Clothes make the man. The other man, that is.
The clothes I wear on any given day do seem to determine how I am treated. Clearly this says more about those people than it does about me. Though part of it is that I am an inbetweener, a late 20s person with a lot of different uniforms in the closet.
When I wear a suit on a university campus, the students move out of my way, call me “ma’am,” and mostly lower the volume of their conversations. Other older adults and folks in suits or button-ups tend to make eye contact. On my commute to and from campus, on public transportation, I stand out too. It’s only around Monroe Center, that downtown blip of government and banking, that people seem to expect to see me. The lunch hour professionals don’t go so far as a nod or smile, certainly not a greeting, but there’s a sense our missions probably match as well as our strides. The panhandlers are formal and give elaborate buildups and justifications to asking for help.
When I wear a cardigan and scarf around the same university campus, students drop the ma’am, but they still apologize if we pass too close to each other. They say, “I’m sorry,” instead of “excuse me.” I don’t attract much attention on the buses, except when I flashed my university card which says I don’t have to pay the fare. Around the city I don’t attract much attention unless I’m in a good skirt to show my legs.
If I add a backpack and tennis shoes to my sweater outfit, and if the scarf isn’t too fancy, then I disappear into any crowd of students. No one is excusing or saving me space. I’m just another one of them. I only stand out again once I go past the usual areas people are used to seeing backpacks.
If my jeans are a dusty blue color, the kind that could be either a fashion statement or a sign of contact with dirt, I start to disappear in a different way. When I put on my basic grey beanie cap, that’s when eye contact drops significantly. Some of the more snappily dressed students project disapproval. So do the businesspeople, who seem to suddenly notice alternate implications for how I’m out in the middle of a work day. Or perhaps I’m projecting that. It’s possible all of this is projection. Still, people coming out of their cars or houses won’t look at me. They may not say hello if I do. I’m less likely to be asked by anyone for money.
I start to disappear in a different way, then. People seem ashamed to see me, whether ashamed for my apparent state of conditions or for their refusal to acknowledge or act against it.
I have yet to be cat-called by men in this particular outfit, which perhaps I should take as a small fringe benefit.
I was passing Degage Ministries on my walk home today, in the dusty-looking pants, a backpack that actually is dusty from picnic and park use this summer, and the dull beanie. There was a group gathered around the door, on their way out after getting an evening meal. “Excuse me,” I said, as I passed between a few of them.
“Were you in there?” a man asked me, pointing.
“Hmm? No, not today,” I said.
He seemed to be puzzling me out. Given the choice, a lot of downtown walkers avoid Division Avenue in general and the social services blocks of it in particular. In double particular, they (we) avoid large groups of people who might call out to them.
“You work here?” he asked.
“No,” I said. I could have said I’d volunteered there before, but I decided to be intentionally vague to see what he’d say next. It also felt important to resist the urge to label myself as a volunteer, the person who gives rather than one who receives. I could have been eating at the ministry. I need help in lots of ways, and if one of them was not having food at my apartment right now, I would have been eating at the ministry.
“Okay, what’s your name?” he asked.
“Katie,” I told him and reached out to shake his hand. “Yours?”
“John,” he said.
“Nice to meet you, John,” I said. I smiled and started walking away.
“Hi, Katie!” he called out.
I turned back to look. I felt the flash of thought he might ask me for money then, and I started thinking whether I had cash and if I’d give it to him. I considered the group of others around me. It’s always disappointing to me when someone I’d been chatting with on the street drops the small talk for “the ask.” Which I suppose is part of my privilege, that I can have interactions with passerby without always needing to think in cash terms.
Meanwhile, John finished his request. “Make sure you say hi the next time you see me,” he said.
I grinned. That was something I was glad to do. “Sure thing!” I said.
I’ve had at least one other person make the same request, which started me thinking then and reminds me now that one of the most important social services is social connection. We need cash, food, shelter. Some of us feel we need drugs or alcohol or some other escape. We all need people to care about us. The other man who asked me to say hello the next time I saw him was named Joe. He was a kind and thoughtful person throughout our conversation. I haven’t seen him again, and I don’t know if I’ll see John.
But I’ll look.
I’d rather be greeted by name than any of these other reactions, to any of the cloth armor I was wearing for all my interactions with our big, strange public.