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My Dad, the Shopper: A Father's Day Tribute to T.J. Maxx's Greatest Customer

My dad loved baseball, tennis, professional wrestling, and finding deals for his teenage daughters.

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No question about it, the highlight of my childhood was going to WrestleMania. At the age of four, I was perhaps too young to be in the audience at Madison Square Garden surrounded by thousands of die-hard WWF fans. At least that was the viewpoint of my very sensible mom. Nice little girls could probably do without witnessing Randy "the Macho Man" Savage savagely clothesline a contender.

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Dad disagreed, though. And so we drove from Poughkeepsie, N.Y. to be there for the spectacle. Boy, was I glad we did.

Over the years, my father's also the one who introduced me to Mr. Miyagi and his crane kick and to Rocky Balboa's determined meat-punching. In real life, Dad taught me one-hand forehands, demonstrated layups, and scrutinized the landings on my flyaways off of the uneven bars.

For his daughters, Dad reveled in and excelled at finding choice apparel.

Dad was, after all, the consummate athlete. Growing up on the rough and tumble streets of Brooklyn—before it was the Brooklyn of hipsters and trendy farm-to-table eateries—baseball was his sport and the Dodgers were his team. As a young man, he watched enough Björn Borg and Jimmy Connors to emulate their ground strokes and teach himself tennis, which he later taught to my mom while courting her.

But Paul Jeffrey Levitz also had a softer side. Unknown to anyone other than my sister, brother, mom, and me, he was an extraordinarily savvy shopper, a man with a well-tuned fashion-buying habit.

Not when it came to his own clothes, mind you. Dad's idea of an outfit was a thrown-together polo/shorts/tennis shoes combo. His sole sandals purchase was a bartered pair of Tevas from an obscure Israeli market. And, in a judgment slip that will forever make me shudder, my parents once bought identical fluorescent yellow puffy jackets and wore them at the same time.

For his daughters, though, Dad reveled in and excelled at finding choice apparel. Regularly, he made the rounds at Marshalls or T.J. Maxx, scouring the Juniors and Misses sections, even hiding particularly choice leather purses in different parts of the store so that no one else could snatch them up before he could show them to us.

When I went off to the University of Georgia and returned for breaks between semesters, I'd be greeted by a dozen pairs of shoes in my size, filling the area between the kitchen and dining room like a catered spread. Puma sneakers. Chinese Laundry stilettos. American Eagle wedges. "Pick one or two," Dad would say. And with that I could skip a trip to the shoe store.

I'd be greeted by a dozen pairs of shoes in my size, filling the area between the kitchen and dining room like a catered spread.

It's an unexpected dichotomy that I never truly appreciated while Dad was around. Now I'm beginning to think of his shopping side as something beyond "Dad just being Dad" and as an amazing part of what made him the guy who couldn't be put in a box—or, like Baby, in a corner.

This month marks six years since his passing after a hard-fought battle with cancer. Dad's death fell achingly close to Father's Day, which means that the Sunday of buying ties, has, for my family, come to be a Sunday of reflection. Of glancing at photos from my brother's American University graduation, the last time the five of us were together. Of visits to the cemetery in the Bay Area where he's buried. Of silently asking ourselves what part of Dad lives on in us.

More and more lately, it's also prompting me to make a pilgrimage into my closet for clothing items left behind.

There's the basic cotton red tank dress with a scoop neck that's been a signature look my past ten summers. Dad found the dress on while browsing one evening. I can't remember if he took a chance and put it on his credit card or if, as he sometimes did, he first called up to brag about identifying the dress amongst the online cutter. But I do remember the price: $17.99.

There's a pair of ocean blue board shorts from the period when I obsessively craved beachwear bottoms, perhaps to prove my credibility as a new Californian.

And there's the pink bomber jacket that Dad did not care for, probably because of the girly hue. When I spotted the jacket on a T.J. Maxx clearance rack, he quickly made his opinion. "I'm not getting that for you, D. If you want it, you can buy it." And I did. Besides a hole in the right shoulder, the jacket's held up. Each time I put it on, I chuckle, thinking about our stupid tiff over a coat that, for once, I found, not him.

Dad's death fell achingly close to Father's Day, which means that the Sunday of buying ties, has, for my family, come to be a Sunday of reflection.

Seeing these items and wearing them always brings back a closeness with my father that I can only really replicate by being on the tennis court swinging a racquet, trying to figure out what corrections he'd level if he was across the net.

In my closet, folded up on a shelf, there are also the clothing items Dad owned that I now have in my possession and can't bear to get rid of. The cheesiest of "World's Greatest Dad" tees, because, like Jerry's father on "Seinfeld" my father sure wore dad-themed shirts enthusiastically. A top almost entirely covered by an image of Bo Jackson because Dad, like the footballer, had had hip replacement surgery and assumed that they'd be best buddies if they ever met. And the striped Nautica polo that I purchased at Macy's as a Father's Day gift and which he actually wore. I remember being relieved that another shirt would make it into the far-from-diverse rotation that was Dad's wardrobe.

So what possesses a guy's guy, without much fashion care for himself, to be such a dedicated shopper?

I think it was about the hunt. Dad liked a challenge. And, as someone who grew up in poverty and had to work relentlessly for what he earned, he also appreciated a good bargain. That's why his stores of choice weren't J. Crew, Tommy Hilfiger, or Calvin Klein. His mission was to find brands like these, yet at a fraction of the price. It didn't matter if he had to scour every aisle to do it. Success would be his.

The quest didn't just stop at the cash register, though. I'm convinced that equally joyful for him was the presenting of the clothes—when one of us would arrive at home and he'd proudly hoist a belt or skirt in the air to show off his find or lay it out on his bed like a thrilled stylist.

At that point it wasn't just clothing. It was effort expended to demonstrate love. Just as taking me to Wrestlemania had been so many years before.


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