Monday, June 05, 2006

The Redneck Mystique #4

The other night, I pined for a bowling shirt I had given away to a girl back in my 20s. I've bowled maybe three times in my whole life, and I stopped pining for that girl a year or so after things fizzled out. The shirt was a beauty -- light tan, with a black outline on the back of a well-groomed, 50s-style bowler, in classic bowling pose, next to a huge ball striking pins in every direction. It had black sleeves, and on the left breast, rodeo-style, the name "Gus" was written.

At that time, I was swimming in the shirt -- now, it would probably fit! But in one of those misguided "little head thinking for big head" moments, I made the shirt a present to her after she went nuts over it. But it got me to thinking about that odd appeal these kind of shirts have to younger white guys: the work-shirt mystique.

You can file this under one of those "you know you're a redneck if ..." situations, but generally speaking, you know you're a redneck if you're wearing a company's work shirt at a bar, and that's your real name on the left breast, and that's the company you work for emblazoned on the right. Most hipsters don't work in places requiring one to wear an official uniform. (Nevertheless, they'll create one for themselves, revolving around bed-head hair, clunky-framed glasses, ironic t-shirts and such.) And most guys reach a certain age, usually late 20s/early 30s, when they realize the unfortunate truth: that when people see you wearing one of these work-shirts with a name and company name on it, they assume that's who you are and where you work.

I could easily pass for an air-conditioner repairman. Or Fedex guy. Or beer-truck driver. Give me a bad mustache, and I could be an off-duty cop or fireman. I guess I should take this as a compliment -- it means I look a little older, a little more sober, more dependable. Because some stick-thin, mopey 22-year-old with a goofy hair cut wearing the same shirt would clearly be going for ironic intent.

But I'm trying to figure what ironic statement is being made. I used to wear work shirts like that, too, but stopped with the hazy recognition that people didn't know I was being ironic. Sort of like how I always get stopped in stores if I wear a white shirt and a tie, because people think I work there. (The people who stop me have zero people skills, but are desperate. They should note that the average retail floor employee will avoid eye contact with them, and certainly not smile at them, like I'll do. They should be looking for the disinterested slob with an attitude ... no, that's not an angry customer ... that's an angry employee who'd rather walk around pretending to work than actually work.)

In my mind, I thought it was cool to emulate that stodgy worker look. When I worked summers in my dad's factory, the coolest part of it was putting on this white, Devo-style jump suit every day. It gave me a sense of going to work that jeans and a t-shirts wouldn't. But as a guy in my early 20s, I guess I was riffing on the concept that there was no way a guy who looked like I did could be named "Gus" and work for a beer distributor or refrigeration company. It was a strange sort of vanity related to youth -- I saw myself as somehow better than a guy named "Gus" who worked for a beer distributor. And status -- I was going to college. You'd rarely see working-class guys not on that path wearing ironic work-shirts for kicks. (They'd be wearing those shirts for real soon enough.)

I've reached a point now where I look at young guys going this route with a mild disdain. I'm not sure why, because I did the exact same thing. Maybe it's because if I'm in a bar with an older guy unironically wearing a work shirt, and younger guy ironically wearing one, I've learned that the older guy is much more interesting. The younger guy will be engaging in Dr. Suess-style conversations where everything's a fucking joke, and his bitterness will be well-displayed and manufactured. Some guy with his real name printed on the left breast of his work shirt, rest assured, will have numerous axes to grind. Beyond "my dad is a dick." (Try "my dad is dead" on for size, young amigo, and find it a few sizes too large.) But his take on the world will often be: "I'm here to forget my problems, not make you think I'm a more interesting person because I have them." There's also the very real X-factor that a drunken conversation with a guy wearing a real company shirt might end up with either of you in a headlock for no apparent reason.

The work-shirt mystique is sort of half-assed salute to working-class people. I don't recall having open contempt for people who wear name-breasted work shirts for real. But I do recall a mild, stupid and very shallow arrogance towards them that I probably wouldn't have admitted to back then. If you were to create a fictional scenario where some guy in a real work-shirt angrily confronted the then twentysomething smart-ass I was in my fake work-shirt, I would have been kissing that guy's ass, in abject fear that, at the most, he'd beat the shit out of me, and at the least, he wouldn't respect me on some imaginary level where I had to answer to him because I was faking it.

You reach a point later in life where you really don't care what people think about you. And that's the point where you park the company van by the bar, go on in at 5:15, and knock a few back in your work-shirt before heading home and dealing with whatever goes on there. (I do the equivalent all the time in New York -- as noted a few posts earlier, simply because it's much cheaper to drink around here 4 to 8 pm.) It's also the point where you stop bullshitting yourself and just be whoever you are, with no pretensions or apologies. I don't wear jokey work-shirts with fake names because that's not who I am. I meet very few guys my age wearing shirts that don't have their own names on them. And if they do, be it sports stars or some mono-syllabic goof of a name on a fake work shirt, I tend to avoid them like the plague.

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