later, we stopped at another pedestrian light. A man coming in the opposite direction jaywalked across the road. And as he passed us, he looked me up and down.

A second later, I heard a voice say:

"Did you see the coat?"

The man said, "Yeah, I saw the coat."

"I call him Old School. I’ve GOT to have that coat. You want to follow him too?"

We took off up Columbus Avenue like two Olympic racewalkers, not even stopping at the junctions, weaving our way through the crosstown traffic, with angry horns blaring at us. We speed-walked through the sixties and into the seventies without even daring to look over our shoulders.

Finally, we reached our destination, a boutique on the upper Seventies. The woman who had agreed to marry me went behind a curtain to try on a dress. And the manager of the place said to me:

"Honey, that’s a lovely coat."

"You know, it divides opinion," I told her. "People either want to hurt me because they hate it or hurt me because they like it."

"Well," she said, "I love it. By the way, can I ask – is that gentleman with you?"

I turned around. Our friend had his two hands pressed against the window, perfectly framing his face.

"HEY, OLD SCHOOL!" he shouted. "GIVE ME THAT MOTHERFLIPPING COAT!"

Two of New York’s finest eventually arrived to move the man along. But I remember him – fondly – every December when I take the coat out of the wardrobe and I put it on.

My wife will come behind me as I’m checking myself out in the mirror and she’ll say, "Are you wearing your Wonder Coat tonight?"

And I’ll say, "I don’t know. Is it really me?"

And she’ll say, "All the style, Old School! ALL the style!"

You can listen to Paul delivering his story by clicking the picture above and you can hear the full Miscellany from Christmas morning by going here.