Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A Suit is a Suit is a Suit

When I used to take commuter trains to and from work in Chicago, I typically encountered an ilk of businessmen whom I came to think of as "suits." The men wore suits (it was many years ago), but the label in my head was more about how they were than what they wore. They had an identical-ness of demeanor, look, haircut, briefcase brand, even diction and laughing style that made them instantly recognizable and more or less indistinguishable from one another. They always traveled in packs, and a domineering, "it's our world" attitude oozed from their every pore. As if the trains were private coaches rather than public transportation, they left their feet and sometimes their briefcases in the aisles. They imbibed drinks they'd bought in the station and brought on board as they made serious, self-important proclamations, then in progressively louder voices convivially exchanged business-jargon-rich bon mots. They never got out their monthly passes and put them in the little holders designed to streamline the conductor's job; instead, they dug in their pockets once the conductor was at hand, tapping his foot. And periodically they issued from their throats, like the mating calls of so many birds of a feather, those too loud and, to my ears, artificial sounding "heh-heh-hehs," less spontaneous bursts of laughter than declarations that seemed intended to convey to all and sundry both how delightful they found one another's company and their kinship as fellow masters of all they surveyed.

I've been in Chicago this week and I discovered that the suits have changed their clothes, but not their stripes. At lunch yesterday, I was temporarily distracted from my own companion when two men sat down at a nearby table. At first I thought they were identical twins, which was what caught my eye. Then I realized they were different sizes and didn't, physically at least, look like each other at all. One had a controlled profusion of curly hair, the other had straight hair and the distinct beginnings of male pattern baldness. One looked like a weekend sports warrior, the other was pasty and soft. But both were wearing blue shirts, rumpled light khaki pants, and those dark brown loafers that don't really go with light khaki pants. Both sported very expensive watches. Before they settled down to lunch with each other, first one, then the other pulled out the coolest new cell phone model and chatted on it briefly (while the waitress stood patiently by). Both failed to use their "inside voices." And periodically throughout their lunch, they boomed those trademark heh-heh-hehs, that unmistakable call of the suit.

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