I have a new Tilley hat. Whether or not, gentle reader, you deem this a fit subject for an essay depends on your ability to arouse compassion for a fellow being with an inordinately sentimental attachment to his hat. Actually, make that “hats,” because I have a lot of them. Where to start? With the rabbit felt Akubra stockman’s hat I brought home from New Zealand? With the beret I bought in a Basque market in Southwest France? The Russian style fur hat I bought from a street vendor in SOHO, my faded and weathered Filson Tinman, the Monte Christo Panama I bought in Ecuador or the countless baseball caps in what has become an extensive collection.
I love them all because each one has a story. But the one I loved most was the Tilley hat I bought in 1988. I loved it most because it had more stories and evoked more memories than any of the others. I wore it on countless birding and fishing trips in over 25 countries over 21 years. I wore it in the company of Roger Tory Peterson, Lady Bird Johnson, and Oscar Arias – the former president of Costa Rica. It was stained with orange juice, sweat, bonefish slime, the fragrant aftermath of visits to tern breeding colonies, tomato sauce, wine, coffee, hummus, bicycle grease, sun screen, DEET, and godknowswhatelse. It saved my ears from encounters with the business end of innumerable errant fish hooks. It saved my neck, dome, and face from sunburns. It cushioned my head from knocks against low tree limbs. It was a loyal and uncomplaining friend. Although my Tilley had endured all this, and asked so little in return, (the occasional trip through the washing machine) it still looked good. It had sprezzaturra.
Therein lies the rub. It has been my experience that men and women often differ radically on the meaning of “looking good.” After forty years of marriage I should have known that the first assertion of not wanting to be seen with me in that disgusting old thing put me on the wrong side of history. In my heart I knew that all my protestations were merely a stalling tactic. I resisted for as long as I could, knowing that the sands of time were running out on my jaunty, honorably soiled old friend, and that I would soon have to put said friend to sleep.
I gave in only after I happened on the newest Tilley – the new “Audubon” model I saw in a nature store. I had to acknowledge that it looked pretty good and that Tilley had made a few improvements over the past twenty years, like the sweat-proof band and the ventilated crown. So I bought it at the start of the summer and gave my wife reluctant consent to send the venerable old one off to hat heaven -- to do it sometime when I wasn’t home to watch -- and to never speak of the deed in my presence. It takes a while to get comfortable with a new friend, but I can now report that after a summer of birding and fishing my new hat and I have finally started to bond. None said it better than Bogart: “Tilley. This could be the start of a beautiful friendship.”