Tuesday, December 04, 2007

My Orange Hat In Theory And Practice

I sometimes wear an orange baseball cap.

I don’t wear it as much as I used to. Around here these last few years many homeless bums have been dressing in screwball clothes. A middle age guy like me who sometimes doesn’t shave wearing an orange baseball cap projects too much of a homeless bum vibe for me to be comfortable with.

But the idea of distinctive headgear goes back to when I was a teenager.

I belonged to a tennis club at a public park, McKinley Park, on Chicago’s near south side. For many of us the tennis club was the center for what passed for our social life. It was the hub of our activities, our meeting place, morning, noon and night. And the location we met at was the old tennis courts along 37th Street. When we weren’t playing, we’d be sitting in the grass talking or standing up, leaning against the park bench by the water fountain talking. (There were newer courts along Western Avenue, but club members preferred the older, more secluded courts.)

The tennis courts and grass and bench were set off from 37th Street by about fifty yards or so. Tennis club members pretty much structured their whole social life around the courts. Students after school would hang out there. Adults after work would hang out there. Friday and Saturday afternoons anyone looking for company in the evening would hang out by the bench or sit in the grass.

It was standard practice for tennis club members to drive along 37th Street when they were going to or from anywhere else during the day. Whatever they were doing they’d drive past the courts, check out who was playing, who was hanging out.

With the courts and park bench a little distance back from the street, the more distinctive a person’s ‘look’ was the easier it was to see them when driving along 37th Street.

Sailor Bob wore a floppy white hat. Maryjo wore her hair long and short white tennis skirts. Wally always wore a gray sweatshirt. JoAnn [tennis club JoAnn, not this Joanne] always wore white tennis shorts and a dark shirt. Everyone had some ‘look’ that was pretty easy to recognize at a distance.

I always wore a brown or red or orange hat.

The idea was when you drove along 37th Street you could look over at the courts and bench and easily see who was out, who was playing and who was just hanging around.

The idea was when you stood around, just hanging out, people could see you from 37th Street and friends would park and come over, play or hang out, too.

Dressing with some kind of distinctive look that could be seen from a distance became a kind of impromptu behavior—today I’d say ‘emergent’ behavior—that nobody in the tennis club ever really talked about but everybody engaged in.

Even after I moved away from the south side, after I stopped playing tennis, dressing with some kind of visible tell-tale has always seemed like a good idea.

My friends can recognize me from a distance, come over and say, ‘Hi.’ People who want nothing to do with me can see me coming and turn away.

It’s a good theory. The monkey wrench in the works nowadays is this business with homeless bums being the people out in public with the most ‘distinctive’ looks.

It’s just not a good trade off to stand out from the masses by blending in with the flotsam and jetsam.

I don’t wear my orange baseball cap much anymore.

Theory is cool but practice rules.

I don’t mind standing out but I don’t want to look like a bum.

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