Look, during the week, on the clock, with the eyes of the print publishing world glaring at my choice in belt buckle, I don’t mind wearing the monkey suit and doing the little dance to confound enough people into thinking I’m some sort of well-groomed, tucked-in member of society. Personally, I think choice of clothing has about as much to do with my ability to report and write a good story as what I ate for lunch. I probably actually do better reporting when I’m in jeans and sneakers because I feel more comfortable, less constrained and better able to relate to the average citizen. But I understand there are certain concessions necessary when traipsing through the prickly brier patch of the professional world, and I’ve come to deal with this through a secretly subversive combination of thrift store pants and hand-me-down collared shirts. I’ll get even more gussied up for big events — congressional visits, major galas, and so forth. I wore a tux in college to an event featuring Bill Cosby.
But when I’m not on the clock, that’s my time. And I will look as much like a harassed strain on society as I damn well please. It’s the least I can do after paying penance to the anachronistic practice of tucking in a shirt for five days a week (OK, four days. Cas Fri to the rescue).
This, however, proves quite troublesome on Hilton Head Island, a town about as big as my high school gym class where I can barely go to the trash chute in my apartment building without running into someone I know. I try to lay low and can usually pass off as one of the anonymous waiters, caddies or check in clerks who make up the majority of the young people population here. If people ask me for more ranch dressing, I know I’m in the clear.
Sometimes, however, it is impossible to remain unmasked. Last Saturday, for instance, walking up the pharmacy counter at Walgreens, me looking entirely unpresentable in the cargo shorts that have become stiff with fatigue from the strain of their unrelenting tour of service without leave time this summer, topped with my red Miss Teen USA 1980 paegent thrift store shirt, my hair erupting in its traditional Saturday morning revolt without the application of shower water or product, my eyes probably still glazed with residue of the last beer Friday night. As I got to the counter, I caught the middle of the conversation between the clerk and an oldster: “…well, there’s just so many (Mylastname)s in the world, you never know…”
He thanked her and walked away. Then I tell her I’m picking up prescriptions, and my name is also Mylastname, and she laughs at the odd coincidence. The oldster turns on his heel, aroused with sudden curiosity. His name was Ted Mylastname, which I remembered because he was from Massachusetts and had that chowda-filled Ted Kennedy accent. “Hey, are you Chris Mylastname?”
Who the feck is Chris Mylastname? I’ll crush him.
No, I told him, providing my full name. Ted’s eyes grew wide, recognizing the name from the bylines in the newspaper.
“Oh ho!” he said. “I read your stories all the time! People always ask me if we’re related!”
Why then, I thought, did he first ask me if I was Chris Mylastname? Probably, I figured, because he discounted this clearly hungover derelict as some inconsequential beach bum who only got out of bed long enough to pick up a morning after pill for the hooker he picked up last night, now lying in a passed-out mess on his air mattress back at home. Oh but you were wrong, Ted. I even wear a tie some days.
Later that same day, I’m at the thrift store, buying what I must say was a rather nice blue-button down shirt that at one time probably fetched a decent price tag on a store rack somewhere. It looked nearly brand new, and cost me a pricey $3. The woman who rang me up took notice. “Wow, this is a nice shirt. Are you going to wear it with a suit?”
No, just a shirt for work, I told her. “Oh, where do you work?” I always wince when this quesiton comes up, as it does often on Hilton Head, because people ask it here to affix you to some part of the familiar geography of the island. It’s like asking what dorm you live in in college. Often people get the answer of a particular restaurant or store, and they can relate to shopping or eating there once, offer to say hi next time they’re in there, etc. When you tell people you work for the newspaper, they start treating you differently. I told one of my roommate’s friends a few years back that I worked there and his response was, “Like, delivering the papers?” When I met one of Andy’s dad’s friends last summer, she told was in shock at recognizing my name. “I thought you were an old man!” she said, though not unkindly.
I braced myself and told the clerk the truth, then she probed as to what I cover, what my name was, and so forth. Since I’ve worked here for 45 years now, she had seen my name around, read my stories, all that. I ducked out of the conversation before it turned to specific town topics. But I can’t help picturing that she went home, saw her husband reading the paper and said, “Honey, I met that Mylastname reporter today. Did you know is a homeless person? He has to buy his shirts in the thrift store and everything. I’m surprised they even let him into official buildings, he looked like one of those bohemians I heard about on Fox News.”
Then her husband would huff, crumble the paper up and toss it into the fireplace (they keep their fire running in the summer, because it’s powered by gas, and they want to help reduce the nation’s exorbitant oil surplus) and exclaim: “Well, that’s the last time we read that rag! I thought there were still standards in this country! Bohemians … next thing you’ll be telling me that he has long hair. Quite absurd, quite.”
It’s interactions like this, and the high likelihood of running into sources around every corner, that keep me on my toes. It’s why I know not to get stupid wasted at a bar if there’s a source lurking about, to chose carefully who to cut off in traffic out of fear that it will one day be the mayor, and why I tucked the copy of “Dreams from My Father” I was buying at Barnes and Noble the other day into my newspaper when I saw one of the angry, liberal-media accusing, military haircut old Republicans headed my way (He said, “Hi,” by the way, also not unkindly).
The worst of these situations came my first year here, at the St. Patrick’s Day parade, easily the most enjoyable and community building free event on the island all year. My condition was respectable, but I was with my roommate John, whose job as a waiter did not give him the same public considerations I had. He was 10 miles beyond wasted, had a dripping plastic beer yard hanging from his neck, and was wearing a set of beads with plastic marijuana leaves hanging from it. “I really hope I don’t run into any sources,” I thought, taking a sip from my beer. Then I turned around in the bar parking lot we were standing in and saw THE ENTIRE TOWN COUNCIL and our statehouse representative lining up in their convertibles before entering the parade route.
Figures, I thought. I had come in disguise with sunglasses and sweatshirt, and pulled my cap down over my face.
Then, two years later at the same parade, I got drunk on the side of the route and screamed at the town manager to throw me some freaking candy as he passed by. He did. My shirt was not tucked in at the time. I mean, there’s only so much pretending one person can do.
Bonus: Listen to MGMT’s “Time to Pretend” It’s in a movie trailer so it’s probably going to be annoyingly popular soon. But they get it.