Derby Jacket by Tony Robles

Derby Jacket

By Tony Robles 


What’s that I see on the thrift store rack? Is it a Derby jacket? I was never a slave to fashion. I was a slave, became a slave, but my attire was of little concern to me. I was always uncomfortable in nice clothes. Nice clothes were uncomfortable, ill-fitting in feel even if they fit me perfectly. I recall my father taking me to a department store to buy clothes for school. He chose the clothes. Any input from me as to the contents of my haberdashery were dashed with my father’s imposed fashion sense which consisted of shirts and slacks appropriate for a middle-aged man. It was a fashion sense that made little sense. I didn’t care about fashion but I didn’t want to walk around looking like a middle-aged man before my time. I was given a large bag of clothing that I didn’t want to wear. The fitting room experience was bleak with fluorescent lights, a narrow mirror and me in my underwear--narrow ass and all--with every birthmark, crevice and area lacking muscle development amplified with the unsaid message: Put some damn clothes on.



I had a cousin who was older and had the sense to have fashion sense. Members Only jackets were becoming popular and it seemed everyone was wearing them. I went to the department store with him (Coincidentally, the same department store my father dragged me to to procure middle aged man clothing). The Members Only jackets cost 30 dollars which to me, a recent high school graduate with no job, seemed like a lot of money. Those Members Only jackets came in several colors: black, tan, gray, brown and blue. My cousin took much time trying the jackets on, striking stoic, serious and carefree poses. Somehow he looked rather dapper under the fluorescent lights. He finally decided on black while I looked at my reflection in the mirror--face showing the arrival of a mustache and the departure of pimples. All of this happened before someone introduced me to Henry David Thoreau who posed the following: It is an interesting question how far men would retain their relative rank if they were divested of their clothes.



Which brings me to the subject of the sacred Derby Jacket. The Derby Jacket was a Members Only of sorts. It seemed like everyone wore one in my school in San Francisco. Kids from other schools wore them too. It was an identifier of sorts. It identified you as being from San Francisco. Most of the kids I saw wearing them were Chinese. I thought they were some sort of Chinese jacket but, in reality, kids of every color wore them. It was as if the jacket were a multicultural badge and you became a member of a San Francisco, or Frisco bloodline when that jacket hit your skin: black, Chinese, Filipino, Irish, Italian, Samoan--or combinations thereof--all combined in a nondescript, rather plain looking jacket. I pestered my father to buy me one, “Dad, can I have a Derby Jacket?” He looked at me and said, “A dirty jacket...what the hell you want with a dirty jacket? You better think about wearing a clean jacket. How you expect to get a girlfriend if you wearing a dirty jacket?” From that moment onward, I associated the jacket as one that Chinese kids wore and, since I wasn’t Chinese, I didn’t bother pestering my father about that dirty...Derby Jacket again.



Some of the Chinese kids were bad. They played Four Square and punched the red rubber ball with fists and open palm strikes that seemed like a school yard kung fu movie. I, of course, attempted the same Four Square moves but ended up punching and slapping at air and,

occasionally, my own face in a red rubber ball slapstick routine not worthy of a Derby Jacket fart in the Richmond District winds.


One day I was playing in the school yard; a game of basketball that I wasn't completely inept at. I remember being good at free throws. I’d be at the free throw line letting them go: swish. I hit those shots consistently because they were free; nobody defending me with their stupid lanky arms flailing with stupid hands attached, impeding me shot. One day I was on a roll, sinking 10 straight free throws when a stray ball bounced towards me hitting me in the ass, ruining my streak.

“Hey slave!” a voice rang out. “Get the ball!”


Walking towards me were 2 older Chinese boys--Stevie Yip and Johnny Yap. Stevie and Johnny went to Junior High School, making sporadic appearances. Stevie’s face had a permanent sneer, a twist at the lips suggesting he had chewed on lemon rinds. He was tall, taller than my dad while Johnny was short--my height--with a bowl haircut and lips twisted in a half smile/half frown that suggested he’d chewed on lemon rinds dipped in sugar. Stevie Yip and Johnny Yap--also known as Yip and Yap--the schoolyard deadly duo nipping at one’s heels.


“Get the ball, slave” said Yip.

I looked at him. He had on a black Derby Jacket. He had thick pinkish lips covering a set of freckled teeth. I looked at his Derby Jacket. It was a Derby Jacket and it was dirty. Maybe my father was right about the dirty jacket. Yip coughed up a was of spit and let it fly towards Yap.

“Hey, watch it!” cried Yap, annoyed.

Yip looked at Yap, then at me.

“Hey, you got trouble hearing?” said Yip. “Get the ball...slave!”

I stood frozen. I couldn’t thaw out. The Derby jacket moved closer.

“You know who I am?” Yip asked, moving within inches of me.

“Uh, yeah” I answered. “You’re Yap and he’s…”

A hand thrust into my chest, knocking me backwards.

“I’m Yip...he’s Yap! Get it right...slave!”

The other kids in the schoolyard went about playing ball, oblivious to my predicament. The San Francisco fog seemed to ease by with an aloofness in its slow drag towards the Golden Gate Bridge.

“I don’t think he’s listening” said Yap.

They both proceeded to push me across the yard, taking turns. When Yip pushed, he roared Yip! When Yap pushed, he roared Yap! It was a sort of Ying and Yang nightmare but luckily for me both of their names were one syllable each making it easy to remember. They pushed me from one end of the schoolyard to the other until I came to the basketball at my feet.

“Get the ball...slave...said Yip.

I bent down to the concrete with the flattened pieces of gum. I picked up the ball and threw it over their heads.

Yip and Yap looked at me,shocked.

“Go get the ball…” I said, not believing it myself.


I look at the Derby Jacket that I have found in a thrift store. This thrift store is 3000 miles away from San Francisco. How did it get here? I have found it, or perhaps, it has found me. I take the

Blue Derby Jacket off the rack. Hey, don’t I know you? It seems to ask as I hold it up to the fluorescent light. I slip into it. It is in good condition. I look into the mirror. A voice says, that jacket is you, man. I strike a few poses. The years pass by in my reflection. It is more than a jacket. I stick my hands into its pockets. There is a hold. I make fists, holding on to memories that are mine. I hold on tight. That jacket is me. But still, I’m no slave to fashion.


(c) 2020 Tony Robles


  • OakTown Vinny

    I was raised in East Oakland in the 80’s and I when I entered Junior High in 87’ anybody who was anybody had a Derby Jacket! Back then they (my grandmother wouldn’t get me one) would wear them with their turf on the back and in 89’ they would put “415” on the back, back when Oakland’s area code was still 415 and the group 415 was popping the most. Fun times for sure but also dangerous because wearing your turf on the back of your jacket was a neon sign alerting your enemies of where you were from. I recently bought two jackets and I may throw a “510” on the back to rep where I’m from and bring back those memories!

  • Oscar

    Remember the mid 1970’s when I was still in High School. I have relatives that lived in San Francisco and Pacifica Daly City and Half Moon Bay. Grew up with all of them through parties and get togethers. All of them were on my father’s side of the family. Majority of them relatives lived in Visitation Valley of San Francisco. A few in the Excelsior and McLaren Park neighborhoods. Derby Jackets, White T Shirt paired with single or double creased Levi 501 blue jeans or Ben Davis or Dickies work pants. And Converse High Top Canvas sneakers. Wore Derby Jackets always the brown color until I enlisted in the USMC in the late 1970’s. They were the ‘go to outerwear’ for any and all occasions.

  • Oscar

    Derby Jacket

  • Shalom Jak

    Thatz a great story,stories like that from ppl that grew up in SF keep the memories alive. My boyfriend James Natividad grew up in the Outer Richmond Dist,I believe he or his nephew knows your family. We are friends w/a few ppl & their families in 2 of your pix,Jimmy Ford & Eric Souza. I’m originally from La. but have lived most of my life in the City & lucky enough to have known ppl that grew up there. All their stories made me feel a part of SF like I grew up there. Yall should make a coffee table book w/stories of different ppl from different hoods in the City. L&R

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