Friday, October 4, 2013

If I say something will he kill me?

    If you walk down the streets of Chicago long enough, you'll see just about everything. 
    In all my years commuting to the newspaper—26 and counting—I've never, as I did Wednesday morning, found myself behind a man wearing his shirt inside out. 
     This is something new, I said to myself, standing behind him at the light, waiting to cross Madison. 
    A brown polo pullover with yellow and white stripes—not the best look when worn properly. To me, they're the kind of shirts I wore when I was 7. A child's shirt. It's jarring to see grown men go to work in them.  I briefly considered saying something. "Hey pal," or words to that effect, "do you know you have your shirt on inside out?" 
     But he was a big strapping guy, with a healthy gut hanging over his belt. As I imagined saying those words, as I formed them in my mind, trying them out, my next image was him turning with a snarl and plunging a steak knife into my chest. Or screaming in some thick Eastern European tongue as his hands close around my throat. That kind of thing happens. Mind your own business, I told myself, hurrying up Wacker, crossing at Washington. 
     I thought about other things. But at Franklin, he was back, coming north. We had taken different routes, but were now converging, intersecting, and I had the chance to say something again. Could this, I wondered, be a style? No, it had to be some sign of disturbance, some person in the grip of a mania, who just put their clothes on in a disordered fashion. Do not enter into his world. Flee.
     He crossed Franklin, and now we both were going north, paralleling each other. I tracked him out of the corner of my eye; he walked with a certain bearish, rolling gait. And suddenly I felt like a coward. This man needed an outside opinion. This man needed my help.
    I crossed the street in the center of the block, hurried to catch up, fell into step beside him. Approaching Lake, as we passed under some scaffolding, I made my move.
    "Excuse me," I said.
     "Yes?" he said, brightly, pleasantly. "Can I help you?"
     "I was wondering if you knew that..."
     "Yes, my shirt," he laughed—his voice regular, friendly, not the guttural bellow I had anticipated. "I put it on backward. I'm going to change it as soon as I get to the office. Thank you though." He smiled.    
     "Well, that happens," I said, trying to be comforting. "I once spent the day wearing a kilt backwards, with the pleats in the front. Nobody told me." 
    "I noticed some odd looks at the train station," he said. "I thought maybe I just looked extra handsome today..."
     "I'm lucky to have my wife give me the once over before I leave."
     "I live alone," he said.
      And we exchanged a few more words, until we got to Wacker again (for you readers in Indonesia, Wacker Drive curves through downtown, in a gentle right angle, so you can travel in a straight line and still cross it twice. It has North, South, East and West addresses, which can be confusing to newcomers). I bid him farewell, and he bid me farewell, and I walked north puzzling: Why are we so afraid of each other? Why are we so reluctant to talk to strangers? Why do we assume the worst, the very worst, about those we don't know? Most people are not fiends. Most people are nice. So why the excess of caution? Is it just me? No, that seems to be the common practice. I spend two hours commuting most days, and people are loath to look at each other. I could show up at the train station wearing a Carmen Miranda fruit hat and the people I see every day would edge away but not say a word.  A little wariness is necessary in a city like Chicago. But too much, and you live in your own personal desert, a lonely island in a sea of humanity. No need for that. No need to cringe in your little protective bubble, alone. He was a nice guy who happened to put his shirt on the wrong way.  If I hadn't had talked to him, I never would have known. 


  1. Almost every time I ride my bike at night, I encounter a driver without his or her lights on. 90% of the time, I yell "Hey, lights" and gesture, and they turn on their lights and wave or yell "Thanks!" Just trying to make the streets safer and save the driver an unnecessary ticket. (Also sometimes with people driving with their hazard lights on, who don't realize it, and that's a ticket too.0 The other 10% of the time, though, I am told to Fuck Off in no uncertain terms, or ignored. That might be the Car v. Cyclist thang, but I also think some people don't want to be told they're doing something wrong. The real revealing thing here is that you thought about how he would react by a judgment about his size/look. If he were a little nerdy guy, would you have told him right off?

  2. That's a good question? I think the defining impulse was not to get involved, and size just a pretext.

  3. Neil, I spent a whole day at the County Court building recently with my shirt on inside out... riding the elevators, sitting in front of a courtroom, and not one person told me I had my shirt on inside out. I felt *betrayed*! I would tell someone, and I wish someone had told me. "Girl Code" demands it. (My excuse: I have blackout shades in my bedroom and didn't turn on the light while I was getting dressed. Now I do the double-check before leaving the house..)

  4. I react in a similar fashion -- thinking long and hard about giving advice -- as it is just as painful when you offer up help and are taken to task for doing so. Recently a neighbor -- new to our town -- was complaining about the city work on the main drag cost her a few extra minutes getting to the train. I tried to point out that the city has an eMail newsletter, website and a FB page where all of this information is made available to residents. I was accused of being arrogant and condescending; then was later "unfriended" on FB -- all for offering neighborly advice.

  5. Last week, I spent an entire day with my pants on inside-out...and backwards. I felt uncomfortable all day, and I couldn't figure out why!!!

  6. I think it's a guy thing. Years ago, when you could still bolt through Midway a la OJ to catch your plane, I was making just that dash for a flight to St. Louis for a BIG meeting at a major corporation. The flight attendants literally closed the jetway door behind me, took my ticket and off we went. An hour later I was standing at the Hertz counter when a woman walks up behind me and proceeds to button the 10 buttons down the back of my dress, saying, "those fools in line behind you would have let you walk into your meeting half naked." I was just a slip of a girl at the time and could have died of embarrassment. I've never forgotten that act of kindness and have repaid it many times.

  7. That's a nice story, as are those of the commenters, but does your pleasant outcome really counter the 1 in a million chance of "him turning with a snarl and plunging a steak knife into my chest," as you so eloquently put it? I'm sorry to be the wet blanket on this thread. I'm a friendly guy -- happy to help out a stranger if the situation calls for it. And, you're right, most people one finds oneself surrounded by are swell. But my experience in the big city is that, if somebody wants to talk to you out of the blue -- on the train, sidewalk, wherever -- chances are pretty good that you're not really going to want to talk to them. I don't know why, but people who start talking to strangers, as a broad generalization, and in my anecdotal experience, are a non-random sample of humanity that skews toward the weird.

  8. @Jakash -- You are correct, though I'm one of those people who talk to strangers and, yes, I guess I skew toward the weird. It's my job.

  9. Gimme the weird. AKA the interesting.

  10. Whether or not I would say something to someone with a wardrobe issue would depend on whether or not the person would be in a situation to correct the problem. In the situation you described, with the guy's shirt being inside out, I would probably decide not to say something, since there is nowhere on the train for him to fix it. (What's he going to do, take his shirt off on the El? Why cause him to be self-conscious the entire train ride if there is nothing he can do to fix it?) But if it was in an environment where the person could fix the problem, such as in an office or near a public restroom, then I'd say something.


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