Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Stella Artois and the old mink coat

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In the grand scheme of things within our country, people are marching....FOR OUR LIVES. The current presidency, gun control and women’s rights remain intensely at the top of national concerns. For me, a non-activist, living in my smaller scheme of things, I continue managing the Vermilion Park Inn, assisting with husband Bill’s recovery from rotator cuff surgery, and at the Timberjay, learning our new InDesign software. I keep challenged, that’s for sure. This is me, just where I am at with it all....but I’ve been in a bit of a dilemma that may seem trivial and a waste of concern to many. It started like this:

A few weeks ago, I was sitting at a bar in Ely having a Stella Artois-Cidre. Bill and his brother, Dave, were playing a few games of pool in the same bar, when a friend came in and joined me. It was good to see her. She sat next to me and we caught up on this and that, while she dipped into the pull-tab gambling boxes behind the bar. None of the other players were pulling out any winners, yet most, including her; kept gambling. I’m sure they were thinking, “When I’m in this deep I have to try to recoup at least some of my loss!” Another handful of losing tickets hit the garbage when my friend reminded me she’d promised to give me her vintage mink coat, back around the holidays. Geez, I’d forgotten about it in all honesty, but being reminded, I admit, the concept piqued my curiosity. It’s not an item I have ever considered purchasing for myself. Fur coats, in my mind, are something frivolous that wealthy folk wear, or are for people who live in cold climates and use the entire animal for food and warmth. I recalled my mother referring to fur coats as “car coats.” It wasn’t until the fifties and sixties that cars started to get decent heaters, so people wore the warmest coats they could find. This seemed a more valid reason to have a fur coat, but my car has heat, so wearing a fur coat wouldn’t be necessary. Well, at any rate....back to the dilemma. After a few more rounds of bad luck with pull tabs, my friend left to get more gambling money, at her apartment nearby. 

I knew she’d returned when I heard a loud, “Here ya go, for YOU!” as she thrust a mink coat onto my lap. My eyes widened and I sat back thinking, “This is very generous!” She told me she’d gotten it from a friend but wasn’t wearing it any longer and that I looked like a fur-coat-wearer and should have it.

It was old, probably from the forties or fifties. It originally belonged to a woman who was the owner of a flower shop in a North Shore town. In fact, upon inspection, the original owner’s bold initials remained intact, machine- embroidered on the inside of the right lower panel. I got up and walked to the bathroom to try on the coat in privacy. FLASH...in memory I saw my Great-Aunt Adele, “Udd”, standing in her fur. She was from Chicago, was short, wore high heels, hats and had fur coats. Udd looked at home in fur; I did not. The coat had some tears, mainly up on the collar, along with a few worn edges. It had clearly seen better days, (which would have been on the living animals’ backs decades ago). I stood there in the bar restroom looking at my reflection and tweaked out a wry smile. Having learned about fur, years ago as a seamstress, I recognized the construction of this coat. It was a less expensive version, made from sewing together smaller scraps of many larger skins. 

I stopped looking at myself in the mirror, forty pounds heavier in the puff and fluff, and returned to sit at the bar, with the bottle of Stella, my friend and other dismayed pull tabbers down the bar and my newly-acquired pile of deceased...worn-out minks in my lap. Soon Bill was done playing pool so we exchanged thank yous, goodbyes, then left to head back to Soudan. 

When something odd and unexpected comes into my life as a gift, it sometimes feels burdensome. The next day I thought …. “Do I really want this?” It represents such controversy with PETA; will people yell at me for wearing it? The following day I went online and watched PETA videos of caged minks at filthy farms. I felt awful about those animals and about the fashion-fur industry. 

I put the coat on a hanger in my closet for a couple weeks and did some exploring on wearing vintage fur. I came across one path of reasoning that I could relate to. Rachel Poliquin, the author of “The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing,” says...”As soon as you get into talking about animals, and the appropriate ways we use animals, it’s just such a never-ending pit of questions. Unless you live your life without using any animal products, and you don’t wear leather shoes or a leather belt, and you don’t eat meat, you’re always a hypocrite, and there is no gray. I think a lot of people like to live in the gray zone.”

“Right on, Rachel!” say I. I DO live in the gray zone; I’m surprised I dye my hair red....because I am SO gray in how I live my life! I eat chickens that come from big poultry farms. I have used leather my entire life and am aware not all leather comes from the meat industry. Plenty of leather is brought to the U.S. from other countries where they don’t even consume beef. So, I decided that because the animals are already dead, decades dead, I would at least clean the coat and wear it respectfully. I hold the lives of animals in a place of importance just because they are alive, not because they are pretty or not pretty. So, on we go.

Last week, I was in Duluth for Bill’s rotator cuff surgery. He went down the hall to be repaired and I went to the fur store to talk to them about repairing and cleaning the coat. The owner was very knowledgeable and courteous to me. He told me the coat was in fragile condition, particularly the collar area. He and an experienced Polish seamstress studied the coat in the back room and concluded it would probably not hold up to cleaning, much mending, or lining replacement. The skins had become brittle and were tearing very easily. The sleeves and lower half of the coat however were in much better condition and could be salvaged. I considered the situation and decided to use those portions and repurpose them into a wide scarf with black lining. 

While my vintage coat had been under review in the back room, I had wandered around looking at the beautiful animal fur...now made into coats. I flipped over the tags revealing the type of fur the coats were made of and the high prices too. From my reading, I was aware that a new fur coat can use as many as 55 minks, 100 chinchillas, or 125 ermines. A pretty staggering thought, indeed. 

Well, I didn’t become an activist in the fur store that day. I didn’t protest. I am, simply put,... a hypocrite...just a chicken-eating, vintage-fur wearing, cowhide-shoe trodding thing.

So, calmly, this creature headed out the door of the fur store, knowing I’d be back to pick up the repurposed garment and scraps, and that would be it...the end of my involvement with acquiring any fur. I drove back to the hospital, feeling I had done right by the old coat. It would be repurposed and taken care of from that point on. It was time to greet Bill and get on with helping him recover from surgery.

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