The Lost City of Slacks

An archaeological find reveals how people lived in a very different time

[SCENE: two figures, drenched in sweat, hack their way through dense, wild, thorny underbrush. They have struggled to get where they are going, but they are undaunted. They are on a mission.]

ME: We’re almost there. 

PROFESSOR ALDOUS VON HIGGINBOTTOM, renowned archaeologist: If what you described over the phone is real, it could be a truly groundbreaking historical discovery. A genuine lost society! It’s what every academic in my field dreams of finding one day, and it’s been right here, under our noses?

ME: I was as surprised as you are, Professor, but it’s true. And it’s perfectly intact. Unspoiled by modernity; a time capsule of how people lived in a very different time. 

PROFESSOR: I’m finally going to get that Nobel Prize. Is there a Nobel Prize for archaeology?

ME: [shrugs] I dunno. Probably.

PROFESSOR: Magnificent.

ME: We’re here.

[the two figures have come to a stop in front of a bedroom closet in a suburban home]

PROFESSOR: … this is it?

ME: Well, it’s inside the doors. But yes.

PROFESSOR: What was all that dense underbrush we hacked through? 

ME: Oh, I’m just terrible at lawncare. I figured I could get you to help me clear some of that out before we started. The city’s been sending letters.

PROFESSOR: [opening closet doors] It’s…

ME: Now, I know what you’re going to say—

PROFESSOR: It’s spectacular. 

ME: Right?

PROFESSOR: My word, it’s just as things were back then. Perfectly preserved. You can truly see what life was life for this vanished society.

ME: It’s all very bewildering to me, all these strange objects and garments. For instance, what are these? Some kind of crude tankard for wine, perhaps?

PROFESSOR: No, my boy, those are what were known as “dress shoes”. They’re like regular shoes, but uncomfortable and much harder to walk in. People wore them to look “professional”.

ME: Pro… fess…

PROFESSOR: Professional. It means “needlessly uncomfortable.”

ME: I see. So... you’re not supposed to drink wine out of them?

PROFESSOR: did you drink wine out of them

ME: That’s not what we’re here to talk about. Now, I’m confused, how would people even see these shoes? The camera only shows you from the chest up, usually. Unless you’re a New Yorker writer. 

PROFESSOR: You’re stuck in the mindset of present-day society, my lad! Back then, people would wear them in “offices”. 

ME: I’m having a little trouble understanding. To be fair, though, I did have several shoes of wine before you arrived.

PROFESSOR: “Offices” back then weren’t just dining-room tables or converted walk-in closets. They were purpose-built spaces, sometimes a stand-alone structure, where an entire organization would gather together at the same time to work.

ME: And they’d work… together?

PROFESSOR: Well, no, they’d still be staring at separate computer screens. They’d just be near each other, and all use the same bathroom.

ME: [sipping wine from a shoe] Gross. 

PROFESSOR: Yes, it was often quite problematic. There were very specific ceremonial aspects to the gathering, though. People would wear elaborate costumes specifically designed for the performance aspect of it all, demonstrating their professionalism and discomfort to each other. Take a look at these. What do you think these are?

ME: [furrowing brow] Well, they seem to be some kind of shorts, but… they’re very long?

PROFESSOR: Precisely. These are called “slacks”.

ME: Well, that’s quite confusing. They don’t appear to have any elastic in them. I wouldn’t consider that “slack” at all. And this part, it… it covers the entire leg?

PROFESSOR: That’s correct. For the males of the society, it was important to cover the entire leg. It was far more uncomfortable that way, and thus—

ME: … more professional?

PROFESSOR: Exactly.

ME: I think I’m starting to understand. What about these strange foot coverings?

PROFESSOR: Yes, those are “socks”. Frequently, this would be the male office worker’s only outlet for creative expression. As you can see, these particular specimens are covered with crude cartoon depictions of dogs, while this other pair makes coy reference to a popular series of science-fiction space opera films.

ME: But no one sees the socks, because of the slacks?

PROFESSOR: That’s correct. The wearer would feel a mild sense of self-satisfaction for expressing themselves, but that self-expression would not be experienced by anyone else. That would be considered deeply unprofessional.

ME: That’s horrible. Did the women in this society have it easier?

PROFESSOR: No, no, absolutely not. We don’t have time to get into that, though.

ME: Fascinating. [pawing through shirts] Now, I can tell that these were meant to be worn over the upper torso, much in the way we would wear a shirt today, but they’re stiff and scratchy, and not one of them has a cartoon in-joke on it. 

PROFESSOR: No, that also would have been considered inappropriate.

ME: But what if I’d seen something funny on the internet? How would I relive that moment for others, if not through displaying it on my torso?

PROFESSOR: I suppose you could talk about it in the “break room”. That was a special place in the “office” where workers would store all of their lunches in the same cramped refrigerator, right next to the communal bathroom.

ME: It’s a marvel no one got sick in those days.

PROFESSOR: Oh, they did. Quite frequently.

ME: What’s this folded part at the top? Looks very [making air quotes] “professional.”

PROFESSOR: That’s a “collar”. It was meant to give the worker the feeling of being strangled, ever so slightly, at all times throughout the workday.

ME: Did it work?

PROFESSOR: [nodding] Oh, yes, they were often quite demoralized. If one wanted to be considered especially professional, however, they would employ an additional length of silk threaded through the collar and tied quite tightly about the neck, with a tail of the cloth left to dangle over the torso. That would signify to others the added level of discomfort the wearer was experiencing. It was quite barbaric.

ME: Now, I suppose this extra length of cloth left an opening for self-expression, though? Perhaps you could display things you liked on it, like a fish or piano keys?

PROFESSOR: [shaking head gravely] One could, but it would be considered quite unprofessional.

ME: So… comfortable, then?

PROFESSOR: No, not in the least. 

ME: Well, Professor, this has been quite instructive. It’s amazing to think that the people in this civilization lived such different lives than we do now. [examining pants closely, holding up to own body, frowning slightly] They were somewhat smaller people, it seems.

PROFESSOR: [assessing me, also frowning] Yes, quite a bit.

ME: What do you think happened to this society? 

PROFESSOR: Well, it’s interesting, you see—

[my wife enters the room]

WIFE: Are you done organizing your closet?

ME: Almost.

WIFE: Who were you talking to?

ME: No one. 

WIFE: I heard talking.

ME: It was a podcast I was listening to. 

WIFE: [sighing] Another “funny” sports podcast, I bet?

ME: [nodding shamefully] Yeah. I’ll be out in a few.

[she leaves]

ME: Now, Professor Higginbottom, I know you have to get back to the university shortly, as you’re clearly a real person and definitely not a figment of a stress-addled imagination strained to its breaking point by months of isolation with no end in sight.

PROFESSOR: Quite astute of you. You know, we could use a mind like yours at the university. How are you with a bullwhip? We’ve got a mission planned to find the—

ME: I just have one more question.

PROFESSOR: Of course.

ME: [holding up bag of workout clothes] What the heck are these?

PROFESSOR: [squinting] I have no idea. 

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Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)