When my future fiancé asked me what I wanted for my 18th birthday, I did not hesitate – a pair of American made blue jeans.
I was watching John Wayne westerns to improve my English skills and the cowboys, at least the celluloid ones from Hollywood, sported well-worn and seemingly indestructible Levis covered with chaps.
Blue jeans had become a status symbol of sorts in the poor Iron Curtain countries. It was not for the same reason Americans loved clothing fads – to prove that they were rich, trendy, and fashionable. We liked jeans because they represented freedom, exploration, and the ability to cross unchartered borders and territories. Jeans epitomized a physical freedom that we longed to have but were only allowed in spirit because, to our communist rulers, everything western was decadent and dangerously capitalist. Profit and capitalism were dirty words.
To make durable capitalist jeans inaccessible to the masses, no importation was endorsed. Black market dealers made huge profits by selling cheap knock-off denim pants smuggled into the country from Turkey and sold for $150 a pair back in 1977! Most people earned $70-80 a month, including specialized doctors. Stories were told of foreign visitors, approached by locals in the street, wanting to purchase the jeans they were wearing.
I was so excited that I would finally own a pair of denim pants, but not just any pair, blue jeans made in America, indigo blue denim with rivets, snaps, a metal zipper, and the famous Levi leather patch.
My birthday present arrived two weeks late. As usual under communism, the package was received at the post office downtown and the security police inspected its contents before I was allowed to pick it up. It took an hour to walk downtown but I did not mind this time. They opened the box and, to my surprise, it contained a vest and a matching skirt made of blue dyed soft material with a denim-like pattern. My elation deflated like a huge balloon.
My fiancé’s mother, a very caring and proper southern lady, thought blue jeans to be an inelegant 18th birthday gift for a young lady and took it upon herself to find material, a suitable pattern at Hancock Fabrics, and an enterprising seamstress willing to sew, subject-unseen, the matching vest and skirt in record time for $10. I knew the price because “rotten capitalists” had to declare the value of any gift package sent to communist citizens. The commies then assessed 40 percent custom duties. After a thorough examination of the contents to make sure that there were no subversive materials hidden, I took possession of my package and paid the equivalent $4, exchanged times 12 into the pegged Romanian currency, the worthless “leu.”
There is a very good reason why I cringe every time the TSA goons rifle through my belongings at the airport and frisk me. We were subjected to many unwanted bodily and purse checks during my almost twenty years of life under communism, including upon exiting department stores. It was always assumed that we were criminals engaged in stealing from the oppressing government that was actually robbing the country blind.
Always grateful for my gift, I took pictures with the unusual outfit on, sent it to my future mother-in-law and wore it a few times before it faded. My heart was still longing for a real pair of jeans.
On my 21st birthday, very pregnant with my first daughter, I went shopping with my friend June D. She was buying clothes in an old fashioned mom and pop store in our small southern town. I had told her the story of my 18th birthday blue jeans that remained just a dream. It must have struck a chord with her. When we finished, she dropped me off to my home and handed me a beautifully wrapped box. Inside was a brand new pair of indigo blue Wrangler jeans. I was very pregnant and unable to wear them yet but I was jumping with joy, on the inside. The price tag was mistakenly left inside: $20.
Every year since that time, I never forget to pay it forward. I have given away my expertise, translation services, food, toys, books, shoes, and clothes, especially blue jeans, to other legal immigrants like me. In my mind, jeans were the quintessential expression of the American pioneer spirit and of boundless personal freedom.