Elegy for a Chain Wallet

Chain Wallet

Years ago, I left my wallet on a bar. I had no idea I’d left it there. I slipped off my stool, headed for the restroom, and urinated in a trough. This was a dive bar in Polish Hill, a ramshackle neighborhood in the heart of Pittsburgh. I should have lost the wallet forever. One of the patrons should have pocketed the wallet and walked away with my ATM card and expired driver’s license. I should have cursed my luck for days.

But when I returned, the wallet was still there, untouched. I was tipsy, but not too tipsy to realize how lucky I was. I closed my eyes, mumbled a generic “thank you” to the universe, and socked the wallet away.

“Only in Pittsburgh,” I told friends, when I recounted the anecdote. “There’s nowhere else in the world I could just leave my wallet somewhere and expect to ever see it again.”

The year was 2004, when my Steel City pride was most fiery, but I knew I couldn’t expect a second karmic intervention. I was absentminded in those days, and I had no safety net. My wallet didn’t contain much, but it was all I had, and another slipup could mean weeks of damage control. So I decided to find a securer accessory. What I needed, I surmised, was a chain wallet.

I don’t know where I go this idea, but I became obsessed. I liked chain wallets, back in adolescence, because of the demographic that wore them—punks and slackers, skateboarders and stoners, the heroes of 90s counterculture. In my own high school, the main wearers were tough teenaged girls in hooded sweatshirts, the kind of bisexual drifters who brazenly smoked joints in the parking lot. I had never considered a chain wallet, because I had been a friendless nerd in pleated pants. I didn’t fit the profile: A member of the Latin club, fencing team, drama group and show choir doesn’t generally sport punk-rock gear.

By in my twenties, I was grittier and more independent. I was nostalgic for a teenagehood I hadn’t personally experienced, a teenagehood of loud music and secret parties and reckless friends. Nobody I knew was wearing a chain wallet, and I liked that. A decade after flannel and Kurt Cobain—phenomena I had ignored when they were still current—I finally caught up to the fashion.

Finding a chain wallet took no time at all: I stopped into a novelty store in South Side called Slacker, and there they were, a dozen different wallets inside a glass case. I didn’t want any images; no skulls or eagle wings, no patterns or occultist insignia. I just wanted a plain black wallet. At the time, I was wearing a lot of dark jeans and sweaters. I donned a black leather jacket and steel-toed boots. My clothing bore no logos, not even patterns. (“I haven’t seen you wear a color in years,” my friend Weidman once observed). So a plain black wallet seemed perfect.

I bought the wallet and walked out. At first the chain felt strange. I never really understood how the wallet fastened to the wearer’s belt, using a special loop. The chain felt strangely heavy, but I decided that a chain should feel heavy. I was delighted to find the metal ring attached, allowing me to hang keys from my thigh. The jingle of the keys felt virile and provocative, but more importantly, I never forgot them. Within hours, the wallet felt perfectly normal.

At the time, I was living with two roommates in a dumpy apartment and writing for various weekly newspapers. I got around by bicycle, I partied all over Pittsburgh, and I barely earned $15,000 a year. I slept on a mattress I’d salvaged from a dumpster, which I positioned atop an overturned chest of drawers. We had no Internet access in the apartment, so I used public computers at the local library. My life was as free and fatalistic as they come. My neighbors were fuck-ups and parolees. My friends were bartenders and delivery drivers, struggling actors and stoned musicians. I had no health insurance or savings, and because I couldn’t legally drive, I used my passport to buy liquor.

I was 24. My country was neck-deep in war. I had no future, just a wildly unfolding present. I wore a chain wallet, which jangled everywhere I went, and I absolutely loved it.

Ten years later, I am about to retire that wallet. The leather is malformed and broken. The surface is shiny with wear. The loop has nearly snapped; it’s kept together by a thread of leather. Even the fabric inside the wallet is tattered, and the plastic card-holders have deteriorated. The time has finally come to find a replacement, and it’s killing me.

Of all my most beloved accouterments, my chain wallet stands out. Yes, I miss my leather coat, my suede jacket, my cashmere scarf, my favorite black turtleneck, some pairs of boots, and any number of hats. I will never forget a certain pair of cargo pants, a particular plaid shirt, some exceptional sandals, or my last set of thick-framed glasses. But my chain wallet has survived them all. My chain wallet has traveled with me to more than a dozen countries.

“You look like a fucking 14-year-old girl from 1992,” my friend Fred once accused, in one of his more hostile moments. I found this hilariously appropriate, since 14-year-old girls in 1992 were the very people to plant the original seed.

With time, I’ve seen all kinds of people wearing chain wallets, from roadies to waiters. In a small town in Laos, I met one guy, a Californian yuppie worth millions, who owned a hand-tooled chain-wallet the size of a roof tile.

“It’s my most prized possession,” he said. “I actually lost it a few weeks ago, but the Lao police found it and got it back to me. I thought the thing would be gutted. I didn’t care. I can replace credit cards. I just wanted the wallet back, even if it was empty. But you know what? The thing was in perfect condition. Nobody took a single kip.”

“It’s beautiful,” I said.

It wasn’t actually beautiful. The ornate satanic imagery carved into the leather was too terrifying to be called beautiful. The wallet was huge and unwieldy, and its chain was thick enough to raise an anchor. Unlike me, the guy had opted for skulls, lots of them. But I appreciated the workmanship.

“If you’re interested,” he said, suddenly excited, “I can give you the guy’s name.”

“Oh, well, I already have one.”

“But for when you need to replace it. He’s reasonable. Just tell him I sent you. He’ll give you a big discount, believe me. No more than $2,000.”

I don’t remember what I paid for my chain wallet, back in 2004, but I know it wasn’t more than $20. I thanked him, took down the leather smith’s information, and immediately lost it. I couldn’t be bothered to spend $2,000 on grad school tuition, much less a place to keep my library card.

But the yuppie in Laos did remind me how much I cherished my little wallet. The thing had accompanied me everywhere. I used to joke that my chain wallet had traveled more than almost anyone in my hometown. Together we had wandered Icelandic moors, hiked the Rockies, taken boats across the Mekong, and biked thousands of miles. I hadn’t given my chain wallet much thought, not because it wasn’t important, but because it had fused to my very existence. While I have often hidden the chain, during solemn and well-dressed occasions, the wallet is still there, as plucky as ever.

“It’s you,” my wife said, smiling permissively, when she spotted the chain in a photograph. The photo was taken during a friend’s wedding, and although I was wearing a three-piece suit, a tiny strand of steel links glinted from one pocket to another.

I’m not much of a materialist, but I have a hard time relinquishing such cherished tchotchkes. The older I get, the weirder a chain wallet becomes. It is no longer the symbol of a 24-year-old deciding to embrace his imagined youth. Instead, it is the symbol of a 34-year-old holding onto a 24-year-old’s identity that was already anachronistic. When I meet rebellious adults, they find it cute. When I meet cold professionals, they find it childish. I’m pretty sure most people don’t notice it at all. But there it is, a shiny throwback to an adolescence never lived.

Part of my reluctance is purely masculine: Unlike women, who can collect purses and shoes and jewelry at will, attaching different meaning to different personal effects, men don’t have much fashion to flaunt. Aside from hats, coats, and cowboy boots, male fashion is expressed with a very finite vocabulary. But there is nothing more masculine than a good wallet. It’s compact, durable, and intensely private. A wallet doesn’t just reflect a man’s identity; it literally contains his identification. Most men only own one wallet at a time. We don’t alternate wallets to match our outfits; the wallet simply is what it is, for years on end. When a wallet appears, it is a declaration. Let me handle this, the wallet says. Whatever you need, it’s in here.

I don’t know how I will replace a wallet so loyal, so perfectly suited to me, any more than a dog-owner could replace a long-loved golden retriever. My wallet was present when I met my wife for our first date, and I carried it when we recited our vows, some eight years later. Nothing else I have owned has withstood such tests of time. At the time of writing, another year is drawing to a close. I’m a new uncle. My hair is thinning. There are gray strands in my beard. Most of those delivery drivers and stoned musicians are distant memories, as is the Polish Hill apartment. We’ve spent a wondrous decade together, my chain wallet and I, and now it’s time for a new era.

But I’m keeping it. Whether I stow it in a drawer or shoebox, the wallet stays.

And the next one? You can bet it’ll have a chain. I’m not old yet.


2 thoughts on “Elegy for a Chain Wallet

  1. This memoir is perfection. You have an inextricable sense of who you are, how it relates to your surroundings, and how your surroundings relate to you. Guess you have to have that if you’re going to be a writer. I’ve never owned a chain wallet myself, but I can identify with the nostalgia of wanting to craft the perfect identity so that it seamless falls within the subversive. Again, guess you have to have a knack for creating a relationship in your writing with an audience you wouldn’t usually think you would have. Guess what this all means is that you’re a damn good writer.

  2. Jamie: It seems that Christmas came early — this is one of the nicest compliments of 2013, and you can be certain I’ll be relishing it for awhile. Thanks for reading!

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