"What’s With the Coat?"

This past August, as my thoughts started to poke like a stick at the disagreeable notion of “winter to come,” I resolved to invest for the first time in an expensive winter coat. I told my husband that I was tired of cheap coats that were no match for South Dakota’s cold and wind. I was going to shell out the money for a real coat and wear it until it turned to a rag. 

I found the perfect coat online. Real long. Real down. Supposed to keep you warm at -40F. Choice of color? Cardinal red, I decided. Color, too, can keep you warm, especially when it cheers the drear of big dirty snowpiles that refuse like old grudges to melt. 

The coat arrived at my door only two days later. Free shipping, and quick. (I guess that’s what you get when you go upscale. How would I have known?) In August heat, I stuffed the coat into a closet with a satisfied (if somewhat guilty) smile, and promptly forgot about it. 

Then, sometime during October, I stumbled onto this poem by Marie Sheppard Williams, called “Everybody”:
 

I stood at a bus corner
one afternoon, waiting
for the #2. An old
guy stood waiting too.
I stared at him. He
caught my stare, grinned,
gap-toothed. Will you
sign my coat? he said.
Held out a pen. He wore
a dirty canvas coat that
had signatures all over
it, hundreds, maybe
thousands.
          I’m trying
to get everybody, he
said.
          I signed. On a
little space on a pocket.
Sometimes I remember:
I am one of everybody.

Reading this poem, I thought first of the many street people I had known while living by choice on the streets of Columbus, Ohio, back in 1999. Then I thought about my new coat. Warm, red, waiting in my closet. 

Weeks passed. Autumn grew more chill; trees bared their branches. The poem, the coat, kept nagging at me. 

Finally, two weeks ago, our first snow of the season. Only a couple of inches, but 40 MPH winds, outside of town. The trees in our yard were groaning. I had to go outside. It was time to stand vigil at the local “Stand for Peace,” as some of us in Brookings do briefly every Sunday. 

I pulled my coat from the closet. I held it up in front of me. So red. So vibrant. So there. 

I took a big black marker from my desk drawer. I laid the coat down on the family table, turned it over, and printed on its back, “The `I AM PART OF EVERYBODY’ coat. Sign if you believe.” 

I was grinning now. 

I asked Nathan, our nine-year-old, if he wanted to sign. His face lit up like a Christmas tree at midnight as he exclaimed, “How cool! I would love to sign it!” He almost tackled me in his haste to grab the marker from my hand. 

The next person who signed was a woman friend, a little older than I am. She was half-laughing, half-chiding, as she inscribed her name. “What would your mother say,” she asked emphatically, “if she knew you were doing this? I mean–ruining a perfectly good coat! A brand-new coat!” 

As I told my friend then, and many others since, my coat only becomes more valuable, not less, with each signature added. And my hope is that everybody who signs it will feel, at least for one happy moment, that they belong. That their life is bigger than themselves. That what is good for them is bound up with what is good for others. 

Now, after just a couple of weeks, my coat is graced with enough signatures that when I walk into the grocery store, or pass somebody on the street, I’m often greeted with “What’s with the coat?” or some such remark. Then I tell the story of the poem, and my hope for the coat, and I pull a black marker from my deep red pocket and invite the questioner to sign. Sometimes there are smiles, sometimes laughter, sometimes wonderment–but always enthusiasm. Nobody has ever turned my red coat down. 

Maybe we’re all tired of being out in the cold.

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