Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Dressed for Success?

The strangest thing has been happening to me for the last ten years. I will be in a Home Depot looking for a saw, and a total stranger will approach me and ask where the light bulbs are. When I say "I don't know," he looks at me disgustedly and walks away. At the supermarket, I'm supposed to know where the pimentos are. A couple of months ago, I was on my way to Dallas and stopped at a popular convenience store along the interstate. I was getting a cup of coffee from the self-serve machine when a girl about twelve years old approached me and said, "We're out of cups," and pointed to the soft drink machine. My look of puzzlement is probably what caused her to clarify herself: "I need you to get some more."

I looked around and all I saw were coffee cups. I pointed to the checkout counter, five deep in customers, and suggested she ask the clerk there. She turned back and addressed her mom, about six feet away, "He won't help me!"

I used to think I must just have the "store employee" look. Some people say I constantly exude an air of self-confidence and poise, which is really a good act, because I seldom feel that way inside. For ten years I have accepted this as my cross to bear, that I look like a store manager, no matter where I am. It is only recently that I've figured out why I look like a middle-aged chain store manager.

My epiphany came that day in the convenience store when I heard the angry mother say, "Well, let's find someone who will help us." She took her daughter by the hand, staring darts through me all the time. Her flip flops snapped angrily against her heels, and all I saw was Mom from the back, pink shorts and white tank top not quite covering the star tatoo that peeked out between them. I looked around the store and realized that I was the only one that was "dressed up."

Don't get me wrong. I once went four whole years without wearing a tie. I don't usually have a coat and tie, nor nice slacks. The only reason my shoes are not from WalMart is because they don't carry large half-sizes, but I don't like to use three days' salary on shoes. I was not dressed like an executive. My problem was that I had on long pants, a nice button-type long-sleeved shirt that was tucked into those pants, and shoes with socks. If someone had been looking for a potential executive in the store, I came the closest.

It's not "dressing up" that makes you obvious; when you don't "dress down," you stick out like a sore thumb. Long pants and a button shirt will get someone asking you where you keep the mayonnaise every time. It wasn't too long ago that everyone dressed up. Watch the black and white TV shows, and you find out that, evidently, in the fifties and earlier, even the bad guys -- the ones that murdered and stole and kidnapped -- didn't go out in the morning without their hair combed, a nice sport jacket with matching tie, and a hat to set the mood.

When I first started to fly on commercial airlines, it appeared that people took time to dress up for the trip. I haven't flown in years now, but I realize that now, people don't bother to dress up to fly. Just a pair of warmups, or some shorts, sandals, and a worn-out witty saying t-shirt is all you need to get from Dallas to Chicago. I have also learned that people don't really see the need of a bath before flying, either.

At one point, people dressed up to go out to eat. Maybe putting a nice jacket and tie on your eight-year-old son was a little much. I'll concede that. But now, that's not a problem. Many times my wife and I have looked forward to eating at a nice restaurant, and dressed for the occasion, only to later have the table next to us occupied by a couple who obviously just got off the tennis courts. Maybe I have a weak stomach, but a man's pasty white hairy leg does nothing for the KC sirloin that just got set in front of me. And he's set back from his table, leaning backwards, tennis shoe propped on the knee so I can see the whole show.

We have a problem with customer service anyway. Not many people can find a locally owned store where the proprietor is someone you went to high school with, who takes pride in his store. Now the boss is usually upstairs on the phone with China while short term minimum wage kids walk the floors below. They don't know what size handle fits that particular hammer. Then here you come, probably dressed better than the guy upstairs talking to China, and you are swarmed by people hungry for customer service.

Most Americans fear someone who dresses up. My wife, who enjoys dresses, has been asked before why she thinks she has to wear them all the time. It seems they make some people "nervous." I was once at a function where the host was appalled that I had worn jeans, which I felt were casual enough. He had on shorts, and thought I was deranged because I didn't. "Why didn't you wear shorts?" he asked. I wanted to tell them that it was because it had been a long time since I had been six, but I know times have changed. Before our little group set out on our jaunt, he excused himself for a moment, and returned with a pair of shorts for me. I smilingly pointed to my larger waist and the nice shoes I had, and said "I'll survive."

People feel threatened when you "dress up." Churches seem ashamed of "Sunday go to meeting" clothes now, and some will even make you check your tie at the door; after all, we don't want to "run people off." It seems the only time we dress up now is when we are high school kids in academic competition, or adults who have to face the judge on a felony charge.

Is it any wonder it's hard for my wife and daughter to find dresses? After all, no one buys them now. We are a generation who has forgotten the basic rules of body cover. When it's 25 degrees outside and I see a grown man at subway in shorts, sandals, and a "US Drinking Team" t-shirt, I know something has snapped somewhere.

As long as I can find my wardrobe, I will continue to wear the clothes I like. It's who I am. Some day, I may have to go to Salvation Army or Goodwill to find them, but that's not too much of a problem. However, I really need to go back to the grocery store and memorize the aisles so I can tell the tattooed lady what aisle the toilet paper is on.

But it's a small price to pay.

No comments: