There are many people from my past who don’t have a solid recollection of what the top of my head looked like. To these people, I probably forever exist in their memory with a backwards ball cap. It was the Nineties, I was allowed. I have owned several baseball-style hats in my life. I still have a Syracuse hat with a very angry looking Otto the Orange on it. Somewhere in my closet is a hat with a squirrel that has boxing gloves on it. I thought it was clever, but it wasn’t and it didn’t fit well. My Columbus Blue Jackets hat was sacrificed to the ice the night Cam Atkinson got a hat trick. I think I can see it in all of its faded and sweat-stained glory in the case in Nationwide Arena where they keep all of them. It is just a recent (within this century) development for me to own hats with sports teams on them. Before that, it was a couple of Kangol knock-offs (and one actual Kangol newsboy cap), but before that it was band hats.
This started in the summer between my sophomore years in high school. I had fully embraced the grunge persona. I owned a large amount of plaid flannel shirts that were worn open oven band tees. I had a collection of jeans with frayed holes in the knees. When they finally wore out, they became cut-off shorts (nothing above the knee, still). I lobbied hard and won to buy Airwalk sneakers instead of Nike or Reebok. I was still in the early contemplation phase of adopting a wallet chain. I was determined to grow my hair out and look like Kurt Cobain or Eddie Vedder or Trent Reznor. For the record, it is far too full and brown to look like Kurt Cobain, it is far too curly to look like Trent Reznor. I settled for Eddie Vedder.
One part of the uniform that I didn’t have was the backwards-facing ball cap. Everyone had them in the Nineties. Metalheads and stoners had them, usually in solid colors like black or slightly-darker black, with an occasional navy blue or hunter green thrown in. Jocks had them. These either advertised their favorite professional or collegiate sports team, or the college they dreamed of playing for, or there was a large number of them that were worn because they were cleverly offensive. Never did the Gamecocks of the University of South Carolina have so many fans as when some hat company decided to simply print “COCKS” in big block letters on a white hat. There were also a lot of fans of the University of Massachusetts, due to the same company printing “UMASS” on the hats and the ingenuity of their “fans” for removing or covering the M. This was most typically paired with a “Co-Ed Naked…” or “Big Johnson” shirt to really up the class. The grunge kids wanted none of that. They wanted to advertise their love of a certain band “that you probably haven’t heard of” on a backwards hat. I was such a kid.
And so it was that I found myself in a record store on the boardwalk in Ocean City buying both a Primus and a Green Day ball cap. The Primus one was my favorite for a long time. It was a simply black hat with the band name emblazoned in red letters in the style that they used on their albums, specifically Pork Soda and Sailing the Seas of Cheese. It was made of lighter, less rigid material, so it collapsed nicely without looking like it was crinkled into a pocket. It fit a little closer to the head, not like a trucker cap. It wore well, too. It didn’t fray or break down as badly as some of them. I had that hat for a long time, and I don’t think I ever washed it even once, not even after I had a Hostess King Dong thrown at me at high velocity (still in the packaging) and it exploded across the side of my hat and my face. That hat bore the creamy scars of that incident until it died. I did repair the “one-size-fits-all” plastic band on several occasions. The Green Day hat was a little different. It was also black, with the band name stylized in green similar to the font on the album Kerplunk, which I had also bought that day. It was a little puffier and stiffer, not as forgiving of being sat on or worn as the Primus hat. I only wore it occasionally, mostly when my other hats were in dire need of repair. I stopped wearing it when I caught some of the popular freshmen girls singing Basket Case on the school bus and talking about how dreamy Billy Joe was. I realized that Green Day wasn’t going to be for me for long, and so the hat was abandoned and eventually donated to the Salvation Army Store. Someone was probably really thrilled to get it. And I am perfectly comfortable that in that moment I was that shallow about music.
The third hat I bought that summer is the one that, to probably quite a few people, I still exist within their zeitgeist. I was at Media Play a couple of weeks after I got back from Ocean City, and I found a Nine Inch Nails hat. It was a simply black hat, with the boxed “NIИ” logo on it in white. It wasn’t as flexible or comfortable as my Primus hat, but it was better than the Green Day hat. It is my longest lasting and most memorable of the three hats. I still have it, or at least what remains of it, in a “memory box” (for those unfamiliar with this idea, it is essentially a box of junk you can’t bear to part with due to sentimental attachment, like a scrapbook without the book or the decoupage) somewhere in my closet.
Like the Primus hat before it, it has never seen the inside of a washing machine, and the only time it encountered water was when precipitation fell from the sky or from sweat. The plastic “one-size-fits-all” band was reattached to it four or five times by me with needle and black thread, doing the worst sewing job ever seen. Eventually, the little plastic nubs on that band had worn down to the point where it had to be repaired to stay together. This was accomplished at first with electrical tape, until the first time I sweat in it and ended up with a black line on my forehead, like I had a lazy priest on Ash Wednesday. My second solution was staples, which just made it look like a cat had become started while laying on my head. Luckily, my efforts to grow my hair out necessitated me going up to the next pegs on the band, so I didn’t try any more failed corrections to reinforce it.
That hat and I were one for a long time. I remember on several occasions, when I was done with a final exam long before they would let me out of the room, I would sit and write the lyrics to Nine Inch Nails songs on the inside of the brim. After my English final junior year, I was able to write all of the lyrics to Happiness in Slavery on it before they would let me turn in my test and leave.
In my senior year in high school, my church youth group and I joined a bunch of the area youth groups and went to New York City in three chartered buses. Since I was one of the tallest kids, and since I of course had my hat, all of the other kids were instructed by the chaperones to “find the Nine Inch Nails hat if you get lost.” I give full respect to the chaperones from my Catholic church for knowing who Nine Inch Nails even was, let alone being able to identify their logo.
The hat and I became synonymous. It was used to identify me. It was used as leverage against me. More than one person attempted to steal it from me in order to flirt or get a reaction or out of petty revenge for a comment I said that they didn’t like.
Both it and the Primus hat followed me to college, where they remained important parts of my identity. I was wearing the Nine Inch Nails hat the first time I met Heather. It added to the overall “wtf” reaction I first received from her. By then I had adopted the wallet chain and the requisite “shit kicker” boots to go with the overall look.
Heather eventually learned to love the hat, not because she loved Nine Inch Nails (though she eventually did, more on that later), but I think mostly due to an association with me. In many ways, I wasn’t me if I didn’t have my Nine Inch Nails hat. That’s probably why she stole it out of my room when she came back to college after a weekend and found my ex-girlfriend sleeping in my bed. I was sleeping on the bottom bunk, my roommate Jeremy’s bed. The hat was sitting on the couch. It didn’t matter that nothing had happened between me and my ex-girlfriend that weekend (seriously, nothing happened. I’m not trying to make myself look good in this narrative, I wanted nothing to do with my ex at that point, but she needed a place to crash and I’m actually kind of a nice guy), it mattered what it looked like. I don’t blame Heather for her vindictive action, though I was pretty confused initially (Heather came into the room, saw the scene, took the hat and left without a word or a note) and pissed when I finally knew what had happened. My Primus hat had finally given up the ghost by that point, so I had to go hat-less for a whole week. To me, it felt like someone being told “you can’t have blue eyes for the week” or “for this whole week, don’t have freckles.” It was a piece of my identity that was just gone, and I had nothing to replace it with. I scoured the room for that hat. When Heather presented it to me a few days later, I was too pissed for words. I softened quite a bit after she told me the why, and she softened a bit when I told her the truth of the scene she walked in on. I softened quite a bit more when I saw the “portait” she did of my hat, immortalizing it in pencil forever. The picture is still in my stairwell.
The hat did not officially retire until almost the turn of the century. I wore it less and less over time, and eventually it just became a bedpost decoration, and then it was retired to the memory box (in a small, private ceremony attended by family and close friends). It defined my image for so, long though. It wasn’t just that I wore it so often that people naturally associated me as “the tall guy in the Nine Inch Nils hat,” it was that I intentionally wanted to be the “guy in the Nine Inch Nails hat.” Very rarely do the person we want to be seen as and the person we are seen as collide, but on some small things, like a hat, sometimes they do. And if you can get that foot in the door, maybe those other parts of you that you want people to see and identify you by can be propagated out to the world as well. I started with a hat.