Living

The Uniform

When I was eight years old, I wanted to be a superhero. I wouldn’t shut up about it. I drew plans for my Fortress of Solitude, which was going to be located on the back of our property, behind the pine trees. I sketched what my costume would look like. I wrote out various permutations of my superhero name – CatMan, Cat man, Cat Man – like a lovesick teenager writing her potential married name over and over in the back of her notebook. I spent time at the library figuring out from what material I would make the claws my costume required.

At 12, I had put away such childish things and now wanted to be a ninja. My friends and I would practice moves we read about in Black Belt magazine, read books by Stephen K. Hayes we bought from the big bookstore in Memphis and tossed throwing stars we bought by mail order from the back of magazines against the side of the barn. Sometimes, they even stuck in the wood siding, but not often. We would debate what sort of ninja suit we would eventually have and the merits of polyester (cheaper, lighter) vs. natural fibers (breathable, not shiny).

By age 18, I had joined the US Marines. I had been heavily recruited by the Navy, but in the end, chose the Marines. The Marine recruiter had me pegged.

“You can be a sailor,” he said, “and have a good career and then move on. Or you can be a Marine and know for the rest of your life that you were once among the best in the world at something.”

My people were not the best in the world at anything. The day I turned 18, I signed the papers. At Camp Lejune, after boot camp, I spent most of my paycheck on a KaBar combat knife, which rode upside down on my left ALICE strap for the rest of my time in the Marines, and which is currently in the drawer of my desk, 32 years later as I write these words. I wore jungle boots instead of the Hershey bar colored speed-lace boots we were issued in those days, and we haunted the army-navy stores for heavy, woodland camouflage utilities rather than the modern, lightweight utilities the noobs wore.

The Marines were a nice place to visit, but I didn’t want to live there, so when I was recruited to be in financial sales, I leaped at the chance. At night I read arcane books on tax law and selling techniques, and during the day, I would have lunch meetings and call on prospects and wore nice ties and watches. I learned which outlet stores had the good clothes at high discounts, and paid attention to the mannequins in the shop windows to learn what outfits worked. I had a Brooks Brothers suit I still miss 20 years later.

Doing street-level homeless work meant dressing down – way down. I famously had a blue blazer and one shirt and tie for when I had to go to court or to wear if I got invited to speak to Episcopalians – but nearly every day of my life was spent in blue jeans and a solid, no-logo t-shirt. That was strategic – in that logos brought attention, and my main job in doing that work was to take the focus off of me. And it’s mostly what the folks I worked and ministered among wore, and they were cheap, and soon, I became the man in gray.

But when I began to do the work I do now – broadly speaking, political work among faith communities – the grey t-shirts and baggy jeans no longer worked. What had been the simple clothes designed to put a day laborer at ease did not have that effect on Bishops and City Council members. So I now wear blazers and khaki pants day to day, and have the charcoal suit to break out for special occasions. The red and blue club tie is for when I need to blend in at the courthouse, and the solid red tie is for when I need to stand out.

The other day I told someone I don’t care about clothes at all, but the more I think about it, the more it’s obvious that isn’t quite true. And I still want to be a superhero. It’s just that these days, the uniform is a little different.

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