Some boys grow up rough and scruffy. As a boy in the warm months, I wore a white tee-shirt–all the time. It was kind of brand for us on the streets and parks of Chicago. As we got older, some of the guys’ mothers insisted they wear colored tee-shirts with a little sense of fashion. My mother never pressed that idea on me, so I was a white tee-shirt guy until I went to work. When I became a bus boy at a local Italian restaurant, it was a matter of wearing a school shirt and then a red server shirt over it. When I cooked there, I was back in a white tee-shirt and apron. Graduating to store work in the Evergreen Plaza Mall, I was expected to wear a dress shirt and tie. But I was still wearing tee-shirts before my hire. My older brother asked me to come up and see his boss at the mall. It wasn’t a real interview, so I showed up in a tee-shirt and my brother was very angry at me. Obviously, the look was not appropriate. Once hired at the mall, I made about $20 a week so every so often I could buy a new pair of Levis, a dress shirt, and a tie.
I can never honestly say that I have had a good sense of fashion. In high school at Mount Carmel, we wore a pair of dress paints, a dress shirt and a tie. One week, there was a sale at Carson’s at the mall–two pair of dress pants for $20. The two pairs of pants that I bought were a light blue plaid and a light green plaid, both with a fashionable Sansa belt waist. I thought they were beautiful, but when I brought them home, my mother said they were a “little loud.” My brother was going to Saint Ignatius, and I was going to Mount Carmel, so at this time, he was not worried about what I wore. At Carmel, some of the guys wore clothes that might have passed for dress clothes technically, but they often looked like seconds from a factory store. At Ignatius it was different.
On the following Monday, I was proud of my purchase when I stepped onto the old brown and white Mount Carmel bus on south Western Avenue. As Willie the bus driver opened the mechanical door and beamed me up onto the bus, I was pretty pleased. I got whistles from a few of the guys on the bus as well.
For the next several days, nothing out of the ordinary was going on. As usual, some guys goofed around at school and got whacked, but Norris behaved himself pretty well. But one day I was in study hall reading an assignment when I looked up and the 6-foot-4 school disciplinarian was heading my way with smoke coming out of his ears. What was this about I thought? The red-faced priest stopped at my desk and looked down at me, barely in control of himself.
“Those pants that you are wearing,” he huffed, “are disrupting the other students’ concentration. You will have to leave them at home from now on.”
A little miffed, I said, “Oh, Father, I have to wear pants, my mother would kill me if I came to school in my underwear.”
The disciplinarian coughed.
“No, Norris, we don’t want you here in your underwear! Wear some pants that are a little more subdued.”
“Oh, Oh, I see. OK, Father.”
I was a little crestfallen, but in those days, we followed instructions even when they seemed kind of arbitrary. No one was going to organize a protest march on my behalf because I could not wear my plaid pants to school. A few years later, when I went to college, things regressed a little for me fashion-wise. I put my mall clothes in storage.
In those days, a kind of grunge look was big and the days of college students in white shirts, skinny ties, and sports coats was pretty much over. We were back in blue jeans and comfortable casual clothes.
After I graduated, I wore suits and sports coats to work. I went to work on the north side of Chicago and had a long drive that seemed to take me through about every neighborhood in the city. Once I hit downtown from the south side, I jumped onto Lake Shore Drive heading north. I exited and twisted onto Bryn Mawr heading west. As I stopped at a light, I looked out my window and was shocked to see some little kid about 8 years old who I swear was a doppelganger of me at that age. He had a crew cut, and was sporting a pair of worn gym shoes, blue jeans, and a dirty white tee-shirt.
It was deja vu all over again!
Lawrence Norris is the author of The Brown and White.