At least that's my belief. I did not, I admit crunch the numbers to see if it rains more on Blues Fest than other days in mid-June. That's doesn't seem worth doing. Besides, few people confronted with facts contrary to their beliefs change those beliefs—easier to ignore discordant facts and keep plowing forward—and I might as well be one of them, at least in this regard. As this column shows, I've held my Blues Fest=Rain conviction for a long, long time. It also shows how, unlike beliefs, fashions change. I almost never wear a suit today. What would be the purpose? Though I still have that tailor-made blue silk suit that I bought in Thailand, though I' know better than to try it on.
I'm writing this on casual Friday, which means that instead of wearing a coat and tie, I'm wearing jeans and a golf shirt. I don't know if that frees me up to soar the empyrean heights; we'll see.
Frankly, I prefer wearing a suit. First off, there are more pockets. Like many men, I carry a lot of stuff. There is a wallet and keys, pens, sunglasses, my security card, a pocketknife, a handkerchief. It gets quite bulky stuffed into jean pockets -- a suit jacket has room for all that gear, plus whatever newspaper clippings, bar matches and folded letters I pick up through the day.
There also is a certain feeling of readiness you get from wearing a suit. This is a job where literally anything can happen, and if you're dressed down, well, it can be one of those memories that causes you to flinch for the rest of your life.
Two incidents come to mind. One was on a Saturday night. I was working the late shift -- 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. Typically, if I'd be sent out, I'd be sent to a fire. So I wore jeans and a T-shirt. No fire that night. But I did get sent to the Palmer House, I believe, for a black-tie dinner for the Israeli prime minister, attended by the brass of the newspaper. Not a good moment.
Even worse was a black-tie AIDS benefit. The men there really knew how to don a tuxedo. I went to this benefit, again at the last minute, wearing jeans and a ragged linen short-sleeved shirt that had begun to fall apart. I was literally hiding behind plants, scooting up to men dressed like the cast of a Noel Coward play. I would apologize profusely, get a quote while trying to scrunch myself up into a little ball, then hurry back behind a chair to hide until I worked my courage up to sally out again and grab another quote.
A suit is so much easier. Lots of men grumbled when the word was put out, a few years back, that reporters at the newspaper were expected to dress properly. That was a shock to people used to dressing as they pleased -- I had once come to work in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt.
But I didn't grumble; I felt liberated. The beauty of suits is that you don't have to think. Just make sure you aren't wearing the same one you wore yesterday, find a tie that doesn't clash terribly, and you're on your way.
Perhaps because I don't deal with software companies, I have never gotten into trouble with the suit. Yes, I got a few long looks hanging around the dock at Montrose Harbor, chatting with boaters in tank tops and cutoffs. And there was that terrible Blues Fest.
As you may know, it always rains at Blues Fest. Always. They might as well call it Rain Fest. I drew the short straw one evening, and went over there just as a monsoon of biblical proportions was lashing Grant Park. I happened to be wearing a blue pinstriped suit, tailor-made for me, and black wing tips -- the best outfit I owned.
Of course I stayed under cover, by the bandshell. Until I noticed, way out in the grass, one lone person -- this goof, sitting all by himself, holding a garbage bag over his head, listening to the music in the driving rain.
I at first tried to ignore him, tried to pretend that I didn't have to do what I had to do. But duty called. I'll never forget the slow slog through that mudfield, the shiny wing tips sinking into the mire, the rain matting the blue silk against my body.
I got to the man and flipped open my notebook, the rain instantly soaking the paper, the ink running down the page.
"I see you're enjoying yourself here at the Blues Fest," I said.
"Oh yes," he said. "I'm a big blues fan."
—Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, Aug. 18, 1998