Journeys of an Expropriated Coat

by Frotchie

My coat was born in the Lebow Clothing Factory in 1985, shortly before the owner closed it down, firing several hundred seamstresses and quietly knocking away one of the last bastions of manufacturing that stood in the way of Baltimore's inevitable transformation into a post-industrial wasteland. The factory was closed, locked, and boarded up, and no one bothered to remove anything from inside. Endless rows of sewing machines sat rusting, great hay-bale sized rolls of textile lay collecting dust, and this coat, along with twelve thousand of its brethren, hung neatly wrapped in plastic, unseen and forgotten. Like the women who made it, it became redundant, unwanted, a discarded relic of a dying era...

There it sat, undisturbed, for decades. Sometimes it yearned for a glimpse of the outside world. Sometimes it worked itself into a fit of gleeful rage imagining a hundred vengeances, each more terrible than the last, visited down upon the head of the heartless owner who had so cruelly confined it there. Many times, it simply wept. It carried on that life for twenty-two years--until, suddenly and miraculously, it was freed. A daring cabal of elusive swashbucklers known only as the Coat Liberation Front had broken into the factory. They were stealing dozens of cartloads of woolen garments for free distribution to the city's dispossessed outside, each day that Food Not Bombs was served. These brazen scofflaws had never failed to infuriate the miserly owner of the factory, a man who goes by the unlikely moniker "Abraham Zion." Googling him, or his alias, yields few results outside of Hebrew Studies websites. The only detail one might encounter is that he was once sued by two Israeli scientists who he had shafted, in typical supervillain fashion, after commissioning them to develop a new kind of shatter-resistant glass. Further delving unveils a synchronicity: the glass in question was to be produced at a certain windows and doors factory in Chicago, the same one that was swarmed and occupied by workers demanding severance pay when it closed last December. Three months earlier, this coat had been responsible for a lower-profile (but, at least for me, equally exciting) class conflict.

Several months after I obtained the coat, I was volunteering on the local hotel workers’ union’s “boycott committee,” a ragtag collection of leftist radicals who the union had brought together to carry out clandestine actions for the boycott of the Sheraton Baltimore City Center. A Kentuckian company called Columbia-Sussex had recently bought the hotel shortly after the workers’ contract expired, and it soon became clear that they had no intention of bargaining in good faith. The new bosses were attempting to rob banquet servers of their tips, fire housekeepers who had formerly enjoyed 25 years worth of seniority benefits, and raise workloads and the price of healthcare for everyone. In response, a boycott of the hotel was called for almost unanimously by the workers.

In April 2008, a cheerleaders’ convention came to the Sheraton. Union officers requested that they honor the workers’ wishes and pull out their event, but the cheerleaders defied their reputation and responded with uncharacteristic snide bitchiness. Having already asked nicely, union organizers decided to turn up the heat. They assembled the boycott committee and asked us to carry out a “door drop,” a practice in which union activists pretend to be customers and leave flyers under every door in the hotel, which we were instantly all too eager to do. On the first night of the convention, the cheerleaders were all arriving in their finest dress clothes for an opening banquet. A group of eight scruffy anarchists, each concealing a stack of leaflets and walking just a bit too quickly, must have looked out of place moving through the posh, cheerleader-infested lobby. I, in all my wisdom, had decided to show up wearing the Lebow trench coat, hiding flyers beneath it in a manner that was not unlike a mafia hitman. Consequently, I now found myself with a suspicious security guard (a non-union private contractor) hot on my heels. This gruff, mustached fireplug of a man pursued me into an elevator, where we stood in uncomfortable silence for what felt like ages. I silently cursed myself for lack of caution, smiled uneasily at him, and stepped out onto the seventeenth floor. As the guard followed at a distance, I walked throughout the hallways, quickening my pace and ducking every time I rounded a corner to slip a flyer under a doorway without getting caught. I heard him growl something inaudible into his radio, and, a moment later, he bounded around a corner and bellowed, "Give me the gun!"

It took a couple seconds for what he had said to register.

“What?” I finally sputtered, dropping the papers and showing him my open palms. “You want a flyer, dude?”

“Stay right there,” he growled sternly. He turned away from me and muttered again into his walkie-talkie. A manager appeared shortly, a gloating grin plastered across his plastic face. I started to sweat as the implications of what was happening sank in. I moved for the elevator, but the the guard stepped in front of it, scowling and pressing his chest up against mine imposingly. I turned back to the manager.

“We finally caught you!” he chortled in my face, showering me with spit. Undetected door drops had irritated the company to no end. “You’re trespassing on our property and you are going to jail for a good long time, sir!” He glanced at the guard. “Did you call the police?” The short man swayed back and forth embarrassedly, and softly explained the misunderstanding.

"I'll call the fucking police!" I shot back. "You're holding me here against my will!"

"I'm afraid it's too late, sir," he snarled. "They're on their way." Sirens wailed in the distance as the tension between us mounted.

Minutes later, a heavily armed SWAT team burst out of the elevator doors with submachine guns drawn (these, in contrast, were real, not imaginary). "Down on the ground! Get down on the fucking ground!" they barked.

"You guys like a flyer from the housekeepers?" I asked timidly from the floor.

Minutes later, some frustrated and severely disappointed cops escorted me back down to the lobby as their sergeant scolded the manager for wasting their time with a false police report - Columbia-Sussex has since been fined by the City of Baltimore. The elevator doors chimed open, and we stepped out into a hallway lined on either side with anxious cheerleaders, whose banquet had been interrupted because of the threat of the imaginary shooter. One of them shrieked and withdrew into the banquet hall as I walked past, coattails trailing proudly. As I walked by ten cop cars and an armored paddywagon, I grinned at the irony of the situation: the impression of my coat on an alarmist guard had done far more to disrupt the convention than the union ever could have—I doubt those particular women will ever patronize the Sheraton again. I've since been banned from the hotel, which has worked wonders for the boycott: if I so much as poke my head in the front door, they call the cops...and no yuppie wants to check into a hotel with a police cruiser parked out front. Walking off into the night, I could feel the coat chuckled along with me, satisfied to have subverted Baltimore’s new robber barons, the new Abraham Zions—and to have won a small victory on behalf of the city’s housekeepers, its latest generation of exploited women, the contemporary analogues to the coat’s mother seamstresses.