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George Smith was sleeping in his bedroom earlier this month when his son’s friend, hanging out upstairs in the early-morning hours, shook him awake and told him the rear bedroom was on fire. As he was ushered through the upstairs hallway, the 81-year-old Smith could feel the heat and see the thin smoke spreading through the second floor. Smith didn’t hesitate until he’d turned the corner and started down the stairs. Then he remembered the cash sitting on his dresser and considered turning back.
“I thought about it, but it was too hot,” Smith recalls. “If I did, I would’ve had to go out the window.”
It wasn’t until he and the apartment’s four other occupants made it out of the burning duplex when Smith thought of something worth infinitely more than the cash: his wardrobe. Upstairs, a clothing collection worthy of Superflyvalued at about $100,000 and accumulated over the course of a half-centurywas about to be ruined.
“I started thinking about it [once I was outside], but I didn’t know it would be that bad,” says Smith.
Engine 27 arrived within minutes and snuffed out the fire before it could move beyond the corner bedroom. But before they could break windows and ventilate the place, the heat and smoke that briefly pervaded the second floor stiffened Smith’s leathers, caked his furs, and infused every trapping in the open air with intractable soot. Out of about 40 suits, 75 pairs of shoes, 15 leather coats, and a handful of furs, all that survived was a portion of the footwear, thanks to a sealed Rubbermaid bin that saved, among others, a prized pair of ostrich-skin shoes.
A few days after the fire, Smith summoned a dry cleaner willing to do house calls. After examining each piece of clothing, the man delivered Smith the dreaded diagnosis: “He said he couldn’t save none of them,” says Smith. “He said, ‘You can’t get that soot out.’”
Buried in the heap of soiled clothes upstairs are Smith’s silk shirts, leather vests, purple suits, and a favorite black fur, purchased decades ago in Las Vegas for $1,200. One fur coat, never worn, still has a Marshall’s tag on it. “Look at this stuff,” says nephew Tony Hollis, eyeing a rack’s worth of exotic furs, draped over the stairway railing, wilted with soot. “I mean, the man is a player.”
Smith always had an eye for style, even when he was young. But he didn’t start stockpiling duds until he returned from the war in Korea in 1953, after serving 32 months and nine days in a prisoner-of-war camp. When he came back to the States, he moved into his current house on Sheriff Road NE, gave away most of the suits he’d acquired up to that point, and started seeking out rare fur coatssuch as red bearand flashy bootssuch as snakeskin, alligator skin, and lizard skin. He made a career out of the Army, regularly devoting a nice chunk of his government paycheck to his sartorial indulgence.
“I accumulated them and took care of them,” says Smith. “A lot of those suits I wouldn’t wear for two years. Just special occasions. I had stuff for the summer, stuff for autumn, stuff for all seasons. You gotta have coats for all seasons. You don’t wear no fur coat in the summertime.”
Smith cherished the clothes enough to give them their own room. He converted the bedroom adjacent to his own into a walk-in closet, hanging his jackets, coats, and suits on a bar running from one end of the room to the other. He eventually added a couch and television to the room, sitting with his beloved wardrobe to watch football games in his personal closet-cum-lounge. He was also prudent enough to insure the clothes, dutifully plunking down a premium each month for the past 35 years. “They’ll be here [to collect the next monthly payment],” says Smith. “I’m gonna sit him down there and have a little talk.”
Now staying with a friend, Smith was told it will be three to four months before he can move back into his home. Once the house is in order, he says, he’ll start rebuilding the wardrobe. “I guess I’ll start buyin’ ’em again,” he says. “I ain’t never bought nothing cheap.” CP