Every December, I give myself three birthday gifts. Like most people whose birthday falls into the Christmas season, I find that too many people can’t be bothered to remember this obvious annual event. It seems that they are always too busy with other things to even text “Happy Birthday”, let alone send a card. There is no particular reason for buying three gifts.
In 2016, I headed toward Grand Central Terminal for at least one of the gifts. . The plan was to browse those few shops that still sold traditional gentlemen’s clothes and accessories. I'm just old enough to remember that a gentleman -- in the generic sense of the word -- could outfit himself for whatever circumstance life presented by simply walking up Madison Avenue from 42nd Street to 57th Street, with the occasional detour onto the side streets, more often toward Vanderbilt than Fifth.
So many of those shops, big and small, have closed. The ones that remain seem to sell the quality of the brand rather than the quality of the merchandise. Customers wind up paying more money for cheaper goods. A few maintain older standards: J. Press and Paul Stuart, of course, and for those who are more stylish and fashionable, Joseph Abboud.
That year, I found a dragon's head cane in Rain or Shine, a small specialty shop near Grand Central. I had been looking for a cane, albeit one with a contour or orthotic handle. Age, arthritis, and athletic injuries turned an accessory into an occasional necessity. And, as Hardy Amies, the noted British fashion designer whose clients included Queen Elizabeth, explained in ABC of Men’s Fashion, a cane (or walking stick) is “[a]n excellent and elegant accessory when you’ve broken your leg”. Or when your leg just doesn’t want to cooperate.
I was enchanted with the find. I've been drawn toward lizards and dragons since I was small and was delighted as a teenager to discover I was born in a Year of the Dragon. The dragon handle would also distract people from why I needed a cane to walk with from time to time.
Although the cane seemed to be the perfect birthday gift to self, I persisted in my 24-hour rule: no impulse buys; think about it overnight. The cane, incidentally, was made by Fayet, a French firm also known for its line of sword canes and sword umbrellas, all very John Steed of the old Avengers TV show. However, Steed’s sword umbrella was made by Fox Umbrellas Ltd, a very proper British company established in 1868.
By the time I got back to the store the next day, the cane was gone.
Fortunately, Rain or Shine could order another from France. Unfortunately, it took ten months to arrive. Fortunately, I already had a cane or two to help keep me mobile when necessary. Unfortunately, the frustration of waiting, and waiting, and waiting, was excruciating.
In the meantime, the shop had lost its lease due to an absurd rent hike. It was now operating out of a building a few blocks north of the Javits Center, an area that remains somewhat desolate despite the inroads of gentrification. The instructions on the website were to call and someone will come downstairs to take customers up to the shop.
When I got there to pick up the cane, I was confused. It wasn't an office building. It was a storage facility. Right. The young lady who came to fetch me was very charming, very French. She led me to what had to have been the largest freight elevator I'd ever seen. It could easily have held a couple of motorcars.
Along one of the aisles of locked storage rooms was the unit from which Rain or Shine now did business. It had light. It had air. But no windows. No one passing by. My guess is that most days she was the only person on that floor. It's a far cry from the street level midtown storefront the shop used to have.
A proper cane is cut to fit the size of the person who will be using it. Usually that is about half of that person's height. Since I'm six foot tall, that would be about 36 inches. To get a more precise measure, I had to stand "naturally" while she put the handle of the cane on the floor. She marked where the tip crossed my wrist bone. She then cut the cane down to size with a hand saw. A cane is cut slightly higher than the measure. A second cut can be made later if necessary.
In addition to the cane with the dragon’s head, I picked up one with a contour handle as well as one with a knob handle. A contour handle follows the shape of the palm, which allows a more even distribution of weight and therefore is more comfortable to use. The contour is either for the left or right hand. Usually a cane is used on the opposite side of the weaker leg. In my case, the contour is left-handed. The knob handle would be useful for when I needed to dress up and the dragon’s head would be too theatrical.
Now I had not only a cane wardrobe, but also all three of my birthday gifts for me for the year. Of course, I posted about the dragon’s head cane on social media and several friends immediately wanted to meet me for drinks or dinner just to see the dragon’s head cane, but, alas, not for my birthday.