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The Milk House: The monkey in barn boots

Ryan Dennis Published on 24 August 2015

“You put a suit on a monkey – and it’s still a suit,” I’ve always said. Usually the other person would try to correct me and suggest that I’ve switched the expression, that it’s “still a monkey.” “No,” I would reply. “It’s my belief that it’s OK to be a monkey. It’s the suit that should be called into question.”

I’m hopeless with fashion. Mostly it’s because I don’t believe in it much. I don’t put in much effort past matching my socks. Still, friends and family members have tried to intervene. Every time I visit Irfan in Germany, he gives me a pile of his old shirts and jeans, which he insists is better than anything I’m wearing.

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My mother presented me with a brown leather jacket – and her thoughts with it: I would never get a girlfriend unless I became cooler. She has denied it since, but the words still echo loud.

I always came home for the summer to help on the farm. Jet-lagged and greasy from the plane ride, I’d slip into the first ratty T-shirt and old pair of jeans I could find and look for my rubber boots in the cellar.

They would always have last season’s holes in them because they always seemed to rip two weeks after I bought them. Sometimes a mouse would have made a nest in it if it had been lying on its side over the winter. I’d dump it out and then head to the barn.

For some, what you wear is a form of expression. Growing up in western New York, however, most people wore faded Levis, dusty ball caps and a lot of camo. It all seemed to be expressing the same thing: “I’m from rural America.”

“The shoes you’re wearing don’t make the man,” Clint Black sang, in a simple morality fit for a country song. It’s what we’ve heard since children. I can’t disagree with Clint, but I would add the caveat that you still feel different in cowboy boots compared to loafers. One is more casual and relaxed in shorts than jeans – and more rigid in a suit coat.

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I admit to feeling a little fancy when I wear a scarf, as if putting it on suddenly infuses my conversation with more culture. A friend, having to give a controversial presentation to a college board in a highly political situation, told me he rented a suit. Being more formally dressed than his opponents was meant to shield him from attacks. I later heard that it worked.

In the holding area, the cows stand at random angles waiting to be milked, but among them exists a prearranged structure of how they’ll go into the parlor. There’s a specific order embedded into the process, certain cows always going in first and the same ones hanging back until the end. It doesn’t change, even though they may already be standing next to the gate anyway and the act of getting milked is simple.

In the same way, there seems to be something latent and unseen stitched into barn clothes. The way I walked as a boy is the same as I do as a man returned to the farm: jeans folded over the waist, feet scuffing across the chaff, boots slapping against my shins.

It’s a complex feeling wearing barn clothes, even if it is only one that lingers subconsciously as one moves about the barn. They may have once been “town clothes,” but now their threads have a wholly utilitarian purpose. They are not meant to make you feel better, look pretty or be comfortable.

They shield us from nothing except a little manure splatter. It’s hard to escape culture. What we see on TV, read on the Internet and hear on the radio influences the other things we see and hear. We have automatic expectations of the person who wears a checkered sweater or that rolls up the sleeves of a button-up shirt, and we feel these things ourselves when we do the same.

Barn clothes might be a rare reprieve from all that. An old pair of jeans is just an old pair of jeans. They are not defining or expressing anything. They make no statement on our behalf. On one hand, it’s gratifying to be above any vice of superficiality. On the other hand, in some ways I feel unshaped.

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I feel honest – but also a little sloppy, a little derelict. Although I can’t prove it, I suspect my posture gets worse. There is no reassurance that I’m a decent person and everything is OK in my life because I wear clean clothes. Instead, barn clothes is what we are when we’re stripped away from all vanity. It’s both liberating and intimidating.

If I were a rich man, I would milk cows in a suit and tie once – at least once – with a big cigar in my mouth. It would be just to see what it would feel like and how I could carry myself around the barn – how it would be to be the first man to ever get manure on Armani.

People would call me crazy. I would say “Maybe, but it’s still a suit.” Then I would slip on the stained T-shirt and rubber boots, going back to the same old monkey I had always been. PD

Ryan Dennis is the son of a dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer. The Dennis family dairies and maintains a 100-plus cow herd of Holsteins and Shorthorns.

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