Everybody was doing California: Levi's, Gold Rush―the real happy fuckin' scenario. I'm from Philadelphia and everybody's pretty nasty and gritty. Two hours from me is the anthracite capital of the world, Scranton P-A. I felt like, as far as workwear, you can't get any dirtier and grittier and nastier than coal mining, which is kind of the flip side of the whole Western cowboy image. Super down and dark.
Left Field NYC has several brand marks:
How can all these different marks represent the same brand? What's the core identity that holds them together? To find out, I went to Left Field headquarters in Ridgewood, Queens and talked to the man behind the label, Christian McCann.
"They were kind of like the first coal union. They used to send threat letters to coal mines, and beat up pit bosses and stuff like that. Anybody who did some stupid shit, they would take care of business."
Christian is telling me about the Molly Maguires, a 19th century secret society of Irish immigrants in Pennsylvania. The Maguires were coal miners, and they advocated for themselves and their colleagues with the subtlety of a shillelagh to the back of the skull. (In addition to physical assault, the Maguires were also masters of psychological intimidation. Their "coffin notices" make the Mafia's dead fish look like a bunch of posies.) As Christian talks, we slowly move from table to table at the Left Field shop. He frequently breaks away from the Maguires tale to describe the coal-mining artifacts on display:
It's easy to imagine Christian as a tousle-haired kid in the back seat of his parent's car, leaving the Golden Nugget Antique Flea Market in Jersey, reporting on everything that caught his eye that day. As a child, Christian didn't recognize mining antiques as capusles of his Pennsylvania and Irish heritage, "but," he says, "I was aware of the beauty of stuff like this."
Christian still goes to the Golden Nugget (just last weekend he went with Johnny, the native Bostonian who has become the face of Left Field). But these days Christian is well aware of the cultural significance of his growing collection. The blasting powder and chunks of anthracite aren't here solely for ambience, or to entice shoppers to spend. (It would be a mistake to compliment Christian McCann on his "decorations.") Christian talks about coal-inventory slips with the same passion that he describes a rare fabric for an upcoming Left Field release, as if the old equipment and new products are part of the same story.
In time we get back to the Molly Maguires.
The Maguires were bad for capitalism. When Franklin B. Gowen, president of the Reading Railroad, had enough of the upstart Irishmen, he turned to the Pinkerton detective agency, whose operatives, history tells us, were unscrupulous union-busters par excellence. "They sent in an Irishman to infiltrate the Molly Maguires," Christian says. That Irishman was James McParlan, who went by the alias James McKenna during the two-and-a-half years he lived undercover in coal camps. When McParlan ultimately testified against the Maguires in what Christian accurately terms "a bullshit trial," 20 men ended up hanging. Ten of the convicted died on June 21, 1877, known as Black Thursday (or the Day of Rope, depending on your source). One of the men, Alexander Campbell, proclaimed his innocence in an episode that has become part of Pennsylvania lore. As Christian tells it: "You can still see his handprint. He said, 'I'm gonna put my handprint here to show I'm innocent'―on the wall of the jail right before they hung the guys." Campbell's handprint does indeed remain visible to this day, available for public scutiny at the Old Jail Museum in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania.
Our stroll around the shop comes to a temporary halt. Christian looks around the place, taking stock. "So," he says after a few moments, "there's kind of an interesting story that goes with the whole coal mine thing."
In addition to the illuminating beam of Headlight Overalls, Christian found creative energy in one of the darkest, most macabre aspects of mining lore. The Black Maria was a black cart, often pulled by a black mule. It carried the bodies of workers who died inside the mines. "All the kids and women would come running out to see whose father or brother was dead," Christian says. "They would take the body and leave it on the front porch. If it was the husband or bread winner, a lot of times they were already in debt to the coal mines so, (the surviving family members) became indentured servants." Afterwards, according to Christian, the survivors were evicted from their company home and forced to squat in the camp's seedier quarters while working off their newly imposed debt.
Years ago when Christian wanted to design all-black jeans, the relentless gloom of the Black Maria served as his muse. "At the time there was no one doing black (warp) / black (weft) jeans," he says. "I can't stand it when black jeans have white fill. To me it looks cheesy as fuck. We wanted to do a black / black, and we blacked out the labels, and we blacked out the buttons except for the tack."
As if the concept behind Black Maria jeans isn't heavy enough, consider that the fabric is sulfur-dyed. Sulfur, as in brimstone, as in the Lake of Fire. When I got my Black Marias in the mail, I opened the package and immediately got hit with a memory of my older brother doing burn-outs in his Chevelle. In an age of gimmick scratch-and-sniff jeans, Black Maria sulfur is a gnarly, and welcome, throwback to wild ones and rebels.
Inside each pair of Black Marias, an Easter egg of sorts:
Unlike James Dean, Salvador Dalí, and everyone else Gap pimped in the '90s, the Molly Maguires did not wear khakis. When Christian decided to introduce his own version of chinos, he went away from the coal-mining theme, in favor of what he describes as "the casual outdoorsy, L.L. Bean vibe." As he explains, "I wanted to create something different from the denim because the denim had its own I.D. It kind of makes more sense: Guys wearing chinos would be like more sportswear guys, fishing and hunting."
Don't be fooled by the tranquil scene illustrated on the flasher for Left Field NYC chinos. There's a tag above the back right pocket with a simple, sharp message.
In the beginning, there was a baseball diamond. Then, a Winnebago. ("Anything shitty, white-trash Americana," Christian explains. "I did a whole collection based on that.") Then came chenille varsity letters, and in time, the outlaw skull. "I like to have little capsules of things, "Christian says. "I feel like for everything to have the same image, it's kind of boring. I like each thing to have its own feel." The feel for the skull came from an old biker magazine, during a time when Left Field was doing t-shirts with logos inspired by Latino car clubs and gangs from the 1970s.
Since then, the skull has become the mark of Left Field NYC as a whole. Contrasted with the coal miners and outdoorsman, the skull transcends denim or chinos while still delivering Christian's East Coast edge.
The shop displays at Left Field HQ aren't limited to coal-mining artifacts. There is a graffiti mural, vintage pinball games, a working jukebox from 1954 (the first year jukes had stereo), a Norton motorcycle, and artifacts from Coney Island, including a Steeplechase Park ride ticket from the 1940s.
"On the backside of this are different numbers for the different rides, so you can get them clipped," Christian says. He tells me that the namesake Steeplechase ride consisted of wooden horses that guests would straddle and ride across an undulating track, without restraints and body parts exposed. "It was super dangerous and shit," he tells me. Christian also talks about the notorious parachute jump, where equipment often got tangled and "people pissed themselves all the time."
The ride ticket includes an image of the "Funny Face" character, whose disproportionate, leering grin and plastered hair calls to mind the Tod Browning movie Freaks. Funny Face became a symbol for Coney Island and the associated thrill of cosying up to a date on a Steeplechase horse, the terror of freefall, and the overall exhiliration of a few hours of adolescent freedom on the boardwalk. Looking over the keepsakes and souvenirs from Steeplechase Park, Christian says, "You've never going to get this kind of classic Americana shit." That has been especially true since 1966, when Fred Trump bulldozed Steeplechase Park before the site could receive landmark status.
I don't remember which specific piece of Coney Island memorabilia Christian was talking about at the time (most likely a photograph), but at one point he said, "These are all carny punks." I didn't catch it at the time, but "carny punks" has stuck in my mind ever since I listened to the audio file of our interview. Whoever they were, I imagine that these carny punks probably grew up working-class on the East Coast. As such, they would be able to spot fakery a mile away. They would scorn middle-class pretense and distrust all authority. They would be outlaws, but have their own honor code for dealing with the public and supporting each other. They would have their own culture, and travel between it and mainstream society like ghosts through walls. And I imagine that if presented with the option, they would prefer the look and feel of Left Field garments over other so-called "heritage" brands.
That wouldn't be by accident.