And now, the second part of today’s “Big Idea” two-fer, and it’s somewhat special for me, because Kelsey Timmerman, the author, is a fellow citizen of Darke County, the small agricultural Ohio county in which I live. Yes, that’s right, Darke County now has two published authors! We’re all very proud. But while I write about other worlds from Darke County, Timmerman had to leave Darke County to visit the rest of the word in order to write his book. Why? Because his clothes were made in other places all over the word — and as you might guess with a title like Where am I Wearing?, Timmerman had a curiosity about where his threads were fabricated. But the original impetus for the journey was, perhaps, a little unusual, with an emphasis on the word “little.” Here’s Timmerman to tell you more.
Herve Villechaize, or more specifically Herve Villechaize’s face, gave me my big idea.
His devilish mug, which he lent to the character Tattoo on the 70s hit Fantasy Island, was emblazoned on my favorite T-shirt. His eyes sparkled with mischief. His smile was too wide, his comb-over too perfect. “COME WITH ME TO MY,” hung over his head and “TROPICAL PARADISE,” sat just beneath his dimpled chin. I was curious where Tattoo’s tropical paradise was. I looked at the tag; it read Made in Honduras.
What if I went to the countries where my clothes were made and met the people who made them? Where was I wearing?
As someone who has never needed much of an excuse to travel anywhere, this sounded like fun, an exercise in experimental travel that would take me around the world. It was the garment equivalent of tossing a dart over my shoulder at a map and going to wherever it landed.
Off I went.
An Idea is abandoned
In Honduras, I did a lot of things that had nothing to do with my Tattoo T-shirt. I explored the jungle on the Mosquito Coast with my brother, who later contracted malaria. For a very brief moment I shared a dugout canoe with a deadly fer-de-lance. (The snake stayed in the canoe; I jumped into the river.) I taught an island-village to play baseball. I went SCUBA diving. On my very last day in Honduras I tracked down the factory that made my shirt and came face-to-face with a worker named Amilcar. I had been telling myself that this was the reason I was in Honduras, but once I had the opportunity to ask Amilcar about his life, I couldn’t do it. Part of me wanted to know what his life was like, but the other part was quite content not knowing, maybe even a little scared about what I would learn.
I left Honduras knowing very little about my Tattoo T-shirt or the workers who made it, and abandoned the idea of meeting the people who made the rest of my clothes.
An idea becomes an obsession
Events changed me. I got engaged. I bought a home. I started to become a normal American-a consumer with a mortgage, a refrigerator, and a flat-screen television. I began to settle into my American Dream, and comfortably so, I might add. But then, a pile of my favorite clothes appeared once more. My Jingle These Christmas boxers were made in Bangladesh. My all-American blue jeans were made in Cambodia. My flip-flops were made in China, and, believe it or not, my favorite pair of shorts were made right here in the USA.
I couldn’t put on a T-shirt without thinking about Amilcar and the questions I failed to ask him. I became obsessed with where my stuff was made.
I started to read books about globalization and the history of the garment industry, but they missed something. More than the forces, processes, economics, and politics of globalization, I had to know about the producers who anchored the opposite end of the chain. The lives, personalities, hopes, and dreams of the people who make our clothes were lost among the statistics.
I decided to resume my quest to meet these people. To finance it, I did perhaps the most American thing I’ve ever done-I took out a second mortgage. You see, my big idea was really expensive.
Off I went…again.
An idea is resurrected
In Bangladesh, I went undercover as an underwear buyer and spent the day with a single mom who hoped she didn’t have to send another son to Saudi Arabia to work. In Cambodia, I toured a Levi’s factory, and befriended a small dorm room where four girls slept on a wooden bed and the other four slept on the concrete floor. In China, I was berated by an American corporation’s vice president, and visited the village of a husband and wife who hadn’t seen their son in three years.
Before you start thinking that my big idea led to nothing but depressing revelations, it wasn’t like that. I made a point of not focusing on just the challenges the workers faced. We went bowling, rode a rollercoaster, played Frisbee, and just hung out with family and friends. We spent more time laughing than we did talking seriously.
Together we bridged the gap between producer and consumer.
Writing an idea
In the particular case of my book Where am I Wearing?, living the idea was as difficult and as important as writing about it. Still, tackling weighty and controversial issues such as globalization, outsourcing, labor rights, and child labor was more than a little daunting at times. I think that when people hear about the book they often think I’ll be standing on my soapbox preaching at them for 272 pages. But I didn’t want to write a book like that.
So, like my travels, I focused on the workers. Each day I sat at my desk, flipped on my digital picture frame with photos of Arifa, Nari, Ai, Mr. Li, Zhu Chun, and all of the rest, and wrote their stories. In an effort to make sense of our world, our economy, and to answer the question at the heart of my book – “Where Am I Wearing?” – I took my perspective as a consumer and melded it with theirs as a producer. The result is a story that is every bit theirs as it is mine.
What started as a random excuse to travel inspired by a 70′s pop icon on my T-shirt, became so much more.