Today, I am going to tell you about a character known simply as “Mr. Underwear”
First, I’ll have to give you a little background.
For the first half of 1986, my dad was granted sabbatical from his job as a professor at a community college, and he opted to spent it in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
So three days before Christmas in 1985 when I was ten years old, my family and I pulled up stakes, left our house, car and our cat in the care of long-term house sitters, flew out of Newark Airport to arrive in Belfast on Christmas Eve via London/Heathrow.
We stayed in the house of my widowed maternal grandmother: all five of us plus her, to total six.
By North Belfast standards, the house was on the large end of average. It was not, by any stretch of imagination, “large”, not by Belfast standards, and absolutely not by US standards. It was simply a little larger than the average. It was a typical “terrace house” that you often see in both UK and Irish industrial cities. They were build as a unit perhaps half a block long, and then subdivided into row houses. Each house had a facade and entrance. Most, my grandmother’s house included, were built at the turn of the 19th/20th century.
Most had a small front yard, often simply a decorative garden, and a walled back yard with an entrance to an alley in the back: called an entryway. Because they were walled on four sides, the back yards were usually dark, grey, devoid of any plant life. It was where you kept your coal if you used it, hung your laundry (most houses there didn’t have dryers in 1986) and took your garbage out the back door into the entryway. The kitchen usually not only opened into this little yard, but also the windows of the kitchen looked out into the yard; not that there was usually too much of a view; usually just the masonry walls of the yard and whatever you put out there. Moreover, the entryways themselves were somewhat dark, and Belfast weather was often cloudy, especially in the winter.
So the five of us squeezed into my grandmother’s terrace house on the Shore Road in Belfast. Upstairs, it had three bedrooms. My brother, sister and I slept in the large front master bedroom: My brother and I on a bunk bed, my sister on a twin bed across the room. My parents slept in the smallish middle bedroom. My poor grandmother had given up her nice master bedroom, complete with large window that overlooked the Shore Road and a view of Seaview Hill for my brother, sister and I. She took the rear bedroom: a small dark room, smaller than the average prison cell, with one window that overlooked the dark, masonry alleyway behind the row of terrace houses. The room was also freezing cold and drafty. In retrospect, by rights I always guiltily feel we should have figured out a way to keep my grandmother in her nice, bright master bedroom, but that’s a whole other thing.
So anyway, upstairs: you had the three bedrooms and a bathroom. Downstairs, you had the front parlor, the living room and the kitchen. The only rooms that got any serious light were the parlor and the master bedroom.
Here’s where we lived: We were in the center house with the peaked roof. You can mouse around to get a look at the neighborhood. You can even mouse your way into the alley behind the houses and imagine how dark it would get in a cloudy day in winter!
So we got there, and after a somewhat jetlagged Christmas, where we reunited with different relatives from my mother’s side of the family, I began to explore my new surroundings. I was somewhat limited in where I could go, not only because it was an unfamiliar city and I was ten, but also because in 1986, Belfast was a somewhat volatile place; some areas were downright unsafe. I wasn’t thrilled about the restrictions, in that I had always been what you would call today a “free range kid”.
At home, If I was not in school, and the weather was remotely acceptable, I was expected to be outside, or doing something independently, as long as I was home for meal times, before dark, and not doing anything dangerous or illegal, at least not that my parents would find out about.
I was not happy to be cooped up in my grandmother’s smallish, dark, cold drafty house with all six of us in close proximity. I did not like being limited to a few blocks around the house and only with an escort. I knew the restrictions would lessen as I got acclimated, but I was getting stir-crazy and bored. It also didn’t help that by about 3:45 PM it was totally dark, as is typical in Belfast in December/January.
One of the traditions I was introduced to was “Sunday Dinner”. People in Ireland, both the north and the south are very social, and family usually stayed close by. Sunday dinner, the extended family would get together for dinner. It usually involved ham and potatoes and other items, but that is not a hard and fast rule. Usually it was very early in the evening, sometimes even late afternoon. Remember, in winter, it got dark early.
The Sunday after Christmas was my first Sunday Dinner at my grandmother’s house. In addition to my grandmother and us, also joining us were my aunt and uncle who had not yet had children (married just a couple of years), and my other aunt and uncle who had four children: all girls. Two of them were identical twins, only three years old (Emma and Sarah). One was my age: my cousin Kirstin (Kirstie) and one was a couple of years older: my cousin Claire. That’s a total of……(one, two three…..) FOURTEEN people shoehorned in my grandmother’s terrace house. Not much elbow room.
By the time Sunday Dinner was concluded, it was already pitch black outside. At some point, I ventured upstairs. At the top of the stairs, on the landing was a window. The window offered a view into the back yard of the house next door. It also offered a view right into the kitchen window.
The lights were on in the kitchen, and I reflexively looked into the window. Standing at the counter was a very fat man, wearing nothing but a pair of brightly patterned boxer shorts. I nosily watched him for awhile, just to see what he was doing. Not only was I bored, but I hadn’t yet met any of my neighbors. He was at the counter, busily making himself a large sandwich out of the leftovers of HIS Sunday dinner. It looked like he also had ham.
My cousin Kirstie had just emerged from the living room and I motioned her up the stairs:
“Hey Kirstie! Look at this!”
She came up the stairs, stood at the window and observed for a few seconds, before the pair of us exploded into a fit of laughter. In the meantime, Claire had also emerged from the living room, so we motioned her up the stairs, where she looked out the window, and we had another laugh. My sister was in the bathroom, so eventually, I banged on the door.
“Hey Elaine! Hurry up. I wanna show you something!”
Eventually she emerged from the bathroom, annoyed.
I led her to the window, and once she got a look, started guffawing as well.
So at this point all four of us are gathered around the window, laughing, cackling and watching this man make an enormous sandwich, one that would put Dagwood to shame. Wearing nothing but a pair of boxer shorts that would stop traffic. And completely oblivious to us.
Eventually my grandmother started walking up the stairs, and it took her a second to catch wind of what we were doing. She reached in and yanked the curtain closed.
“Stop it!” she snapped, “That’s not polite”
Which made us laugh harder.
The problem was it WAS funny. It was funny the rest of the evening, and kept us laughing.
“I wonder who he is?” My sister wondered
“I know his name!” I said
“What is it?” one of my cousins asked
“Mr. Underwear!” I crowed, dissolving into another fit of laughter along with my cousins.
The next day, as I was granted a little more freedom, I walked out the front door towards the gate. I glanced to over the railing into Mr. Underwear’s front yard, just to see what it looked like. It was a nice, neat little yard: a mosaic of flagstones, a border of well kept flowers, and a neatly painted front gate. I don’t know what I was expecting. Perhaps large pairs of underwear hanging on plant stakes or something.
That evening, I surreptitiously looked down into the kitchen window to see if Mr Underwear was, again, making the huge sandwich in his underwear. The kitchen windows were dark, although I did see the flicker of the TV emanating from the kitty corner living room window, but nothing else. I wondered if he watched TV in his crazy underwear. It was an amusing thought, but not as funny as laughing with my cousins around the window.
The next day, as I headed out to explore my neighborhood some more, Mr. Underwear’s door clicked open, and out came the man himself. He was well dressed, in an overcoat, with a tie and carrying a briefcase. He greeted me pleasantly in his Belfast accent, and turned left towards the bus stop to wait for the downtown bus. I wondered if he was wearing his crazy underwear, or if that was just a Sunday thing.
I didn’t go to church, but the next Sunday, I saw Mr Underwear emerge in his best suit to go to the Presbyterian Church directly across the street. Despite being very heavy, he took a lot of pride in his appearance, as well as his front yard. His tie was knotted perfectly and his suit fit him like a glove. Again, he greeted me pleasantly, and headed off to church.
I pictured the minister, glowering down from his pulpit: “THOU SHALT NOT WEAR CRAZY UNDERWEAR TO CHURCH!!!” I pictured our neighbor blushing and slinking down in his hard, unupholstered, Presbyterian pew. I pictured him singing solemn hymns, and the thought of that coupled with the crazy underwear cracked me up.
That evening, before Sunday Dinner, I reported to my cousins that Mr. Underwear went to the church across the road.
“I bet he wore his crazy underwear to church!” one of my cousins offered.
“That’s gotta be a sin!” I said, not knowing what the Scriptures might have said on the matter.
“Maybe he has special Church Underwear…” my sister speculated.
After dinner, we gathered at the window, to see if Mr. Underwear would appear. We were not disappointed. It was literally a replay of the Sunday before, complete with boxers and sandwich. We had a good laugh, but it wasn’t as funny as the first time. We also had the risk of our grandmother materializing out of the ether (something she was very good at, just like her eldest daughter: my mom) to chide us for being nosy and impolite. We had gotten much comedic mileage from the ridiculous scenarios we concocted around this man, but the joke was running its course and was now close to spent.
While I’m sure that, if we positioned ourselves at the window every Sunday evening we surely would get the same show, after two consecutive weeks, there was no more to the joke. Surely we would chuckle about it every now and then, but the fit of hysterical laughter it sent us into that first Sunday was a one time thing.
I didn’t learn his real name until well into my stay, and it was something very ordinary and forgettable. In this culture, even neighbors addressed each other as Mr. and Mrs. I would see him occasionally, most often in his suit with his briefcase with a newspaper tucked under his arm. He always greeted me pleasantly, he was always very well dressed and very respectable. My grandmother thought highly of him as well, and respectability was very important to her.
I believe he lived alone, but he had a sister who would visit him with two younger boys who attended the prep school for the Belfast Royal Academy; I would occasionally see them in their school uniforms.
And he never learned about the nosy little bastards next door.