The Yiddish word for “head” is kepilach.
My mother, born to a Hungarian-American father and a Ukranian-American mother, grew up hearing a lot of Yiddish in the home. When my sisters and I were little, my mother retained what little Yiddish she remembered, and mixed and melded and swirled and swaddled it with English kiut-isms when she spoke to us while our infant minds were apple-sauce and melted butter, and she would truncate a lot of Yiddish words. For us. To us.
Hentalach (hand) became “hentee”, and kepilach became “kepi.” She also calls noses “nizzies”, though I don’t think that stems from a Yiddish kiut-ism.
Interestingly, the French word for a flat-topped cap with a visor, is called a “kepi.” Apparently, it’s what’s known as a “French loan-word” — on loan from, you guessed it, the Germans, from whence Yiddish is derived. And everything mixes, and everything swirls and swaddles.
Today, the word “kepi” is most commonly associated with French police officers’ hats. Oddly enough, I own a kepi, and I wear it every day. It isn’t French, though, it’s American, and it’s around 120 years old. I found it in an antique shop in West Virginia and I looked at it, sitting on a shelf with a $27 price-tag and I said, aloud, to it, “If you fit, you’re coming home with me.” And it fit, and it came home with me.
My kepi was sold by Jacob Reed’s Sons, perhaps the most famous and well-respected haberdashery in Philadelphia. The store opened in 1824, and closed its doors 159 years later. During the late 1800s, Jacob Reed’s Sons became increasingly focused on producing and selling military uniforms and a wide variety of other uniforms for law enforcement, fire companies, the postal and parks, and railroad services — from old advertising photos, I believe that my kepi, wool with a thick, wide grosgrain band and textured leather visor, was most likely a winter postal uniform hat.
“Daddy,” my nine-year-old son said to me recently in the car, “I think that hat might very well be the oldest piece of clothing that someone in this neighborhood actually walks around wearing.”
Sometimes I think, even though I’m only forty, that the oldest kepi in the neighborhood sits atop the oldest kepi in the neighborhood.
Last night I went walking in the night and the salt laid down to combat the ice crackled and crunched beneath my oxblood-colored Bostonians. I had bought them a day or two earlier, at Philly AIDS Thrift, because I was hurting and because I needed a pair of brown shoes. It can be both, right? A need, an invention, a hole to be filled, a search for comfort or meaning, an absurd quest. An all-season coat to replace the five or six coats and jackets that hang on various hooks that take up space that fall on the floor when you walk past them and shoulder them inadvertently — that are not-quite-winter and not-quite-autumn, the intense desire to donate them all to Goodwill and start again, anew, with a new coat. Well, not new, of course — forty years old, because you hate new things. You hate MADE IN CHINA. You hate shoddy craftsmanship. You hate that your grandfather’s clothing store at 7th and Snyder couldn’t compete with Jacob Reed’s Sons, just like your father’s business can’t compete with Under Armour or NIKE.
I caught my shadow last night, my flat-top kepi in silhouette and my mind flashed to May 21, 1971 — just after 10pm. Two New York City patrolmen — one black, one white — were massacred from behind, slain by shots to their back, by black revolutionaries — fed up with systemic racism and brutality and oppression, shot after shot after shot. The black patrolman, Waverly Jones, was killed instantly by the first bullet that smashed through the back of his skull. His 28-year-old partner, Joseph Piagentini, died in the lap of a New York City patrolman, on the vinyl back seat of the patrol car that went screaming off toward Harlem Hospital. His assailants used his partner’s gun on him, after theirs had run out of bullets. Thirteen shots. Twenty-two entrance and exit wounds. Why do I know this? What is wrong with me?
And I can’t breathe.
I couldn’t get over, last night, how much my silhouette looked like that of a police officer. I tried to become one, when I was twenty-two, but it was an act of delusion and desperation. It wasn’t really real. What do twenty-two year olds know about what they want? Well, some of them know quite a lot. Some of them, like the author of this piece, know very little. As the decades pass unblinking, some things become clearer, and some things remain unknowable. One thing I know is that I will only ever resemble a police officer in silhouette in the dark of a Pennsylvania night.
“I just love your clothes,” a young woman said to me recently, and I winced. “I LOVE that hat!” a guy in his fifties exclaimed, very loudly, at a patisserie a month ago. All I wanted to do was run away and hide. From the noticing, from the attention. I only want that from one person.
And what does it mean — to want? To want an antique hat on the shelf of a shop? A twenty-year-old car? A fifty-seven-year-old car? A shirt that smells like your old doctor? A blanket? A theme song? A kiss. on the kepi.
To want these things, these feel-feels. To want to be a police officer. To want to forget that. To want to be kind. To want to be a human-human. To want to cry, and to not cry anymore. To want a blue table or a pinkish mug or pair of eyeglasses. A balcony and a sunrise. A life that is warm.
To be forgiven.
To be seen.
I am a lover of old white men and old white men things — their sport coats with three buttons, their vests with six buttons, their gold watch fobs strung across their vests with six buttons, their cufflinks and their corduroys, their crossed legs and their furrowed brows, their eyeglasses with bifocal lenses that I have finally earned a right to wear in front of my own eyes. Their mustaches that will look forever wrong beneath my Jewish “nizzie.” Their cars and their shoes. Their silly walks and their silly words.
Old white men who have shared space with me and old white men whom I have loved from afar. One of them is David Tomlinson — the brilliant stage and screen actor whom Noel Coward once referred to as having the jubilantly jowly face of “a very old baby.”
Before Tomlinson appeared alongside a pearl white VW Beetle in the most important film of my life, “The Love Bug”, he starred in his first Disney film alongside the more human Julie Andrews in “Marry Poppins.” A few decades later, in 1989, Julie Andrews was honoured at the BAFTA’s and Tomlinson, who retired from acting nine years prior, came out onstage in a tuxedo, his gray hair slicked back, to pay tribute to his friend. The moment he walks out, with perfect posture and unseemly oversized glasses, the camera cuts to Andrews whose mouth and eyes move in concert in an unmistakable expression of love and warmth at the sight of her Mr. Banks, aged but still graceful. Tomlinson’s speech was short, embracing, and warm-warm — self-effacing and quintessentially English. He remembered how Julie, who had just given birth to her daughter, befriended him and fed him at her small rented house.
“I strongly recommend Julie’s roast beef and Yorkshire,” he said, as if the option to try it were open to us all.
He ended his remarks that night, which lasted all of two minutes, by referring to Julie, not in order of importance, as “a great star — and a very, very nice girl.”
Julie blows him a kiss from her seat, but a kiss blown is never enough, is it? Later that night, she sought Tomlinson out as he sat at his table, put her right arm around his shoulders, and kissed him on the kepi. I love when photographers are right where they belong, right when they need to be.
Today, I am, incongruously, friends with David Tomlinson’s son. We are connected by this “great star, and very, very nice man.” Or maybe it isn’t incongruous at all. Maybe nothing is. Maybe we are all just sitting around, in the moss and twisted branches of the forest, waiting to be found, for someone who is unlike any other, to take us by the hentee, to kiss us on the kepi, to think that we’re the loveliest thing, to cradle us in the back-seat of a patrol car as our eyes close, as the blood and tears pour out, as we walk silhouetted with our hands in old pockets, while the hum of the wires sounds overhead. The hum of the refrigerator. The hum of a folksong. A microphone. A cellphone. A human heart. A very, very nice girl.
Antiques were meant to be used. Kepis were meant to be kissed. Hentees were meant to be held. Hearts were meant to be… here.